Following in the footsteps of Garrison Keillor’s departure from “A Prairie Home Companion,” another long and fruitful broadcasting collaboration is coming to an end.
After 21 years, host Lynne Rossetto Kasper is parting company with her tight-knit colleagues at “The Splendid Table” — managing producer Sally Swift and producers Jennifer Russell and Jennifer Luebke. Kasper’s place at the microphone is now occupied by New York Times Magazine writer Francis Lam.
“The truth of the matter is, people stop working,” said Swift when the news was announced in February. “Lynne gets to have a life. I’m totally thrilled for her, and she’s super-happy.”
Kasper, a St. Paul resident and noted cooking teacher, came to national prominence with the 1992 debut of her canonical cookbook, “The Splendid Table: Recipes From Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food.” Four years later, she and Swift created what has become a popular, influential and award-winning foray into public radio.
In between conducting several thousand interviews over 600-plus episodes — not to mention fielding even more listener call-in queries — Kasper managed to produce several more cookbooks, including a pair co-authored with Swift. A “Splendid” career, indeed.
In a recent conversation at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul, Kasper talked about the next phase of her life, her broadcasting legacy and, of course, the current contents of her refrigerator.
Q: How does it feel to transition into this next phase of your life?
A: It’s holy hell in the beginning, because your work becomes your identity. It takes a lot of time to come to the point where you’re happy to let go, and you feel good about it. It wasn’t a snap decision. We started talking about it three years ago.
The ego is so tied in, but then the ego fades. You reach a point when you say, “If I haven’t accomplished what I wanted to accomplish at this point in my life, then I don’t think it’s going to happen.” After 21 years, I still love it. But I realized that it was time for something else for me. This is scary to think about, but I’ve been working in food for 50 years. That’s kind of, “Wait a minute, that’s half a century, for god’s sake.” And you think, “How much time have I got left?”
Q: How did you make the decision to retire?
A: My husband was very ill, and in 2014 I cut way back on my hours. This may sound very strange, but [the decision] was easier because of his illness, because what was important became really clear. Looking back, it was not going to be, “Gee, I wish I’d worked another 70-hour week.” We had fun. We enjoyed each other. If you’re lucky to have a relationship that endures and gets better — and we had 46 years of practice — a lot of the nonsense in a marriage, and in life, it just gets cleared away. Like most couples, there were probably times for one of us when we each thought, “I wish I had my own apartment.” But this time together, it was very sweet [Frank Kasper died in 2015]. So that made prioritizing easy.
Q: What does retirement mean to you?
A: Primarily, it’s going back to so many of the things that I left behind because I became so intrigued by food. In high school and college, theater had become a great love, and working with my hands was a great love. That fell away, because my hands were busy with food. Now, I’m exploring that again. That, and spending time with friends. You meet people and you think, “Boy, would I love to spend more time with them, but I have a deadline.” That’s gradually going away.
Q: How will listeners know that you’ve retired?
A: Officially, at the end of the year I’ll be gone. But a week ago, Francis Lam recorded his first show as official host. He’s just dynamite. I think he’s bringing in a new era, and the show is just going to be more and more interesting.
Q: What do you consider your best skill as a broadcaster?
A: The thing that came naturally was the callers.
Q: You mean, the people asking, “How should I cook X ingredient?” It has always been one of my favorite segments of the show.
A: I mean, I was a teacher for how long? A lot of what I do is deduction. It’s logic. We all do it. You’ll hear me backpedaling. You’ll hear me say, “I don’t know, but let’s try to figure it out.” That’s how we all problem-solve and learn. It’s fun to do that with someone who is new to something. I like having fun with people. There’s not enough laughter in our lives. One of the best things to change your chemistry is laughter. Not that I’m trying to save the world. But what more fun can you have on the radio than talking about food, and all the foibles involved with it?
Q: You’ve conducted several thousand on-air interviews. Do you have a favorite subject matter?
A: I’m a sucker for science. I’m a science groupie. And anyone who is possessed by a particular subject.
Q: Back in the beginning, did you foresee that the show would be going strong 21 years later? A: No. I had an editor who was so disappointed that I did radio. She said, “You need TV, because you’ll never have an audience in radio.” And the reality is, you’ll never have an audience on radio that’s the size of the audience you could have on television. But I think radio is far more intimate than television. There is a kind of engagement and involvement with radio that you don’t have with a screen.
Q: “The Splendid Table” took a different approach to food than its radio predecessors. Was that deliberate?
A: It was very hard to explain the show to program directors, because if you said “food” it meant “recipes.” This was 1995, and while I’m not saying that we were cave men about food, but a lot of the issues, the connections, the politics, the values and all of those variables, they had not come to light.
When we started out, we were feeling our way. We were experimenting, and MPR [Minnesota Public Radio] backed us, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Now, 21 years later, I’m repeating what I’ve heard, but I’ve secretly always felt that we had started something very different. I hope that when you talk about legacy, that that’s my legacy.
But it’s not me, alone. It’s Sally, and Jen and Jenny. We’re a team that has been together for a very long time. I get really annoyed when I hear people who do the kind of work I do, and they’re telling everybody about their process, and how they deal with situations, and they never mention the fact that they have a crew behind them. The credit goes to the people who make you sound good, and the people who make the show work. I owe a lot to those three women, and to others, as well.
Q: What do you eat when no one is looking?
A: I really love creamy frosting. I’ll find a piece of cake with frosting that’s about that high [she makes a wide space between her thumb and index finger], a really good buttercream or a seven-minute frosting. And then I’ll eat it in the car, because if you eat in the car, no one can see you.
Q: Back to those listener questions. I’m going to turn it around and ask you: What’s in your refrigerator?
A: There’s not a lot, because I’m going shopping after this. Three kinds of lettuce. The last of a dozen eggs, from Larry Schultz no less, I don’t fool around. A bottle of ketchup, which I rarely use, but it has been there for a long time. There’s a bottle of my favorite everyday bottle of wine, a Vinho Verde from Portugal, and if it costs $7 a bottle, it’s expensive.
There’s always some kind of chicken. Right now I’ve got a little package of chicken tenders — I found it in the freezer, and I have no idea of its origin — that’s now sitting in a bowl and marinating in one of my improvised marinades that I’m always doing. It usually begins with fish sauce and soy sauce and hoisin and all of that.
There’s a whole cauliflower, and celery and carrot and onion. And lots of oranges. And milk. There’s always milk, because I have my tea with milk. It’s 1 percent. I can’t drink tea with a lot of fat. But I can’t drink coffee with 1 percent milk; I have to have half and half. I’m very picky.