Lynne Rossetto KasperWe’ve all heard Lynne Rossetto Kasper on her radio show, The Splendid Table, talk a panicked caller down, sometimes on Thanksgiving morning in the middle of preparing a Thanksgiving meal that had run off the rails.  Many times I’ve been on the verge of calling her myself.  She has been there with advice and camaraderie for a generation of cooks.

Like the trained actress she is, with a rich, full voice, she improvises with ease and confidence, whether suggesting recipes, digging deeper into the historical roots of cooking traditions, or simply sharing reminiscence about her grandfather bringing special Panoramic Eggs home to New Jersey from New York at Easter time.

We chatted with Lynne recently, and with her characteristic down-to-earth charm she provided tips, stories and all around good company.

Many of us have fantasy ideas of what it means to grow up, eat and cook in an Italian family; she was quick to share the reality of her developing palate. “Just because you’re Italian, doesn’t mean you eat like the Gods every day.” In fact, as a child she longed for, “frozen chicken pot pies!” and had no taste for the staple of the Italian family table, polenta.  Like all kids, she “wanted to eat like my friends!”

Still, her mother, descended from the Tuscan hills, provided the kind of meals we urge on our kids—4 or 5 vegetables and a salad—greens like kale, chard, broccoli, green beans, raw onions, all done simply.  And, of course, polenta, not pasta.  Pasta was rare, not such a part of the Italian diet as we think of it today.  Polenta, beans, greens.

Lynne often refers to “how we used to eat,” the “we” being humankind, not just Italian families.  Her historical references come easily, describing practices and customs dating back centuries.

“You know what eating ‘high off the hog’ means don’t you? The higher the cut on the animal, the more costly.  Choose cuts lower to the ground, the leg, the shank have wonderful flavor!”

Her talk of history and culture always comes back to practical suggestions to help us eat well and simply while enjoying the process of cooking.

“We may have labor saving devices, but what people had before is a really wonderful collection of techniques and information about how to maximize any bit of food they could get their hands on, whether by pickling or preserving(Ice Box Pickles! Take a mandolin, cheap, just $10.00, and slice a cucumber thinly, dunck, dunck, dunck– throw it in vinegar—5%-7% acid, throw in some herbs, some spices—there you have them) growing under glass, root cellar.  If it was something shipped in, you prized it and made it last for a very, very long time.

“I realize most of us don’t have the time to give to this that we’d like to, but there are a lot of simple things you can do that are as basic as– Asparagus! In season right now, so if you have a freezer, take those asparagus, in prime condition, drop them in boiling water for just a few minutes, then have a big bowl of ice water, fish them out of that boiling water, drop them in the ice water until they are cold, put them in a plastic bag and toss them in the freezer and you will have them!”

Lynne is a champion of eating simply, being practical and making the most of what we have in season, “If I see one more magazine cover of a Thanksgiving meal showing peas and asparagus, I mean, grow up! Give me a break!”

When asked if she ever considers writing about things other than food, she is reminded of her first loves of art and theater, back before the great fascination with food took hold.   For now, of course, there is the weekly radio show, continuous work on new food books (newest: The Splendid Table: How To Eat Supper, and working on a new book in which she’d “love to include a whole chapter on the onion!”) but if time allowed, down the line, “There might be writing, but it would involve the visual, color, sound….maybe performance art!”  Perhaps she doesn’t realize how close she already is to performance art, how many of us have “driveway moments” as we sit in our idling cars listening, wanting to hear her entire description of a ripe tomato or the taste of a certain cheese.

“Eating is like poetry in that it embraces all of experience, embraces all the possibilities.  Is there any act that is so intimate that we have to do each day?  Think about it,” and of course she laughs her I-know-what-you-are-thinking-laugh, but continues, “What we put in our mouths becomes a part of our very beings.  It literally becomes part of our heart, and, if you believe in such a thing, a part of our souls. Think about that and then decide what you really want to eat.

“But,” she goes on, laughing, “this is not to denigrate other things.  One of my downfalls is Marshmallow Fluff! Let’s not denigrate the nonsense. We’re driven to do a lot of odd things.”

Lynne Rossetto Kasper an award winning national authority on food, hosts the weekly radio show, The Splendid Table on NPR, has authored several books, including The Splendid Table, The Italian Country Table and The Splendid Table’s How To Eat Supper, as well as the syndicated column, “How To Eat Supper.”