An Interview with Darra Goldstein
This summer, Alimentum's Eric LeMay had a chance to chat with the wonderful food writer and editor Darra Goldstein.
Darra is the Founding Editor and long-time Editor in Chief of the ground-breaking journal, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. She's also the Series Editor for the California Studies in Food and Culture at the University of California Press and the Food Editor for Russian Life magazine. She is the author of numerous articles on food and four cookbooks: A Taste of Russia; The Georgian Feast, winner of the 1994 IACP Julia Child Award for Cookbook of the Year; The Winter Vegetarian; and Baking Boot Camp at the CIA. Find her online at www.darragoldstein.com.
Eric spoke with Darra just after her decision to step down from her position at Gastronomica.
EL: I've been trying to imagine food writing without the Gastronomica that you've been editing. It's almost impossible, which for me is just a testament to what a magnificent magazine you've put together.
DG: Oh, thank you, Eric. Now that I’ve decided to give Gastronomica up, I’m levitating a bit more every day. (Laughing.) I don't have to be up until 1 o'clock again tonight! Relinquishing the journal will be personally good for me, I think, although there's a lot that I'll miss, for sure, including the amazing people I've met—if not in person, then through the communications we've had. But there should be ways to keep that alive.
EL: Your first editorial was on "Food Studies Comes of Age" back in the winter of 2001. What's the life stage of food writing right now?
DG: I see food writing in several different sectors, so it's hard to talk about food writing as a single genre. There's a lot of what I consider to be literary food writing now. People are using food in very creative ways in fiction and also in nonfiction that takes as its subject the world of food or the environment. Food writing in that sense has really burgeoned. But because I straddle two different worlds—being an entrenched academic while also having another life outside academia—I have some concerns about how food writing is being carried out in academia. Food studies is still a growing discipline, still working to define itself. A lot of the work that's happening is very exciting, but I also feel that a lot of people are jumping on the food bandwagon who have never had any experience in the kitchen. I'm actually reviewing a book right now and am trying to find a way not to diss it completely. The authors are excellent scholars and researchers, but they make some incredible claims about certain recipes and certain foods. If they had gone into the kitchen and worked with food they would understand how it performs when exposed to heat or to cold, or what happens when you add baking soda to something, and that would inform their scholarly writing. Instead, there's too often a cluelessness about the materiality of food, which is not a good trend. If people are going to write seriously about food, they really should be familiar with what goes on in the kitchen.
EL: I remember a colleague who had done an interview with Quentin Bell who wrote the biography of Virginia Woolf, and he kept saying, “You know we would have these great conversations but at a certain point he just revealed that he had no idea how dinner got on the table, literally, he’d never been in the kitchen, he’d never found his way up, and it just didn’t seem that someone who was writing the standard biography on Virginia Woolf should not know that. It just seemed terrible.”
DG: Yes, especially if he doesn’t understand boeuf en daube, how could he possibly write about her?
EL: What is the next thing you want to make in your kitchen?
DG: Oh, the next thing I want to make in my kitchen. Well, since it feels like summertime in March, I think we’re going to get some really nice fish and grill it tonight.
EL: There’s no gorgeous Russian recipe that you’ve been mulling over?
DG: You know, I don’t really cook Russian. I make lavish meals for my students because it’s very important for them to understand Russian culture, literally to get a taste of Russian culture, so I always have them over for a Russian feast, every semester. I trot out the dishes from my cookbooks, but that’s not how we generally eat. There are a few Russian and Georgian dishes I make a lot. I have a cold summer borsht that is just divine. In my Georgian cookbook there’s a beet puree with walnuts and coriander. It’s very easy to make and it’s exquisite. Eggplant caviar I make a lot because we really love it. And khachapuri, which is the Georgian cheese bread, is another thing I tend to make regularly. But I don’t make hearty Russian meals every night.
EL: So if you’re not doing large Russian feasts every night, I am curious about how 20th century Russian art has shaped your appetite.
DG: That’s really a wonderful question, because at the moment I’m quite immersed in the Russian avant-garde. I’m teaching a course on it in the art department this semester.
