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Soul Food

Radio host Lynne Rossetto Kasper craves what the food culture isn’t giving us: scholarship, imagination, wit. But she’d settle for a really great shrimp paste.

Soul Food
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 2)

Lynne Rossetto Kasper doesn’t do grocery lists. She would rather let fervor and imagination be her guides. And so trailing her through the aisles of an Asian market, where she scuttles and halts, enraptured every few feet by a panang curry paste or a package of frozen banana leaves, is a bit like chasing a kid through a candy store. It is also an exercise in footwork: step lively, or lose a toe to the shopping cart’s wheels.

Today, the Twin Cities cookbook author and host of The Splendid Table radio show is shopping her way through United Noodles, one of Minneapolis’s most renowned and esoteric markets. It is the speakeasy of the local food community: unadvertised and invisible from the street, obscured by a row of blank industrial warehouses. Inside, we are the only white people, and the lone scrap of English is a “Products of Korea” sign topping an end cap crammed with bottles of a neon-green “aloe vera drink.” The vibe is archeological. It feels as if we’ve unearthed some buried culinary cache, and now Kasper is here to inspect the artifacts.

She beelines to a display of lotus root. The sliced veggies are round and hole-punched, like a rotary dial on an old telephone. “Lotus root has all kinds of lore attached to it in Asian cultures,” she explains. “About fertility, about beauty, about long life.” A short, fascinating lecture follows. The lotus plant, it turns out, is associated with a number of Hindu deities. It also reoccurs in Confucian scholarship. But is it tasty? Kasper shrugs. “It’s not particularly exciting to eat.”

Instead, we’re off to the frozen-food section, where the crystal dumplings live. Packages of the shrimp-filled pockets, $7 each, glisten behind a pair of foggy doors. Kasper stops short. Conspiracy is the air. “You know how we’ve seen a tremendous increase in this town of restaurants serving dim sum?” she whispers. “Well, dim sum, traditionally, takes an immense amount of time and skill to create. And they have to pay people a fair amount of money to make it. It is very, very specialized.” She cocks an eyebrow. “So the question is, how did all these restaurants in town suddenly get these highly skilled workers?”

A pause. Then a gesture toward the freezer.

Is Kasper alleging that Asian eateries are sourcing their dim sum from the frozen food aisle in United Noodles?

“Yeah!” she exclaims. “And more power to them! These may be done by machine, but it’s pretty fancy stuff.”

And with that, Kasper one-eighties back toward the canned goods—she needs some shrimp paste, she says, for a green-papaya salad she’s planning to make that weekend.

This is how Lynne Rossetto Kasper shops; there’s a bit of the dotty professor to her. Forget appetite—the stuff cramming the shelves here at United Noodles is tempting her mind. For Kasper, each product is intellectually freighted, ripe with context and begging to be read like a novel.

This sociological approach to food is, of course, what’s made her a public-radio star. The Splendid Table, which originated on Minnesota Public Radio in 1995, now airs on more than 290 stations around the country. It also plays, in English, on World Radio Switzerland, the Swiss version of NPR.

Her inquisitiveness has also made her a cookbook pioneer. In 1992, Kasper—a former actress from New Jersey turned food writer, cooking instructor, and consultant—published a book, The Splendid Table. To this day it stands as a hallowed tome in the food world, revered for its dissertation-worthy delving into Emilia-Romagna, a seldom-studied region of northern Italy. It is the only place in the world where three of the most iconic Italian foods are made: Parma ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar.

“My big question was, ‘Why?’” says Kasper. “Because it’s not just climate. It’s a mentality.”

And so she started investigating—which of course yielded more curious questions. Her husband, at the time a marketing manager for Honeywell, was transferred to Brussels for five years, and Kasper went along, making monthly pilgrimages to Emilia-Romagna, driving 11 hours to hound the local cheese and ham makers, the balsamic-vinegar families and pasta artisans. She spoke to historians. She learned to read Renaissance Italian. Her research ultimately stretched on for 10 years. “It was going to be about the region from the time of Christ to the modern day,” she says. “But then I just narrowed it down to the last 500 years. And I killed myself. Writing that book was horrendously difficult.” But the labor paid off. When the Splendid Table finally debuted, it won both a James Beard Award and a Julia Child Cookbook of the Year award. At that time, it was the only book to nab both honors.

This month, Kasper publishes How to Eat Weekends, her fourth cookbook and the second she’s written with her producer and fellow foodie Sally Swift. The new project takes the same tack as its predecessors, pairing recipes with liberal artsy tangents and quippy insights from architects, writers, and politicians. But it also offers something else, something more urgent. It is an antidote to what Kasper and Swift see going terribly wrong in modern food culture.

If Kasper is The Splendid Table’s dreamy philosopher, then Sally Swift is its pugnacious bodyguard. She’s less inclined to rhapsodize about the show’s thoughtful approach to food than she is to aggressively fight for it. Just ask her about cooking on TV.

“I am utterly horrified by the level of shame and judgment,” she says. “Especially on these reality shows. People are being assessed based on whether they’ve done something perfectly. I think that is insane, and it has nothing to do with the love of food.”

Together, the two make a counterintuitive odd couple: Kasper the too-nice softie from the East Coast, Swift the spitfire U of M grad from Wisconsin. In fact, it was Swift, a former television producer, who talked Kasper into doing the radio show. In 1994, having devoured The Splendid Table (“one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read”), she found out the author had relocated to St. Paul. She cold-called Kasper, and the two discovered they shared the same high-spirited, intellectual enthusiasm for food. They soon taped a pilot for a radio program, which aired that same year as a one-off Fourth of July special on Minnesota Public Radio. That was 17 years ago.

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