Alana Chernila is a food writer, author, and cooking teacher based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of three cookbooks: The Homemade Pantry, The Homemade Kitchen, and Eating from the Ground Up, all published by Clarkson Potter. She teaches classes through Craftsy and blogs at Eating from the Ground Up. You’ll also find her at the Indian Line Farm stand at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, a gig that first sparked her interest in cooking and food writing.
In the interview, we touch on her life-changing experience at St. John’s College, how to approach food without fear, and why so much restaurant cooking is disappointing.
Justin Naylor: Thanks so much for making the time to talk today. I’m really excited, among other reasons, because we both went to the same college, St. John’s, which is famous for changing lives. Could you briefly describe St. John’s for those who are unfamiliar with it, and how your time there has affected the person you are now and the work that you do?
Alana Chernila: St. John’s is a Great Books college, and it’s really the only one of its kind in the country. The curriculum covers the history of thought in Western civilization from the Greeks all the way up until the 20th century. Everyone is committed to the exact same curriculum, so the whole school can have conversations about the same works, from philosophy and literature to math and science. Before St. John’s, right out of high school, I went to NYU for theatre. I dropped out really fast, after a semester. After a lot of twists and turns, I was waitressing at a restaurant in my hometown, and I had a friend who was about ten years older than I was. She said, “I went to Harvard, but I really wish I had gone to St. John’s.”
So I went and ended up doing well, but it was really hard and I struggled a lot, especially with math. I remember leaving junior year math tutorial every day and just crying. I hadn’t taken calculus and it just seemed so impossible. But somehow I got through it and ended up being a sort of model Johnnie in my senior year. I actually ended up winning an award at graduation!
After I graduated, I felt like a whole different person from who I was before. I thought of applying for a Fulbright and becoming an academic. I thought about going to medical school, or becoming a lawyer. Like a lot of Johnnies, I walked out and just felt like every option was open because I learned that even if we think we’re one kind of person, if we give ourselves the chance to work through something we can really be any kind of person. And I don’t think I could have ever gotten that lesson without St. John’s.
JN: And that’s the the main takeaway from SJC in regard to what you’re doing now?
AC: Exactly. I felt the world was so opened to me. But then a month later I got pregnant. My husband is also a Johnnie, and we graduated together. We met senior year, so we were newly together, but we had decided already that we would get married. We got pregnant, and then somehow what ended up happening was I had to apply all of that Oh, I can do anything, to OK, I can have a baby and be a mom. And it was the right lesson for that also, you know?
JN: Absolutely. After graduating, how did you end up focusing on food?
AC: It was a pretty wandering path. For about five years, I did all sorts of jobs. I had our second child less than two years after our first, so I did anything that would allow me to be with them and make some money. At one point, I opened a school out of my house for homeschoolers that was a mini-St. John’s, so I was teaching things like Euclid to high schoolers. I did that for a while, then I worked for a film director and traveled around the world with a film. I did all sorts of strange things because I was just open to whatever came to me.
JN: Did you travel with the kids?
AC: No, they were a little bit older, so I could leave. Then I worked for my stepfather, who is an architect, and started studying green building. I was just trying to figure it out; I was going all over the place. Through it all, I was also working at the farmers’ market, just as a job.
JN: Back in Massachusetts at that point?
AC: Yes, we were back in Great Barrington, and I was working at the farmers’ market, just sort of struggling. I was having that thing that people often have in their late twenties when they feel like they have to figure out what they’re doing in the world. I really, really loved working at the farmers’ market because I was talking to people about recipes. I didn’t really know how to cook; I grew up around food, and my mom is a great cook. I wasn’t a great cook, but I was having to teach myself how to cook all these different vegetables, and I loved having these kinds of conversations with people, like, Seven things you can do with a radish. It took me a while to realize that I was coming home from the farmers’ market totally charged and pumped. One night, I’m having a drink with a friend and I’m like, Woe is me, I don’t know what to do with my life; I love the market… and she said, “Well, you should start a blog, and then you can start writing your recipes down.” This was before everyone had a blog; this was 2008. I left the restaurant, and in the car ride home it took me five minutes; I was like, I’m going to start a blog when I get home, and it’s going to be called ‘Eating from the Ground Up.’ I came home and I started a website right there, and I wrote my first post. That became kind of my lifeline. I was starting to keep track of these recipes for vegetables, and I found that writing about food opened me up and gave me a push to be able to write what was going on in my life — parenthood and marriage and all the things that I lived with. It was like things would magically come together and I would sit down and I would just write. I had about two readers, but even those two readers made me feel like I wanted to create something for them.
