Oct 16, 2020 • 41M

A Conversation with Molly Wizenberg

Listen now | We discussed the genre of memoir, what it’s like to be kept in a box while promoting a book about getting out of them, and the tension in 'The Fixed Stars.'

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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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Molly Wizenberg gained food-world fame through her blog, Orangette, as well as two memoir: Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage and A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table. Her latest, The Fixed Stars, has no subtitle and no food hook—in fact, it’s a memoir of shedding food, which she noted in her final blog post in 2018. “I am having to learn how to write it as I go along, without the handy crutch that food and recipes had become for me,” she wrote. It’s a book about identity and family, about shedding old skin and finding new comfort. Yet, upon its release, it’s gotten most of its attention from food media.

We discussed the genre of memoir, what it’s like to be kept in a box while promoting a book about getting out of them, and the tension in The Fixed Stars around restaurant versus home cooking.


Alicia: Hi, Molly, thank you so much for coming on.

Molly: Oh my gosh, I'm thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Molly: Yeah, so I live in Seattle, now. But I grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

And my parents were both from the east coast. My dad was actually Canadian, from Toronto, and my mom was from Baltimore. And they met there, and moved to Oklahoma in the mid ’70s, and very much, I think, did not expect to stay. I think they thought of themselves as coastal people. 

And so, I grew up in this place where my family kind of never planned to be. And in many ways — well, so my father was a doctor. And so I grew up with a lot of privilege, getting to travel and all kinds of things, and see other places, and understand that Oklahoma was just one place. 

But really, we were very much about home cooking. My dad was a very, very avid home cook, and would unwind at the end of the day, after seeing cancer patients all day, would unwind by opening up the fridge and sort of doing off-the-cuff cooking. And he was very much an equal appreciator of Bush's baked beans, but also things that seemed very exotic at the time where we were, like endive. 

And he was very much a — he was a real gourmand. He took such real pleasure in cooking and in sharing food. As a kid, it was actually really embarrassing to me, the pleasure that he took in cooking well for our family. He would always say — or he would frequently lean back from the table and say, ‘We eat better at home than most people do in restaurants.’ 

And it was so insufferable and so braggy, and yet at the same time it was so him and so much about the pride that he took in cooking, and finding food that he had had in other — finding ingredients he had had only in other places and introducing them to me. So, it was very much a very ’80s, food loving scene. 

My mom also did a lot of cooking, and was very much — I think of her as like the baker in the household. But I mean, we had a pretty idyllic, sit-down-to-dinner-together-every-night situation when I was growing up, and I'm really grateful for that. I had no idea how lucky I was to have two parents who put such care and attention into food, whether we were eating hamburgers or roasted chicken my dad had fussed over for a couple hours. 

Alicia: Right.

And your latest book, ‘The Fixed Stars,’ is not a food memoir, but in it there is a lot of tension between restaurant cooking and home cooking, like being at the restaurant versus being at home for dinner. How has this tension changed for you since you stopped working for the restaurants you co-founded? Has the role of food in your life changed since you exited those?

Molly: Yeah. For me, there's tremendous relief. 

Actually, I would love reading your writing about all the chefs that you bring into your interviews, whether you're writing about politics or love or whatever, because you are — you have so much more fluency in your talking about the restaurant world than I feel I ever did. Despite having been very much steeped in it, I was never a restaurant creature. 

And I came to co-found and co-own two, three sort of restaurants because the man I was married to had worked in restaurants off and on since he was a teenager all over the place. Pizza Hut, Balthazar, all over the place. And he was trying to find a way for us to be able to keep living in Seattle, where there were few jobs in the profession that he was trained, is trained in, which is music composition. 

And so he thought, ‘I love cooking.’ He and I both loved cooking, and what is a way that we could take this thing that we love, and that he could use it to sort of build a way for us to make money and live in the city we wanted to live in? And so, he is — Brandon is endlessly energetic, and basically taught himself, with the help of a couple of really generous mentors, how to open a restaurant on a shoestring. 

And we did that in 2009, we opened a restaurant called Delancey. And he was never a chef in the sense of — well, in any sense of being classically trained. Or even having the discipline — I know he wouldn't mind my saying that — that chefs, I think, are so famous for in their approach to work. Brandon has always been a musician, who just happened to be able to make things happen in whatever he did. 

