Melissa Clark Eats Her Way Through Literature
The New York Times Food Writer In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story from Macmillan Podcasts. Today I’m going to start with a quote from Don Quixote by Miquel de Cervantes, translated by John Ormsby:
Sancho saw it all and contemplated it all, and took a liking to it all. He was initially captivated by the stew pots, from which he would have willingly taken an average sized one. Then the wineskins started to appeal to him, and finally the contents of the frying pans, if that’s the right term for those cauldrons. And so, without being able to stand it any further, and not being able to help himself, he approached one of the diligent cooks, and with courteous and hungry words he begged him to be allowed to dip a crust of bread into one of those pots. To which the cook responded: “Brother, this is not one of those days when hunger rules, thanks to the rich Camacho. Dismount and see if there’s a ladle, and skim off a chicken or two, and bon appétit.”
And recently I got to talking about cooking, reading, playfulness and compassion with today’s guest.
Melissa Clark: I’m Melissa Clark and I’m a food reporter for the New York Times.
WS: Melissa Clark is a cookbook writer and the resident food columnist for the New York Times. Her work has been honored with awards by the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Her latest project, Dinner in French, is due out in early March.
MC: I am a Brooklyn native. There aren’t that many of us, but I was born and bred in Brooklyn, where I still live. I’ve lived in other places, but then I came back because you know, Brooklyn, it just calls you, and I grew up in a foodie household. My parents were Julia Child acolytes. They cooked everything before Julie & Julia. They were cooking every dish out of Julia Child’s cookbook. And it was such an important part of my childhood because we ate great food all the time, but we ate great French food all the time and we ate great Brooklyn food all the time. And these two things were merged in my mind. And I actually kind of thought that French food normally had lox on it. I thought that was normal, you know, and that the French must’ve eaten bagels. So it was this sort of conflation.
WS: Melissa learned important lessons about life in the kitchen.
MC: My parents cooked and so I learned how to cook really young. They cooked differently. I think the key to their marriage, and actually I kind of advise for anybody’s marriage: cook a meal together, but cook separate dishes. When my dad was baking bread and my mom was making the stew, they were happy. But if my dad started to taste my mom’s stew and he’d add a little of this and a little of that, that’s when things got a little rocky. So divide and conquer.
WS: Tell me about yourself as a kid. What was your character like?
MC: Oh god, I don’t even remember. How do you remember that far? What was I like as a kid? I read a lot. I was a loner. I was very introspective. I was shy. I didn’t learn how to fake it in social situations until I was in college. It was really, you know, grade school was, it wasn’t lonely. I was happy, but I just didn’t have a big social circle. I didn’t know that that was a desirable thing to have. I was a quiet kid, but I was also a very hungry kid and I loved poking around the kitchen and that was one of my favorite things to do. My bid for attention whenever I wanted to make a new friend or try to get in with the in-group was to bake something, you know, that was my entré. So I was already using food. Food, I guess was my social lubricant. Back even when I was, I think probably starting in junior high, when I first learned how to bake brownies.
WS: Now when people think Brooklyn, Brooklyn is the hipster capital of America. It’s known for its restaurants and its food. Tell me about Brooklyn when you were growing up.
MC: Brooklyn when I was growing up was Jewish Brooklyn, at least that’s how I knew it because I was Jewish—there were many ethnicities in Brooklyn, but to me it was Jewish Brooklyn. It was the Brooklyn of bagels and lox. It was the Brooklyn of appetizing stores. There were starting to be a lot of Russian stores and we would get pickled herring. There was Lundy’s, actually, so that was another part. There was Italian Brooklyn, where we ate a lot. We went to Bay Ridge a lot. We went down to Sheepshead Bay. Di Fara’s Pizza was there when I was growing up and we got artichoke pizza. I’m describing Brooklyn just in terms of food, aren’t I? Okay. There were other things that weren’t about food in Brooklyn, but I really can’t remember any of them.