I started to get really into this idea of making my own food staples. I started with yogurt, and because I had this forum on the blog to actually talk about it, it inspired me to keep going until I could really get it down. I did yogurt, I learned how to make cheese, granola, just simple things. These posts were the things that people really liked. I thought, What can I make next? How can I make a Ritz cracker? It got really fun. My kids were little, they were 3 and 5, so it was a fun time to be cooking. I started searching around – I feel like this is the origin story for so many books, but this is what really happened – I started searching around for books that could help me figure out how to make more things, and I found that there were very few resources. I was thinking about that, and somebody, again, said, “Well, why don’t you write the book?” and I was like, What? That’s ridiculous. I don’t even know how to make this stuff! One of the jobs I had had was working for someone in publishing, and I brought the idea to her, and she was like, “You’re going to do this. This absolutely needs to happen.” She connected me with a few agents, and one of them was crazy enough to take me on, even though I had two readers and no platform.
JN: That’s really interesting to me, too, because so often aspiring cookbook writers are told that they won’t even be considered without some massive platform.
AC: Well, I got lucky because I connected with a really amazing human being. He’s still my agent now. When people come to me who are feeling excited about trying to write a book, and they get sad because maybe they don’t have a million followers on Facebook, or whatever, I always say that I actually think that even though we hear that platform is everything, the truth is that editors and agents really want good books. They’ll fight for good books, even if it’s someone where nobody knows who they are. I’ve seen that over and over again, not just with me, but with other writers too. They want it; it means that publishing is alive. It’s not just about numbers. When you find something that speaks to you, you fight for it. You have to talk that line, about the platform, but I always tell people not to be scared or intimidated by that. I think there’s a lot of space for writers who might not be coming at it with that sort of platform behind them.
JN: In your first book, The Homemade Pantry, your writing has a really nice balance of confidence and self-deprecation. You’re honest about what you don’t know, and there are a lot of funny stories about that kind of thing in the book. Was it a conscious choice to balance these two things, or is it just who you are? I find it very effective and appealing.
AC: Good, I’m so glad! I think it’s really who I am, and it goes back to my St. John’s days. I think I did well there because I always asked good questions. You know the person at the table who’s like, “Hold on, can we go back? What’s going on?” And then half the room would be like, Oh, thank God somebody asked. [Laughter] So, it’s sort of the same thing, I think, in my writing recipes. There are things that I know, and there are things that I do well, but there are so many things that I don’t know and I don’t understand. I feel like I can often get to more understanding through practice and exploration, but I feel like it’s so important to come to the kitchen with a sense of humor. Because the fact is, the worst thing that’s going to happen in the kitchen is that your food is going to come out terrible, and if you have any sense of experimentation and adventure in the kitchen, it’s going to happen quite a bit – or at least, sometimes.
From the very beginning, it always felt good to me to be writing from a place where people felt like I was in the kitchen with them. You know, I always say, Here I am, I’m right at your shoulder. We have a couch in the kitchen, so say I’m sitting on the couch, I’m drinking a glass of wine, and I’m telling you what you should be seeing or not seeing, or if you mess up, how to fix it – just coming from a place of that sort of beginner feeling and sense of humor, and just not taking yourself so seriously. That always felt like where I wanted to be in the kitchen, and that was always the attitude that I wanted to share.
JN: Do you feel like a lot of cookbooks you see take themselves too seriously?
