The way to a man's heart might be through his stomach, but keeping him well-fed night after night is trying at best -- and a recipe for an unhappy woman at worse. Michelle Maisto knows that opposites may attract, but only after moving in with her fiancé does she learn cooking for someone with contrary tastes is one of the many compromises she'll learn to make.
LM: In your book, you mention trying to rework your thesis and turning essays into a book. Is this book a result of that?
MM: Yes. I had this collection of essays, and I got an agent interested through the essays. He read them, and there was one essay that didn't have a food element, so he said, "Can we get rid of this one? Is there something else we can put here?" I said, "Well, there's something I'm working on..." It took me 6 more months to shape that essay and get back to him, and when he saw it he said, "Oh, we should just make this into an entire book."
LM: Where did the idea for the essay come?
MM: A big catalyst was my parents, who had this crummy marriage, and my mom, who was intent on telling my sisters and me to be careful who you marry, that when you're in love you can't see and you're blind to things. I knew Rich was a great guy, but I had this small fear in the back of my head -- what if there's something I'm not seeing? In college, I was also an anthropology major and I really liked research anthropology. There was one study where they found, by just going through grocery store receipts, that when a person bought diapers after 5 p.m., the next thing they were most likely to buy was beer. From this they deduced that they could increase the sales of things like chips by putting them in the diaper aisle, which they did. So, I liked the idea that in everyday data you could find meaning.
When Rich and I moved in together, I was so afraid that there was something I wouldn't see. I wanted everything to go smoothly, so it freaked me out when food -- what had been our biggest bond -- became our biggest problem. I started writing down what we were eating for dinner. I thought, anthropologically, it would say something, and then I started the essay from there. It was all routed in this fear of: Is there something that I'm not seeing?
LM: So you were trying to compile the receipts of your relationship?
MM: Exactly. The heart is so finicky, but this was scientific! This list would reveal something, I thought. Though maybe it just revealed what we found we could eat together...
LM: Do you still write in it?
MM: In my journal, sometimes on a Friday, I'll try to remember what we ate that week and write it down.
LM: At the heart of your book is the inner conflict between wanting to have a successful career and being a professional independent woman who rejects housework, but at the same time you find yourself drawn to cooking and almost trying to replicate your mother's skills in the kitchen. As an educated, post-feminist female, I feel this paradox as well. Do you think this is a specific problem with our generation or with post-feminism in general? We've been taught that we shouldn't want to do these things?
MM: Yes, it was for me. Though I came to a point where I realized as long as we're both doing things and we're splitting what needs to be done, it doesn't matter that I'm the one in the kitchen, because I enjoy it so much. I saw my mom as the weaker person in her relationship, and so I associated the person in the kitchen, and doing more of the household stuff, as the person with less power.
It bothered me that I'd always cooked in college and grad school -- I was always in the kitchen -- and as soon as we moved into together, in the context of a marriage, it freaked me out. I didn't know how to reconcile enjoying being there with not wanting to be there because it made me feel less modern. I finally came to a point where I was comfortable knowing that he was doing other domestic chores and that my doing the cooking didn't reflect the whole power structure of our relationship. That said, I still love it when he cooks and he's in the kitchen. He made lunch today, and it gives me enormous pleasure to be called to the table when everything's ready.
LM: As much as this book is about food, it's also about relationships and learning to compromise. What advice would you give to couples moving in together?
MM: Be open to where the other person is coming from. Rich and I had a lot in common -- we both loved food and loved to eat -- but we also had a lot of differences. Our comfort foods are different. He ate meat and I didn't. My family always had a salad, and his family thinks it's a horrible idea to have a salad every night.
Treating the differences as cool things to be explored, versus a pain in the neck -- though it is hard to be so open-minded at home -- is a point of the book, too. Home is a place where we don't like to compromise. At restaurants, we'd always done great, but home is the essence of who we are, and our comforts and identity and, stubbornly, we tend to just want things done our way. It's hard.
LM: I love that point. It's true that however you grow up is so arbitrary. Just because you do it this way is only because your parents did it that way
MM: And it's the "right" way!
LM: And learning someone else's way is impossible! Like you, I'm the make-do eater in my relationship. Do you think it's something that women tend to like more simple foods or foods that come more directly from their source?
MM: That's an interesting connection. Or perhaps it's that women tend to be more accommodating?
LM: We put ourselves last.
MM: I think women are often better about going with the flow.
LM: Whatever's in the kitchen is fine -- I can make a salad or sandwich out of everything.
MM: Totally! Though maybe that's not fair to all guys. Maybe some guys are laid back, but Rich is definitely a much bigger baby about wanting to eat when he feels like eating, whereas I'll give in more often.
LM: Who are your favorite food writers?
MM: MFK Fisher, by far. Julie can have Julia, MFK is my girl in France! I love her to death. I also really like Julia Reed, who writes for Vogue. Calvin Trillin and AJ Liebling. I love Under the Tuscan Sun so much, by Frances Mayes. I'm reading The Cheese Chronicles by Liz Thorpe -- that's more informative food writing. MFK was a big inspiration when I was writing this book. She knew how to take a topic and write about one thing but really be speaking to something else. Food is the way to get somewhere else -- it's the vehicle. I admire that so much, and that was what I was working for.
LM: Who are your favorite chefs or cookbooks?
MM: Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I cook from the Gourmet cookbook a lot. I feel bad -- people give me beautiful cookbooks, but I go to epicurious.com a lot. A Swedish friend also turned me on to the chef Marcus Samuelsson.
LM: Where do you get the majority of your recipes? Friends and family, websites, cookbooks, tv?
MM: I read Gourmet. Watching TV I get ideas. Then basically, from ingredients. My philosophy is to go to different farmers markets -- there are 45 farmers markets around the city -- and a lot of planning a meal is what can I do with this thing I found? What is this thing I found? The first time we had a CSA in Williamsburg, we got Romanesco broccoli, and I had no idea how to cook it.
LM: What is your favorite thing that Rich cooks?
MM: He makes a mean linguine and clam sauce.