Jocelyn Ruggiero interviews Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of the American Public Media program The Splendid Table (www.splendidtable.org), about her life in food.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show. (See more at https://www.splendidtable.org)
Interviewed January 8, 2017
Jocelyn: Hi, my name is Jocelyn Ruggiero and this is SNIPPETS. My guest today is Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the beloved host of The Splendid Table for more than 20 years, which airs on more than 400 public radio stations across the country as well as satellite. Lynne has won countless awards for the show including two from the James Beard foundation. She’s also the best selling author of many books including The Splendid Table.
Lynne: An entire library.
Jocelyn: An entire library of award winning books. Hi, Lynne, thank you for talking to me today.
Lynne: This is a pleasure.
Jocelyn: Thank you so much. We have enjoyed a lot of food together over the last few days.
Lynne: Yes, we have. We’re going to be recovering for a week.
Jocelyn: We are. What strikes me when I’m eating with you in person as well as when I’m listening to you on the radio is the delight and curiosity you have with everything you encounter. I’m wondering, when you were growing up Italian American girl in Northern New Jersey, how was food treated in your household?
Lynne: Food was very important probably as in your household, too. We’re both Italian-Americans or American-Italians but the thing was, I didn’t eat.
Jocelyn: You didn’t eat?
Lynne: From the time I was born until probably I was maybe 10 or 11—prepubescent—I really was a problem child, I was sick, I was skinny and in the early days, I ate and drank only milk and it drove my parents nuts because I was also very sickly and they had lost their first child in infancy and here I was the brat who literally would sit at the dinner table with a plateful of food and there was no “we’ll cook something special for her.”
Jocelyn: Was your grandmother living with you at that time?
Lynne: No, she wasn’t, it was just my mother and father. Food is a child’s often only weapon, I think that’s one of the things that when you want attention, or when you’re jealous, or when you’re angry, or when you’re just not getting your way you don’t eat. And I think that was one of the things, I had no interest in food. It came later. I just wish in one way it could flip because along with the interest in food came hips and that’s always a difficulty.
Jocelyn: So when did that evolve? Was it when you were a young actor in New York?
Lynne: No, I think it evolved in my teens. And my father passed away when I was 15. My mother worked nights, my widowed grandmother was living with us by that time but I got interested in cooking—very simple things, I did horrendous things, I used to literally do an Italian version of baked beans on toast. Canned Campbell’s beans with sweet relish and they went onto whole wheat toast and there was American cheese on top of that and I think ketchup. That went under the broiler, that was my favorite creation coming from a mother who was a wonderful cook. Nobody said anything.
But the interest started to grow. I went to an extraordinary high school in Northern New Jersey and Theatre and Art were fascinating to me, so was Literature. Performance was something I loved, the attention. Gradually I started getting curious about food but when I went to college, there wasn’t anything. You were either going to be a home economist and that’s fine or you were going to be a dietician but to become all the things we can become today were nonexistent. So I worked but I cooked at home and when I met my husband, I finally had a victim. He loved to eat. He loved good wine. He loved to experiment. And we were living in New York City.
Jocelyn: Were you teaching at the department store?
Lynne: Not yet, no. What happened was a long story made short I was working part time for a lot of people. I was working for an artist and collector named William Cutley and his wife was a brilliant Chinese cook. She came from a very well to do family in China so she only cooked for special guests like Aristotle Onassis and I was her slave.
Chinese food, now for an Italian-American kid who is a rebel, what would you take up? Asia. And I became obsessed with Chinese food and I tried to learn all I could from her and then the time life Foods of the World series which in its day was remarkable came out with all of the Chinese recipes, Chinese background, the culture and pictures. I remember going to Chinatown, I knew I had to buy a wok, I went to buy my wok and buy the ingredients for the first meal I was going to make. My husband was traveling, I had two friends, we left at 12 o’clock, went to Chinatown and we didn’t eat until 10 o’clock that night. But I still remember the menu and that was the beginning—the flavors, the subtleties, the combination, the idea that you had to be thinking all the time of color, texture, how things reacted in your mouth. It actually got to the point where I was thinking about how the food sounded.
Lynne: You too?
Jocelyn: Of course, yes, I love that.
Lynne: I became so intrigued.You could eat a different Chinese dish for each meal every day of your life and not duplicate. It’s a profound part of the culture, it’s not just that the food reflects the belief—the food is the culture along with many other things but the food is art, the food is music, the food is politics and that’s when my eyes began to open and I realized either I was going to have to really dedicate my life to Asia, I mean, to really understand and I couldn’t then, I just didn’t have the ability to physically go and so I decided I’d turn west and I started studying classical French cuisine because they essentially coded the processes.
Because I figured if you knew how food worked you could cook anything. I hadn’t factored in all of the cultural and historical elements which came with it.
Jocelyn: The beginnings of it, the chemistry.
Lynne: Yeah. I’d begun teaching Chinese foods, we used to get to do banquets every month. And as one phrase I said, “You know guys, me teaching you Chinese cooking is the teacher reading the book the night before.” And the joke was, you know the book to read.
