Photo credit: Erin Scott
Describe your latest book.
My most recent book, In My Kitchen
, is a collection of 100 recipes — some old favorites, some new ones, but all appropriate for today’s tastes and ingredients. Some are trusted favorites that are vastly simplified by the use of today’s new ingredients while others are just as good as they were originally and so they stay that way. Still other recipes are actually very new. Regardless of where they fit into my culinary life, all have a lengthy narrative section that, in many cases, gives a recipe’s backstory. For example, the reason we used black beans in the chili at Greens is that they were the most exotic beans we had then, in 1979. Today I prefer Rio Zape beans (among the many good heirloom varieties that are now easily available), and the recipe is written for them. Or take a lovely breakfast bread with rosemary and lemon that once relied on yeast and a long rise. Now it is made into a quick bread, which can, incidentally, be made the morning you want to eat it, and with olive oil or butter.
I really love these recipes and I truly cook them often.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I had so many books that I loved — I had all the classics plus some that I always look for in antique bookstores in hopes of finding them again. I loved Winnie the Pooh
, which I still have and treasure, and Now We Are Six
. Of course, my taste in books changed as I got older. I had my first cookbook, a French one, when I was 16. I no longer recall the name — it wasn’t famous — but I often wish I still had it.
When did you know you were a writer?
When I wanted to drop out of high school and run away to San Francisco to write! But I didn’t really find out until I wrote my first cookbook and realized that I liked writing.
What does your writing workspace look like?
In my office the south wall is all windows and they look onto my herb garden, a ramada, and espaliered apple trees. On two walls I have enormous bookcases — one is filled with cookbooks, the other with books on farms, gardens, and botany as well as some cookbooks. The last wall is covered with paintings done by my husband, Patrick McFarlin. They are mostly from our book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone
, but I also have two wonderful works by William T. Wiley and others. My collection changes often.
A long, old teak table serves as my desk and it is often covered with papers that I shuffle through and try to organize about once a month.
I stand up at my computer to work. There are big stone-filled pits by the south-facing windows for plants so that I can water them without worrying about getting the floor and rug wet.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I care deeply about our food, how it is grown, where it comes from, about GMOs and pesticides and post-harvest chemicals and all of the political stuff that goes with food. I’m always shocked when I find these topics don’t even come up among our politicians, and ours are better than most!
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
One reader wrote to me because she wanted to know if she could freeze lasagna. It was after that request that her story unfolded. She told me about having a potluck following the Bat Mitzvah of her daughter (which is why she wanted to freeze the lasagna). This had never been done at her Los Angeles temple, and it was met with a lot of skepticism. But it turned out that the potluck was a great success because it really was about community, and my correspondent said she learned an important lesson: the necessity of being gracious and saying thank you, and meaning it, no matter what was brought to the table. She also inspired others to host a community potluck on behalf of their children's Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I made ravioli recently and my pasta was a disaster! I realized I’m out of practice. Since I’ve written about it and used to make my own pasta, I assumed I should still be able to do it, but this did remind me if you don’t do something often, you do lose the skill. I’m happy to report that my pasta skills have improved vastly since that recent attempt.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
As a food writer, there are many classics that I wish young chefs would read today, such as books by Elizabeth David
, Richard Olney
, Roy Andries de Groot
, and Edna Lewis
. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I would also suggest books by Gary Nabhan about food and culture, starting with his book on Nikolai Vavilov (Where Our Food Comes From
), which I think is his most important book.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I’m not a born collector, but I do confess to having many sets of dishes that I love using. They are mostly old French, Italian, and Mexican sets. Some are very minimal; others are highly decorated folk art pieces. I use them all, though not all at once.
I also seem to have a weakness for fabrics. I didn’t know that until I realized my chest will no longer close because it’s filled with Saltillo blankets, serapes, shawls, old German linen bedspreads, and the like.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
My only retail job ever was selling koi at the Japanese Cultural Center in San Francisco in 1970. That was very strange for me, and mostly boring. But I also had many peculiar summer jobs at UC Davis: looking for a particular enzyme to use in wine making (in the enology department), testing food colors against flavors (in food science), counting the blood spots on egg yolks (poultry), and others of that ilk.
One of my most interesting jobs was doing research for a professor in city planning at UC Berkeley.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I just went to see the graveyard of Elizabeth Bowen
’s family in Ireland, and I’ve made a James Joyce
pilgrimage in Dublin. As for food pilgrimages, yes, I’ve visited many famous restaurants to see what they’re about, but I tend to be more interested in visiting farms, ranches, gardens, and farmers markets as well as farmers, gardeners, and ranchers, which I do often.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Getting something wrong.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
When people say “anxious” but mean “eager”!
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I sometimes watch the E! channel when my husband stays at his studio — that is once my Spanish-speaking brain stops working after trying to watch a telenovela. For a while The Fashion Police
was a regular guilty pleasure. I have to admit I’ve rather forgotten about it.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be the smartest person in the room.
Top Five Books
Only five? Not fifty? This is really hard! These are in addition to the books I already mentioned.
1. The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth
by Roy Andries de Groot
I love this book. It came out in 1973 and I’ve read it several times, most recently last year. It’s one of the earliest books by someone seeking out a restaurant. It really puts you in that dining room and that countryside and it makes you yearn for the food if not that kind of life. When rereading it, I also saw that it had inspired some of the desserts we made at Chez Panisse, as handed down by pastry chef Lindsey Shere.
2. Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back
by Ann Vileisis
This book saved my life, in a way. If you’re anything of a food activist, it’s pretty easy to feel discouraged and guilty. With his history of our long involvement with food corruption, I saw that the stream had been flowing for a long time and I had merely stepped into it at a certain point, which was, in some way, a relief. But it should speak to anyone who reads and eats, for it does go to the heart of the matter — the corruption of food and the need to bring it back to where it belongs.
3. The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World
by Andy Merrifield
I’ve always wanted to have a herd of donkeys, so I was probably inclined to love this book by a man who takes a long walk through the south of France with a donkey companion. Donkeys have much to teach us, and if you don’t have one of your own, you can learn a lot about these creatures through this wonderful book.
4. Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate
by Wendy Johnson
I have many books on gardens and gardening that I love, but this book is my hands-down favorite. Wendy Johnson knows her world deeply and well. She took 10 years to write this book — by hand, not on a computer — which gave her a lot of time to really mull subtle things over in her mind. The book has many lyrical moments as well as practical ones, and it is beautifully illustrated. "Dragon’s Gate" refers to Green Gulch Farm in Northern California where I lived when Wendy and her husband were starting the farm.
5. Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village
by Ronald Blythe
This is a new book in my library and one I find fascinating. It consists mainly of people in a rural English village talking about their lives and what they do. It was first published in 1969 and I find it astonishing how incredibly well spoken these non-celebrated villagers are. The book raises many questions. As the author says, “It is a strange journey through a familiar land.” I often wonder what a modern version of this would look like today.
÷ ÷ ÷
, the founding chef of San Francisco’s popular Greens restaurant, is the author of nine cookbooks, including The Greens Cookbook
, her first, and most recently, In My Kitchen
. The Savory Way
, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
, and Local Flavors
have all received James Beard Foundation Awards, and the first two were also named the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year by the IACP. A cooking teacher for two decades, a contributor to many magazines, and long involved in the local food and farming movement, Madison is the recipient of many other awards, including the MFK Fisher Mid-Career Award and the Flyaway Productions 10 Women Campaign Award. She lives in New Mexico with painter Patrick McFarlin.