Mystery House

An Interview with Deborah Madison

Deborah Madison first learned about good food and bountiful gardens while growing up on a walnut orchard.  Her passion for cooking led her to work at Chez Panisse, and later to open the Greens restaurant, which was one of the very first to to have a farm-driven menu.

Deborah MadisonPhoto courtesy of Gibbs Smith, Publisher

She has written nine cookbooks, and has received two Julia Child Cookbook of the Year awards and four — four! — James Beard awards.  In addition to writing books and contributing articles about cooking, farming and food to a long list of magazines (including Gourmet, Saveur, Bon Appetit and Fine Cooking), Deborah Madison serves on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, is involved with Slow Food, and is co-director of the Monte del Sol Edible Kitchen Garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  This is a woman who cares deeply about how and what we eat, and where our food comes from.

Deborah Madison’s new book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone, is a fresh, lively and compelling look at our relationship with food.  I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I absolutely adored it in a couldn’t-put-it-down-carry-it-around-the-house way.  It’s simply a great read.  Check out the trailer here to get the flavor of it.  (My thanks to Gibbs Smith, Publisher, for providing a review copy of the book.)

What-We-Eat-Cover-02Illustration by Patrick McFarlin, Image courtesy of Gibbs Smith, Publisher

I was so delighted with the book that I wanted to ask Deborah a few questions about it.  She graciously consented to take time out from her busy life in the beautiful high desert of New Mexico to chat with me (I’ll tell you a bit more about the book after you’ve had a chance to read what she has to say):

T: Deborah, as a chronically nosy person who’s always interested in what other people are eating, I loved your new book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone.  It’s a fun book, as engaging as a good novel, and a great reminder that human beings are quite idiosyncratic about food.  The casual question that your husband, Patrick McFarlin (who did the marvelous illustrations), asked of people you met on your travels — “What do you eat when you eat alone?” — led to some wonderful discoveries.  While gathering stories for the book, what was the most surprising thing you learned about people and food?

DM: What surprised me was how easily and often we dismiss ourselves as if we don’t matter.  People even say that — “If it’s just me, it doesn’t matter. It’s not worth it (to cook something for myself), “I’m not worth it!” — People would rather share a meal with someone they don’t even like that much than eat alone. We’re not always very good at keeping our own company.

Though not always.  The other surprising thing was how many people in fact did enjoy cooking for themselves, including men.  Especially men.  It was always so uplifting when someone described a meal they enjoyed by themseleves.

T: Writing about this subject had to be a bit like peeking into people’s closets.  Was anyone reluctant to answer the question?

DM: Oh, no!  People couldn’t wait to tell us what they eat when alone.  It got to be a bit much at times.

T: I was surprised at how many people go far beyond takeout, frozen pizza or cold cereal when they’re alone.  You’ve included recipes for tapenade, scallops, soups, stuffed flank steak…   Are there a lot of secret cooks out there?

DM: Definitely.  In fact, we talked to hundreds of people and never got a frozen pizza answer, or candy, and cold cereal very seldoom.

T: Has this book changed either your feeling about eating alone, or what you eat when you’re by yourself?

DM: Yes, it actually did.  I eat alone several nights a week when Patrick stays at his studio and I used to have a standing dinner date with a neighbor.  I’d cook for her and we’d eat together, share a bottle of wine. I didn’t like eating alone because after being alone all day I’d be dying to talk with someone—and the TV doesn’t count.  But after a while, I started to really question the eat alone experience and explore it more consciously.  Now I like it.  I always cook something, I eat more slowly, I have a glass of wine, I don’t necessarily read.  I just sit at the table and enjoy my supper. I really do!

T: Did you enjoy telling stories for a change, rather than sticking exclusively to recipes?  Is this a type of writing you’d like to revisit?

DM: Absolutely!  I love interviewing people and writing profiles and short pieces like these.  It was a huge relief to have those we interviewed suggest the recipes, instead of me leading in that department.  (Some are very much my kinds of foods, others aren’t, but they come from others.)  The same was true of the illustrations.  Patrick says the same thing – that images people suggested made for many of his images and ideas, like the old vegetables on walkers.


Illustration by Patrick McFarlin, Image courtesy of Gibbs Smith, Publisher

T: What’s your favorite recipe in the book?

DM: It’s hard to say.  I like a lot of this food.  I rather like Chicken Soup Almost partly because it’s a fun title — “Almost?” What on earth does that mean?  But a little broth over polenta and vegetables with a few bites of chicken is such a good idea and such a soothing dish.  The Penne with Potatoes and Broccoli – that’s my kind of food. Peggy’s farmers market salad is one I love — Judy’s eggs with toasted bread crumbs is just such a simple little surprise.  Dan’s zesty, over-the-top recipes based mostly on tapenade are ones I know and love when I’m in a calories don’t count kind of mood.  Patrick’s Pimiento Cheese Panini is very good….I really like everything in the book.

T: New Mexico, where you live, is such a great food state.  Has living there changed the way you cook?

DM: Not really.  I do cook some New Mexican foods —posole, Frito pies (but with all good organic stuff from the farmers’ market), chile, etc. —and I love a cheese enchilada smothered in red and green with a fried egg for breakfast. But on the whole, my palate likes Mediterranean flavors more on an everyday basis.

T: What’s the object in your kitchen that you treasure the most?

DM: Hard to say!  I have paintings in my kitchen that I love — one of quince, for example. I love my cast iron skillets and a great new Japanese vegetable knife.  I haven’t had a working food processor for more than a year.  I used to say my mortars and pestles, but I find I don’t use them so much as I used to.  I might have to say my hands, my knives, and a good dough scraper.

