Friday, May 22, 2009

"I Just Keep Working": An Interview with Molly Wizenberg

Molly Wizenberg is a very nice person. First she gave us Orangette, then a book, and now this fun interview. Two of those items she gave us absolutely free, which is awfully generous of her. The book ain’t a bad deal either: for the low, low price of $16.50 plus shipping, you can have it sent directly to your doorstep from Amazon. That’s what I did, and it’s the best $16.50 I ever spent. If you try it, I think you’ll agree.

I’m envious of anyone who was able to meet Molly during her book tour. Chicago was not one of her stops. I had convinced myself it would be—we are the most glamorous city in the Midwest, and everyone says we have great food—but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. As the news sunk in, I pouted for a while. I was bummed. Then I decided if Molly couldn’t make it to Chicago, that didn’t mean we couldn’t chat somewhere else, such as the electronic ether of cyberspace. So I asked nicely if she would do an interview with me, and Molly said yes right away. I was emboldened by her advice, “Stick your neck out. Definitely stick your neck out. And keep your fingers crossed.” Perhaps an interview such as this is small potatoes when it comes to taking chances, but I happen to like small potatoes. I also happen to think that one can do great things with the tiniest of steps.

I think this interview really exemplifies the spirit of life, love, and food—those words taken conceptually and this blog, which I continue to write because the process nourishes me. The opportunity to discuss life, love, and food with someone who has been such an inspiration to me was thrilling, and I’m very grateful. So thank you, Molly, and thank you, dear reader, for being here. I hope you all enjoy this treat as much as I did.

* * *

Rose-Anne: You ever have one of those lunches? You know, the kind where you just make an utter mess of your meal and yourself? I had one of those lunches at home the other day as I was wrestling with a hunk of week-old bread that was refusing to soften, despite being surrounded by a steamy bath of soup. Open in front of me was my copy of A Homemade Life. While I was wrestling, I managed to splatter soup all over the recipe for Blueberry-Raspberry Pound Cake, which is ironic because one, it’s now a cake recipe splattered with soup and two, it’s one of the recipes I’m most looking forward to making once we hit high berry season this year.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of cake, and there are a LOT of cake recipes in A Homemade Life—six dessert cakes and one savory corn cake (plus pancakes, if you want to be really technical). Molly, what is it about cake that you find so irresistible? If forced to choose between dessert options, do you usually go with cake?

Molly: You know, I’ve never really thought about it! I’m just a cake person. Some people crave potato chips, and some go crazy for barbeque, but I like cake. I’m more of a sweets person than a salty one, and I like to have dessert after dinner almost every night. I love ice cream and brownies and straight-up bars of chocolate, but if cake--preferably homemade, and not too fancy--is an option, I will usually take it. To me, it’s the perfect sweet.

Have you considered writing a dessert cookbook? My mouth waters just thinking about it!

Well, no, not really, to tell you the truth! Desserts are my favorite thing to make, but there are lots of wonderful dessert books out there, and I’ve never felt a strong urge to write one of my own. I’m happy to rely on books from pastry greats like Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz.

Which recipe do you think is the sleeper hit of the book—the one that most people won’t make immediately but has sauntered its way into your heart?

I love the vanilla bean buttermilk cake. With or without glazed oranges.

I was a bit surprised to find that many pieces in your book were originally published on Orangette. To be fair, there is a lot of new material as well. How did you decide between using a piece you’d already published and writing something from scratch for the book?

The blog is very personal, and a lot of my life is recorded in it. At the time that I started writing it, I had no idea that I would write a memoir someday, so I wrote whatever I wanted to, without any thought of “saving” things for later. But then, when I was in the process of writing the book, I realized that the story that I was telling naturally included some moments that I had already written about on the blog. I could have left them out, I guess, because they were already “published,” but the book wouldn’t have hung together. There would have been big gaps and holes in it. In the end, about 60% of the book is new material.

A lot of my friends cook like your dad did, with spontaneity and without much of a recipe. But Burg did peruse the family cookbook collection. What were his favorite cookbooks, the ones he flipped through most often?

He loved The New York Times Cookbook. That was his go-to, I’d say.