There are a lot of really beautiful paintings with representations of food. And not just food, but agricultural work. In the early 19th century an artist named Venetsianov was one of the first to look at the peasants, at the life around him, instead of painting the kind of historical and mythological scenes that the Academy wanted. He very much idealized the peasant life, with beautiful golden light suffusing the workers as they labored. Even with sickles in hand they always seem to be at rest, gazing out on the expanses of rye in the field. It’s this timeless Russian landscape. Yet even if the paintings aren’t completely true to life, Venetsianov has a wonderful eye for detail. So we can see the specific implements that were used, and how the threshing barn was constructed. In paintings by other artists we can see how tables are set, and the kinds of foods that are on the table. Just looking at paintings has deepened my understanding of Russian food culture.
|Alexey Venetsianov, On a Threshing Floor, 1821-1823|
My Georgian cookbook actually took its inspiration from Niko Pirosmani, a Georgian naïf artist from the early 20th century. His canvases portray fabulous scenes of feasting. Unfortunately, they don’t really pop when you see them in black and white, but the originals are vibrant – he really captured the Georgian table.
|Niko Pirosmani, Feast with Organ Grinder, 1906|
EL: I think one of the things I’m going to miss about Gastronomica is what a beautifully visual magazine it is, just the way it’s always gorgeous, even when you’re showing very disturbing things.
DG: That’s one reason—probably the primary reason—I decided to step down. UC Press is cutting Gastronomica’s production values. So much of my pleasure came from the journal’s visual lushness. It’s true that you can convey information in many different ways, and there can still be excellent content and substance without visual imagery, but to make up for my relentless work, I needed something more, like pleasure—pleasure from images and beautiful look and feel of the journal.
EL: Well, I love the expansiveness of the vision of Gastronomica, the fact that it just brings everything into it, that it has this capacious, almost oceanic take on food. I’m going to ask you about another pleasure, that I know you’ve talked on before, but I just would love to hear what you’re thinking about right at this moment. The latest edition has a charcuterie heart on the front, you’ve had a bloody fountain of a wedding cake, you’ve had Freud in pink standing with a hot dog. Most food writing is comfortable, it’s sentimental, it’s reassuring. You go for the edgy and occasionally just the downright evil.
DG: I do. What does that reveal about my personality? (Much laughter.)
EL: What is it about food?
DG: I’ve always been attracted to the dark. It was one of the attractions of Russian literature for me. If you think of national literatures in stereotypical ways, there is a darkness to much of Russian literature, which I always found very compelling. When we focus too much on smiley faces and Have a Happy Day, that kind of superficial cheerfulness and wholesomeness, it’s very hard to get at the essence of things. I’m not suggesting that we should walk around feeling grim or that we should see the world through dark glasses, because I don’t believe that at all—and I hope that in Gastronomica the instances of darkness or unease are mitigated by some bright and silly and cheerful things—but I do think that what makes us uncomfortable causes us to think more deeply, if only to try and wriggle out of our discomfort so we can get to the happy place again.
It’s also like what the Modernist painters and writers were trying to do by moving away from conventional forms, to show things or use words in new ways, to make people see things anew, from a slightly different and often somewhat distorted perspective, one that’s not the normal sort of face-on way that we see things. When you see that distortion it makes you uncomfortable, but then it opens you up to other modes of experience.
EL: Yes, it’s ultimately liberating—
EL: but it’s terrible freedom sometimes.
DG: Yes. I think this approach was also, in terms of Gastronomica, kind of “alternative.” I don’t want to say “corrective,” because I love reading the happy food magazines. I clip recipes avidly and traverse the world by experiencing food through the travel articles. I love all that, but I also think we need to see the parallel universe that exists, the one that isn’t quite so rosy.
EL: What’s the food writing piece that needs to be written that hasn’t been written yet?
DG: (laughs) Do you want the answer that just came to mind?
EL: I’d love that.
