Thanks for the Memories, Princeton Packet!
Twenty years ago I wrote my first journalistic piece ever: a modest recipe column for the Princeton Packet. As you’ll read, this propelled me on a career and lifestyle I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. But I believe that two decades is long enough for any one voice in any one place, so in the March 20 issue I said sayonara – and thanks for the memories. Here’s the transcript:
“Hard for me to believe, but I’ve been contributing food stories to this space for two decades now. My first column appeared in the Packet on April 11, 1995. It focused on recipes for Passover desserts, and I used as my source the folks behind what was then the Princeton Bakery in the Princeton Shopping Center. At least, that’s what memory tells me was the bakery’s name. A clipping of the story is lodged somewhere in the deepest recesses of my attic, to be unearthed the day I move out or they take me out feet first, so I can’t say for sure if that was the bakery’s official name. Nor can I recall the names of the owners, but I do have a clear memory of blithely showing up there to ask if they would share their best family recipes for Easter desserts. They summarily informed this so-called journalist that they were (and are, I imagine) Jewish. Oops.
That the Packet would give me – a good cook and erstwhile caterer, but not a journalist – the chance to try my hand at food writing is something I will always be grateful for. It changed the arc of my career path, eventually leading the way to full-time freelance food writing, restaurant critiquing, and even talk-radio hosting. Early on, I discovered that what the great Julia Child once said is a universal truth, to whit: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Over the years, I’ve been privileged to profile hundreds of wonderful home cooks, restaurant chefs, caterers, farmers, food artisans, shopkeepers, and cookbook writers from around the Princeton area.
Speaking of the inimitable Julia Child, it was because of my Packet work that I actually got to meet her. Around 1999 or 2000 I was trying to figure out if I should give up my then day job and, to help me decide, I signed up for a well-regarded food writers workshop. Ms. Child was one of the speakers, and she graciously talked to and posed for photos with the many attendees. (One of the main regrets of my life is that I was too insecure at the time to ask her to pose with me.) But because Princeton is a cultural locus, I did eventually get to interview national and international stars of the culinary scene, among them Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Tom Colicchio, Marcella Hazan, Pierre Herme, Rick Bayless, Mark Bittman, legendary New Jersey chef Craig Shelton, and two governors of our fair state.
Two celebrity encounters in particular stand out in my memory: Emeril Lagasse and Alice Waters. When Emeril came to MarketFair in 2003 for a book signing at Barnes & Noble, he agreed to sit down for a live, hour-long interview from the middle of the mall for my radio show, Dining Today with Pat Tanner. I was floored, first to think that he would be so generous and then, during our time together, to find that, contrary to his blustery “bam!” television persona, he is a thoughtful, kind, soft-spoken gentleman (a side of him that viewers of Top Chef have come to see as well).
As for Alice Waters, I marvel for two reasons when I think back on her visit to Princeton in 1997. She was in town to speak at an event of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ), and as part of that made a visit to the Waldorf School of Princeton, which even back then had (and still has) a biodynamic garden tended by students. Local and statewide press was invited to tag along. Only I showed up! That’s because, eighteen years ago, Ms. Waters was known primarily to foodies, for her groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, CA. Her then-nascent Edible Schoolyard program had yet to attract national attention, and school gardens in general were on nobody’s radar. The other reason I shake my head when I look back on that day, is that I was given sole and unlimited access to this national treasure and, rookie journalist that I was, I ran out of questions early on. What I wouldn’t give for a do-over!
Another story I wrote around that time provides perspective on how the national and local food scenes have changed for the better. In 1999 I had to virtually beg George Rude of Griggstown Quail Farm for an interview. That was because his quail, pheasant, and other game birds were sold wholesale, to restaurants and meat purveyors like D’Artagnan. The thought of publicity that would bring locals trampling all over his farm trying to buy a bird or two was not a welcome idea. These days, his farm not only has its own full-scale retail market, but its own chef and kitchen as well. And hardly a seasonal farmers market in the state doesn’t boast Griggstown as a vendor.
Without doubt, though, my very favorite stories turned the spotlight not on celebrities or food professionals, but on our area’s talented home cooks. My second column, after the debacle that was the Easter-make-that-Passover desserts, focused on Orthodox Lenten foods. For that, two women – now dear friends – laid out a virtual feast for me, including a recipe for fish with tahini sauce that I make to this day. That column set me on an unending search for Princeton cooks with interesting or little-known heritage cuisines. To name just a few: Moroccan Sephardic Seders, Persian New Year’s feasts, Ethiopian Passover, Filipino street food, Colombian arepas, and, just last month, Mauritian fish curry.
These stories reflect the reason I accepted the offer to write a recipe column in the first place. It wasn’t to meet celebrities (which I didn’t even fathom would be part of it), but rather to research and become familiar with foods and cuisines that I knew virtually nothing about. To quote another American food legend, James Beard: “When you cook, you never stop learning. That’s the fascination of it.” This column gave me a legitimate way to indulge, expand on, and share my fascination with cooking.
I discovered early on that, as others have noted, every food story is really a people story. Chronicling the lives behind the recipes – the stories of regular folk as well as chefs and food professionals – has been my honor and privilege. Many have become fast friends as well, including Faith Bahadurian, who shares this space with me. Jim Weaver, chef/owner of Tre Piani, rolls his eyes whenever I retell the story of, after profiling him shortly after he opened his Forrestal Village restaurant, I told friends that, while he seemed nice enough, he and I just didn’t seem to connect. A month after that interview, Jim called me to ask if I would be interested in helping form a local food group dedicated to espousing “the pleasures of the table.” We, and others, went on to form the Central New Jersey chapter of Slow Food in 1999, one of the very first in the U.S. Back then so few people had heard of this Italian-based movement that the most common question we got asked was about slow cookers. As with Alice Waters, few publications were interested in the movement. In no time, I had published more stories on Slow Food, and in more places, than any other U.S. journalist, for which I was invited as a guest to Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto in 2000 in Torino, Italy. It all started with this column!
In 1999 I was still researching and producing stories the old-fashioned way. If I needed to find out about, say, persimmons, I would have to go to my local library, riffle through the card catalog, and check out a book or two. (Or worse, I’d have to page through microfiche.) Then I’d type up my notes on my home computer, save them to a 5-1/4-inch floppy disk, and drop that disk on my editor’s desk at Packet headquarters on Witherspoon Street. And finding persimmons in Princeton back then? Fuggedaboudit.
It took me longer than it should have to realize that the columns readers responded to most were my most personal. It’s fair to say my friends would agree that I am a very private person, and for a long time I kept myself out of my columns. But three in particular that received the most feedback were personal reminiscences. One had as its opening sentence, “It’s a wonder I like blue crabs at all,” and went on to tell of scary (but funny) childhood episodes of crabbing with my father at the Jersey shore. Another recounted how I scrimped and saved up my childhood allowance and the requisite box tops so I could send away for my first ever cookbook: The Joys of Jell-O. And I foolishly put myself at the center of a report on the work being done at Rutgers University by Dr. Beverly Tepper of Rocky Hill about the science behind “super tasters.” Only after I agreed to publish the results of my taking her test which would determine if I was a super taster, a regular taster, or (heaven forbid!) a non-taster did I realize how bad the outcome could look. Happily, I turn out to be a super taster. (Not that there’s anything wrong with tasters or non-tasters).”
I ended the piece with gratitude to all my loyal readers. I hope they will follow my food-writing exploits as cataloged in this space – just as you are doing now!