And so we sort of together stumbled into owning, or creating and then owning, a restaurant that really truly was serving food that sort of bordered on what we liked to eat at home. And certainly at the center of it was woodfired pizza, that was the big thing that Brandon wanted to do. He wanted to make really good pizza.

But then everything else when we opened was my territory. And I very much cooked as we had at home. So, really simple, seasonal, but really interesting vegetable dishes and pretty simple desserts. I mean, we opened with a chocolate chip cookie and some homemade popsicles. And, by and large, it has stayed that way.

I only worked in the kitchen there for the first four months, and then spent the next nine years basically doing sort of general admin and ownership tasks. But it was — I think that, to work in a restaurant in any capacity, you have to have a really friendly relationship to adrenaline, and you have to be on friendly terms with chaos. And I am absolutely not that person, and never was. And so, being out of the restaurant is a tremendous relief.

I think that — for me, what was always most meaningful about it is — so, my background is in cultural anthropology. And I have always been most interested in people when I'm thinking about food, like food as a way of understanding how people live, what they care about, what gets them out of bed in the morning. And home cooking has always felt adjacent to that, a way of being with people, being for people, being a person myself. And I feel so — I just, I can't say it enough — relieved to get to scale back my relationship with food to only being that again, and not being beyond what I wanted. 

Alicia: Right.

And, yet, despite the book not being a food memoir, it has been regarded as such in the press, because your two prior memoirs are food memoirs, pretty explicitly. So, being as it is a book about defining yourself on your own terms and breaking out of boxes that the culture provides for you, has that bothered you? How are you defining yourself as a writer now?

Molly: Thank you so much for noticing that and asking about it. The book has been featured in a few articles as a food memoir, and it's really perplexed me because there is nothing about it that is a food memoir. And I haven't known how to engage with that press for that reason. It's sort of more than perplexed me, it pissed me off.

I feel like it's — I was thinking about how I see it — is it ok for me to veer off for just a second?

Alicia: Yeah, of course.

Molly: I was thinking about how — when I see people mention your writing, or recommend subscribing to your newsletter, people often refer to you as a food writer. Do you use that term for yourself?

Alicia: I used to more than I do now. I think of myself more as a culture writer now. I would rather be seen as like a nonfiction writer, a person who writes reported and personal and hopefully kind of immersive nonfiction — and not as a food writer. 

And then I wrestle with myself, because I'm wondering, ‘Do I not like that because I just don't like the way food writing manifests in the world in its most popular forms, because I don't see it as politically and socially engaged?’ But, I do like to write so much about other things. So, it is a difficult box to be put in, which you know, for sure.

Molly: Yeah. 

I mean, the whole time that I did think of myself as a food writer, if I would be in conversation with someone I would just — I had just met. And they were like, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I'm a writer.’ And then they would ask what I wrote about, I would be like, ‘Oh, I'm a food writer.’ And they would all — I mean 9.9 times out of 10, think it meant that I was a restaurant critic. And so then right away, I would be engaged in trying to define what food writing was and wasn't. 

The word food writing, I think, is — I think that it has always been complicated for me, and has never felt that it quite fit.

I mean, when I was in my — when I started the — my blog, which is how I got started writing as a, an adult, as opposed to just a teenager writing angsty poetry. I mean, when I started it, what I wanted most was to be a food writer in the vein of all the food magazines I saw in my parent’s house. But I look back on that, that wish, and what I was thinking of were like narrative pieces in Gourmet magazine in the ‘90s. I was never going to be a restaurant critic, and I was never going to be a recipe developer. 

And food writing as a term is not nuanced enough to make space for all the different ways that we can engage with food. And in fact, as you were saying, or as you hinted at,  food writing I think is — often, the category of food writing tends to be enforced as a category that is apolitical, that is easy, that is readily digestible, that is approachable. 

And so, I've been really — sorry, I need to clear my throat.

Once I started writing, right away, it was very clear to me that what I had thought I was going to do when this is — on the blog, 14 years ago, was a — I thought that I was going to do food writing. And so often what I was actually doing was writing about everything that orbited food in my own world. So, whether that was like the people, books I was reading, film photography I was interested in. And that food was a way of anchoring a narrative, but only sometimes the actual narrative.