AC: I do, I do. And I feel like it doesn’t often do a service to the reader, because it so often excludes them from the promise of the book. I feel that way often with a lot of cheffy, restaurant-y cookbooks. It’s like a party that you’re watching from the outside window, you know? It’s not just about the humor; I feel like a lot of my responsibility to the reader is also to be really thorough and clear and really good with my instructions. They’ve taken the time to read my book, and I’d better make it worth their while. I feel like that’s the other side: yes, I’m there with a sense of humor, and I’m trying to make sure that they don’t take themselves too seriously, but I also don’t want to let them down. Hopefully I can give them the tools, all the different words and descriptions that are going to help them learn how to create what they want to make.
JN: I can imagine that a lot of people who see the book think, Oh, I don’t have time. I can’t make pop-tarts from scratch, I can’t even find time to make ricotta, or whatever. What kind of compelling case would you make for why people might really try to find the time to make these things at home that can be so easily purchased?
AC: First, I think it’s important to come to that question without a sense of guilt. I think a lot of people, when they think about making things at home, feel guilty already that they don’t, or they feel self-righteous that they never would, or judgmental of those who do. Because there’s all these self-protections and insecurities. There is this image of that parent, or whoever, who’s home all day and has the luxury of endless time, and just makes everything. Their pantry is a perfect assortment of homemade jars of this and that, there’s the chickens out back, and the garden that all gets preserved in Mason jars. That is a real aspiration, but it’s easy to judge, because it’s like, who has time for that, right? So, I often encourage people to step out of that idea of what they should be doing, or their judgments of things, and then to think about one thing that they might want to create – if there’s one food that they love so much and they feel excited at the idea of making it themselves. Often, yogurt is a really great gateway.
JN: And it’s one where, I think, you actually would save money.
AC: It actually is cheaper, yeah, and it tastes great. Sometimes bread is the gateway for people, because it’s so satisfying to make. Everyone has their own food like that. Then, I see it over and over again: you make that one food, and when it works and you love it, the sense of satisfaction and buzz around that one recipe is so powerful. It’s like, all you need is to make your own granola and you feel self-sufficient. You feel like a pioneer! Whatever it is, it is deeply satisfying. Sometimes all you need is that one thing, and you just stay with that one thing. That’s enough. Or sometimes one thing leads to another, and then because you love to make it, you make the time. I think you have to start with the love, and the time comes. If you try to create the time, then you’re sort of going about it backwards, because you’re always going to find other things to do.
JN: Right! That seems really important to me. I had someone point out to me once that we tend to do the things that we are good at. People always say that they don’t have time to cook, but I always thought, What are you talking about? You find time to work out every day! If you can get someone to feel competent – to actually enjoy something, like you say – then they’re willing to spend time on something that they feel empowered about. But if it’s the other way, it’s not going to work. I think that’s really important and interesting, and I haven’t heard that point made very often in public. So, I’m glad you’re making it.
AC: Yes, and it’s the way that I operate. As humans, we’re so funny: we don’t ever do the things that are good for us. You know what I mean? We all know we should be meditating, and doing this, and doing that, but why are those things so hard to do? Well, because there are so many other things we want to do! If we can start with the want, and just find that one thing that gives us pleasure, then that’s such an easier gateway into that process.
JN: Something else we don’t feel like we have time for, which you also write about in your books, is socializing over food. The potluck, the dinner party, this sort of thing – it has really died, for a couple of reasons. Time is one, but even if people do want to visit with friends over food, it tends to happen at a restaurant and not in people’s homes, for some of the same reasons – they feel insecure, they don’t know what to cook, they don’t feel like their cooking is good enough, etc. It seems like you guys have really prioritized that. Do you have a weekly event, or a monthly event?
AC: Yes, for a couple of years we had a group that met every week, every Tuesday.
JN: Could you talk a little bit about not only the value of cooking for ourselves and our families at home, but the value of sharing our cooking with our friends? What can we do to foster that, in a culture that feels like there’s not time to even cook a simple meal for ourselves, let alone carve away a whole evening to visit with neighbors and friends?
