Here’s more from our conversation with Lynne Rossetto Kasper (find the first part here).
Q: “The Splendid Table” – the cookbook – was published in 1992. How much time did you invest in it?
A: It was about 10 years. It started the first time I went to the region as a journalist, and really got hooked. Of course, the emotional piece came quickly. But the intellectual piece was, this is the only region in Italy that produces three of the most iconic foods that come out of that country [Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar]. Why there, and not elsewhere? That’s the underlying question in “The Splendid Table.” [That's Kasper, above, in her St. Paul kitchen, in a 2014 Star Tribune file photo].
Q: What inspired you to write the book?
A: We were living in Brussels. When we were told we were going back to the U.S. about three to four years earlier than we’d planned, that’s when I realized that there was some way I wanted to mark, to memorialize, to record what this precious time had meant, and what I’d learned. Not just learning about a dish, or a culture, but about a different way of being. In an environment like that, you become attuned to different things. If you’re on a desert island, a breeze has a whole new meaning. I was crying in the shower. I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ And I realized: Emilia-Romagna. No one had ever done that book.
Q: In 1985, you moved from Brussels to St. Paul. Is that where you wrote the book?
A: Yes, although I was back and forth to Italy a great deal. I actually finished the book in Denver, at my friend Marjorie’s house. I’d just hit a wall, and I had a deadline, and at some point Frank said to me, “I’ve been on the phone with Marjorie. She wants you to move into the apartment in her basement. She’s going to help you, and I’ll pack the computer in a way that you can reconstruct it, and you go for as long as you need.” And I was dumbstruck. But I realized that I needed someone. We worked every day. [That's Kasper, above, in a 1992 publicity photo].
Q: How did you celebrate the finish of the book?
A: Marjorie is almost as obsessed with food shopping as I am. On the day that we mailed the manuscript, she asked, “How do you want to celebrate?” And I said, “You’d mentioned this place called Costco.” I know, it’s the antithesis of the artisans. But it was new to me, I’d never heard of it.
Q: How did you spend your advance?
A: You run out of money so quickly. You had to pay for the art, and the art was half of it. And it was the travel. There were so many trips, I’d be over there for three of four weeks at a time, two or three times a year. I probably spent most of it on books. In Italy, publishing is localized. And there was just so much, you’d find these incredible, lavish books, and they were not going to be available in the next town. The dollar was pretty strong throughout much of this, but I was shipping pounds and pounds of books, so the advance was gone kind of quickly.
Here’s an interesting side plot. I signed the contract right around the time that my husband started his business. We were rolling the dice. At one point we had a conversation, and I said, “Should I cancel the contract and give back the money?” Frank said, “Don’t do it, I have a feeling about this.” And boy, was that prophetic.
Q: Where did the “Splendid Table” title come from?
A: Coming up with a title was a problem, because no one knew Emilia-Romagna. There was an editor that I spoke to early on — and this was not a stupid person —who thought I was Amelia Romagna. I had a great editor, Maria Guarnaschelli. She said, “Start a document, and every time you get an idea for a title, put it in.” And I did, and we had 92 titles. “The Splendid Table” was chosen almost by default. She would ask me, “What do you envision when you see this title, or that title?” Visually, I kept seeing layers of history — do you know the word pentimento? I had this sense of a panorama, of a table going far into the distance. Then we explained it with one of the longer subtitles in publishing history, and I’m not being snide. We had to use the word “heartland” because that’s something we can all understand. And we had to use “Northern Italy” because those were the days when all we talked about was Northern Italy.
Q: What was the genesis of the radio show?
A: When the book won a lot of awards, people came to me about doing TV. I was one of the many flavors of the month. And they’d say, “When you raise the money, we’ll make it happen, and we’ll spend it for you.” Then I got a call from this young woman. She said she’d been cooking from my book for six months, and that she just heard me on NPR, and had I ever thought of doing a radio show?
A: Never. I’d been on radio, but I’d never thought of it. And I thought, “God, another one.” I tried to be polite, and we met for lunch. It turns out that Sally [Swift, the show’s co-founder and managing producer] saw the book very much the way I did, and she saw food very much the way I did. I don’t like the expression, ‘They just don’t get it,’ because it’s such a snobbish, separating term. But she got it. We both saw food as this big subject that we could have a lot of fun with. She and her then-husband Tom Voegeli had both been at MPR, and they’d started a production company. [That's Kasper, left, and Swift, right, in the studio, in an undated Star Tribune file photo].
