Denise Landis is a food writer, editor and cookbook author. She was a recipe tester for the New York Times for over twenty-five years and is now is the editor of the first international food magazine for professional and aspiring food writers, now known as The Cook’s Cook: A Community of Cooks, Food Writers & Recipe Testers. Denise Landis has a B.A. degree in cultural anthropology from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Denise Landis’ career in the food world began when she took a short-term job testing a few recipes for Maria Guarnaschelli, a cookbook editor at William Morrow. It evolved into a freelance job that she performed for two years before she was hired by Carol Shaw as a freelance recipe tester for the Living Section of the New York Times. In 2013, Denise launched a full-length international digital magazine called The Cook’s Cook: A Community of Cooks, Food Writers and Recipe Testers. Please enjoy my interview with Denise Landis…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I publish a food magazine connecting the international community of cooks. The organization is called The Cook’s Cook. Now in our fourth year, we are widely known through social media, with over a million followers on Twitter, and in September the magazine will launch a new design and publishing schedule. For twenty-five years before that, I was a recipe tester and writer for the food section of the New York Times. I’ve also tested recipes for many cookbooks, and am the author of a New York Times cookbook called Dinner for Eight: 40 Great Dinner Party Menus for Friends and Family.
At the moment, in my office, I’m reading the cookbook Black Trumpet: A Chef’s Journey Through Eight New England Seasons by Evan Mallett, a truly beautiful and intelligent book with wonderful recipes. As a fellow New Englander I appreciate the “eight seasons” he describes so accurately. At my bedside, I have Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Crystal King. This is a book about the food of ancient Rome and the culinarian Marcus Gavius Apicius. I was once employed as an archaeologist, so was excited as soon as I learned about the book. Bonus: The author has written an article for The Cook’s Cook that will be published this fall.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
Peeling potatoes and hating it. However, all of my memories of eating are happy ones!
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
I can’t think of any one book that young people should read that has to do with food or cooking. But I do think there is one book they should read, and that is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. And that is because the book is about kindness, and the essence of feeding others is kindness, and the meaning of hospitality is kindness. Anyone who somehow missed reading Charlotte’s Web as a child, and who thinks he/she is now too old for it, should stop what they’re doing and read it anyway.
As a child, who influenced your taste in food?
Both of my parents were equally good cooks. Our entire family, including the children, were regular viewers and fans of Julia Child. My father had been a cook in the US Merchant Marines, and his eyes and palate were opened when he visited France, especially the port of Marseille. He made stews, seafood, grilled foods, salads, sauces, and gravies. My mother is English and cooked beef and Yorkshire pudding, Christmas fruit cakes, and odd snacks that we took for granted like cabbage cores cut into wedges and sprinkled with salt, and sandwiches of sliced radishes and butter. Once a week we had dinner at my father’s mother’s apartment, and her Southern cook, Gladys, always made excellent fried chicken, collard greens dotted with red pepper flakes and served with cups of “pot liquor,” green beans cooked with salt pork, corn bread, and more. Each week there was a crowd of friends and family, and it was a feast.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
The worst job was the first job I ever had, aside from babysitting, and it was the silliest one. I was barely seventeen, lived in New York City, and wanted an after-school job. I became employed by Barney’s, which at that time was a men’s clothing store, as a “hostess.” My station was near a dressing room where there was a little waiting area with a sofa, and I was told to stay in that area and that I would be told what to do when I was needed. No one ever told me to do anything, so I was extremely confused about how to spend my time there. I was very shy, and the men shopping and working there seemed very old to me, so I was frightened of talking to them. I took the subway downtown and worked from about 4 to 7 most weekdays that winter, standing around doing nothing. After some months I heard an ad on the radio that said: “Come meet our lovely hostesses at Barney’s.” It turned out that the “hostesses” were normally airline hostesses between flying gigs. I don’t recall a single conversation with anyone while I worked there, and I’m sure all were relieved when summer came and I departed for good.
Can you remember the first meal you ever cooked?
The first meal I ever cooked was also the first recipe I ever invented. I was in Girl Scouts and wanted to earn my cooking badge. I was 10 years old. Without consulting a cookbook I made up a recipe for meatballs that I decided to call “Ghostly Goodies” because it was close to Halloween. My parents were home but stayed out of the way. I mixed ground beef with finely chopped onion and peppers and shaped them into balls. I browned them in oil and added bottled tomato sauce. They were undoubtedly mediocre, but I did it all alone. Which accounted for my first mistake in the kitchen as well. Instead of using a pot-holder, I decided to use a dish towel wrapped around my hand. As I stirred the meatballs, to my horror the loose end of the towel caught on fire. I was able to quickly unwrap it and put it in the sink. I was unharmed and I have no memory of my parents’ reaction, but that incident is probably why I remember making the meatballs.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
No, although I’ve decided to make more time for reading. For many years I’ve had a habit of reading right before bed, and — because I’m an early riser and usually get up to start work at 4 or 5 a.m. — once I’m relaxed I tend to fall asleep. But a few months ago I thought about how in my youth and early adulthood reading books wasn’t a pastime or luxury, it was essential to my well-being and I used to read several times a day. When I had my first full-time jobs, whether in the office or in the field (I was employed as an archeologist for seven years before getting into the food business) I always read at lunchtime and on my breaks, and I would read again for a while after I got home from work, and again in the evenings. So I have recently begun inserting reading times into my life again. I keep books handy and — if I am alone — will stretch out on my office sofa for 15 to 20 minutes once a day, just to read. My rule is that this time is for books, no magazines. I love magazines too (of course! I publish one!), but my intention is to bring more books back into my life.
