Chatting With Amelia Saltsman

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It’s not often that I fall in love with a cookbook. When I do, it usually shares time between the kitchen and my library, shuttling back and forth as I use it. However, it’s rare when a book stays with me in my bag, going between the market, my home and my office. That’s what’s happening with Amelia Saltsman‘s book The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes and Stories from the Market and Farm.

I’ve mentioned and plugged this book before, and with good reason. Part cookbook, part educational lesson, Alice Waters calls Amelia’s book "an amazing resource to have with you, a complete season-by-season handbook to guide you through the bounty of the market." I couldn’t have said it better myself. Not only does it focus on seasonal recipes that are right up my alley (simple, ingredient-focused dishes that highlight seasonality and flavor), it also shares insights about farmers’ markets and what it takes for the farmer to bring you his fruits and vegetables directly. But perhaps the most valuable for me is its ability to be a guidebook, taking me throughout the market and giving me ideas, tips and background about the foods I buy when I visit the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. Or any farmers’ market, for that matter.

Since the book’s release we’ve become friends and, if you’ll allow me to borrow a corny phrase, to know her is to love her. Her passion beams through and her enthusiasm is infectious. She gets me excited about food! I recently sat down with Amelia to ask her a few questions about her book before joining her on a quick tour of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.

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Q. Your book has really affected me in so many ways. It’s given me kitchen tips, educated me about so many fruits and vegetables, but also drawn me in about the farmers you write about. Not to mention I carry my book with me to the farmers market weekly. Can you explain why you wrote this book?

A. It’s simple — when you’ve got a story you’ve got to tell it. You see it, you’re excited about what you’ve learned, who you’ve met, what it’s done for you as a consumer, how it’s changed your life as a cook, and how you think that life could be easier for others. I wanted to let people know that in our harried culture that the best tasting food is right here. No compromise, no sacrifice. It’s the ultimate fast food! Well, not for the farmer, though — they do all the work and we reap all the benefits!

Q. How long did it take to complete the book?

A. It was in the making for years and years. Years of development, a year of writing and a year of production.

Q. How has your experience as a shopper at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market changed your outlook on food?

A.  I get my culinary inspiration from the  Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. If I can’t get to the Farmers’ Market I’m in disarray! But it’s not just about inspiration — it’s about education and safety, too. I find that when I’m at the Farmers’ Market and I know the grower I feel very confident about the food. I don’t worry about all the things we’ve been worrying about and reading in the news lately. The person growing the food is growing it for his or her own family directly. Once you’re feeding your family your own food you become more responsible. When you look the buyer in the eye you have to be honest and responsible. It makes you do the right thing.

Q. Why Farmers’ Markets?

A: I always knew from an early age that I could learn a lot about a place by going to the farmers’ market. I could see the people, meet the people, see what they value, what they can grow and experience a little bit of daily life. In fact If I’m in a town or traveling I’d choose a farmers’ market over a museum if I only had one day to visit.

I really believe that the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market tells us about a place even if the farmers end up coming from 100 or 200 miles away. It tells us a lot about the culture. It also tells us that people are really hungry for a connection and community.

And by the way, that connection is just as important to the farmers as it is to us. It’s very core.

Q: You always make it a point to mention flavor — I love that!  Why is this? And would you consider it one of the most important qualities in selecting food?

A: If I had to use one word to describe the book, it’s flavor. If you use flavor as your primary marker you’ll find it’s a great cue as to how food was grown.

You don’t get great flavor by accident; you have to grow varieties that are designed to taste good. Then you must grow them well, you have to care for them and you must tend to them. For example, I talk about Mike Cirone of Cirone Farms in my book.The reason his apricots and apples are so packed with flavor is because he dry farms, leaving an intensified flavor in the fruit — it’s not all water.  It’s the same with a big giant strawberry packed full of water versus a small berry loaded with real flavor. Flavor means someone cared enough to leave it on the vine or in the field until fully ripened. This is another reason to shop farmers’ markets — if you’re buying your produce from a supermarket it must travel and be stored for quite some time before it gets to you and there’s no way it can be picked ripe. That means it cannot have much flavor.

Harold McGee recently wrote about fully ripe, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables and discovered that they are indeed more flavorful. I say yay yay yay! We’re beginning to discover that if we depend on chemicals we don’t flourish. Not just in food but in life. So you can see why flavor is IT for me.

It’s the simplest, happiest, most visible and tangible clue for quality, sustainability, and seasonality.

Q: Ok, so many of my readers may not live in Southern California. Is your book only about shopping at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market?

(Matt says: I cannot do justice to Amelia’s animated response with flailing arms when she answers this question!)

A: So what? Really! So what? The big message here is to shop locally, support your local ecosystem, and see what’s in season in your neighborhood. It’s not a religion! You don’t have to be in Santa Monica, you can do this anywhere you live! Even if we bought some portion of seasonal and local goods, even just 20%, we’d make a huge difference in the issues we’re having.

My intention was to tell the story of these farmers and these crops as a specific metaphor for a bigger picture. It was about making it about real characters that come to life. My hope was that someone reading this book who shops at a farmers’ market in Austin might think about the life that their local farmer was living and the struggles they encountered to get that local produce to market. It’s my hope that people everywhere will think more about flavor, where their food comes from and to cook in a simple, ingredient driven way.

