Hi, Jacqueline. Thanks so much for joining us today. Let's begin by waking up everyone's taste buds. Can you please share your favorite literary feast or treat. What makes this food and/or writing so memorable?
I have a weakness for Michael Lee West (no relation, unfortunately, or I’d be at her house all the time). She writes witty, food-infused Southern stories, and her voice is so distinct that it’s like a flavor, or a whole slew of flavors: cornbread, chess pie, red beans and rice. After reading her books, I tend to head straight to the kitchen. My favorite may be her memoir/cookbook, Consuming Passions: A Food-Obsessed Life, which is about food and family and the American South and is bowl-you-over charming.
Another of my favorite literary treats—and perhaps a more influential one—is the work that Ray Bradbury did in Dandelion Wine. The sensory experiences Bradbury describes—running in brand new tennis shoes, the waft of cool air rising up from the mysterious ravine, and the whole chapter he devotes to dandelion wine itself—stick in my head with the permanence of my own memories. I don’t think I’ve read any other book that captures summer and childhood so distinctly.
Those both sound delectable. I truly enjoy writing that is like a feast for my brain. That was cheesy. I'm sorry. But, I know you'll forgive me because you often make your own "writing is like cooking" comparisons. Can you please share your cheesiest one?
Ooh, I’ve actually used this exact comparison before!
Writing is like cooking in that many of us use the same ingredients, but the techniques with which we use them—the amounts, the varieties, the whispers and pinches and dashes of additional seasonings—make our concoctions totally distinct.
To me, it reveals a limited imagination, or at least a limited reading background, when someone complains about multiple writers using the same basic concept. “A school for wizards? (Snort.) That’s already been done.” “Another haunted house? Yawn.” “A human who falls in love with a vampire? I think I’ve heard that one before.” It’s like complaining about two chefs both using tomatoes in their sauces. Yes, it’s all been done before. But it can also be done differently, over and over and over again. And we may each prefer a different result.
I really love your explanation. And it definitely puts things in a new perspective for me as well. Let's switch gears for a bit and visit your kitchen. We all have can't-live-without items in our cabinets. Please share your three must-have foods/seasonings in your kitchen?
1. Garlic. There is always garlic. Many of my favorite recipes start with ‘Sauté some garlic in olive oil…’ The smell of sautéing garlic is like the line, “Once upon a time…” You know something good is going to follow.
2. Sourdough bread from the local bakery, although we do occasionally run out. On mornings when we are out of sourdough to turn into toast, my husband and I make sad faces at each other, asking, “But what will we eat?” and both knowing that there is no satisfactory answer.
3. Coffee. A kitchen without coffee is not really a kitchen.
Amen to number three. I think I'll put that on a plaque and hang it above my stove. You mentioned you love sourdough and are bummed when you're out. Are there other go-to meals when you need to serve something quick and easy?
When I’m feeling especially brain-dead (or lazy), I’ll stoop to frozen pizza. If you top it with artichoke hearts, sliced tomato, and Kalamata olives, bake it on a much-loved pizza stone, and have a glass of Big House Red on the side, you can pretend it’s a gourmet meal.
Love your ideas! Adding those ingredients is also a terrific way to boost up the good-for-you factor and add a touch of elegance. Staying with the food analogies (I'm full of them!), what ingredients can destroy a book through overuse or salvage a book despite its flaws?
There are certain genres that I’m less likely to read: hard science fiction, romance novels, especially gory or realistic thrillers. I suppose it’s just like certain foods: I don’t eat meat, I’m not fond of mushrooms, I love corn on the cob, but corn off the cob is a whole other story. This is simply a matter of personal preference, not a blanket statement about these literary genres. (Or these foods, for that matter. I won’t judge your steak in mushroom sauce if you won’t judge my black pepper tofu.)
However, there are times when something is prepared so perfectly, or so unexpectedly, that it sort of transcends itself. This summer, I read Sharp Objects and Dark Places, two novels by Gillian Flynn. These are “thrillers” (or at least that’s what it says inside their covers), and they have extremely gory patches, but they are both so exquisitely written that I absolutely devoured them. Dark Places in particular is written in such a fresh, appealing, sharp, unique voice, that I read it straight through and then immediately read it again. I felt the same way the first time I read Fahrenheit 451 and Cat’s Cradle, both of which generally end up on the science fiction shelves at bookstores. And I’ve had mushrooms at Japanese restaurants that were so fresh and so perfectly seasoned and cooked that they lost all of their mushroom-ness. So I guess, for me, it’s not so much about the inclusion or exclusion of one ingredient as it is about masterful skill in the preparation.
Well said. I hate to end this interview. It has been so fun! But, unfortunately, we're on the last stretch, and it's time for our signature question. If you were marooned on an island and Pots & Pens granted your wish for only one book and one food, what would you choose?
I am going to assume that this island has fruit on it (preferably pineapples, white peaches, and various not-too-thorny berries), so I will choose bread. Sourdough bread. Crusty on the outside and squishy in the middle. It’s one food I never get sick of.
Book-wise, I know it would be prudent to choose something long and multi-faceted and wondrous, like the collected works of Shakespeare…but I think in a deserted island situation, Kurt Vonnegut would probably be the best hope for saving my sanity. I’ll go with The Sirens of Titan, one of my very favorites.
Thank you so much for joining us today. Before you go, can you please tell us about the favorite recipe you shared? And, readers, to find out more about Jacqueline West, please visit her website, www.jacquelinewest.com
This is one of my very favorite recipes; I found it in the Guardian, which features lots of great vegetarian stuff, and I modified it to use ingredients that are found more easily in this country (or at least in my kitchen). It’s a little fussy, but totally worth it. It tastes like one of those things you shouldn’t be able to make for yourself. But you can! And you should! And it’s cheap!
Here we go:
Black Pepper Tofu
Two 12 to 15 oz. packages of firm or extra firm tofu, drained, with liquid squeezed out
Vegetable oil, for frying
Cornstarch, for dusting
½ stick (4 tbs.) butter, or a butter substitute
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 jalapenos, seeded and minced
12 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tbs. finely chopped fresh ginger
10 tbs. low sodium soy sauce
2 tbs. granulated sugar
1 tbs. ground black pepper
16 small spring onions, white parts removed, cut into segments about 1 inch long
Pour enough oil into a large frying pan that it comes a few millimeters up the sides of the pan, and heat to medium.
Once the tofu is done, pour the oil and any bits of grit out of the pan, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Add the butter to the pan. When the butter has melted, add the onion, jalapenos, garlic, and ginger, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients are completely soft and shiny. Add the soy sauce and sugar, stir, and then add the black pepper.
Add the tofu to the sauce, and stir gently to coat. Let it heat through—about 1 minute—before stirring in the green onions. Let heat for 1 minute more, then serve hot, with steamed rice.
Note: This stuff is spicy. If you like your Chinese food fairly mild, you may want to use one jalapeno and a bit less pepper. If you like food that makes your sinuses sizzle and your eyes water, add a bit more of one or both, and good luck to you.