I think that actually one thing that I do want to say: yeah, in the process of trying to — once I had written the proposal for ‘The Fixed Stars,’ and was trying to place it with a publisher, my being known as a food writer was a liability for me in huge ways. For one thing, for literary editors, food writing is a — it is not respected. 

And then the other thing is, of course, people want you to keep doing what they know you can do and what they know will sell. So, I received a lot of feedback from people who wanted to know if there were going to be recipes in this book. And when I said that there weren't going to be, they asked me if I would put recipes in it, if they told me to.

The shoehorning was so overt. But what I think it's really sad is that in talking about this kind of thing, what I think is really some of the most wonderful potential of food writing, I think — I want to be sure to mention that I actually feel writing about food taught me how to write the way that I write today. Which is that food writing is inherently concrete and very specific writing. It insists on the specific over the general. 

Nobody wants to read a general piece about hanger steaks unless we're going to talk about the ways that cows are bred for it, or the right mixture of cream for them, or whether they should be grass fed, or how you should cut a hanger steak, but that's not the food writing that I have ever wanted to do, or to read. 

Food writing, I think, taught me how to drop down into a scene through concrete information and imagery in a way that you have to be able to do to produce most types of creative narratives.

I'm not trained as a novelist. I'm also not trained as a food writer. But food writing really taught me how to do what we think of as writing that feels immersive and that feels real, because food writing is so specific, because food is inherently so concrete and specific. So, I think that, when I — so, go ahead. 

Alicia: No, no, go — you go. [Laughter.]

Molly: Oh, alright. 

I was just going to say that I teach memoir a lot. And even when I'm teaching general craft of memoir, I find it really helpful to use prompts and examples of really good, narrative food writing, because it's so clear the way that food can work as a device to anchor a story or to drop a reader down into a seat. 

Alicia: Right.

No, I was gonna say that food writing really taught me how to write, too, and I think the only reason I can write about things that aren't food now is because I spent so much time deeply, deeply embedded in just writing specifically about food. And just, I think, yeah, once you dive into food and you realize how much it touches everything, you realize that it also provides you the tools to discuss pretty much anything.

Which is why it's bad — I think it's bad — to say that food writing is shallow and etc., etc., just because it so often is in terms of what we most see with food writing. But I do think that if you — when you get deeper into it, you realize that it doesn't have to be as shallow as we think it is. 

I mean, I wish that I felt like, ‘Oh, yes, I'm a food writer,’ really explained what I am because I’m — same thing, I tell that to strangers all the time. It's like, ‘No, I'm a food writer,’ just to explain myself. But I — all that it connotes is so unpleasant to be attached to.

Molly: Yeah, I feel like it has been really — all this writing is shaped by market forces. But I feel like food writing in particular has been — I don't know, I'm probably talking about things I don't really know about. But I just feel like when I think about, ok, the fact that we all consume food, right? Every single one of us human beings. Not all of us read novels, right? I mean, all of us eat food. Not all of us read novels. 

I feel like food has been — sort of, food writing has been more — what am I trying to say? My god, I'm really feeling the fact that I have not finished my first cup of coffee here. 

Food writing, I feel like it has somehow been more sort of buffeted by the winds of the market and has bent to it more than some other types of writing. But maybe that's because food writing also has a useful and prescriptive role to play for so many people. It brushes up against everyone in a way that we don't ask literary fiction to do, or literary nonfiction.

Do you know what I mean? I don't know if I’m making any sense. 

Alicia: No, that does make sense. It does make sense that there's a push to make it general and approachable that we don't demand of other things. We demand nothing of the novel, because a novel can be anything and the way it is written can be anything, but we demand food writing be clear eyed and straightforward. 

I've talked a lot about this to other people, that because there hasn't been — now there is, and you see so much butting up against it, this — that there is cultural criticism in food now. There is criticism of the state of food writing. And so, people are really having strong reactions to that because it's sort of raining on their parade, I guess. 

But, in other art forms and other aspects of culture, there is that long-standing measure of criticism amongst people. And I think that not having that in food has made it be this very kind of boring, or interpreted as boring, genre of writing.

Molly: Mm-hmm. 