AC: Yeah, I think it is hard to make time for that. Again, it’s so easy to fill our lives with other things. This Tuesday group that we had for a couple of years was started by a friend of mine who was so driven to make it happen – and that really helped, we had this taskmaster. Unfortunately, he moved away, so now we meet every so often, but I’ve actually been thinking that we need to bring it back. I’m starting to feel motivated again. A big part of its success was that you had to go. There was a theme every week, so that would help guide your cooking. But you had to cook. There was no bringing, like, bread and cheese or anything – you just had to do it. Everyone had to host equally; when it was your turn, it was your turn. Unless you were sick, you had to go. There was no backing out. That was really helpful, because the thing is, so often, it would be Tuesday and it would be six o’clock, and I’m struggling to pull my dish together, and then I drag myself there, and all of a sudden my life is just totally different. I’m sitting and drinking a glass of wine with friends, and I’m in this enchanted world because I’m sharing it with people. I would never have been able to pull myself out of my life that way.
JN: How, if at all, is it different from just meeting your friends at a restaurant or a bar?
AC: There’s a couple of reasons. One is that it’s free, which is really important. I mean, it’s not free, since you have to buy the food, but, you know, it’s expensive to go out. We live in the Berkshires, and it’s really expensive to go out. So it’s certainly not something that you do every week. But the thing is, I find that food cooked by friends at home always tastes better. Maybe it’s just because I know a lot of good cooks, but I find that things are fresher and more delicious, and I always enjoy the food more. Also, the experience of hosting is so important, because we, or at least I, get so wrapped up in this idea of having a perfect house and having it be really clean and this and that. It’s important to remember that when you just open up your space to people, people are so happy to be invited over, always. You can invite people over and give them peanut butter and jelly for dinner and they’re going to be so excited that you invited them over and they’re at someone else’s house and they’re not cooking at home and watching Netflix! It doesn’t matter what you cook. It’s really good to remember that. In the end, we might not get together too often these days, like you said, but everybody knows that it’s good to do it – because when you do it, you’re like, This is the best!
JN: You are one of the few people I’ve ever heard say that home cooking is actually more satisfying and more delicious than most restaurant cooking. Because my background is in Italy, I got that lesson early on, mostly from Marcella Hazan, who said the home is always the standard, and that in Italy the best compliment you can give to a restaurant is that its cooking tastes of the home. I’m really interested and excited to hear you say that; very few people seem to believe that. A lot of ambitious home cooks seem like they’re chasing after this restaurant perfection, so I’m wondering why it is that you think that home cooking is not only more satisfying but actually more delicious.
AC: It’s so interesting, what you say about Italy. My theory as to why as to why restaurant food is not so delicious… you know, sometimes I feel – this is a little controversial – sometimes I feel like women make better food than men. So often, the chefs are men in restaurants. Some people get really mad at me when I say that, and I totally understand why. It’s a very gendered stereotype. But occasionally, I’ll find an all-women-owned restaurant, and the food is usually really good.
JN: I tend to agree. What’s the difference, do you think?
AC: I feel – again, I’m going to work on some stereotypes here – that based on my experience, there’s a real ego that men tend to have in the kitchen when they’re in restaurants. I think ego makes food taste bad. You can taste it! And it often comes out as oversalting, or things like that. Weird things. Often, I think there’s less ego from women in the kitchen. Actually, when I went to Italy recently, I got the opportunity to interview this really amazing Italian female chef who teaches kitchen leadership all over the world. She was talking about the difference between men and women in the kitchen in Italy. She was talking about how a lot of it is how you treat your staff, how you relate to your staff, and how the food comes out differently when your staff feels love in being in the kitchen. She said, “I do not scream, and that’s the difference.” So I do think there’s a real gender divide, and it’s palpable in the flavor of the food. But I also think, on a more basic level: say you’re coming over for dinner, and I’m making you dinner. I’m tasting as I go, and I’m making food that I want to eat. So, maybe I know what you like, or maybe we’ve talked and I’m excited to share something in particular with you, and I’m really looking forward to sitting down at the table and eating it with you. I’m tasting it, I’m making sure that it meets my standards. It’s a different process, and I think that process creates better-tasting food. That’s just not what happens in a restaurant.
JN: I don’t think people realize the kind of assembly-line, premade nature of so much restaurant cooking. This is overly harsh, but so much restaurant cooking is basically reheated leftovers.
