Jam Today: An Interview with Tod Davies
Somehow, I stumbled upon a reference to Jam Today, a new book about food and cooking by Tod Davies. Ms. Davies, also the publisher at Exterminating Angel Press (I love that name), kindly sent me a review copy, and the minute I’d opened it and read the first two pages, I was back at my computer, asking if she’d be kind enough to grant me an interview. It’s quite an irresistible book, and it approaches cooking in the way that many of us actually do it — not the way somebody else thinks we’re supposed to do it. I’m delighted that Tod Davies agreed to visit the Mystery House, because she’s got all sorts of interesting things to say. Read on…
T: Tod, would you please share a bit about your background with the Mystery House readers who may not know you?
TD: Gosh, where to start with that one? Born and raised in San Francisco, which should immediately tell you a lot, given that (except for New Orleans), it’s the most food obsessed town in the nation, if not the world (well, okay, there’s Paris…). I started out as the kind of customer Trader Joe originally said he was looking for: English graduate student with a lot of taste and not much money. That’s pretty much me now, too — after a lot of time spent doing…well, doing whatever. Food radio show producer and host, independent film producer, screenwriter, cocktail waitress, English teacher, dog walker…among other things. Married to Alex Cox, who is terrific fun, as well as being a tolerant vegetarian. Now running Exterminating Angel Press, an independent press (i.e. small press) that focuses on any material that questions dominant cultural stories and suggests alternatives.
T: What prompted you to write a book about the way you cook? (I won’t call it strictly a cookbook, because it’s more than that.)
TD: I love writing about stuff I love…and I seriously love everyday life. It always outrages me that everyday life doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves in the culture — and the alternative doesn’t seem to me to be working. One of the biggest pleasures I have in my everyday life is FOOD. And whatever is a pleasure I hope everyone else is having, too. Actually, this is a political thing for me, too. Everyone should have something good to eat and the leisure to enjoy it and share it with others. The idea that a few people should have a glut of stuff, while the majority run harder and harder to get by is something that is obviously wrong. Drives me mad.
T: I love that your focus is on treasuring the life you have, the food you have, the company you have. That seems to me to be what Thanksgiving is really about. Food and food, memories, of course, are absolutely key. Why are food and cooking so important to you?
TD: Food and Cooking are key to finding out who I am, what I truly desire, and what my loved ones truly desire. In cooking with what I’ve got, and with as much joy as possible, I’m looking into how much I really need… It drives me crazy that people who literally have everything are miserable, and don’t have any excess joy in their lives to give them the energy to set about making the people around them happy as well. They actually don’t know what makes them happy…if you’re not happy, why not? You’ve got to start making yourselves and your loved ones happy and then use that as a base to work to make the community a happier place. And this all revolves around food for me (that San Francisco thing gives the clue again, I think!)
T: What is it about having good things to eat that makes a real difference in our world?
TD: We really need to listen to our bodies. There’s a huge amount of consumption revolving around unnecessary things, things that just make you unhappy and crave more stuff — what are the basic things we need? Food. Love. Warmth. Community. When you sit with something good to eat (not something expensive to eat, or complicated to eat, or rare…something that’s just GOOD, like good bread and cheese), you are literally communing with your body and the world that made it; you’re a part of it, not separated from it. It’s that separation that makes us miserable. And then we keep trying to have experiences and acquire more and more stuff to get rid of that misery. But when we do this, we’re going about it the wrong way, in my opinion. We’re going against what we should be doing. Which is just accept that we’re human, and that we’re imperfect, and that everyone else is too…but that we’re all in this together. Time to have another meal!
T: Are you cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year? What’s on the menu?
TD: Not sure if I’m cooking this year; it depends on if the family can make it up our way as they have the last couple of years. But the short answer is, if I do cook, since I have a teenage niece and nephew who (all parents here will relate) can eat more than your average zoo population in a remarkably short period of time, I’ll cook A LOT. Either a brined turkey raised by Dawn the Egg Lady up the road (last year my nephew said about that one, “Aha! So this is what Turkey is supposed to taste like!”), or a shoulder of lamb roasted with a lot of garlic (I like shoulder better than leg because I think it’s got a great flavor and it costs less…). Definitely Extra Rich Potatoes, which are made by mashing enormous amounts of potatoes with enormous amounts of butter, sour cream or cream, and crushed garlic, then baked…that’s a favorite with the teenagers (as well as my potato loving vegetarian husband). We eat the potato skins baked with butter and tabasco, kind of like potato chips, as an appetizer — I just keep ’em coming. Then there are always baked stuffed Portobello mushrooms. And my niece’s favorite, grated carrots cooked in cream and nutmeg for a long time, until they’re caramelized around the edges.
One year, I am pleased to say, when my nephew was asked if he wanted to go for a day hike the day after Thanksgiving, he said, “And miss that soup Aunt Tod’s got on the stove? No way! ” I regarded that as a particular badge of honor.