WS: So you mentioned that books played an important role as a kid. What were some of the earliest books that made an impression on you?
MC: I was obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read every single one of those books, you know, probably 10 times. I’d read the whole series and then I’d go back and read them again and then I would go back and read them again. When we’d have a long car ride, my sister and I would quiz each other about trivia in the book. Like, “Do you remember the shape of Ma’s buttons on that first Calico that she made?”—“They were shaped like blackberries!” It was just like the stuff that we would…and you know, food was also really important in that book, too. I pretty much remember every meal that they ate for the entire series. Especially Farmer Boy, they ate really well. Let me tell you, Almanzo’s family, they knew how to cook.
I’m describing Brooklyn just in terms of food, aren’t I? There were other things that weren’t about food in Brooklyn, but I really can’t remember any of them.
WS: Did you attempt to recreate any of the dishes?
MC: One dish that I make—I don’t make it that often anymore because my husband doesn’t do dairy—but I used to do this a lot. You take a really ripe tomato, and if you don’t have a ripe tomato, it’s not gonna work. It has to be the kind of tomato—when you eat this kind of tomato, you understand that it’s actually a fruit and not a vegetable. It needs to have a sweetness to it, and you slice it and you put it on a plate and you pour heavy cream on it and you put salt and sugar on it. And I know it sounds crazy, but it’s so delicious.
WS: That sounds so good. Doesn’t sound crazy to me at all. It sounds terrific. Tell me more about the food scenes that you remember from Laura Ingalls Wilder.
MC: I remember there was popcorn in Farmer Boy, so Almanzo’s story. They would pop popcorn on the fire, of course. You’d put the popcorn in a mesh basket and you’d put it over the fire. And you know, for me, we had popcorn. We actually had an air popper, which is really disgusting, but I didn’t know it was disgusting at the time. But it was just so romantic, that you would put this mesh thing over an actual fire and then it would pop and then they would just pour rivers of melted butter on top. And you know, I was a kid of the 70s and the 80s, right? So it was like that moment of fatphobia and nobody wanted to pour rivers of melted butter on anything. And it just sounded like this was a world that was lost to me and I couldn’t get there. And it was so, it was so bittersweet to read about this cause I wanted popcorn made over a fire, you know? And you know that it got smoky. And I wanted rivers of melted butter and I had air pop popcorn with nothing on it except salt.
WS: So when you look back at young Melissa growing up in Jewish Brooklyn, what do you think it was about the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder that so appealed to her?
MC: I think it was just the complete opposite of the world I grew up in. There was nature, first of all, there was some kind of freedom that the girls had, you know, they would walk to school by themselves and it was like a three mile walk and they were at like seven and eight years old or something. And it just felt very free and it felt exotic to me. There was also a family closeness, you know, Pa would play the fiddle and they would all gather ‘round in this one room, little kind of cabin, and it seemed warm and familial.
WS: Her family had its own version of gathering around the fireplace.
MC: We were Scrabble players. So this was in fact the way we played Scrabble. It’s just because it took us hours because we were all so slow and we all were out to win. Let me tell you, I’m very competitive. And so we’d all have our books with us. We weren’t allowed to have dictionaries, but we were all allowed to have our novel. So we would sit around and we would read because it would really take 10 or 15 minutes per turn. And so by the time you get—there were four of us—by the time you got your turn again, it could be 45 minutes. We would sit there and read. So Scrabble would take all day. We’d have snacks, and then we’d play more Scrabble and we’d read our books. And that was fun times in my family growing up. But it was fun and it was essential.
WS: Each year, her parents would pack up the Scrabble board and take Melissa and her sister to the land of croissants and Proust.
