Food Chat: Interview with Author Laura Kalpakian

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“You take what’s on hand and apply to that a little imagination, a sense of timing, to make those ingredients yield what you want.”

by Tamara Kaye Sellman

Laura Kalpakian has received a National Endowment of the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and the first Anahid Literary Award for an American Writer of Armenian descent. Her novels include American Cookery, Steps and Exes, Graced Land, Caveat, and These Latter Days. Her short fiction has been gathered in three collections, including Fair Augusto, which won the PEN/West Award for Best Short Fiction.

Kalon Kitchen: In American Cookery you include a lot of recipes that I suspect are original family favorites. Where (or from whom) did you acquire these recipes? If readers were to make them, would they succeed?

Laura Kalpakian: They are family recipes, created, tested, tinkered with, and enjoyed in my own kitchen amid the flurry and upheaval of everyday life. I chose them very carefully. I wanted them to reflect the span of seasons and the span of possibilities, from unique desserts to finger food. I wanted them to reflect different cultural and geographical areas, like the Famous All the Way to Memphis Barbecue Sauce from the Arkansas cook, to the Copper River salmon recipe from the Northwest. Then too, I chose recipes that did not require exotic ingredients, exquisite techniques, or expensive equipment. Lastly, I wanted them to reflect the novel’s title and fundamental thematic: they should come from a variety of traditions, each altered by that family’s or individual’s experience. The taste of “home” is a powerful connector to the past, and in that regard, going into the kitchen, you actually can recreate the past. However, there were some foods, like “Emotional Cornbread,” central and pervasive in the novel, but which have no recipe. A taste, texture, aroma that potent in memory (and the novel) would be diminished by a recipe.

There were literary considerations in my choices, too. Clearly, each recipe had to reflect on the character who appears in that chapter. With that in mind, at least one, Kitty’s Resurrection Pie, is meant to tell the reader about Kitty, not to be tried in the kitchen! However, for all the others, yes, they’re meant to be undertaken. American Cookery is an ambitious novel, not to be merely read, but to be experienced. Nothing would make me happier than to know that the reader took it into the kitchen, that the book was splattered, and battered. The recipes are written in a casual, colloquial fashion, as your old Auntie might jot it down for you, so there’s leeway for the reader’s, the cook’s own improvisations.

KK: Why were you attracted to the subject of food for this novel?

LK: Because everybody has to eat! The novel takes the old adage, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are,” as an epigram. Food sustains the body, but it also sustains the imagination and the culture and the family and creates a set of values that are hard to shake off as one grows up, grows older. I believe—and the novel echoes the notion—that living and cooking are very much analogous. In each you take what you have on hand (your circumstances, your ingredients so to speak) and fashion it, as best you can, into what you want. Inevitably, there are compromises. Not everything turns out as one hopes. But the effort is daily and ongoing. A process.

KK: If you could celebrate one thing that best epitomizes American food culture, what would it be?

LK: I would celebrate that there is no one thing that best epitomizes American food culture. Authentic in America ought to be plural: authenticities abound. I like to watch the ways in which recipes come to belong to the person who makes them. Passed on to another, she will make her own adjustments and it will belong to her. That too is process. I prefer process to product.

Bio: Tamara Kaye Sellman is a creative writing coach and developmental editor living in Bainbridge Island, WA. She writes the blog, BuzzFood: Feed The Obsession (http://buzzfood.blogspot.com

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