Jocelyn Ruggiero interviews Betty Fussell, an award-winning writer and the author of twelve books, ranging from biography to cookbooks, food history and memoir. Her many awards include the James Beard Foundation’s Journalism Award and Who’s Who in Food & Beverage. Betty’s most recent book is Eat, Live, Love, Die: Selected Essays and its work spans almost 50 years.
Interviewed February 9, 2017
Jocelyn: Hi, I’m Jocelyn Ruggiero and this is SNIPPETS. My guest today is Betty Fussell. Betty is an award-winning writer and the author of 12 books ranged from cookbook, to memoir, biography, food history. Among her many awards are an award for journalism from the James Beard Foundation and the Who’s Who Food and Beverage and Betty’s latest book is a wonderful collection of essays I have right here, Eat, Live, Love, Die: Selected Essays that span almost 50 years.
Welcome, Betty. Thanks for joining me.
Betty: Thank you, Jocelyn. I’m so delighted to be here with you.
Jocelyn: From Casa Dorinda in Santa Barbara, California, right?
Betty: I’m in Santa Barbara and you’re back where snow is.
Jocelyn: That’s right, I am. It looks very glamorous there. I feel like I’m speaking into a dinner at a Hollywood film there in the background.
Betty: It’s like speaking into Hollywood, yes, California is Hollywood. It’s a made up land.
Jocelyn: I learned so much reading these essays and encountering ones that I’d never seen before from publications that no longer exist. It was really a delight. In your essay 4F which I really enjoyed very much, you talked about food as a revelatory window on the world. And I’m wondering today, specifically today in the context of all the political turmoil we’re experiencing now, I’m assuming you do and if so how do you think writing about food matters, is relevant, is revelatory in that way you described?
Betty: Writing about food aways matters because food is life. So eating and cooking, you don’t have to cook, you do have to eat. Everybody has to eat. So the basis of food is other people. You don’t create the food products yourself, you could raise a carrot but you cannot raise everything that you’re going to need so you are always dependent on something and somebody else and then you bring it to a table where the assumption is you will eat it with somebody else, usually. You want to share it.
When a baby is born, the baby cannot live without somebody else feeding it milk preferably Mama or substitute Mama or bottle but that’s how we know, that’s how we learn we’re not just the only scrawling mouth in the universe so for current politics, you can never have me first and only because that doesn’t work with food. It’s an immediate window on anything that is culturally relevant and everything is culturally relevant to food, so that window is always open.
Jocelyn: I was so struck. On your website you called it Food History but I was so stuck in essay after essay how there was no history, food history, how everything was so woven together and that’s what was so rich about this work. Food is a window into everything.
Betty: We don’t have to arrange because we don’t arrange this way in our mind. Food is memory—our most intimate memories, our earliest memories are about food so it doesn’t have to be presented in a chronological manner, it is much more like we are to have a mosaic and have flashbacks going on all the time the way memories do, the way dreams do. That’s how we remember food and what we remember we taste, it’s in our hands and our hearts long before it’s in our palettes.
Jocelyn: Something else I was struck by of course is the mystery, the mythology of the Western frontier pervades so much of your writing. So after so many years in New York City, I know you returned west where you came from. I love the photo in the book, which is also in Vogue, so evokes that western mythology when I look at it.
Betty: Jo Nieman’s Ranch! That’s California.
Jocelyn: So why west? Why did you go back west?
Betty: Because I have always been a westerner. I was never a New Yorker, never for a moment although I lived 70 years in the east, I was never an easterner. I was a migrant transplant to a place that I loved back east but that didn’t mean I didn’t love where I came from. So returning home to Santa Barbara after a lifetime in the east was joy because I returned to my landscape, my literal tree roots and family roots.
Jocelyn: You’ve come home.
Betty: I’ve come home.
Jocelyn: Your essay about MFK Fisher, I’m remembering it- it’s so cinematic. I picture that essay and you quote her about living fully and I was so struck when I read that, I thought that’s exactly how I think of Betty is living fully. Is that how you think of yourself? How do you live fully now?
Betty: It’s how I think of California. Look at the pioneers of America’s food revolution. MFK Fisher, Julia Child, Pasadena. James Beard, Oregon, west coast, we’re on the coast. Everybody but Craig Claiborne in my naming the four who sort of transformed America in the sixties in terms of food, everyone of them had come from outside New York where you don’t live fully in the same way, you live at one extreme, enormously exciting, enormous energy but it is not real life anymore than Hollywood is real life. That can get people riled but never mind.
Jocelyn: So living fully is living fully on the west coast, in California, in Santa Barbara?
Betty: No. It’s just that for me the fullest life has to be directly connected to nature. I could not have that in New York. I didn’t have a country house so I just had my little New York apartment. That means no access directly to the outside except going down the door and into the sidewalk and into the street with the steel and glass. Okay, that is a fabulous city which I lived every minute of but I knew it was an unreal cities as all cities are.
Jocelyn: Are you living fully in a different way now just in terms of you experience nature, food, are you cooking and eating differently?
Betty: Absolutely because here I eat on my patio every day which was my dreamworld of returning to California and eating inside/outside and having inside/outside the same space which you can do here, which is what Southern California is all for and about.
Jocelyn: And you can grill a steak outside, right?
Betty: You can do anything. You can grill a steak and the squirrels will come around. The birds, everyone will ask for food. The hummingbirds are at their little feeder and they’re saying, “I want a little bite too but if it has honey on it.”
Jocelyn: Betty, you’re working on another book now as well, aren’t you?
Betty: Yes, it’s a biography. The second memoir, the first autobiography, from the cradle to the time I split with my husband and went to New York. This was New York to Santa Barbara but because that shift is so major in effect I’m rewriting the whole thing because returning flips everything. And it’s important that I am 90 so I’m at the end of the chapter. Knowing that changes everything.
Jocelyn: Do you feel like your age when you think back to eating an egg sandwich before you went to the desert with your family—you have these food memories of your childhood, do you feel like it’s different looking back from the age of 90 than it would have been if you remembered them at 35?
Betty: Yes, sure. Everything is different because you know you’ll have a limited time to eat those sandwiches. Every sandwich is more special. Everything you eat is more special Every day is more special. If there weren’t an end to it you couldn’t savor that specialness. That’s why it’s not eat, live, love—no, eat live, love, die. That is the round table which when you’re old enough you can embrace it instead of being terrified about it.
Jocelyn: That’s a good way to end our time talking together. Here’s to embracing it, right? Embracing and savoring.
Betty: Embrace it. The taste this moment is different from any other moment.
Jocelyn: Thank you so much, Betty for talking to me today. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Betty: Thank you. Bye bye.