Am I Boring You?
Sometimes when I’m telling Jack a story, he’ll say: Get to the point. (Sorry, Jack am I boring you?) I don’t want to get to the point. I want to talk about all the details that led up to the point. Those are the details that matter. Those are the details that make up the backstory.
As soon as I finish a good book, I want to know where the author got the idea for their story, how long it took them to write their story, what nuggets they discovered about the subject or themselves while writing it. This curiosity about writers and their backstories was one of the reasons I started the book festival.
After last year’s book fest, I decided to start a series of Q&As with storytellers and publish them in an email series called Story Crush. Like most things, it took me a while to get to the point (Oh!). Finally it’s here and for this, the inaugural Story Crush Q&A, I interviewed Janet Fletcher because my path to writing professionally started with cookbooks, so a food writer seemed like a natural choice (a bit of my own backstory inserted here.)
Around the time my first cookbook, Smoothies, was released, Janet was releasing her second book, Fresh from the Farmers’ Market (FFM). I’d see Janet at industry events and book signings, never imagining that one day not only would I work with her on a book, The Niman Ranch Cookbook, but that we would also become friends.
I consider myself exceptionally lucky to be friends with Janet and even more so to have been fed by her. She can serve what seems ordinary—a bowl of cherry tomatoes, sauteed peppers, or chicken thighs—and elevate it to extraordinary with her deft touch.
Janet is the publisher of the Planet Cheese blog and the author or co-author of 30 books on food and beverage. She teaches cooking and cheese-appreciation classes around the country and she’s a longtime Napa Farmers Market board member. This month, her most recent book, Wine Country Table, will be released.
LN: When I first met you FFM had just been released. It was revolutionary—focused on farmers’ markets, bursting with seasonal recipes, beautifully designed, and filled with gorgeous photos! What inspired you to write that book at that time?
JF: You’re right that it was the first book of its kind. Farmers’ markets were not on many people’s radar in 1997, when the book came out. People thought that’s where farmers sold their blemished produce at a discount. The number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has more than tripled since then. I have always loved farmers’ markets, since my first trip to France in college. It’s the first place I go when I travel to a new place. I love the vitality of the produce, the chance to interact with the growers and the feeling of community. I hoped the book, with its produce-heavy recipes, would persuade more people to make the farmers’ market a habit.
LN: Where were you living when you wrote FFM and what were the markets like there?
JF: I was living in Oakland at the time and the markets were terrific—and still are. The Berkeley market was rigorously organic. The Oakland Friday morning market was heavily Asian. The precursor to San Francisco’s fabulous Ferry Plaza market was in full swing on the Embarcadero. And San Francisco’s Alemany Market lured me with its incomparable multi-cultural array of farmers, shoppers and produce.
LN: Do you have a favorite recipe from the book that you make on a regular basis?
JF: So many! The Turnip and Turnip Greens Soup. The Crème Fraîche Ice Cream (to accompany any fruit crisp, pie or galette). The Roasted Corn Soup is a bit of work but worth it. White Peaches in Raspberry Wine Sauce. Bruschetta with Sweet Peppers and Ricotta. Escarole Salad with Avocado and Oranges. My husband and I are omnivores but still we eat the Michael Pollan way: mostly plants.
LN: Cookbooks aren’t usually categorized as story books, but not only does a good cookbook tell a story, it will usually have lots of little stories embedded in its headnotes. Do you have a favorite headnote from any of your books?
JF: I loved writing the headnotes for My Calabria, the cookbook I co-wrote with Rosetta Costantino, because I got to tell the stories of her family’s life in Calabria and of our two trips there for research. On one of those trips, we went in search of an unusual type of pasta called struncatura. We were told it was contrabando, so of course that inflamed our desire to find it. The recipe in the book for Struncatura con Acciughe e Mollica (with anchovies and breadcrumbs) recounts our adventure, which felt a lot like a drug deal going down.
LN: You’ve written so many more cookbooks, magazine and newspaper articles since FFM, some of which tell other people’s stories. Of everything you’ve ever written, are there any stories that have really stuck with you—the kind you think of as you slice onions or open a bottle of wine?
JF: I wrote food features for the San Francisco Chronicle for 20 years, and one of my favorite stories was about a community garden in the East Bay. There must have been 30 different nations represented by the people tending those plots, and they got along famously, sharing meals in the garden and swapping produce. People from feuding nations were gardening side by side, a moving example of turning swords into plowshares.
Want to know more about Janet? Join her at one of her upcoming cooking classes or book signings. You can find her schedule here. Sign up for her weekly email here. Or follow her on Instagram @janetfletcherNV
Other backstories that won’t bore you:
This article about recipe headnotes from Food52
Inside the Times, a weekly article on the first page inside the Sunday New York Times prints the backstory of articles every week. Here are two of my recent faves:
This reporter’s story about covering Jackie Kennedy’s wedding to Aristotle Onassis
And this reporter’s story about how she researches the homes that are included in “What You Get”
This Tayari Jones interview on NPR. When I read Tayari’s book, An American Marriage I googled her and fell over with joy when she mentioned that her novel’s inspiration was a conversation she overheard at a food court. (I was also fascinated to learn that she actually types her books on a TYPEWRITER.)
Who would you interview if you could? And what are you reading? I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama at the same time as Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer—a book for word nerds.