Yeah, that's a really good point. I think about it, like I just finished reading ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo. Have you read it? 

Alicia: I haven't. 

Molly: It's an amazing novel. It won the Booker Prize early in 2019, I think. 

Anyway, but what I was thinking about is that in her bio, on the back of it, it says like, ‘She has written in tons of different genres.’ I'm paraphrasing here. 

But I think about the people I know who started out as novelists, let's say, and have branched into other things, or occasionally published personal essay, or someone like Kate Christian — sorry, Kate Christensen, who is primarily known as a novelist, but has done a lot of food writing in the last, what, 5 to 10 years. 

There's no question that if you have established yourself in fiction, you can make whatever crossovers you want. And of course, I mean, all of this has to do with, I think, the way that we hold up the novel as the highest form of writing. 

But I would like some day to have had a kind of career where it would say on the back of my book, ‘Molly Wizenberg has written in eight gazillion genres.’ 

Because I've never — I've always wanted to write about what I am trying to understand, like what I am engaged in grappling with. And that's never just one thing.

Alicia: Right. 

No, it's very interesting. I think it's a very U.S. idea, too, that writers have to kind of stay in one lane for their whole careers and never veer out of that. And I don't have any real evidence for that, other than so many European writers that I read, it's like, ‘Oh, this person writes novels, and writes literary criticism, and does a radio show.’ There's just so much more cross-pollination between cultural fields. And I think that we do ourselves a disservice. 

But, I think, it does feel very U.S. to me at this point. The more I try and read up — yeah, it’s — where it's like, ‘You do one thing, and you do it, and you never stray from that. And if you stray from that, we're going to be trying to put you back in a box.’

Which is, I think, what happened with you with ‘Fixed Stars,’ which is that you completely broke out of writing food memoir, but everyone was like, ‘No, food memoir, it's a food memoir.’ And it's really interesting to watch that happen.

Molly: Yeah, and I think it is totally because of our feeling that something cannot succeed unless it makes money. So, yeah, if that is our only — if that's our only measure, yeah, we all have to keep doing whatever we've done that has had any measure of success. 

God, it was really demoralizing for me. Once I had finished writing the proposal, and then shopping it around, and talking to a number of editors before sort of settling on one and moving forward with them, it took a long time for me to un-hear all the things that these editors had said to me, or asked of me when I had phone calls with them. Because, they were — some of them were really openly averse to publishing anything else that I did. No matter what it was or how much they liked the proposal, they wanted me to keep doing what they knew would be a safe bet for them. And of course, they didn't want to lose money on it. 

But, it's so sad. It was so clear to me when I wound up with my current publisher, who — so Abrams is only recently branching into narrative nonfiction. They've done a lot of incredible books that are art books, and books that are heavily illustrated and beautifully designed. But I think that they were actually willing to see the book for what it could be, and to be really interested in it not only as a narrative, but also as an object that they wanted to allow to be beautiful. Whereas other publishers, I got to have no say in what the actual object looked like, or felt like. And it felt quite radical at times.

Alicia: Right. 

And, I mean, I know you want to do other kinds of writing, but memoir has basically been your genre and very fruitful for you. Why do you think that is and do you think you'll step away from it?

Molly: When I started writing this most recent book, I felt really embarrassed by the fact that here I was, about to start writing a third memoir. And I still sort of struggle with that feeling. It feels very different to say, ‘I'm a memoirist,’ like that seems to have sort of a finite end date, as opposed to saying like, ‘I'm a novelist, or I write cultural criticism.’ I feel like at some point, I should probably get over it and move on. 

So, I don't know. Because the truth is, I have always used writing as a mechanism for trying to make sense of my life, and to figure out what I'm gonna do about this life. And I think that people do that in many different genres. And I happen to do it by writing pretty directly about myself. I would like to think that maybe I will find some other ways of doing that. But I don't really have — I’ve never had an impulse toward fiction. I just haven't. 

So I don't know, I think that I am a nonfiction writer. And for as much as I would like there to be a different word for what I'm doing, yeah, I think that I am sort of a serial writer about my own experience and where it kind of rubbed up against the world.

Alicia: Right.

