Cassie Richards reviews an event featuring Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Festival on Saturday, 10 March.
It was nearing lunchtime as an eager audience gathered in the Michael Fowler Centre’s Renouf foyer to hear Californian chef Samin Nosrat in conversation with Marianne Elliott. It’s just as well, because more than a few of us were going to leave the session with an urgent hunger after hearing Samin talking about her wonderful, illuminating book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and her culinary journeys. A blend of food writing and cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is Samin’s gift to all of us who wonder how we can get our food to taste like it does in the restaurants – and even experienced cooks are sure to learn a thing or two. As it turns out, the secret to excellent cooking lies in four basic elements that Samin is confident we can all master.
Marianne is a great choice to interview Samin, and her questions throughout the session are thoughtful and engaging. As well as having practiced as a human rights lawyer, writing and teaching yoga, she is also one of the people behind Miramar’s La Boca Loca restaurant, which serves organic Mexican cuisine.
After introducing her, Marianne asks Samin to begin with a reading from the book, so that we can all hear her beautiful prose (fortuitously, she was a literature student before she was a chef). I don’t think this is merely food writing – what Samin has written is a delicious literary degustation on not only how to cook well, but how to cook with presence of mind, with passion and with love. ‘Sometimes I’m just helping you know what you know,’ she said – intuition is a large part of her ethos, as well as plenty of tasting.
Samin crackles with vivacious energy as she speaks, and her laugh is infectious in all the right ways. This is a person who has truly found her calling in life. Mine can’t be the only stomach in the audience rumbling as she describes the feta and cucumber sandwiches her mother would feed her as a child at the beach, perfectly sating her hunger after a swim in the Pacific Ocean, or her ‘conveyor belt chicken’, so named because a husband of a friend said he wished he had a conveyor belt of it to his mouth.
Samin describes for us her first visit to a ‘fancy restaurant’, which she and her boyfriend saved up for over several months. The place they chose was Chez Panisse in San Francisco, owned by Alice Waters. Samin describes Chez Panisse as a ‘museum of the senses’. Fine dining was a foreign concept to her, and she hadn’t known eating in a restaurant could be like that – the lighting just right, the smell of the room just right, the waitstaff anticipating your needs before you even knew yourself what they were. The experience was a total epiphany for her, and soon afterwards she applied for and got a front-of-house job at Chez Panisse.
As honoured as she felt to be allowed to vacuum the dining room of such an establishment (which had been named the top restaurant in the country), it wasn’t long before she was pestering the chefs to let her volunteer in the kitchen. Soon she was assisting in food prep, and drinking in every moment. It was here that she first observed the things that would go on to bring her to this room today.
She recounts the patterns that she started to see – meat being salted at certain times before cooking, different fats used for cooking different things, various acids being added to ‘brighten’ a dish, the way the chefs intuitively knew at which temperature to cook something to perfection. When she pointed out these things, the chefs acted as if she was stating the obvious, but ‘I knew I was seeing something that was not being reflected in cookbooks,’ she said.
Of course, it was a long road to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat being published, and initially she didn’t think it was a book she would be able to write. Her love for food took her cooking all over the world in the intervening years, and eventually back to San Francisco. After meeting Michael Pollan through his food journalism course, she began to teach him how to cook, and he encouraged her to turn her concept into a class and teach it before trying to write a book. She did just that, teaching a four-part course for four years. Initially, recipes weren’t going to be a part of the book, because one of her aims was to encourage improvisation, but her students were always asking for them.
Two more years were spent writing the book proposal, and the book was rewritten four times as she found her way to her voice. Along the way, she recruited a favourite illustrator, Wendy McNaughton, to provide the pictorial accompaniments – she knew that the book and its message didn’t work with too-perfect food photography. Samin described her collaboration with Wendy, who she taught how to cook so she could understand the book, and Wendy in turn helped her to simplify and refine her ideas. The resulting illustrations are fantastic and helpful, and make the book even more special.