There were choices I needed to make when I was writing this book. My way of narrowing my scope was to think of foods and dishes that showcased how much can come from the farmers’ market. You don’t need a big pantry to do this. That’s why there’s the barest whisper of chocolate in the book.

Q: What is your idea of comfort food?

A: I would say that my favorite, most comforting meals would be after a trip to the market. Simple roasted vegetables, everything fresh, lots of savory flavors. Something so simply roasted with a little olive oil, sprinkled with some crunchy sea salt. I think that the dinners that are the most satisfying to me are the ones where I look at the plate and see that everything came from the farmers’ market. The chicken, the vegetables, the fruit. It’s just so simple.

Q: What types of food did you grow up eating? And could you share some of your family food background?

A: Sort of an interesting story! My parents came to this country just before I was born. Both my grandmothers were amazing cooks and bakers, but that didn’t help because my mother was here and the family was in Israel. But I had a very eclectic childhood. One one hand I had a lot of fresh salads and vegetables as my mother was busy experimenting with new techniques but she also made family recipes that were quite different than what the rest of the country was eating, you know, white bread and steak sort of thing.

But the other thing I remember growing up was that we used to be able to go to the corner grocery store and buy local produce.

Q: You gave a presentation last week with the Culinary Historians of Southern California where you showed images of Los Angeles at the beginning of the century. The variety of fruits and vegetables that were grown 80 years ago smack dab in the middle of town was unbelievable – not to mention the fact that people paid attention to who was growing their food and where it was from. You even showed us a menu from 1906 that listed the food’s origin with the farm it came from right underneath the menu item. Now we’re seeing a return to those interests. Care to weigh in on why this is happening? Is it just history repeating itself?

A: In my research for this book I discovered that in everything there is a season. There’s nothing new under the sun and while we may think we discover new things and it’s never been done before that’s simply not the case.

I discovered that we were cooking like the way we are today at the turn of the century. When the rest of the country was using pork, we were using olive oil. It’s what we had in abundance and our diets adapted to the ingredients we were finding locally. The similarities are more striking today than the differences.

As far as why we moved away from this, I think it was due to several influence. Once we had the railroads and refrigerated cars and California became the main supplier to the supermarket chains across the country there was a a shift of focus. The agriculture industry needed to pay attention to how they supplied food to the masses. Produce was picked green and held, people moved out to the suburbs and further away, there was a curiosity and desire for what was new and shiny. New and improved was how we shopped; people didn’t want to be in a dirty place with cut leaves on the floor, it had to be spotless. These are not necessarily new things post World War II, they all started with the Industrial Age, it’s always been a movement. A perfect example was frozen foods. Who didn’t think it was a bold, wonderful new concept? It was all about convenience.

Q: Apart from the touchy-feely loving-mother-earth sensations I get from shopping my farmers’ market, there really is a true importance than runs deep about supporting the farmers. I appreciate you and your book for really explaining it to me.

A. Remember, it takes time to build a market. The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is 26 years strong, but it didn’t start anything like it is today. You didn’t get all this variety, but you did get the fresher, better-tasting versions of what you found in the supermarkets. The farmers were growing for the packing houses, but then realized they could pick up and head to the market with the standard offerings. And back then it was potatoes, grapes, your everyday fruits and vegetables. But the market changed and developed by communication, learning, and time. Farmers learned what customers wanted, customers learned what grew best from farmers. Farmers would dare to grow a row or two of this or that and find there was a market for it. I think that as I’ve been talking to people across the country this is one of the biggest messages I need to convey: it takes time and patience to grow a great farmers’ market. It takes time to educate the manager, the farmer and the customer about what the real values are.

Thank you Amelia!


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Amelia will be making a few appearances over the next week and I encourage you to visit and say hello. Especially in Austin. And have a Shiner for me, won’t ya?

HOLIDAY ENTERTAINING IDEAS FROM THE FARMERS’ MARKET WITH AMELIA SALTSMAN
Cooking Demo & Book Signing
Thursday, October 25, 2007
7:00 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Santa Monica Public Library
601 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA
(310) 458-8600

AUSTIN FARMERS’ MARKET
Cooking Demo & Book Signing
Saturday, October 27, 2007
9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
4th & Guadalupe
Austin, TX
(512) 236-0074

FINO RESTAURANT, PATIO & BAR
Harvest Dinner and Book Signing with Boggy Creek Farm
Monday, October 29, 2007   
7:00 p.m.
2905 San Gabriel St.
Austin, TX
For reservations: (512) 474-2905

Comments

  1. says

    thanks for posting your chat and for sharing your experience with this life-changing book. she sounds simply enlightening. i’m getting up to make roasted veggies for dinner the moment i finish typing this message after realizing it too is my favorite comfort food… specifically squash. it makes me wish i made myself go down to the farmer’s market today instead of the grocery store yesterday. this book will definitely make a difference in the way people think about, shop for, prepare and enjoy food – me especially :)

  2. says

    Thanks for this, Matt. This is similar to something I am working on and I really get that arms flailing thing! I am 100% with her on this. Can’t wait to read the book (ordered it before I even entered this comment!)

  3. says

    I have heard so many good things about this book. I’m always looking for more seasonal instruction, so this is perfect. I wish it were easier to have more contact with our local farmers, but we really have to search it out. I’ve always found that the reward is on our tastebuds, however. :)

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