AC: It really is! Everything has been prepped twelve hours earlier. It’s very different [from home cooking]. Yeah, it’s true, everything was cooked yesterday and then you just, like, put it in the Salamander.
JN: On a different subject, you write in yours books, convincingly and powerfully, about body image and health, especially for women, but it obviously applies to both genders. Specifically, you write about not being afraid of food – you have a whole chapter about that in The Homemade Kitchen. Could you talk about your views on this subject and how they evolved over time?
AC: I’m a mother of two daughters, who are now 13 and 15. I came from a family of round women and inherited that myself, of women with bellies, Eastern European people. And as most people do, I grew up with all these conflicting ideas of what I was supposed to look like and what I was supposed to eat. I went through my own difficult times of trying to control and exercise too much. By the time I realized I was settled in thinking about food, it became a real priority for me to do whatever I could to create a different world for my girls to live in. I just feel like the amount of energy we put into thinking about what we eat and how it makes our bodies look is way too much – this a generalization, but it’s true for most women and probably most humans. It’s so much energy, and it’s such a diversion from what’s important. It sucks up all the energy. I just didn’t want that for them.
I feel that especially in our contemporary food culture, with all these diets and health trends, there are so many people telling you exactly what you should eat and how it will make you feel like a superhero. Making certain foods evil – sugar is evil, dairy is evil, pick your poison – just increases that feeling of obsession about what we eat and what it does to us. I also feel like so many of those diets, although they are really helpful for some people, sort of parade as one thing — but often, weight loss is at the bottom of them, [implying] that if we just could eat this perfect way, we would be so thin and so glowy, and have endless energy. I think it tries to get around the fact that human bodies are painful and mortal, and sometimes dimpled and not smooth, sometimes shaped differently than we wish they were. But also, they work so well, and they have such a capacity for pleasure and good things. I wanted to tap into that. My writing has always been about the pleasure of food, because I think that’s how I can negate [the other attitude]. I eat the things that make me feel joy and pleasure, and I cook the things that make me feel pleasure. It’s hard to live in this world where everyone is a size 0, but it helps to tap into the things that feel good in our bodies.
JN: You write in one of your books that enjoyment itself might be a nutrient, which I think is a great way to put it. But if I could play devil’s advocate for moment, what about someone who takes it too far, as in, I know it’s not good for me, but I really enjoy fast food? I really like having lunch at McDonald’s every day, because it’s quick and it’s cheap and it’s tasty. Where do you draw the line, or when might someone decide to make some changes for the sake of health?
AC: Yeah, I’m married to a fast-food lover. I think that the process of learning what feels good, and eating for pleasure, can help strengthen the skill of intuitively feeling what feels good in your body. Even the most fast-food-loving people that I know, including my husband, can feel when it’s too much. Place and circumstance have so much to do with how good things are. Maybe it’s a Friday afternoon, and I was so hungry after work that I got a cheeseburger from McDonald’s and I sat and ate it, and it was the most amazing thing, and I’ve never had something so delicious. That’s great, but maybe the next day it feels like, Two cheeseburgers in two days? Too much. Maybe I’m being too idealistic, saying that, but I really do think that we have the ability to moderate ourselves if we trust ourselves. Yes, dessert is delicious, but wait, I ate too much dessert and now I don’t feel well. So if we can tune into it and not feel guilty that we ate too much, we can just think, OK, next time I’m pulling back a little bit.
JN: I’m really happy to hear you say that about fast food, because – maybe this isn’t fair – my guess is that most people who are making their own granola and tofu, and so on, probably have a much more judgmental attitude about fast food.
JN: I really don’t want my kids to be afraid of any food either, and as long as they can learn to moderate their choices, there’s really no food that is without some merit at some time and in some place.
AC: Yeah, why deny yourself the thing that is perfect in that moment? I have this memory when I was working at a coffeeshop when I was eighteen. I remember there was this woman who used to come in every day with her kid who was four or five. The mom would say, “Do you want a cookie?” and the kid would say, “Yeah, I want chocolate chip,” and the mom would be like, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” and the kid would be like, “Uh-huh,” and the mom would be like, “Are you sure?” – “Uh-huh,” – this mom was teaching this kid not to trust what they wanted! I just thought, I’m never going to do that.