T: Mystery House readers will want to know:  Do you knit?

DM: I tried once!

T: What’s next for you?

DM: I have a book on fruit desserts coming out in the spring (Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market – Random House) — but enough recipes.  I have a memoir I want to finish, a book that goes more in a botanical direction, collaborations with others in the works … I never like to talk about future work until it’s underway, though.  Definitely — no volume two of What We Eat When We’re Alone!

T: I’m really looking forward to your next cookbook, and to your memoir.  Thank you very much, Deborah, for talking with me!

In What We Eat When We’re Alone, you’ll meet a former Zen monk who concocts his own eccentric version of tapenade and puts it on darn near everything; farm workers who create burritos with sardines, tomatoes and raw onions; a restaurant owner who confesses that she very often eats nothing but guacamole, chips and a drink for dinner; a surgeon who dotes on hard-boiled egg sandwiches made just the way she had them on the trains in England; and a whole chapter full of men who load up on meat, meat and more meat when they’re by themselves.

The recipes are a treat, too.  The M.E. and I tried the recipe for Bartender’s Flank Steak Stuffed with Mushrooms and More, which came from a man who used to tend bar at a restaurant in Santa Fe.

Stuffed Flank Steak

Now honestly, this wasn’t something that either one of us would make when we’re alone.  It requires quite a bit of prep and, sadly, we’re both in that category of people Deborah mentioned who won’t do all that just for little old me.  But oh, lordy, was it good!  Steak, spinach, mushrooms, cheese, bacon…

We stuffed the flank steak with layers of wonderful things — all the while saying, “This can’t possibly be bad,” — rolled it up and tied it, and the M.E. put it on the grill.  Dr. Evil kept a very close eye on the proceedings, pacing in front of the grill the whole time it was cooking, and I couldn’t blame him.  The aroma was amazing — and so was the dish.  It’s going on the short list, and I think it would be a perfect thing to serve to company (if you’re not inclined to eat it all by yourself).  To quote the M.E., “Whatever the book costs, this recipe is worth the price.”

Do check out the book, and pay a visit to Deborah Madison’s blog when you have a chance.  She’s posted good articles about food and farming, and of course some great recipes, too.

And now, I’m curious…what do you eat when your spouse or partner is gone, and nobody’s looking?


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  1. * rudee says:

    I was alone tonight and made a pot of mujedra and a salad. The mujedra, a Middle Eastern dish, is made with lentils, rice and caramelized onions. I top the whole thing off with a scoop of Greek yogurt. Yum. Very plain and humble, yet tasty. Since this was our meatless Friday dish growing up, it brings me comfort.

    What a great post! I’ll be certain to check out the book and the blog.


    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  2. * bezzie says:

    Great interview…I want to say this book has been getting some hype. It vaguely sounds familiar!

    I don’t get to eat alone. Unless you count lunch. Otherwise there are always at least two little men demanding to be fed.

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  3. * Amy Rea says:

    I eat the things no one else in the house likes. Spicy food. Poached eggs on sauteed kale. Simple but tasty.

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  4. * kmkat says:

    What a great book! I requested it from the library before I was even done reading your post.

    I do eat frozen pizza when I am alone, but I also eat scrambled eggs and omelets and sandwiches and cheese/crackers/olives/nuts with a glass of wine. And ice cream 😉

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  5. * Carrie K says:

    We used to go to Greens all the time. Yum. That book sounds wonderful – I actually learned to cook when I was finally cooking for myself. (I tend to hate “help” in the kitchen).

    I usually make something fancy dancy with lots of prep time. Absolutely no recipe is coming to mind, when was the last time I got to eat alone? I think it’s been months. Also the oven was on the fritz (the temp gauges didn’t work) and it’s been hot. Way too hot to fool w/the temp by randomly twisting the dial. I usually see something in Bon Appetit or even Everyday Food to try out.

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  6. * Stay Classy, Socialists! says:

    Honestly, I enjoy a great bowl of cereal or one of the frozen chicken and wild rice soups when I am alone. I know that if I did not have my family with me I would weigh about 20 pounds less easily! But of course, I would be a lonely skinny person 🙂

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  7. * Farmer Laura says:

    What a delightful interview to read! When cooking and eating alone I go back to uncomplicated standbys: peanut ginger stir-fries loaded with veggies served over brown rice or a gigantic salad topped with some savory cheese. Very little meat is involved… and the opposite goes for adam. Brats are consumed in copius amounts when I am gone. What is the deal with that?! I’ll have to read Deborah’s book to see what her insights are.

    Thanks for the interview!

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  8. * Richard says:

    T- Really enjoyed reading this post You’ve made me want to pick up a copy of DM’s new book for sure! Keep up the great stories!!

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  9. * lisa peet says:

    What a wonderful interview! I’m a fan of Deborah’s cookbooks and man, I love those drawings! When I’m alone it’s pasta and marinara sauce straight out of the pot, preferably standing over the stove — that or fancy cheese and crackers. But I also have to throw my lot in with Amy in favor of stewed greens with a fried egg on top — that’s a family dinner around here, but very beloved.

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago
  10. * Kelle says:

    Fried eggs over potatoes or I’ll saute onions in butter (or with bacon), add a can of diced tomatoes and eat it over pasta seasoned with salt and pepper and topped with grated cheese. (Which ever cheese I have on hand.)

    Posted 8 years, 4 months ago

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