The Gannet Q&A

Emily Nunn

6th February 2018

Interview: Megan Honan
Photograph: Dot Griffith

Emily Nunn is a journalist, author and home-cooking evangelist living in Todd, North Carolina. Born in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains, she worked for almost a decade at the New Yorker, where she was an arts editor covering both theatre and restaurants (she created Tables for Two, the magazine’s restaurant column), and as an award-winning features reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Her first book, The Comfort Food Diaries, was published in October. She continues to freelance for both arts and food publications.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

Dinner at the incredible café Cal Pep, in Barcelona, back in 2010. In my book I describe a scene from my only trip to Spain, with my ex-fiancé. I’d just found out my brother had died by suicide, and yet the very next night I was standing in line at Cal Pep as if nothing had happened. Before the restaurant had opened its doors, though, I fell over in an incredibly goofy way, like Jerry Lewis, and broke my wrist. I won’t go into it here, but this night still shames me deeply. After we’d eaten a few bites of our gorgeous food, I was in so much pain I admitted that I needed to go to the hospital to have my arm set. The incident seemed really significant to me back then, and it still does: it was the moment when my whole life suddenly seemed like a lie and broke apart and scattered like balls of mercury. Because of my horribly messy grief, in the days and months that followed quite a few people very close to me would leave me behind, which altered my life considerably. It seems odd to want to revisit such a place, but I do. I want a second chance to do it right. What I mean is that rather than trying to pretend nothing had happened, and rather than trying to grieve in a tidier, more socially acceptable way, this time I would go to Cal Pep with the people in my life who truly loved me. People who had my back, people who understood the pain of surviving a sibling’s suicide. And we would all share a beautiful meal, mourn my brother, and celebrate the precariously beautiful ridiculous gift of being alive.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

Definitely Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Not because Italian food is my favourite cuisine, although I love it. But because Hazan seemed to be supernaturally intimate with every facet of her ingredients, able to coax them into asserting their most vibrant personalities. And she made this feat seem effortless, although of course it wasn’t. (I joke that my favorite Marcella recipe is waving garlic over a tomato.) And she did it long before professional cooks began fetishising the kinds of hard-to-get or expensive ingredients that tended to eject the average home cook. One great example is her red and yellow bell pepper sauce with sausage on pappardelle, which I include in my book: you have to peel the peppers – just plain old yellow and red peppers from the grocery store – and it’s a transformative technique that renders them buttery and sweet in the pan; without it, the dish verges on average.

 

What’s your biggest food or drink aversion?

I’m sober, so my biggest drink aversion is alcohol – it turns me into a giant weirdo, a drunk, nonsensical cartoon mouse. My biggest food aversion is probably seared foie gras. I don’t mind admitting that the first time I had a giant seared slice delivered to my table – which was not until I moved to New York in my 20s – I felt a kind of judgmental revulsion completely new to me. I liked my first bite – of course it was delicious! But the relish with which my date consumed it, as if he were eating a block of 18-carat-gold pudding, or a stack of money, made my skin crawl. I now associate it with a fading archetype: the Lieblingesque red-faced, overindulged gourmand (aka the glutton) who subsists on only the richest foods. Besides, there are so many other exquisitely delicious things to eat in this world that are not ethically loaded and disturbing.

Describe your perfect breakfast.

Lately, I don’t really eat breakfast, and don’t lecture me, please. Most of the things that Americans eat in the morning strike me as inappropriate for my stunned state of mind in the early hours: giant honeybuns or doughnuts, a mocha latte with whipped cream and caramel drizzled all over. Good lord. I do like a big Southern American country breakfast, but I want it for dinner: eggs and bacon and biscuits and fried apples. That said: my perfect breakfast, the one I would definitely eat every single day if I could get it, is traditional Japanese breakfast. It usually consists of a piece of broiled fish, some miso soup, rice, nori, a little Japanese style omelette and pickles (including umeboshi, the salty picked plums, which I love). I became hooked while living in NYC and covering restaurants for the New Yorker. Once I moved to Chicago to work for the Tribune, it was hard to find any real Japanese restaurants serving it. But I managed to locate a couple of fancy hotels with regular Japanese clientele. It was way too expensive, but it hit the spot: pow!

I like to hear the sounds of cooking. Everything about it; the splashing spigot, the clanking, the sizzling, the chopping, the opening and closing of cabinets and refrigerator

Of all the restaurants in the world, which makes you happiest, and why?

