How did HBO change television forever? James Andrew Miller will be here to talk about his new book, “Tinderbox.” And in what ways did immigrant women revolutionize American food? Mayukh Sen tells us about his first book, “Taste Makers.” Plus, my colleagues and I will talk about what we’re reading. This is the Book Review podcast from The New York Times. It’s December 10th. I’m Pamela Paul.
James Andrew Miller joins us now from Los Angeles. He is the author of the new book, “Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers.” Jim, thanks for being here.
Thanks for having me.
Very suitably in L.A. This is not your first oral history. You’ve done one of “SNL,” CAA, ESPN. I was going to say they all have three initials, but we have one exception. What draws you to doing oral history as a form?
I think it’s the fact that I realize that no matter what I can do on the keyboard, you can’t replace the intimacy and the individuality of people’s voices. And I think that hearing directly from people creates another layer of understanding for the reader. There’s a real intimacy. You get to hear people talk about their work and about their experiences in ways that you just can’t do with prose. I mean, you can characterize it, but this started with the “SNL” book and just the idea of trying to capture someone like Dan Aykroyd’s voice when they’re telling stories.
I find it to be pretty captivating and transparent. The level of transparency is much higher than anything that you can do with prose. Although, obviously, prose is a big part of oral history because there is a narrative. It’s not just throwing quotes out on pages there. You do have to tell a story, and you do want to make sure that you’re adding context and perspective and facts and things along the way for the reader. But I just, I love hearing from people directly.
So from an outsider’s perspective, they might say, well, that looks easy. All you have to do is have these really fun conversations and then throw them all on the page. I know that that’s not what it takes, but explain a little for listeners what’s involved in creating an oral history once you have done all those interviews.
The way I’ve been able to figure it out is I think the oral history takes me twice as long. Any of these four books would have been done in half the time if I didn’t have to adhere to the oral history structure. I mean, I start with an outline, and I have a basic understanding of who I want to talk to. But then, the great part of an oral history is you’re talking to someone and they mention someone else or they mention an event or something. And then you’re all of a sudden down another rabbit hole with someone else.
And now you have a series of quotes and an entire interview sometimes with people that you didn’t imagine. And so now, the narrative has to get restructured and you have to account for some of these detours. And you also have to make sure that the quotes move together in a way that supports the narrative. You don’t want there to be all of a sudden harsh right angles or synapses in the narrative itself. I get a little OCD about placement of quotes and everything else.
But, I mean, for one page, I remember I probably spent two days thinking about this. There’s four quotes from people. How do I line this up for the reader? How does it support the narrative? How does it support the facts that I’m trying to download to the reader? And where, if at all, should I come in and do a course correct? Or should I just let this play out? So I’m not trying to say that this is jackhammering at four o’clock in the morning on a busy highway. But I do try and make sure that everything that’s on the page is there for a very, very specific reason.
And of course, the other thing is I have a tendency to go long. And so, sometimes I’m at the point where I’m cutting 200 or 300 pages. And you all of a sudden realize that the bar has to get higher. That the price of admission has gotten higher because you have so many people talking about things that you feel are worthwhile. And so then you have to say goodbye to some of those stories. And stories that people tell me and then they say, “Oh, I can’t wait for my parents or somebody to see this” or something. Then all of a sudden, you have to say to them, “Yeah, I’m sorry, that didn’t make the cut.”
You did 750 interviews. Does that mean 750 different people, or were some of those repeat interviews with the same people?
It was more than 500 individuals, but — it was actually more than 550, I believe. But there are certain key people — there was one person I interviewed 41 times.
Who was that?
I interviewed Jerry Levin, who was the chairman of Time Warner AOL, who hadn’t spoken really publicly about any of these things in 15 years. I think people that are very important to the story, I have a habit of — you do a little bit at a time or you go to lunch, and then there’s a follow-up. Or sometimes, I will admit, I ask the same question six or seven times at various points.
Over the course of a year, I think I asked Jeff Bewkes, who was the former chairman, the same question maybe six or seven times. Because I’m not testing them, I’m trying to understand, I’m trying to get the layers. Same thing with someone like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Laura Dern or a lot of actors from HBO history. You try and get to different levels. And a lot of times, it proves to be successful, because you’re using what they gave you before as a launching point rather than coming into it cold. And then you can get to a deeper level.