DG: For years I’ve been trying to find someone who will write on milt. I’m fascinated by the use of milt. For the Russians, at least in the 16th century, it was as great a delicacy as caviar. The Italians used it in cooking. But in our society, it’s like ooh, sperm is icky but eggs are okay, and I’m fascinated by that. I have proposed the subject to any number of people and they all say, “Oh, that would be interesting,” but no one has ever gone ahead and done it. So maybe I will. It’s the gendering of what is acceptable to eat and what isn’t that interests me.
EL: I love it. Maybe we can get this out there and there’ll be some young hungry writer who will say I’m going to do it! It’s the K-2.
EL: How about this: What questions do you think we should be asking about food writing at the moment?
DG: There are all of these different pockets of food writing. There are the really superficial little bites that people get—about what’s good for you, what you need to eat, here’s a little recipe. At the other extreme are the sort of stultifying academic articles that don’t speak to a larger public. In between there’s a growing corpus of really serious and good writing about food in ways that people can relate to. I guess I would like that body of food writing to move beyond its elite readership more into the mainstream. All this talk and all this thinking about food and what’s healthy, what’s sustainable, what’s local—all these buzzwords are out there, but they’re out there only as buzzwords without a lot of thoughtful ideas underpinning them. It would be wonderful if people could be better informed without being preached at, without being made to feel anxious about the choices they’re making.
EL: That would be wonderful. Do poetry and fiction have a place in that?
DG: It’s interesting that you ask, because I was just about to give you an example. The other course I’m teaching this semester is on Russian culture through cuisine. The students read travelers’ accounts to Russia, and cookbooks as social documents. We do a lot with famine because that historically shaped Russian culture. We also spend a good deal of time on the Russian Orthodox Church and its strong proscriptions against mindless eating, as we would call it today. Just a couple of weeks ago we read a book by a late 19th century chemist named Engelhardt, who had been the rector of the St. Petersburg Agricultural Institute. He was sent into exile on his family estate in the provinces after he failed to quell riots at the school. Because Engelhardt was a scientist, he set about observing peasant life in a kind of rational way. He was really interested in the peasants’ diets and work habits. He wrote a series of letters to one of the progressive journals of the day, which have been collected and translated. So the students read about the peasants and how little they had to eat, how minimal their diet was. Then the next day I had them read a few Chekhov short stories, one of which is called “Oysters.” I don’t know if you’ve read it.
EL: I don’t know that one.
DG: It’s really moving. It’s only three and a half pages long, about a little boy and his father who is begging on the streets of Moscow. The little boy is starving, and he is hallucinating because he’s weak from hunger. He sees a sign, which he can’t quite make it out. His father explains that it says “Oysters.” The boy’s never tasted oysters, and—I don’t want to tell you the ending of the story.
EL: I’m definitely going to go read it.
DG: It’s very beautiful. But to get to my point, the students commented on how this one extremely short story was so much more vivid than the scientific observer’s very studied analysis of diet. They learned from Engelhardt, but he’s not going to stay with them in the same way. So yes, I do think that there’s a very important place for creative work, particularly fiction. As Americans we’re not a poetry-reading nation the way, say, the Russians are. Which is too bad. There are those of us who love and read poetry. But as a national pursuit, we’re not drawn to that mode so much.
EL: Yes, as somebody who is a poet, you don’t have to convince me.
DG: Although, you know, I did an amazing event here a week ago with Orion magazine. There’s a beautiful Walker Evans photograph in the Williams College Museum of Art. It depicts a kitchen wall, an Alabama farmstead, from 1936. We got Ruth Reichl, Francine Prose, and Elizabeth Graver, and poets Ellen Doré Watson and Patty Crane to come and read responses to this minimalist photograph, and it was just fabulous.
|Walker Evans, Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936|
EL: It sounds wonderful.
DG: I really love curating. That’s partly what Gastromonica was for me. It’s almost like putting together an exhibition. You try and find things that will come together into a meaningful whole.
EL: And what’s the satisfaction once that happens? You’ve been doing it for 10 years.
DG: What’s the satisfaction? You end up with something material, which is what I like about print. Even if you can get information online, you don’t have the satisfaction of tangibility, and I like tangible things.
EL: Which makes perfect sense for a food writer.
DG: Yeah…And for a Taurus, connected to the earth.