The Dairy Bar, in my hometown [Galax, Virginia]. It’s a tiny drive-in restaurant, which means curb service. A teenager usually comes out to your car to take your order, or you can eat inside at one of the 4-5 tables or on the deck with a view of the fairgrounds and factories. When I was growing up, there were very few real sit-down restaurants, but we had three drive-ins. I always preferred The Dairy Bar, which was, and still is, all about burgers and chili-slawdogs and onion rings and shakes. It’s where our parents took us as little kids, loaded up in the back of our station wagon during the hot summer for chocolate dipped cones, banana splits and lime flips, which were milkshakes made with sherbet rather than ice cream. And it’s where we drove ourselves on weekends, once we were teenagers, to drink cherry cokes and eat crinkle-cut fries dipped in ketchup. We’d listen to the radio for hours, before riding up and down Main Street, American Graffiti style, to look at other teenagers doing the same thing. And now that we’ve all grown up and moved away, it has become the place we return to out of nostalgia, with our friends, spouses and out of town visitors, hoping it will mean as much to them as it always has to us. It doesn’t, but the food is exactly what we want because it never changes. When you order a cheeseburger it automatically comes with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, which is how I’ve ordered it my entire life, since I was a very small kid. But I’ll occasionally ask for coleslaw and tomato instead.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

I don’t listen to music. I like to hear the sounds of cooking. Everything about it; the splashing spigot, the clanking, the sizzling, the chopping, the opening and closing of cabinets and refrigerator. I just love it.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

Until something wholly more wonderful comes along, my favorite movie food scene will remain the iconic final minutes in Big Night, in which two Italian brothers try to make a go of running an authentic Italian restaurant in 1950s red-sauce America – with integrity. I was so struck by this scene back when the movie came out in 1996: they gamble everything on a single stupendous dinner party meant to save the restaurant from the bank. It doesn’t quite work out for them. The life-altering disappointment they’re faced with seems less awful the next morning, as one brother (the manager, who has tried to let his discriminating chef sibling continue cooking like an artist rather than a crowd-pleaser, even though they are going under) arrives, hungover, to find his busboy asleep on the chopping block. He begins to fix eggs for breakfast. While he’s quietly whisking, then moving the eggs around in the pan over a flame, the busboy tears some bread, the chef arrives, poleaxed from the event, and they share their simple breakfast – in complete silence; no one tries to console the other, or makes a plan to fix things, or worries or blames. No one speaks. They just cook and eat, which of course means that they know, no matter what, they’ll continue. It is completely heartbreaking, but also comforting. It reminds me of the final scene of Waiting for Godot; we’re all waiting for the spectacular, the savior. It’s probably not coming. But the sign that we’ll go on: we keep going on, we cook.

Tell us about a dish you make when you’re short on time.

Lemon butter pasta, which is from a 1986 thrift-store cookbook someone sent me as a present after I got my book contract. You break some thin spaghetti in half, then toss it into a pan with some hot melted butter, pour in chicken broth and sprinkle on some freshly ground black pepper; bring it to a boil, turn it way down and let it simmer until the broth is absorbed and the pasta is al dente. Then you finish it with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice per serving – and more pepper if you want it. The whole thing takes about 20 minutes and it is absolutely dreamy.

If you could drink only one thing, aside from water, what would it be?

Coffee. I love it so much that sometimes, late at night, I become excited about the magical coffee-making process that awaits me the next morning, which seems very far away. Living here in America, where tea is not an important cultural ritual, I don’t understand people who drink only tea in the morning. What is wrong with them? Did someone give them bad coffee as children? Are they trying to get attention with their little silver tea-balls and assorted boxes and bags? I have a hard time relating to them. But coffeeeeee! Some of my fondest memories in life, particularly of traveling abroad, are coffee scented: waking up in Santa Fruttuoso on my first trip to Italy, I couldn’t believe how elementally different the scent of their coffee was. It had wandered like a living animal from the dining room downstairs and into our room. It made coffee new to me again. I have very few unhappy coffee memories. Also: I once had a nightmare in which the only thing that happened was I made bad coffee. That was the whole dream and I remember it perfectly: I was using the paper cone method. Now I use an Italian espresso maker.

I once had a nightmare in which the only thing that happened was I made bad coffee

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Shrimp cocktail! It was my gateway seafood, which led directly to my love of lobster, oysters, clams, scallops, squid, octopus and almost any fresh fish. I grew up landlocked in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia so seafood was completely exotic to me – although we did have fried clams at Howard Johnson (which I loved, because: tartar sauce). And I’m pretty sure my first shrimp cocktail was the now sadly defunct Sau-Sea Shrimp Cocktail, which my mother bought at the grocery store. They came frozen in packs of four reusable glasses, embossed with a nautical ship’s wheel and sealed with disposable metal tops. Each one had about eight small shrimp floating in sauce. Were they fresh? No. Were they heaven to me? Yes. The company is still around, but they only make seafood-related condiments. Anyway, I later graduated to almost any variation I could get my hand on, as long as there was lots of horseradish-laden cocktail sauce; it’s easy to find me at certain fancy parties because I stake a claim near the fresh shrimp on ice.