JN: Right on! That’s great.
AC: I just feel like we’re good at understanding what feels good if we can trust ourselves and not feel guilty. I think everything has its place. Gosh, I love a good Five Guys burger and milkshake on a roadtrip. That’s the best! So, yeah, I am very much about every food having its place. Leave it to the person to figure out what feels good for them. That’s definitely what I try to live by, myself.
JN: How successful have you been with your daughters, communicating that message to them? Have they been able to adopt that way of thinking?
AC: I’m so proud of who they are and how they both navigate through the world, so I feel like in that way, yes, I feel successful. But I think, like I said, it’s hard to be in a human body, and even harder to be in a teenage one. They are both their own people, who are navigating food in their own way, but they both really love to cook and they both enjoy eating food and they have things that they love. They both like sharing food with other people and cooking for other people. That feels like success. But especially around parenting, I never can get too cocky. It’s the most humbling experience.
JN: Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you get punched in the gut.
AC: Exactly! But they’re just such neat people. My older daughter loves to cook more, my younger daughter is a really amazing baker. They love that, and I love cooking and eating with them. They’ve both been cooking since they were little, and that’s a really nice thing. I’ve written about this a lot, but I always felt really intimidated by all the writers who talk about cooking with their kids, because I found that I couldn’t cook with my kids. Especially when they were little, it would just drive me crazy. My only way of dealing with it would be just walking out of the room and saying, I’ll help you if you need it; just call me for help.
JN: So, they cook on their own, with space and autonomy, and whatever comes out, comes out.
AC: And they own it. That’s been really successful for us.
JN: Do you have any advice for parents who are struggling with kids who are really picky eaters and reluctant to try new foods?
AC: I have one adventurous eater and one less-adventurous eater. I guess my only piece of advice is, don’t listen to the advice. [Laughter] Every piece of advice I ever got around picky eaters was just not true. It was like, Keep putting food in front of them, they have to taste it twenty times… none of those things ever worked for me. The truth is, my younger daughter – who certainly eats more and more as she gets older – certain textures just gross her out so much. That’s just not going to change. She’s very sensitive to that, so I trust her. I try not to gross her out. So much of that advice just makes people feel guilty. Like, if they were doing it better, then their kids would be eating quinoa.
JN: It makes parents feel guilty, and it makes kids feel guilty too.
AC: Right, and it puts too much focus on the food, and then at dinner it’s like, Well, just have one bite… argh!
JN: If we could shift focus again… I learned to cook from books, but I often feel that as a result it took me a lot longer than it would have if I had been able to cook at the side of an experienced cook. I love cookbooks, but in some ways it seems like a strange way to learn to cook. Since you also teach cooking, maybe you could reflect a little bit about that.
AC: Actually, I learn really well from cookbooks. I’m someone who, if I watch a video on how to do something, I am lost. It’s funny, because I actually teach with Craftsy, which is an online cooking platform. I have about 4500 students. People love it. But I’ve tried to take Craftsy classes myself, and I just can’t watch someone do something and then feel like I want to do it. For me, I need someone to talk me through it and I need to do it with my own hands, and then I learn it. So, I think it all depends on how you learn. I’m also not someone who would ever take a cooking class, even though I teach them! I need to work through something myself. I have sometimes taken cheesemaking classes to learn more skills – I’ve certainly taken classes to learn things that I didn’t know how to do — but it’s useless for me if I’m not doing it every step of the way.
JN: You have this feauture in many of your recipes called “Tense Moments”, which is fantastic. For one thing, it’s funny. It also really gets at the heart of cooking, because there really are so many tense moments where you’re not sure if it’s right or what to do. You’re making this custard, and it says, Cook it over medium heat for five minutes. It doesn’t tell you anything about what should be going on, or what happens.
AC: – what happens if it curdles! Exactly!
JN: Why aren’t more cookbook writers including that kind of information, their own tense moments? To me it seems really rare.
AC: Because it shows so much vulnerability.
JN: Yes, that’s right. People want to pretend it’s the recipe that makes the dish and not a cook, a human being.