After some audience questions, including if she had considered adding a section on sugar to the book (‘I already had salt and fat, which are totally reviled,’ she quipped), we left feeling invigorated by Samin’s energy and passion, and definitely ready for lunch. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a joy to read and learn from, and I know I’ll have my copy around for a long time.
Reviewed by Cassie Richards on behalf of Booksellers NZ.
Tara Black drew this and Sarah Forster wrote out some of her notes. Image, as always, copyright Tara Black.
Both women are masters of metaphor, and this forms the centre of part of their discussion. Hera names Mark Leidner and Chelsea Minnis as who she learned the art of dramatic metaphor from. She notes that ‘Tricia’s book was so good that you swear at each page, because you didn’t write it, and you finish off the book feeling less of a person.’ Patricia says, she loves Hera’s ‘permeability to modern culture.’
Each has had a poem go viral, and both loved the experience. They note later that they are both half-internet, with Patricia noting her early poetry experiences were formed by ‘Poetry Boards’ on the internet. Oddly, I remember these as somewhere I published my tragic teenage poetry when nobody understood me. LOL.
Another theme of the discussion was humour. Both are great humourists, and chair Charlotte Graham-McLay delved into this a little with them. Patricia was formed by Jack Andy’s Deep Thoughts, The Far Side – the modern internet humour starters as she saw them. Each agree humour is harder than it looks, but Hera notes that one of her favourite things about the internet is that you can throw a joke out there and guarantee a good percentage will get it, while 20% will be confused and take offense.
I’d highly recommend going to Patricia Lockwood’s session tomorrow. They touched lightly on themes in her memoir – as she begins the book, she sets up her family and gives her audience the understanding that they had to develop a carapace of humour to survive the strength of her dad’s personality.
I think it was Patricia who noted that linguistics in the internet age are exciting and funny. Certain punctuation is hilarious, and the ‘mum texts’ you see online are always funny – a fullstop can feel like a punch.
Patricia and Hera both struggled a little with needing now to be so close to their readers, but each of them has a different emailing audience. Hera attracts 55 year old men with Sigur Ros t-shirts, and 16-year-old girls; while Patricia usually attracts 22 year old boys that weigh 90lbs.
I’ve never laughed so much at a writer’s festival session, and rarely during a stand-up comedy session. You can catch both of them again tomorrow!
You can still catch Hera Lindsay Bird in action at Poetry International, 4.15pm, Sunday 11 March.
And Patricia Lockwood has her solo session Patricia Lockwood: Midwest Memoir at 1.15pm, Sunday 11 March.
Tara Black reviewed the Outer Space Saloon Salon.
You can see Ian Tregillis at Ian Tregillis: Robots, Faith and Free Will on Sunday, 11 March at 10.00am.
You can see Harry Giles at Harry Giles: Poetry on Sunday, 11 March at 11.30am.
You can catch Courtney Sina Meredith in Poetry International on Sunday, 11 March at 4.15pm.
This is a review of Nick Earls: High Five, which was a discussion between Nick Earls and Elizabeth Heritage at 5.45pm, Friday 9 March at the NZ Festival Wellington Writers & Readers Festival.
We are here to discuss Nick’s five Wisdom Tree books, which I haven’t yet read – though I bought Gotham soon after the session.
When he submitted his last novel to his publisher Penguin Random House in 2013, he realised that the next 5 ideas that excited him most were 20,000 word stories, each about Australians visiting countries overseas. Of course, most publishers won’t touch them – they will collect short stories, but not novellas. So he had to design a bandwagon so he could get his novellas published. So he did, a PhD into whether novellas are the future of reading and an economically viable way to publish content: the answer, he has proven with his set of novellas, is yes. The novellas were set simultaneously as e-books, print editions and audio books. Nick appears not to do things by halves!
Elizabeth was a good chair, and the two had a rapport throughout the session. One of her first questions was about how he chose the places for his protagonists to go. Nick says, ‘I wanted to push them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes there were obvious choices, but sometimes I got to be quite creative.’