Q: Where did the idea come from to feature restaurant hunters Jane and Michael Stern, and their infectiously engaging sense of Americana?
A: That was Sally, she has always said that it was the first call she made. With a name like “The Splendid Table,” one of the things you want to kibosh right away is that this is going to be about white tablecloths and high-end chefs, and all of that. That balance is so important. They’re absolute treasures, and they’re real pros.
Q: Do you have a favorite holiday? And do you have a favorite corresponding dish?
A: That’s a tough one. I’m tempted to say it’s Thanksgiving. There’s this wonderful stuffing — it’s on the website, it’s called Herman’s Fantastic Cornbread Stuffing — which I adore. But my favorite holiday is Christmas. It’s lush, it’s rich, it’s candlelight, and I’m naive enough to believe that maybe you have a chance at peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. It’s driving the neighborhood on Christmas Eve after going to this party we went to every year, and looking in people’s windows, and seeing people gathered around a tree, and candlelight, always candlelight, and the smell of fresh greens. And the food! We’ve done everything from a suckling pig — which was just a hoot — to a potluck. But it’s the beginning of the winter, it’s the most beautiful time of the year, and it’s the way that people come together. People are just easier at that time. [That's Kasper, above, with Julia Child, at Dayton's in downtown Minneapolis, a 1995 Star Tribune file photo].
Q: Other than the ones that you’ve written, what are your indispensible cookbooks?
A: Right now, most of my library is in a storage unit, but there were a few titles that I selected to have with me, including “The Cake Bible,” by Rose Levy Berenbaum, and Dorie Greenspan’s baking book [“Baking: From My Home to Yours”] and that wonderful book on her life in Paris [“Around My French Table”].
Q: As a cook, how do you use cookbooks?
A: I get ideas from them, and then I’ll improvise. I think it’s a good idea that you find the experts in the cuisines you love, and then make variations on their recipes. I’m thinking of Andrea Nguyen on Vietnam, and Grace Young’s books on China. Although sometimes when I’m working on a dish that’s traditional, then I’ll respect the author, because there are certain dishes that should be done a certain way. But “traditional” is such a tricky word. When did it become traditional? When did the clock stop?
There are also certain cookbooks that I find myself going back to, again and again. Padma Lakshmi did a book called “Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet.” She loves spicy food, and there are some recipes in that book that I’m crazy for. When I need ideas, one of the places I go is Tom Douglas [“Tom Douglas’ Seattle Kitchen” and “Tom’s Big Dinners”], because he has this big imagination about food, and he writes a good recipe. I’ve never eaten in his restaurants and not had a blast.
Q: I bake out of his “The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook.” Are you a fan?
A: Oh, yes. That coconut cream pie, oh my god. Some friends of his invited us to dinner, a barbecue, and he arrived with two of those pies. There was half a pie left, and it was so kind, they insisted that I take it back to the hotel. I took it, and I made no apologies. I waited until about 11, and then I called room service, ordered coffee, and then sat down and ate that pie. That’s a case where I would not vary the recipe, because it’s so good.
Q: Switching topics, what’s the ideal color for a kitchen? I’m pretty sure I know the answer, having admired the kitchen in your longtime Crocus Hill home. [That's Kasper's St. Paul kitchen, above, in a 2014 Star Tribune file photo].
A: It’s yellow. A kitchen should be a place that’s warm and welcoming. But it’s not a cool yellow. It’s a yellow that has a hint of orange. It’s a yellow that probably one painter in St. Paul probably ended up in treatment in trying to create, because I was mixing it myself and I couldn’t get it right. Tom Voegeli said we should manufacture this paint and call it Lynne’s Kitchen Yellow.
Q: How did your background in theater inform your cooking, and your radio work?
A: It really started with my teaching. You cannot teach — or do radio — unless you can get people’s attention. I taught and wrote for 30 years before the radio show. It felt so comfortable, having teaching as an outlet. You can let your enthusiasm show, and you can share your knowledge, and you can have a heck of a lot of fun.
Q: Today’s media environment is very different from the one in 1995. Could a “Splendid Table” get off the ground today?
A: There’s so much happening on the web, but it’s so fragmented. Back when we started, there were fewer choices. It’s the double-edged sword: So many people who have great talent and have things to say are getting attention, and so many people who have no idea what they’re talking about and should really be doing something else with their time, they’re also getting a chance. It will sort itself out, and we’ll move forward.