I’d say read Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin (she was also a novelist) and M.F.K. Fisher’s essays to learn how to write a memoir with a relaxed narrative. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott for inspiration and lessons on how to tackle a big project. There are many fine writers of the past and present to read and emulate…a few names are Claudia Roden, Dorie Greenspan, Sam Sifton, Joan Nathan, Kim Severson, Deirdre Heekin, Caleb Barber. To study the language of food writing, read Fuchsia Dunlop, whose descriptions invariably make my mouth water.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring chef?
The first is: Take a job in a commercial kitchen doing anything, even washing dishes, so you can see what the atmosphere is like and whether the pace and intensity and hours are right for you. There are many jobs related to food that do not require being a chef! Food writer, recipe developer, recipe tester, food stylist, photographer, publicist, editor, Sommelier, farmer, scientist; there are many more.
My second piece of advice is: Learn to write. By that I mean learn to spell, know correct grammar and use it, know how to construct a sentence, read as much as possible, learn the basic rules of writing a recipe. You may not write (or want to write) a cookbook or articles, but writing is a skill that can open many doors, sometimes in surprising ways. Like cooking, writing is an extremely desirable skill even if you don’t intend it to be your career. The corollary to that advice is: To learn to write, first be a reader, and make sure you read good writers in publications that have been professionally edited.
If you could only own three cookbooks, which would you pick and why?
For thirty years I’ve collected cookbooks and now have over 3,000 — probably a lot more than that. And you want me to pick three?
Well, the first one is easy. When my children were very small my husband gave me a blank recipe-collecting book for Mother’s Day. I filled it with handwritten recipes and still use it constantly — so much that it is falling apart. If my house were on fire that is the first thing I would grab to save. I gave my children hand-written copies of that book, with their own favourite recipes from childhood added and plenty of blank pages for them to add more recipes.
The second book would be one of my several editions of The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer. Why? Because it has classic American/European recipes for pretty much everything, and I know how to personalise, update, or put a riff on recipes, so a basic guide is all I might need.
To pick the third, I went and looked at my shelves of cookbooks. How could I choose from among all of the world’s cuisines, even from among the regions of the USA? But I have an intimate connection to the cookbooks that I have professionally tested, because I have personally cooked and edited each of the recipes in them, and I remember these recipes the way a teacher remembers her students from way back when. So for my third book, I choose The Bryant Family Vineyard Cookbook by Barbara Bryant and Betsy Fentress. The recipes were collected from chefs and while many are fairly simple to prepare, each is distinguished by the elegance and personality of the contributor.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
When I really like a book I often re-read it. A few favorites are Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (this memoir got me through writing my own cookbook one recipe at a time, when it seemed an impossible task), The Feast by Margaret Kennedy (this gem of a novel from 1950 is about what happens when the incarnations of the seven deadly sins come together under one roof, and there is indeed a feast that plays a big role in the book), and Table of Contents by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp (an interesting anthology of food writing and recipes from novelists, poets, and essayists).
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
There is an extraordinary novel called A Dream In Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu, that I recommend whenever I have a chance. It is set in the Arctic and is about a badly injured white man who is stranded with a native tribe, and the astonishing, sometimes desperate, and ultimately wonderful life he leads there. The ethnic information and vocabulary are accurate and explained with easy-to-read footnotes.
If you weren’t in food, what do you think you’d be doing?
I started out as an archaeologist and came close to switching to palaeontology and moving to Africa in search of adventure. But I met the man I eventually married (a book publisher and novelist) so stayed in the USA. I sometimes think that law enforcement might have been a good field for me (I like to tell people what to do), or meteorology (I really like clouds), or possibly photography (I like to take photos of clouds)
What’s your favourite genre of book?
Memoir, especially about places I have never been and where I don’t want to go. I hate being cold and love memoirs set in frozen wastelands. The hot desert too. I wouldn’t want to go but love reading about it.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
Without the written word? As long as there are tales to be told — remember the end of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury? — the world could manage, but who would want to be without books in one form or another?
Many authors! My latest favourite has been Ellen Meloy. I read her memoir The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit, a gift from my husband, and I was enraptured. And broken-hearted when I learned that she is no longer living. However, I have been reading through all of her books and when I am finished will start over again. My husband is a novelist and I have read everything he has written to date; my favourite is his latest work The Last Day.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
Honestly, yes. I love real books. In our home, we have thousands of all kinds. But they are heavy, take up space, collect dust, are susceptible to rot and moisture and insects, are a fire hazard. And I appreciate a backlit page with adjustable print. I expect that digital books will continue to improve and give us gorgeous illustrations, music, accompanying links and videos if we want them. I can easily see a future where “real” books become quite rare and not for general use.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
A book that will show each reader how it feels to be the stranger, the other person. That’s what books do, but so far there is no one magic book that will do this for every person who reads it.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and the rest of the series had a tremendous impact on me when I was a young girl. It made me feel that it was okay, and even honourable and desirable, to dream wildly, embrace nature, love ecstatically, to be romantic and passionate and creative without worrying about being thought silly or stupid.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
One of my favourite food writers is Leslie Forbes, who, sadly, passed away last year. Her book Remarkable Feasts: Adventures on the Food Trail from Baton Rouge to Old Peking is the one I pick up when I want a quick read over a solitary lunch. The chapters are lunch-time long, tales of her travels that are as satisfying as a good meal.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I plan to read more about writing and will start with How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I have in mind to write a series of essays, and I have the perfect title. It was something I overheard a child say and I immediately thought it described how I often feel about the world. But I’m not going to tell you what it is.
If you’d like to learn more about Denise Landis, you can find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter.
Image Credit: Eva Baughman