T: I would, too! Jam Today may be the only book I’ve seen that acknowledges that we aren’t always cooking with ingredients that are at their peak, that often our goal is to make good use of whatever’s about to go bad in the fridge. You seem to have a special affection for ingredients that are past their prime. Why?
TD: Because I hate waste, I guess, and anything I save from waste, while making an occasion for happiness, makes me feel like I’m winning out over entropy! I cannot stand how people throw stuff out, stuff that’s perfectly good. We just seem to have gotten into this weird mind set where everything has to be perfect, or at least appear to be perfect, or have it cause lots of anxiety. This is not sustainable! Life is not perfect! Repeat after me! Life is wonderful — it’s a blast — but it is NOT PERFECT.
The other day I was cut to the heart watching a grocery store manager throw out a perfectly good wedge of expensive blue cheese. I gave a sort of strangled gggllrrffggggghhhh of protest, and he said, “We don’t know how long it’s been without refrigeration.” I said, “Listen, people eat blue cheese that’s been sitting out for TWO HUNDRED YEARS!” But he just looked at me like I was crazy. Meanwhile, the fish I bought from that market that was supposedly fresh that day wasn’t…it was at least a day older than fresh, as I found out to my chagrin when I got home. However, it wasn’t actually bad. So I just cooked it with mashed potatoes and garlic and made fish pie…it was fine that way. But it did make me reflect on how screwed up the priorities of that particular market were.
T: So many people are fearful of cooking without recipes, but your approach to food is to have fun with it, make what pleases you, and not get freaked out. Have you always cooked that way?
TD: Pretty much, except for the not getting freaked out part. I always get freaked out, no matter what I’m doing — it’s my temperament. My feeling is that being freaked out is just the human condition. So I try not to get too freaked out about it.
T: You sometimes solve ingredient acquisition problems by making things yourself, like figuring out how to make your own salt cod. I love that approach — it’s so easy to get drawn up in believing that everything has to come in a package from the store, that manufacturers know more than we do. One of the saddest things I can think of is the persistent notion that real cooking is too hard for regular folks with busy lives. What do you think people gain by learning to make things on their own?
TD: Now THIS is the key. We gain autonomy. We gain our own independence. We build our own reserves of self reliance, and we’re better friends, parents, lovers, neighbors as a result. This I really truly believe. Why should we have others providing for us what we most basically need? It’s a weird concept. I really think it’s the sign of an unhealthy culture that we value and give prestige to all the societal jobs that don’t perform any basic functions. I mean, if you can’t take care of yourself, if you need unhappy minimum wage earners to do it for you, what does that say about you and the culture?
T: What’s the object in your kitchen that you treasure the most?
TD: My marble mortar and pestle. I love pounding the hell out of garlic and parsley. Also my Japanese ceramic knife. I love CHOPPING the hell out of garlic and parsley, too.
T: Mystery House readers will want to know: Do you knit?
TD: No, but I really think I should learn. My Macanese grandmother had a knitting machine that’s in a closet somewhere. I can still remember her working that machine, chain smoking, and listening to two different ball games on the radio at the same time. She had obviously acculturated.
T: In addition to being an author, you’re a publisher. What’s next for you? Do you have another book of your own in the works?
TD: Next year is our Fairy Tale year, since Fairy Tales are the most basic stories we tell ourselves. Like food, fairy tales get a bum rap…they get treated like they’re of no real importance, when they are of major, bedrock importance to the culture. Right now, I’m puzzling over an odd book I’ve had sent to me by…well, it appears to be from another world, but that can’t be right. We’re still trying to trace how it got to us. It appears to be a fairy tale that’s been analyzed by an academic in another world who’s discovered…well, I’m still working on it.
T: Thank you very much, Tod, and Happy Thanksgiving!
Of course I had to try one of her recipes. They’re thoughtful and interesting and conversational, just like the book. So, in a continuation of last week’s cheese theme, I thought that Tod’s recipe for The Best Macaroni and Cheese might be the ticket.
Was it the best? Well, of course I didn’t have all the mac & cheeses of the world side by side, to test them. (A girl can dream.) But I’d have to say yes. It’s pretty darn spectacular. Very cheesy and creamy, with a nice mustardy tang. I added (quite a bit) more than the suggested amount of Tabasco sauce since we thought mac & cheese with a burn might be good. And it was.
I need a food stylist around here, really I do.
We loved this dish, and of all the mac & cheese recipes I’ve tried over the last few years, this is the one that’s going on the short list. Not hard to make, very decadent, and very delicious. Check out the book to get the recipe — it’s a great read, full of good food stories. (And I really, really wish I lived next door to Dawn the Egg Lady!) I’m trying another recipe from it this week: Potatoes with Chiles made with teeny, tiny potatoes and some of my roasted Hatch chiles, ‘cause that’s what I’ve got…and you know, it’s fun to dive in the freezer and get creative.
Jam Today could have been titled Thanksgiving Everyday, because it makes you think about what it means to treasure what you have and who you have it with. All the time. Not reserving such thoughts for one special day of the year.
Okay now, y’all, go do up the holiday like you mean it. Happy Thanksgiving!
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