And then I ended up at Abraham & Strauss in Brooklyn, New York which was the first department store to have someone who was teaching cooking and not selling anything, the gourmet consultant. And someone told me they were looking for someone to demo Chinese cooking so I called them. They were looking for someone to do that job and I fell into it. I’m trying to make this short—that led to becoming the manager and teacher at Anna Muffoletto’s Cordon Bleu and that was the time when cooking schools were exploding. Jacques Pepin was starting out, he was one of my guests at Abraham & Strauss. James Beard, of course there was Julia. And the first time Julia ever cooked in public it was in my kitchen. I can’t tell you, I was ga-ga, I’d love to say, “Yes and Julia cooked in my kitchen.” I was just ga-ga and she was wonderful. That was the beginning of worship and a lovely acquaintance.
From there, you keep following the path, opportunities come.
Jocelyn: And the passion.
Lynne: Yes and the thing is some people have a life plan, I really didn’t. I was following my career and I was very lucky, I was in the right place at the right time. That’s how it started.
Jocelyn: I can see that and I can see you’re still following your curiosity, and your taste, and your passion.
Lynne: Yes and it can take you a long way.
Jocelyn: Wonderful. So Lynne, tell me about where you are now, you have a lot of changes.
Lynne: All of that was in the sixties and the seventies. And now, I live in St. Paul, Minnesota. I do a radio show with American Public Media that’s based in St. Paul called The Splendid Table and we look at food from every imaginable angle, History, Anthropology, satire, hands on cooking and we talk to the world. We talk to all kinds of people, novelists, anthropologists, scientists, cooks of all sorts. It’s this idea that food is this endless, endless, there’s all these doorways that keep opening and they lead to other doorways. It’s Dorothy following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.
And now, what I’m doing is the theatre part of my background which was a great love plays into the curiosity, plays into being on public radio, you cannot be in a better place to just explore. I work with a phenomenal team, we’re only four people who essentially make the show happen with a brilliant associate producer that works with us as well. But we’re four people, we’ve been together for almost 20 years. The gifts that these people have.
I said this to you once before, this is working with people that we all know we have each other’s backs and there’s never a moment when we don’t have tremendous trust and that makes a great difference. I’ve had the privilege of talking to an astronaut who had just come from the Space Station.
This still gives me chills, one of the moments I’ll never forget and when you’re thinking that I can do this, this was a long time ago.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about the arctic explorer Ann Bancroft? She had been to the North Pole and the South Pole and she works with children, she’s a former teacher. He wanted to see if women could ski across Antarctica on a deadline that your access to do that is dictated by the seasons and the weather. These were two women, one is a Science teacher from Norway and Ann. They were connected with CNN and they were connected with school programs all over the world as Science projects, they were pulling sledges that weighed 250 pounds each. This is a place where the winds regularly blow at 100 miles an hour and you’re talking about going up and down mountains. And if they did not reach the South Pole in time to get supplies at a particular time and they still tried to go to the other end of the continent, they would die—they literally would not be able to be rescued because of the weather.
And they were doing this as a lesson, as a series of projects. Well, the phone rang in the studio, I was connected in my headphones and I was talking to Ann and Liv in their tent 85 miles from the South Pole. What had happened was some of the most advanced Science is developed, and used, and experimented with on polar exploits going back a 100 years, 150 years. They had a very carefully balanced diet because they were burning energy, they had run out of their protein. They had carbs but they didn’t have protein and their muscle mass was disappearing. They didn’t want to make a big deal out of it I sensed because the children were listening and whatever.
It was going to be a real crap shoot if they were going to make it and they did. And my husband who had studied polar exploration for a long time as a stamp collector had explained to me this is what stopped so and so and so and so, he listed all the explorers that had been trapped or essentially had died and later come on, first of all the thrill of that. The opportunity and how food played in it was so important but then what we got into was this idea of all the scientific work and all of the advanced science that played into the past polar exploration. And Ann came on the show later, she lived in Minnesota, she still does now, she raises chickens and now she’s doing a fascinating worldwide water project of women having access to fresh water because women carry the water. Another story.
Anyway, she was explaining that there was one very famous expedition in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s coming out of England, they were equipped with everything, more food than they’d ever need, they were equipped with the latest technology and they disappeared. They were in contact, in contact, in contact and suddenly they were gone off the face of the Earth.
It wasn’t until years later that remnants of boat etc. were discovered, it was discovered that their ship was trapped in ice and one group set off to go over Russia—they were at the North Pole—literally go over Estonia and around the pole and to Russia to try to get help. And another group attempted to survive ice, frost etc. And the latest technology that was being used to supply all their food was canning. They had used lead solders to save money and these people had gone insane from the lead and they had wandered off, they had destroyed all kinds of things that would have helped them survive. And this wasn’t known until two bodies were discovered under the ice by two anthropologists who then teamed up with scientists who because they were frozen had enough DNA and body tissue to realize exactly what had happened. This is food.
Jocelyn: This is food and this is The Splendid Table.
Lynne: My God, look at what you can do and what you can learn from people. Anne by the way is a remarkable woman. You might want to talk to her sometime, she’s just amazing.
Jocelyn: So are you. What a gift that we can tune in every week and not know what we’re going to hear about but always through this lens of joy, and delight, and curiosity so thank you.
Lynne: Thank you.
Jocelyn: Thank you for joining us and thanks to Lynne Rossetto Kasper. It’s been so wonderful spending time with you.
Lynne: Thank you, it’s been great.