Who is your food hero?

The late novelist and short story writer Laurie Colwin, who, of course, also wrote a food column for the now defunct Gourmet magazine (my other food hero). She made me – and a lot of other food writers – realise that not all of us who care about cooking were meant to be full of competitive swagger. Some of us write about food and cook and develop recipes because it makes us so happy. And she did it at a moment when food was just on its way to becoming less about inclusiveness and sharing and more about celebrity and exclusiveness. Home cooking is just as noble and often as, or more, delicious than restaurant fare. Of course, it’s silly to compare the two.

What’s your greatest talent in the kitchen?

Picking recipes. I think I have a knack for recognising the good ones. This may or may not be true.

What’s the best thing you cooked at home in the last month?

Spoonbread. It’s a Southern side dish, whose best version I thought I distinctly remembered from a childhood trip to a famous Virginia hotel. I prepared the hotel’s recipe a couple of times and it turned out really good exactly once. My plan had been to include it in my book, but about six months before we went to press, after testing and retesting it and even having my food friends test it, I finally gave up and created my own version, which more than lived up to my memories of the dish I had as a kid. Actually, it was better than the original, a fact that I now see as a sort of tremendous metaphor for the way I’ve been trying to live my real life in relation to my occasionally faulty memories of my Southern upbringing. Anyway, spoonbread is something the British need to get on board with: it’s like a very dense cornbread soufflé and you can play around with it: add cheese, jalapenos, chives, etc.

What ingredient or food product are you currently obsessed with?

Better than Boullion, made in Rome, Georgia – a potent little jar of joy that I highly recommend for busy home cooks who haven’t been freezing their own stock and/or don’t like that stuff in the box. It comes in chicken, beef, vegetable – and an organic version. I use the chicken version all the time, including in the concoction I mention here as “the dish you make when you’re short on time”. Its first ingredient on the nutritional panel is roasted chicken meat with natural juices. You stir a teaspoon of it into 8 ounces of hot water for an equivalent amount of boullion. It’s a bit salty, so I never salt anything I use it with. It has more true chicken flavour than canned or boxed stock or broth.

After a couple of years cooking for myself, dining out in a real restaurant seems like the most exquisite luxury in the world. A pizza joint. A hot-dog stand. It doesn’t have to be fancy

Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

My lemon reamer. I put lemon in a lot of dishes to freshen/brighten them up or balance them out. But I also drink the juice in seltzer all day long and make a lot of things that feature lemon in a big way, such as my Aunt Mariah’s lemon sponge cups. Mine is wooden, but I’ve used it so much it’s starting to splinter. I just gave a heavy, bright yellow plastic Farberware reamer to my cousin as a present. I’m not sure she understood the magnitude of what she’d received.

Describe the thing that most annoys you as a customer in a restaurant.

For some reason, having a waiter ask me how my food tastes drives me insane. Waiters in the United States actually pop by your table once you’ve started eating and say: “How’s that tasting?” It bothers me for a couple of reasons: first, it seems so personal, overly intimate. (What? Who needs to know? What size is your underwear, buddy?) And second: do you really want to know? It doesn’t seem like it, because you flounce away almost immediately after asking the question. I often wonder what would happen if I actually started describing to a waiter exactly how my food was tasting, in great detail. But I’m too nice. I just say: “good”, and then after they walk away and I am sure they can no longer see me, I roll my eyes so hard that I almost fall out of my chair.

What food trend really gets on your nerves?

I’ve barely noticed them, having been off the grid while writing my book, but I have noticed the rise of a sort of foodie cliquishness. It seems unnecessary and flies in the face of what seems to be one of the most inclusive and loving thing humans do: cook and eat together.

What’s your favourite food and drink pairing?

Coffee and a cigarette. (Fortunately I stopped smoking many years ago.)

What’s your biggest food extravagance?

Lately, just about anything not made by Emily Nunn feels extravagant. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been living in a barn set down in dairy farmland in the middle of nowhere where restaurants are non-existent. I was on a very strict budget (a.k.a. flat broke). Even when I wasn’t testing recipes, most everything else I ate, I made myself with ingredients from a so-so grocery store 20 minutes away or local gardens and farm stands (with amazing tomatoes and blackberries in the summer – winter was a little depressing). I’m a pretty good cook, so I ate well, but now for me dining out in a real restaurant seems like the most exquisite luxury in the world, almost miraculous. A pizza joint. A hot-dog stand. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Going to a French bakery in NYC recently felt like a dream: Oh, my god: this perfect croissant.

The Comfort Food Diaries is published by Atria/Simon & Schuster

Follow Emily: Twitter | Instagram

Posted 6th February 2018

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Interview: Megan Honan
Photograph: Dot Griffith

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