I hold good cooks in high esteem.
I grew up with a working mom who hit grad school at night, and she grew up with a single mother who worked long shifts at a diaper factory. Neither my mom (aka The Takeout Queen) nor her mom had a whole lot of time to cook or to impart culinary skills to their offspring.
As a result, I don't know how to cook (and I have an almost sentimental reaction to the sight of fast food wrappers). It's not my foremothers' fault, though -- my younger brother took it upon himself to learn how to cook, and he's friggin' great at it. I regard his cooking skills with a kind of mystical awe. And recently, I decided that the first step in my journey towards learning to cook would be to read books and articles by people who actually know what they're doing in the kitchen.
Enter talented and babealicious food writer Alyssa Shelasky. She's an associate editor at New York magazine's popular Grub Street blog, where she makes many things sound very delicious, indeed. But if you're interested in the true Alyssa experience, what I shall call The Full Shelasky, you'll have to motor on over to her personal blog, Apron Anxiety, where she has chronicled her evolution from cooking newbie to lady who can identify different kinds of cheese. And now she's got a memoir out (also called "Apron Anxiety") which is a delightful read that includes like 30 recipes. She's a foodie who isn't a food snob, which is why I felt comfortable asking her all kinds of questions about her work (and about boyfriends and food porn, too).
When I wrote a memoir, I went batty. Granted, mine was about depression and agoraphobia rather than cooking and romance, but I still wonder if it was hard for you to dredge up some of these memories. Did you go through any kind of tough emotional time while writing your book?
Alyssa Shelasky: Oh my God, yes. When I’d go into marathon writing sessions, my family would say, “Lys is back ‘in treatment,’” and everyone would know to stay away…far, far away. I’d slip into this psychotic state of hyper-emotion and extreme tension and deranged sleeplessness. Writing a book was much harder than I ever imagined. My editor kept coming back to me with feedback like, "This is a good story but how did it make you FEEL?" and I was like, "Ughhh, I really don’t want to think about how that stuff made me feel!"
Also, it all pretty much happened at once -- the love story, the break-up, the book deal -- so there I was trying to move on from the saddest goodbye as a human being, yet as a writer, I had to sit there and pour my heart out about our magical beginning and all our insane happiness from the early days. I was reliving it all, so vividly and ferociously, when in reality, the healthiest thing to do was probably put one foot in front of the other and forget about the past.
SB: You mention three big loves in your book: your ex-fiancee Gary; a dentist named John; and the guy you call Chef. How have they reacted to your decision to write about them? Did you give them a heads up in advance?
AS: I would never have written this book if I didn’t have “Chef’s” blessing. We are both with other people now, but he’s still in my life, extremely important to me and I have no interest in causing him any trouble. That said, he’s probably the coolest person in the world, and has had my back since day one with Apron Anxiety. I definitely would have torn up the book deal if he didn’t feel comfortable with it. 100%. Honestly, I’m not that ambitious. No amount of success is worth it if people get hurt along the way. The other guys, on the other hand, I’m completely out of touch with. It’s been so many years. They probably hate me already anyway; their wives, I’m sure, do.
SB: What kind of food fueled your writing?
AS: This was the first time in my life that I ate purely for sustenance. I’d get in the zone and write for hours, sometimes days, and couldn’t stand to be interrupted by anything, even thirst or hunger. So when I’d finally walk away from the computer, I’d get a giant heap of food, quickly inhale it and go back inside my head. Often this was: a massive plate of rice, beans and plantains from the Dominican joint down the street; a fat bagel with cream cheese and slices of avocado and onion; a smoked meat sandwich from Mile End with a supersized plate of poutine no less. It was an interesting study actually -- basically eating one heavy, highly-caloric, blissed-out meal a day -- because I lost a lot of weight?!
SB: It's 3 a.m., you're on a first date with heavy one-night stand potential, and the only thing open is the corner bodega (which is not an artisanal food paradise, to put it mildly). What do you pick up there and what do you make?
AS: For the 17 years I’ve been in NYC, I’ve religiously bought black licorice or peanut M&Ms every time I’m in a bodega. So normally I’d never stray from the above, but I guess if it were late, and we were hungry, and for some mental reason, we wanted to go home and chow, then I’d grab some dusty box of cereal and non-stale milk, and maybe we’d be at a lucky bodega with bananas next to the lottery cards. Et voila. If we were at a bipolar bodega that kinda thought it was a supermarket, I’d have better options. Like Nutella on a baguette or something. But I still don’t know why we’d be eating at that point.
SB: What's the best food city in the United States, and why do you love it so much?
AS: New York, of course, are you crazy? Last weekend, I had this ridiculous chevre grilled cheese at Essex Market early in the day, Thai food in Flushing by afternoon, and a dinner party on my roof, under the Brooklyn Bridge, for nightfall. And screw the food, all the amazing people you meet along the way...that's the secret, you know? The conversations, the laughter...that’s the heart of it.
For me, as long as we’re not talking about Old Country Buffet, food is usually just food. Oh yeah, I also really enjoy eating when I’m in LA. I think all the hiking makes things taste better. I could die happy sitting in Malibu with a sprout sandwich. This is why after 10 years, I refuse to lose my 310 cell number. It's the promise of fresh guacamole on the porch of some Beachwood bungalow every time someone calls.
SB: Do you have any tips for taking the best food porn photos if I ever actually manage to cook something delicious?
AS: Standing in a bra, sucking in, next to a big pot of anything always works. But seriously, if you make a meal, take two seconds to think about the colors and textures first. Too many earth tones can make dinner look a bit drab. That’s why ingredients like red beets and electric purple potatoes are so key – they punctuate a plate perfectly.
AS: On a practical level, I highly recommend reading Danyelle Freeman’s “Try This” – it’s a fun, easy guide to eating all kinds of popular cuisine. Will make you feel smarter next time you’re faking it with the foodies, or lost in Koreatown or drinking ouzo alone, or whatever. Obviously if you haven’t read Gabrielle Hamilton’s "Blood, Bones & Butter," you’re just self-sabotaging. I love deep, dirty confessionals and I hate bubblegum lit, and I just pray my book is somewhere in the middle…smoking cigs with Patti Smith, and maybe hitting up the Barney’s Warehouse Sale, just twice a year, with the rest.