A Conversation with Cathy Erway
Talking to the author of 'The Food of Taiwan' and 'Sheet Pan Chicken' about the politics of home cooking.
Cathy Erway came to food writing through home cooking and that’s also how she has maintained her career. It’s a pathway that is rarely tread anymore, as restaurants have become so central to how we talk about and think about food.
But Erway has stuck to her guns and somehow carved out a space for herself as someone who cares about where food comes from, both in terms of the actual land it was grown in and hands that tended to it, as well as with regards to cultural significance. We discussed how she came to create her food-writing niche, the way she framed her cookbook The Food of Taiwan, and how she told readers to use the entire chicken in Sheet Pan Chicken. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Cathy. Thank you so much for being here.
Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
So my parents were living in Brooklyn Heights when I was born, and then they moved to a town in New Jersey in Essex County called Maplewood. So that's when I was a baby, like 2. So, that's where I grew up.
And I remember—well, my parents always cooked a lot. But if we did go out to eat, I remember in the earlier sort of part of my childhood, we would go into the city. And sometimes we would go to Chinatown or something like that. But then over the years gradually, my parents became more attuned to where some other Chinese—not some other because there was no, not really much of a Chinese American community were in our town. So they figured out where some of these spots were and where some of these good restaurants that they wanted to go to were, and had more of a Chinese American sort of community of families that they would go to. And for a while there, we were going to like dim sum every weekend with this sort of clan of just Chinese American families that were sort of eating buddies. Very important to have.
And then we would also get-there's tons of great pizza and Italian food where we lived. Great bagels. The kind of New York stuff. We would try everything. There's a new Ethiopian place, we would try it. There was a Malaysian place, we would try it.
So yeah, I mean, I'm pretty blessed in that sense. [Laughs.]
Alicia: For sure, for sure.
And you don't have formal culinary training, but from your blog, Not Eating Out in New York, which you turned into a book, to your cookbook,The Food of Taiwan, and then your latest cookbook, Sheet Pan Chicken, you've made food and cooking your life. So how did that happen, and was it what you intended to do?
Cathy: Oh, gosh. I mean, I guess, yeah, I have no full formal culinary training. But I've always sort of tried to focus on home cooking, and try to show my real practical home cooking, like through my blog, Not Eating Out in New York. So just kind of keep it, kept it real, sometimes mistakes and all. Share some of those failures. But yeah, so I hope that that's helpful for home cooks.
Yeah, I mean, I think I wanted to be a writer always. I studied literature and creative writing. And after school, I was just sort of trying to do some journalism. And I never really thought of food as something—I guess before that, it wasn't something I thought of that you could study, food writing or something like that.
But I guess sometime in the—oops. That's my phone.
Alicia: That’s ok. [Laughs.]
Cathy: Yeah, sometime in the mid-2000s when blogs were blowing up, I started a food blog in 2006 because I couldn't get published elsewhere. I would write these horrible pitches.
I actually took a class in food writing that was taught by an organization that no longer—it's called Mediabistro. And then for a while, they had food writing courses. And my course was taught by Ramin Ganeshram, who was an amazing food writer. And I actually just caught up with her recently. What I was taught was that you had to identify editors at these glossy magazines, write them a pitch. And then I would do that and crickets, of course.
So, I just started a food blog and said, ‘To heck with it.’ And I think everything just happened from there. People were reading my food blog, and then they—I got a, an offer to write a cookbook, right? I was approached by an agent. And actually, two years later, I finally kind of wrapped my head around what a proposal would look like for that cookbook, ’cause at first I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’
And so, everything kind of just fell from doing the blog. And so, I've been-—yeah, I just kind of been doing freelance writing and cookbook writing. The Food of—
Alicia: Yeah, my question was, how did you come to make food writing your life, which you—is what you’ve done? And you had another book come out last year, another cookbook.
I think you answered the question, which was that you did your blog and you just kept kind of going at it. Which is, I think, when people ask, ‘How do you do—how do you become a freelance writer?’ The answer really is being persistent and consistent, and a lot—just taking more risks than you would think you would want to do.
Cathy: I also like to create community, and I threw a lot of events when I was starting out. Especially when I was doing my blog, I would throw a lot of kickoffs, and other potlucks and stuff like that. And it was just a great way to meet people and just form a community around it.
In terms of how I make a living today, yeah, it is also—it has actually always been sort of a mixed bag, where I did a lot of freelance copywriting sort of on the side all along. And now, I do that full-time. And sort of the freelance food writing is my sort of night happening. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Well, you in your blog—which you don't have, you don't update anymore, right?
Cathy: Yeah, yeah.
I only write about things for money now, instead of—I spent a lot of time and effort on the blog. So it's just like, ‘Ok, I'm gonna try to move those projects into a different and more visible field.’