MC: My parents were Francophiles and we spent every summer in France because they were psychiatrists. And back in the day in the seventies and eighties, psychiatrists took the whole month of August off. If you went nuts in August, you were just out of luck. So we would pack up the family and we would house exchange. So we would exchange our house in Brooklyn for some house in France. And this was before the Internet. We would type out letters on blue onion skin paper and mail them to the unknown. And then we would get replies. There was a book that was put out, and you could list your house as being available to house swap. And we stayed in different parts of the country. We never stayed in the same house twice, but we made friends with a lot of the people whose houses we exchanged. And in France, all we did was go to markets. You know, we would get up in the morning, we would go to the market, we would shop for lunch, we would come home, we would make lunch, we would play Scrabble, we would go out for dinner and one meal led to the next meal, led to the next meal.
Back in the day in the 70s and 80s, psychiatrists took the whole month of August off. If you went nuts in August, you were just out of luck.
WS: What was your reading life like as a kid over the summer?
MC: We would go away for an entire month and we’re a big family of readers. We took two suitcases full of books. We would lug them on the plane and then we’d usually leave them there. But I would just remember being a kid and being at the airport, a family of four, and we would have eight suitcases and two giant ones were full of books.
WS: Do you have any recollection of particularly strong, powerful reading experiences from those summers?
MC: Oh, there was a summer of Clan of the Cave Bear. I’m embarrassed to admit.
WS: The Jean Auel, prehistoric…?
MC: Oh yes. Yeah, it was really horrible. But yeah, we all read that and what we did…so I was reading it, my mom was reading it, my sister was reading it. So my mom would read a page and she’d tear it out of the book because we knew it was a crappy book. We just couldn’t help it. She’d tear it out of the book. She’d hand it to me. I’d read, I’d hand it to my sister.
WS: Melissa found the book that would change her life when she went to college.
MC: I was at Barnard and I was taking, you know, it was just one of those survey classes that you take and it was the introduction to the novel and Don Quixote. It was one of the first novels, you know, it was the birth of the novel. It was something that, Oh my God, Cervantes is playing, he’s playing with language, he’s playing with themes and, and it just seemed like, well, okay, you know, there’s a lot of fun and play. It gave me permission to write, it gave me permission to do something different and I didn’t think I wanted to write about food back then.
Although food, as you know, food was definitely the main theme and everything I wrote even before I became a food writer, it was just my, that was my metaphor. It’s my lens. I mean, I tell you the story of how I grew up and I tell it through food and this is how I told all of my stories. So when I read Don Quixote, and it’s almost like writing had no rules. I mean, of course there are rules, but it gave me this freedom like, Hey, he just broke out and did that and it was a thing. You’re hungry, aren’t you?
WS: I am [laughs].
MC: I gotta stop talking about tomatoes with cream on it.
My mom would read a page and she’d tear it out of the book, she’d hand it to me. I’d read, I’d hand it to my sister.
WS: She recalls the liveliness that this novel captivated her and her peers.
MC: It was just a group of us sitting around talking about Don Quixote. We’re like, God, that Sancho Panza. Can you believe what he did? It was almost like we were gossiping about friends and, yeah, the Duke and Duchess, the way that they treated poor Don Quixote!—and it was just the characters. You know when you read a book and the characters are your friends, and then you have a whole community? So, I miss that. That was really great.
WS: Were you in any way recreating the same experience you had talking to your sister about Laura Ingalls Wilder?
MC: Well, we weren’t quizzing each other, but maybe we were, I mean we were connecting. So how do you connect to people, right? You connect to people over shared things. Food is a great connector because you can feed people and everybody eats. So everybody talks about food. Even if you eat different things, there’s always that point of intersection. I eat, you eat—what did you eat? And there’s just, it’s a way to talk about it, right? With books, it’s the same thing. If you have a shared something, a shared love of a particular book, and you can talk to someone about that. It’s another point of connection. So maybe I’m just spending my whole life looking for points of connection?
WS: Do you associate any particular foods with, say, Don Quixote?