Well, in this book, there's — I was actually like, ‘Oh, wow, it's odd to read a memoir that has so many endnotes.’ And so I do think that this memoir is super-engaged with the world and with other writing in a way that most memoirs are not. I don't know if that was like a thing you had in mind going in, or—

Molly: So, when I was, when I thought that I was going to wind up being in an academic [position], and being in anthropology, I always felt very torn about how to feel that I could be of use somehow. 

Because, in truth, the part that I loved the most about being a graduate student in anthropology was being presented with all of these different writer’s ways of understanding the world, and their theories, and their framework, and their — I just sort of wanted to spend my whole life having someone say, to me, ‘Here are some books that you should read that will make you see the world differently, and let's talk about them.’ And, of course, that is not what it means to be an anthropologist in academia. 

And so, it has taken me a while to figure out how to make that same — how to make that part of me, how to give that part of me a home in my writing. Because yeah, food writing, I didn't feel like — it didn't have space for me to talk about Foucault’s ideas on the history of sexuality, which had been so mind-blowing to me in grad school, and things like that. 

But, I missed getting to steep myself in the world of ideas and theory, however unmarketable they were. I missed getting to steep myself in the world of ideas and thought for the sake of understanding, not for the sake of selling something or changing necessarily policy. 

And so, when I started thinking that I might write the book that became ‘The Fixed Stars,’ I started thinking about it because I was doing so much reading at that point, about queerness, and about historical movements in queerness, and ways of understanding sexuality. And I was trying to understand my own life, kind of doing a personal anthropology on myself. 

And so then to take that and actively make it talk on the page with my own writing. I mean, that was what I wanted to do with this book. And I just, I'm so grateful that I landed with a publisher who let me do that, because, wow, there were a lot who didn't want to let me do that.

Alicia: That's so disappointing, but not surprising at all. Yeah, they don't want anyone outside their boxes.

Well, for you, is cooking a political act?

Molly: Oh, yes. Yes, I mean, at the most basic level, you can't source food, access food in any way without entering into these relationships of power and privilege. 

And for me, beyond that, I mean, beyond my — beyond the thought that I think it's so important to put in where we put our dollars in terms of sourcing food, supporting local restaurants, and local businesses, and things like that. For me, because I am so much of a homebody and a home cook, I, more and more, feel cooking is a way for me of asserting the value of the domestic sphere and care work in a way that is not supported in our broader political climate. I mean, I think about — especially since the pandemic started.

And I have a spouse who does not feel as proficient at cooking as I do. And so, I do pretty much all the cooking. And the number of meals that I have prepared and the amount of care that I — because I have a more flexible job as a writer then my spouse does as a psychotherapist, the time that I put into cooking and doing care work for our child and caring for our home, can you even imagine if those things were compensated?

So, yeah, it feels hugely political to me, the fact that I spent so many — that I care about caring for my family this way, and spending our money on groceries in an thoughtful way, and then that I'm still worrying about where money's gonna come from. It feels so messed up to me that the domestic work that actually fuels the world doesn't, isn't valued in this world. 

So yeah, that's kind of a roundabout way of saying this. But yeah, I feel like when I cook, I am within my family creating a moment and creating a life that I'm choosing to put real care and time into, despite the fact that if the world had its way, no one would care about it. But I care about it. I don't know if that makes any sense.

Alicia: Oh, it makes complete sense. It makes complete sense. 

And I love that, because so many — so few people have given me an answer that recognizes the domestic labor that is uncompensated. And, so I think that that's such a good addition to this conversation around the politics of food. We have to have conversations about how it manifests in the home, for sure.

Molly: Yeah, I mean, I think especially in this period when we're all sort of in and out of lockdown, and I have a child who's in second grade and who is, whose school is online right now. Yeah, I am one of those people you read about in articles, like, ‘Where is my career going to go?’ Because right now my entire world is consumed with shepherding my child through school and cooking 21 meals a week. But there's never been any sort of conversation, at least in U.S. policy, about how we are actively going to value that, the work that underlies keeping us all alive.

Alicia: Yeah. 

Well, thank you so much, Molly, for coming on.

Molly: Oh, my gosh, it was such a pleasure talking with you. I love reading your newsletter every week, and I'm so happy to become a paying subscriber.

Alicia: Well, thank you. Thank you again.