But you maintain your focus really on home cooking. And what is your advice, and how is that kind of changed? Has your approach to cooking changed since you had the blog to now? I know you were always about local and seasonal and no waste cooking. How has your cooking changed since you were starting out as a blogger?
Cathy: Oh, that's a great question.
I think that I always like to sort of learn something new from every season of vegetables that crops up in my CSA or at my farmers’ markets. And you do see trends come and go. You do see new ingredients all the time. So I think that that just experience and working with all different kinds of stuff that—
And joining a CSA is a great way to have this, because you get all these things that you didn’t intentionally set forth to buy. And so, it's kind of great. So I think that it just, it's only enriched my cooking.
I've also been really interested in learning about all every cuisine in the world, basically, I want to learn more about. So, I've been collecting cookbooks along the way. And yeah, so I hope that it's just kind of enriched my awareness of—and it's also led to a lot of clutter in my pantry of random, not random, but just a lot of spices and stuff. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. The spices and the vinegars really take up a lot of space when you get going. Yeah.
But yeah, with that focus on home cooking, you have a James Beard award for writing about home cooking. So what is your relationship to eating out these days, since you built your career on cooking at home?
Cathy: Oh my god.
I've always sort of thought of eating out as the special treat, rather than—I know a lot of people who are not used to cooking, they see cooking as a kind of big to-do. And it's a little bit nerve-racking. And so that was always sort of the reverse for me. So I've always treated going out as like a special occasion, whether it's to try something I could never make at home like dim sum or to celebrate somebody's birthday.
I feel the last year—I usually don't get takeout in my local neighborhood, but in the last year I've been doing a lot just to support my local restaurants. So, the last year has really changed my relationship in a big way in that sense.
Alicia: Yeah, that's interesting.
And there has been so much conversation about the ethics of restaurants and hospitality in the last year. And I was going to ask you, how did the pandemic kind of change your approach to food? And how did it other—obviously, a little more takeout. But what was it like for you?
Cathy: I mean, it didn't really change my day to day terribly much. And I'm so fortunate and I'm so privileged to say that, because I always sort of cooked—I always sort of had a stocked pantry of things that I could whip together if I needed to with rice, or some nice sauces and an egg and I'm happy. So it didn't really change my cooking routine too much in that sense.
So I was really looking around and seeing what other people were doing, what other businesses were doing to stay afloat. And I saw so many of them started pantries and grocery stores, weird kind of pop-up thing—or not pop-up, but delivery things. I got some partially cooked stuff and then threw it together as a meal cooked from one local restaurant. And all these kind of solutions and pivots that folks were doing, I really wanted to support that.
And I really wanted to support by buying gift cards. So I've just used a few of the gift cards I bought a year ago by eating out. I think that it's just really important to show up for your community. And a lot of restaurants are really struggling, and I tried to hear them out and wrote about some of them as well.
And you're also well-known as a podcaster, for Eat Your Words and Why We Eat What We Eat. And how did you get into podcasting, and how did it kind of open up different creative avenues for you versus writing?
I think it happened really organically through Heritage Radio Network, which was a project from Heritage Foods USA, which is a heritage meat distributor. And I was friendly with the folks who ran it, and they just started this radio-back then, they called it a radio station, they still do-outside of this little shipping container at Roberta's Pizza in Brooklyn.
So, I was friendly with some of those folks. And they invited me on a show, on my friend’s show Snacky Tunes. And I was a guest, and then they, the producers, asked if I wanted to come up with a show. And they were creating a show about—their show was like food and music. There was Anne Saxelby’s cheese show. And so, I created a show about home cooking. And then, it evolved into being about books and food of all kinds, books about food basically, whether it's a cookbook or a food memoir.
So, it just was totally organic. And it was a great way to again form community and meet people that I wanted to talk with and kind of support their work and showcase it however I can, without having to sit down and write a whole long profile about somebody. It's just like, ‘Hey, let's have an organic conversation.’ And so, that was a lot of fun.
And then from there, yeah, I guess, Gimlet Creative reached out to me when they were looking for a host for their food show, what was Why We Eat What We Eat. And a longtime friend of mine who used to be a food blogger, James Boo, decided to start Self-Evident, which is a community-based podcast that's exploring Asian American experiences. I had experience as a-being a host. And I was really dedicated to the mission, so that's how I became the host of Self-Evident.
Alicia: [Laughs.] Nice.
Well, something I love about your book, The Food of Taiwan, is that it starts by giving a cultural, political, agricultural background on the island, which you would say or think is necessary to understanding any cuisine. I think a lot of cookbooks don't necessarily start with all of that background, which is something interesting about yours.
Have you always considered those factors important when talking about food? And if so, how did you kind of develop your consciousness around food, politics and agriculture? Because it's not always a significant angle for a lot of food writers, especially talking about home cooking.