MC: Yeah, totally. Okay. So there’s a bunch of stuff in there that I remember. Well, first of all, you know, so Sancho Panza was the glutton. He was Don’s sidekick, right? And Don Quixote was the knight and he was this old guy and he’s going around on these, you know, adventures and he’s a little out of his head. So he’s fighting with windmills and he thinks they’re giants, but he’s also not eating. He’s so lovelorn, so he can’t eat. And so his lack of food is kind of this big thing in the book. You know, when he eats, he eats like stewed beans or something, but Sancho Panza is a glutton and he’s always looking for his next meal.
So the juxtaposition of the two of them is really great to read about. So when I think of Don Quixote, I think in terms of food, I think of like this sort of poor meal that he was eating. You know these stewed beans—which actually, stewed beans sound perfectly good to me, but in the context of the book, it was the food of poverty and it was the food of starvation—and then Sancho Panza, he was finding pie. Or even if he was eating bread and onions, which is a theme that comes up a lot. They don’t have anything to eat. So they’re just eating bread with onions.
In my mind, I have a recipe for this. It’s not just like you take a piece of bread and you’d take an onion and you bite the onion like an apple and you eat your bread. No, no, no, no. You toast your bread over an open fire. And of course you have olive oil and you don’t even mention it in the book because they’re Spanish. They have olive oil. And you put the olive oil on the toasted bread, which has crispy browned edges and it’s soaked in olive oil. And then you take the onions and you slice them super, super thin and you put some salt on it and you know, you eat this delicious thing.
WS: And this was all going on in your head?
MC: Oh, 100 percent.
WS: Melissa went on to grad school at Columbia, where she decided to pursue an MFA.
MC: I didn’t know what I was gonna write about, but I just knew that somehow I had to write and I knew that my metaphor, the way I told my stories was through food. There was no food writing back then. There was restaurant criticism, you know, or there was cookbook writing.
WS: She found other ways to indulge her love of food outside of writing.
MC: So I was working in restaurants. And then I was also catering at a little catering company running out of my apartment in Morningside Heights. And someone said, Oh, you know, you’re a writer and you have a catering company, you know how to cook. So can you do this cookbook? It’s like, sure. So I wrote a bread machine cookbook in six weeks. I had four bread machines going 24 hours a day, wake up at four in the morning and feed the bread machine. And that book did really well. And so they gave me another, and then they gave me, I ended up doing four books through this book packager. I just didn’t believe that anybody was actually reading me. And that was super freeing, and it was also a great way to meet a deadline and you’re like, alright, I gotta get this done. Okay, I can get this done, because nobody’s gonna read it anyway. I just started getting other book packages that were a little bigger and a little glossier and a little shinier and I put more care into them. And then I realized, actually, some people are reading these.
WS: Melissa now connects with millions of people through her writing, but she never forgets the lessons she took from Don Quixote on playfulness, camaraderie and compassion.
MC: When I first read it, I thought it was hilarious, and it is hilarious. But the second time I read it, I thought it was so deeply sad. Like I could cry. Why is that? I mean, I guess I had, you know, when you read something as a college kid and you’re, you don’t have a lot of sadness in your life and you have your, I mean, honestly, actually childhood is probably the saddest time of people’s lives, I think. So you do have that, but you haven’t analyzed it in a way. And then when you’re an adult, it’s just so much richer.
I saw the sadness in a different way and I saw a lot of the comedy as a coverup for sadness and for these deep issues. I mean, what I had seen as a daffy old man became this man just trying to live a meaningful life, and what does it mean to live a meaningful life? And when there is sadness and, and there is so much sadness in that book, how do we go on, right? How do we process it and take it in and grow from it or at least accept it as part of us. And so those themes were a lot more vivid. And then also how do you do it with humor and grace? And so, you know, Cervantes, he did it all, and it was with humor and grace and compassion. Writers can write about a character who’s a little crazy or a little sad or whatever and not have compassion for the, you know, you know, writers don’t necessarily have compassion for their characters. He had so much compassion. And so then how do you, how do you become even more of a compassionate person in the world and go through the world in a way that’s richer?
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Melissa Clark. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.