AC: You have to admit that your recipe might fail. Sometimes people are coming to these recipes being like, I am bringing you a golden recipe that will change your life and will never fail. But every recipe takes a different form in every kitchen, and you have to give people the tools to get through it.
JN: Which really goes back to what you were saying before about ego in restaurant chefs; people don’t want to be vulnerable. Even back at St. John’s, in class, people don’t want to be vulnerable – and yet, if you have the kind of confidence to express some vulnerability, people love it, because everyone’s in the same boat whether they want to admit it or not.
AC: Right, because they see themselves, and they feel invited into your experience.
JN: Speaking of ego: social media. I know it’s a huge subject, but could you give us some brief reflections on the pros and cons, especially surrounding food?
AC: Well, I have to be totally honest with you: if I didn’t have to be on it, I would be out of there so fast. Of course, I don’t have to be, but I sort of have to be. From my own personal experience, I feel like the moment I start to think about how to report about what’s happening in this moment, I’m gone from the moment. So, say I’m in the kitchen, and the light is just right, and I’m stirring something, and everything’s just perfect. And instead of saying, Oh, what a moment, I’m like, Oh, I should share this moment with my readers. It just takes me completely out, and I don’t like living that way. So I try to be pretty careful; I try to shut it off sometimes. But the upside is that it is lovely to be able to connect with people in that way. Social media is often so unrehearsed and unscripted. It goes back to that vulnerability — I think in the best moments, we can connect with people’s lives and feel kindred with them through those moments, and the connections can be really beautiful. I’ve experienced that as well. But I think that I certainly focus, myself, on trying to show “un-beautiful” food. Aspirational living is a trap that is easy to fall into, and I think Instagram really propagates that. I run into that, myself, even beyond social media. In my first two books, there are all these photographs of my family and my house, and people are like, Do you live like that? In a way, sure – that’s my family, and it wasn’t like there was a big movie crew that came in and created our life – it’s snapshots. But no, you know? I don’t live that way! I’m always trying to remind people that stories are coming from a certain angle, and my publisher’s job and my job is to sell a life, but I need that life to include imperfection, because it feels dishonest otherwise. Even so, it still looks beautiful, because it’s on the pages, you know?
JN: I’d like to wrap up by asking about your newest book, Eating from the Ground Up, which has just been recently published.
AC: I started to tell you the story of the farmers’ market. That’s actually when I started this current book. The first two books were sort of diversions. This book is named for the name of my blog, so this is the book that I’ve been working on since the beginning, which is really satisfying for me. It shares much less of my life and my family; I feel like I’ve learned how to write a recipe, and I get to share that now. It’s been an education, and I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I can really write that book that I started back then.
JN: So, if the first book filled this niche, where you couldn’t find books about how to make these things from scratch, what do you think is the need out there that this book is trying to fill?
AC: Right now there are so many vegetable books out there, because vegetables are certainly having a moment. But I feel like most of the vegetable books are showing us how to elevate vegetables and make them cheffy, or hide them and turn them into rice or noodles, or call them something else, or purée them into cinnamon buns and sneak them into our kids’ bellies. It’s always like, You need to eat more vegetables, here’s how to do it. It’s so painful!
JN: As if eating vegetables is a chore and not pleasure.
AC: Right, we have to call it a noodle or else we’ll never eat zucchini. This book really came from this idea, where I think that most people cook a few vegetables really well. I make really good steamed broccoli; that’s what my mother made for me when I was a kid. I was a super-picky kid. When I make it, I steam it just the right amount, and then I add tamari and olive oil. People love to eat it, and they’re like, How did you make this broccoli? Or somebody makes really great roasted cauliflower. Everyone has those recipes that they make. And so, I wanted to collect those super-simple vegetable recipes that show how to cook vegetables well, so that we weren’t hiding them or elevating them, but just preparing them in a delicious way. You could think of it as a book of techniques and recipes, so you could just look in your fridge – I have kale and Swiss chard, so what am I going to do? I had ideas for cooking them well, and I wanted to just get back to that simplicity, which is how I like to relate to vegetables. They’re just good!
JN: It’s been super fun to talk, thanks so much!
AC: Thank you so much!