You are big on seasonal cooking: using ingredients and techniques that are appropriate for a particular time of year. Which season inspires you the most in the kitchen? During which season are you at your peak?

Summer inspires me the most. But--and this is sort of contradictory–I actually do very little in the way of elaborate cooking in the summertime! Summer produce is so good that it often feels criminal to do anything to it. One of my favorite summer meals is just sliced tomatoes with fresh basil, some blanched corn on the cob, some slices of fresh mozzarella with good olive oil, and some bread. It takes almost no effort to make, but I feel inspired just thinking about it.

I’m afraid I would be a terrible recipe-tester because I find it almost impossible to make a recipe exactly as written the first time. So I loved your story about experimenting in the kitchen. I especially love the butternut squash soup recipe you developed. How are you doing these days with experimenting in the kitchen? Does it make you feel nervous or exhilarated?

I’m getting better at it! Brandon is a big help. He’s very good at balancing flavors and fixing dishes that aren’t quite working, and he teaches me a lot. I still like recipes, but I also like loosening up a bit. It’s empowering.

As you were testing and re-testing recipes for your book, how did you decide that a recipe was “done?” What was your most memorable recipe-testing experience?

That’s hard to answer. A recipe was “done” when it tasted right to me, and to Brandon. It was a subjective process. As far as memorable experiences, well, for a while there, we ate buckwheat pancakes seven weekends in a row. It sounds kind of fun, I know, but it felt like it would never end. And let me tell you, there’s nothing worse than testing a recipe in the morning, on an empty stomach. When it doesn’t go right, it’s doubly annoying, because you’re hungry.

A lot of people have said that your book made them cry. If that’s true, one can only imagine how much you cried while you were writing it! Which chapters made you feel most emotional? How did you manage to complete them in spite of the tears?

I was a basket case when I wrote the chapters about my father’s death. But it felt so good to write them, to get those stories down on paper and out of my head, that I never thought about stopping. I just sort of forced my way through. I also cried through several of the chapters about Brandon, thinking about how grateful I am for him. And I still tear up almost every time I read the acknowledgments.

You’re pretty strict in your recipe directions about not using low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Is that because of personal preference, or did you test all your recipes with various products one might consider using for, say, plain yogurt? (By the way, I disobeyed your instructions. I made your Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger with low-fat yogurt and I thought it was excellent. Don’t hate me!)

I won’t hate you! Don’t worry. I call for full-fat dairy products because they generally make for baked goods that are moister and have a better texture than baked goods made from low-fat or nonfat products. Occasionally I’ll make some banana bread with low-fat yogurt, as you did, because it’s what I have in the house, or whatever, and it’s still totally delicious, but I do notice a little difference. And in savory cooking, it’s even more important. Sometimes I make an Indian-spiced eggplant dish, for example, and it gets some yogurt stirred into the skillet at the very end. I once made the mistake of using low-fat yogurt, and it curdled into a nasty mess. Whole milk yogurt wouldn’t have done that.

You write in the book that you used to be more shy about cream and its buttery cousins. When did you change your mind about them? Did your cooking change quickly, or was it more of a gradual transition?

It was a gradual transition. When I was growing up, my mother was an occasional dieter, very conscious of nutrition, and I went through a period in high school and college when I was into low-fat eating. For a long time, I thought that cream and butter were bad for you, period, and to be avoided. But living in France in my early twenties, in the home of a host family to whom the nightly cheese plate was very important, helped to loosen me up. Growing up helped too. It made me more flexible in my thinking. Today, I’m very much an everything-in-moderation eater. Food is about fueling our bodies, for sure, but it’s also about pleasure, and I tend to eat with equal attention to both.

When you’re writing recipes, how do you decide whether you want to use crème fraiche or sour cream?

I almost always use crème fraiche. I like its flavor. I’ve never been a big sour cream fan.

And just out of curiosity: do you ever have days when you feel “buttered out?” Days when you just crave, say, oatmeal for breakfast and a salad for lunch?

Of course! I don’t eat butter and cream all day long, I swear. My breakfast almost every morning is a wholegrain cereal mixed with homemade granola–with 1% milk on top–and I eat a ton of vegetables and salads. I tend to crave a little bit of everything. I like sweets, but I also like vegetable soup, and Brussels sprouts, and grapefruit.

