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.

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.
 

 

Today, Swift concedes that How to Eat Weekends began breezily enough. It was to be a mere sequel, she says, “a hangover” from the first book she did with Kasper in 2008, How to Eat Supper. That one was a guide to seat-of-the-pants weeknight cooking. But many of their favorite recipes, dishes that required prep time longer than a Wednesday evening or shopping errands more exotic than the local co-op, didn’t make the cut. So Swift and Kasper began plotting their follow-up. The book would be about “destination cooking,” as Swift terms it, “spending an entire weekend knocking around at an ethnic market, making it a project.”

Problem is, when you respect a cuisine’s cultural aura as much as these women do, you can’t just plunk down a recipe for a Moroccan harira red-lentil soup and leave it at that—even if it is your favorite Sunday-night dinner. You’ve got to add some context. And Kasper and Swift, erudite as they are, recognized the holes in their global culinary scholarship.

“Who the hell are we to sum up an entire ethnic cuisine?” says Swift. “We only know enough to go to smart people. I felt we had a real obligation to point readers to the real scholars.”

And so the most impressive part about How to Eat Weekends isn’t its actual recipes. Nor is it the book’s highbrow interludes—chatty asides about the perfect clean-up music or the ideal design for a dining-room chair. What impresses is the further reading. The cookbook actually sends you, via a handy reading list, to the seminal works of any particular cuisine. If you want to just make a green mango salad, fine. But if that salad causes you to wonder about, say, the history of Vietnamese kitchen tools, well, Kasper and Swift bring you the experts. For Italian, it’s Mario Batali. For Indian, it’s famed food writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey. And if you just want the Cliff Notes, How to Eat Weekends offers brief primers on subjects like the Chinese pantry or the eating habits of the Islamic world.

“We are losing an entire generation of food scholars,” Swift says. “Julia [Child, who died in 2004] was the tip of the iceberg. And I don’t see that being replaced in current food culture. Ninety-five percent of it is very, very shallow. People don’t have the scholarship anymore. And that scares me.”
 

Kasper decides to cool her heels in the United Noodles deli, a harshly lit swatch of tile populated by wobbly, mismatched metal chairs. A punky looking couple, dreadlocked and tattooed, steals a glance as they pass by. Kasper, I realize, just got celebrity-sighted.

“Does anybody really need another cookbook?” she asks, somewhat rhetorically.

Perhaps we don’t. Perhaps, as How to Eat Weekends seems to suggest, we just need to be reminded of and redirected back toward the great books that are already out there. And not just the cookbooks.

“You know, food is all of those things that you read about in novels,” Kasper muses. “Food’s gossip. Food’s time travel. Food is power play.”
She gets professorial again, and we start to spiral into cosmic territory—a hyperbolic theory of everything, where eating is the biological embodiment of culture, art, life, existence. A stretch, for sure. But this is what Kasper does: she finds a thread and follows it all the way back to an epic, wonderfully tangled ball of yarn. With her book, she’s encouraging readers to do the same. It isn’t so much about the work you need to do in the kitchen, but the exploration you need to do out of it.

And this is when Kasper brings up Sesame Street.

“When Sesame Street started, nobody had seen a kids’ show like that in their lives,” she says. “You gave kids credit for having brains. Why not apply that to food? When we turn on the TV, we only see the hunting and gathering stage. It’s ‘Let me show you how to cook,’ and, ‘By the way, the more muscle and chest I can expose, maybe that will make it more interesting.’”

And don’t get her started on the reality shows.

“Would you tell me what makes Gordon Ramsey so fascinating? This man is sick! He’s gifted, but he’s spent an entire career on being the most insulting, degrading…All the joy goes away.”

This is what Kasper and Swift are fighting for: the joy of cooking. How to Eat Weekends may not be a manifesto, but it’s at least a sensible alternative, a gentle nudging to delve deeper into a culinary world that pop culture is only skimming. It’s an excuse to wander, not just culturally but physically—a passport to United Noodles and beyond.

“It’s about putting yourself in a place where you haven’t been before,” Kasper says. “This cookbook is the beginning of an adventure.”

Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.

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