Yeah, I definitely think it's essential to understanding the food of a certain place to understand ‘What are some of the people that have emigrated here over the years? What is the climate? What is the agriculture situation?’ I mean, that's how cuisine is formed. Cuisine is just a totally social construct that is formed with, from people and the land.
Especially in the case of Taiwan, where I think it was really hard for me when I was shopping this book around 10 years ago or so, to explain without getting into a long history lesson about what Taiwan is. It's still like a kind of a long winded thing to—its political situation is a little bit tricky, right now, and it has been for quite a while. I felt like it was really important for that book.
But that said, I really enjoy cookbooks that give you that really thorough glimpse into the people who have created the cuisine. So I definitely think that that's important to understanding any, any cuisine.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah.
And have you always been interested in food politics and how agriculture works in that way? I know you said you have a CSA, so you're obviously supporting local farmers. But was that always part of your kind of food consciousness?
Cathy: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I mean, just from the very first sort of-I think when I was in high school, or maybe it was during college is when I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. And I also read a book called Grub by Bryant Terry and Anna Lappé . And it just really just that that book, I think, in particular, really just changed my consciousness. And I always felt food was intertwined with politics. And we all have an ability to enact change with every decision we make around food and how we interact with it and how we talk about it, especially if we're going to be a writer of some sort. [Laughter.]
Well, what are you working on now as a food writer?
Cathy: Right now, I’m working on a story about sugar. [Laughs.]
Alicia: Oh, I just filed a story about sugar. [Laughter.]
Cathy: I hope you figured it out, because I can't figure out my story. I can't wait to see yours.
Basically, I've been working on this story. And it turned into a much bigger story than I was initially thinking it was, and much thornier, and much more difficult. So I don't know how it's gonna turn out right now. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, it's interesting, because I do think that you do—you tackle thorny topics in food with, in a very accessible way. You do take thorny things and make them easy for people, not easy as in digestible, but you make it understandable and approachable.
And one thing I did want to ask you, especially talking about politics and agriculture is you have written vegetarian recipes. You've written about the Buddhist history of mock meat, which I love that piece and reference it in the manuscript of my book I'm working on.
But you did a book called Sheet Pan Chicken. And obviously, I'm a vegetarian. [Laughter.] And so, I wanted—
Cathy: I wanted to add you to the press list, but I was like, ‘Wait a minute. No, no, wait.’ [Laughter.]
Alicia: No, no.
But what I wanted to ask, because how did you regard that? The politics of chicken, the sourcing of chicken, the impact of its production? How did you kind of deal with that? Because you are a writer who asks those questions.
Cathy: Thanks. Yeah.
There's a section in the introduction where I talk about how to shop for chicken. I sort of run you through some of the labels you'll find on chicken nowadays, and what they mean and why they're important. And I encourage people to be curious and look beyond the grocery store and hit up their local farmers’ market, if they're going to buy meat. And they can ask even more questions.
But I think beyond that, I hope that the book demonstrates the type of cooking that I really like to emphasize, which is just using every little piece of meat and just maximizing the full value of all the flavors that you can get out of it and have it carry through other ingredients. And that's just the way I tend to cook is, if I'm using meat, it's a small amount that just lends their drippings and flavors to vegetables or starch or tofu. And then, I think something kind of magical happens with that synthesis of both things.
I tried to kind of emphasize that in this book. The worst thing I think you can do is cook a chicken all alone with nothing to catch its fat or juices. So chicken should always be cooked on top of or with some vegetables around them to absorb and kind of trade off one another's flavors and benefits and whatever.
So that's what I hope people get out of the book, ’cause I have you do things like scrape the brown bits from the pan and make a sauce out of that reuse. I have them use bone and chicken with the skin on and then say, ‘You can make stock with it afterwards, or like keep the fat.’ And I don't know, in my fridge I have jars of duck fat or bacon fat from whenever I've cooked these things. So, suggesting you can use them next time you're cooking vegetables.
That just feels very harmonious to me if you are going to eat animal meat, even more than using olive oil that was grown in a Mediterranean climate that is very far from New York City. But I still buy olive oil, because I love it, but keeping fat also just makes a lot of sense to me.
Alicia: Yeah, for sure.
And for you is cooking a political act?
Cathy: Yes, definitely.
I mean, I don’t have a great answer for that. [Laughter.] But I think that, again, every day, you choose what you put into your mouth to eat and to nourish yourself. And I think that it's a very important decision. It’s more important than what color nail polish and what the hell my hair looks like today, or how I present myself to the world. To me, that's reflected in what I'm cooking and eating and talking about with regards to cooking, and eating and shopping for food. So these are all decisions that are made on an everyday basis three times a day. And I think that's a huge opportunity.
Alicia: Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time today.
Cathy: Thank you so much, Alicia. That was fun.