You and your blog have been receiving a lot of attention for a long time. Now you are a published author with your name on a book! Does the attention ever make you feel a bit shy? How has the additional scrutiny affected your writing?

I’m kind of an introvert, but I wouldn’t say that any of this has made me feel shy–or no more shy than I am already! It’s the opposite, really. I like that the blog and the book have made my world feel bigger and more open. Because of them, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of amazing people. My life is so much richer, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. And as far as my writing goes, I don’t think the attention has affected it, or not that I can tell. Honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about the book or the blog or the publicity. I just keep working.

How has writing your own food memoir changed your feelings about the genre?

It hasn’t, really. I have always loved to read food memoirs, and I still do. I think it’s a wonderful genre, and I’m glad that it seems to be of increasing interest to people. And more than anything, I appreciate books–all kinds of books–even more now, knowing exactly what goes into their making.

Your book has received a lot of very positive praise, and I think it’s well-deserved. Do you plan to continue writing books? Do you worry about how people may compare your future work to A Homemade Life? It could be a tough act to follow, even for you!

You’re going to give me a complex! I hardly know how to answer that. But yes, I do want to continue writing books. Right now, I’m focused on opening a restaurant with my husband, so that’s my “baby” for the moment. But I would love to do another book. I loved the process of it, and the kind of total immersion that it required.

One final question. This one is perhaps a bit nosy, but I’m so curious: how did you and Brandon settle on Seattle instead of New York (or, for that matter, anywhere else)?

We thought about my moving to join him in New York. But he was applying to doctoral programs at the time that we were trying to make that decision, and ultimately, it made sense to let that decide where we would live. He applied to some schools in New York, some in California, and the University of Washington, in Seattle. The UW program was the best fit for him and his interests, and they accepted him, so he moved to Seattle.


ttfn300 said...

great interview! need to get to the library :)

hope you had a great vacation!

Rosiecat said...

Thank you, ttfn! And yes, get yourself to a library, pronto! You won't regret it. (I should warn you, though, if you decide to flip through the book at a bookstore, you may find yourself either compelled to read the whole thing while standing in the cookbook aisle or you'll decide to take the book home with you. I recommend the latter so you can cook from it as soon as you're done reading!)

My vacation was wonderful--a much-needed weekend of relaxation before I start the final push to finish my degree!

Laurie said...

Thanks for a great interview. I've been less than inspired in my own writing lately. This interview has given me the boost I need.

Hillary said...

Ooooh, lucky you! I absolutely adore (perhaps idolize is a better word) Molly. I discovered her last summer when a friend sent me the post about her and Brandon's anniversary. Turns out they were married the day after my husband and I, in the same place. I devoured her entire blog in a couple days and was -- and continue to be -- mesmerized by her writing. Reading about how special their wedding venue was to her made it become even more perfect to me -- a kind of validation of my taste. Now I feel like we have a secret connection. I know it's silly, but it makes me giddy because she's just so fabulous!

Rosiecat said...

Laurie, I think we all go through rough spots in our writing. I'm going through one right now! Hang in there, and feel free to stop by. I'll commiserate with you!

You're so right, Hillary: Molly IS fabulous! But I think what's really remarkable about her is that so many of us connect with her in some way. I hope her celebrity doesn't spoil that sweetness.

Strangely enough, I'm very much a romantic (I hardly ever admit that, in text or out loud, although it may be fairly obvious from my writing), but I'm not much of a wedding person. Weddings always overwhelm me. Molly's wedding, though, did seem pretty dreamy, so I can only imagine how giddy you must have felt to see your own wedding venue through someone else's eyes. How fun!

Hillary said...

It was the perfect venue for non-wedding people. I am a non-wedding person, too. :-)

Rosiecat said...

Tee-hee! Hillary, your comment makes me think someone should write a book called "Weddings for Non-Wedding People." It could be a survival guide for those of us who have not been planning our wedding since we were three years old :-)

That being said, I have loved all the weddings in which I've participated. I especially loved sharing wedding cake and dancing around with a three-year-old at my brother's wedding. She was my best wedding date ever!