Many of Nick’s stories have an element of fictionalised reality in them – something Elizabeth came back to with him later in the session. He told us the story of his mysteriously lost ‘great great uncle’ who came to Australia from Ireland in the 1890s. It was a story of bad mental health and misconception caused by psychosis: and the more he researched, the more he realised he wasn’t the only one with this type of story. This formed the central story of Juneau, which was about a father & son seeking a long-lost relative who disappeared during the gold-mining era in the 1890s.
On the topic on another of the novellas, Vancouver, he talked about modern research. The book opens with the character flying from Calgary to Vancouver to meet a long-lost friend who had to be in a university for the plot to work. He found a place that was right for this, then to set his scene accurately, he used Google street view and virtually drove the streets three days in a row.
‘I have taken moments or ideas and watched things come together as they didn’t in the real world. Then I make the most of it.’
This came through in Gotham as well, which is based in New York. He spoke of having to choose his protagonist without appropriation of other lives – this is about an 19-year-old African-American rapper from Brooklyn, which he knew he couldn’t write as. But a 40-year-old rock journo: yes. In this story he wove a family, a four-year-old with the freshness of view of the young, seeing things and realising they are real – a four-year-old who needs to be a superhero for some reason.
‘You bang two narratives together and a narrative happens.’
Nick can relate to being an outsider, which each of his novellas deal with. He emigrated to Brisbane from Ireland, when he was 8. He spent a lot of time in the library – until he could work out a way to speak in an Australian accent. Having been an outsider gives him an excellent perspective of learning from observation. Relating to other cultural voices ‘This makes you to consider whether it is really your place to do that .’
Another interesting point Nick made was that life doesn’t always place you where the action is, but the actions still have consequences – ‘fiction isn’t like the news’. Some things are better observed by the character.
We moved on here to his fifth novella, NoHo. In this, the teller of this story is the brother of the person who wants to be a child star so badly that she made her family upend their lives to get her there. ‘I chose him because I wanted a naive and less judgemental pair of eyes. He is an observer. And he has his own life too.’
Elizabeth noted the intertwined short fiction collection is one of her least favourite forms, but these novellas gave her the buzz of recognition of seeing relationships, without being totally intertwined. Nick seemed happy with this – he wants to make people feel clever.
We then moved into a phase of the discussion that I did my best to keep up with. The question was how he managed three different types of publishing at once.
Nick has done his PhD on just this: to begin with, he looked into how people are reading.
I didn’t realise that the first commercial ebook was Steven King’s novella Riding the Bullet, distributed as a PDF on a computer. There has been a lot of change, beginning in 2007, when the Kindle emerged and ebooks surged – ebooks increased 1270% over three years to 2010. ‘The publishing industry panicked, then focussed so hard on ebooks that they don’t notice the rise of audiobooks.’
Nick noted that the early adopters of ebooks were people who read a whole lot, and they were avid readers of romance, crime and fantasy, meaning the Kindle store was dominated by these genres.
Looking into the change in reading habits, he thought there’s a pitch to made here. The thing with reading novels on ebook – you forget who everybody is by the end of the book. A novella is easy to devote your attention to. It gives you something the short story can’t – you read it in an evening. It’s a better fit with our lives.
At the time Nick wanted to approach audio books too, Audible had worked out they had a revolution on their hands: podcasting was getting longer, and novella sized material was what they were looking for. At the time Nick was pitching to them, they were working on channels in the US. So he figured he’d try something else and said to them ‘why don’t we cast it like an Aussie drama series’ – they said yes, and the marketing for the series used the voices of these actors as a hook.
Nick noted that far from cannibalising his paper book sales, the audio and e-books pushed it – there more synergy than we think across the markets, thanks to reader / listener recommendation pushing the novella through into other formats.
Nick’s had three test for the connections between his novellas: 1. Does it make the work better? 2. Does it not make the work worse? 3. Does it avoid being cheesy?
He is excited about this work and the scope of it into the future. The 20,000 word novel is the largest thing you can hold in your head in one go. He says, ‘I like being able to deal with that intricacy while still having that string in my head.’
I am a brand new fan of Nick Earls’ work and look forward to exploring more of it in the future.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Booksellers NZ.