Or I can say to them, “That’s interesting, because last time we talked about this, you mentioned x. And now you’re focused on y. Why do you think there’s a disparity?” Or “Can you tell me about the connective tissue between these two answers?”
You started off with the book on “Saturday Night Live” with these oral histories. That’s such an obvious and amazing subject for oral history, because you have these incredible personalities and it was such a crazy time. Since then, how have you chosen what companies to make your subject matter?
These four entities — “Saturday Night Live,” ESPN, Creative Artists Agency, and HBO — were all born in the 1970s. They were born from the most humble of origins. In fact, 10 minutes before the first show on “Saturday Night Live,” Chevy Chase looked at one of the producers and said, “What do you think I should do after this?” Because there were no expectations that it was going to survive.
CAA was a bunch of bridge tables with their wives answering the phone after they had been fired by the William Morris Agency. ESPN was a pile of dirt in a place called Bristol, Connecticut. And when employees would get their paychecks on Wednesday, they’d run to the bank because they thought that there was not going to be any money if they waited. And HBO, of course, was almost canceled, almost basically deleted by Time Inc., its parent company, several times in its formative years. So all four of these are recognizable brands. They’ve all had a considerable impact on the culture, the technology, and the world of media and television. And so I guess that’s been my spine.
I mean, you mentioned the impact on the culture. To what extent are these books — and this book in particular — “Tinderbox,” on HBO— a business story, and to what extent is it about the culture and the art involved?
Well, because I try and write, quote, “books of record,” they wind up being somewhat schizophrenic, right? Because there are several arteries that need to be served. You need to tell the story of the business story. In all these cases, how is it decided that this was going to even begin? What were some of the chutes and ladders along the way? In the case of HBO, HBO was never on its own. I mean, there’s never been a stock called HBO, right? Always been owned by Time Inc., then Time Warner, then Time Warner AOL, then AT&T, and now Discovery.
So I have to trace the pedigree of those parent organizations or the business story of it. What were the financial exigencies involved? And then, of course, you have what I consider to be the cultural component. What was it like to work at these places? And it’s one of my favorite parts of the book, because you get to talk to employees. And what was it like when it was a very small organization? What were the inflection points when it became bigger? How did things change? What was it like to be at those meetings?
And then you start to go into deeper things, like the growth of female executives over this time, or how certain people came and stayed there or got fired, and all the things like that. And then, of course, then there’s also the impact on the culture. And when, in the case of HBO, when you’re talking about shows like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” and “The Wire” and it goes on and on and on, not to mention the documentary work and the work that they did in sports and late night shows, it just becomes a diverse and very chaotic roadmap. And that’s another reason why the narrative has to be so clean, because you need to make sure that the reader is able to follow along as you chart the course of this history.
All right, let’s talk a little bit about the early days of HBO, Home Box Office. Was it the first premium cable channel? Did it start out that way? What were its competitors at that time?
Dating back to the late 1940s actually, there were various experiments with pay television. And they all failed miserably. By the time HBO went on the air in 1972, even though it was only 345 subscribers in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, it wound up being the first formidable attempt to do pay television. In the 1950s, there had been some attempts. But actually, movie theater owners and the networks, as you can imagine, always tried to clamp them down. So it was a bad combination of enemies and poor technology that made it almost impossible for anything to survive.
What made HBO different? How did it survive those early days?
I think it survived because its parent, Time Inc., which at that point was one of the venerable journalistic institutions and the home for all these incredible brands like People Magazine and Time Magazine, of course, Sports Illustrated and others — there were people there who were very interested in diversification. They had dipped their toes into cable television by that time. And they were determined to see if this thing could go.
One of the things that I was able to track down, though, was how many times they almost hit the delete key on HBO. And in fact, one of the things that Jerry Levin shares, which was a lot of fun, was that they had a mandate to get 20,000 homes by July 1st of 1973. And if they hadn’t done it, Time Inc. was going to cancel. And they started giving away free turkeys and stopped reporting a lot of the cancellations just so they could meet that threshold. If they had done it by the books, they wouldn’t have made 20,000, and the thing would have been canceled.
Today, HBO is known, of course, primarily as a venue for original programming, whether it’s “The Sopranos,” or “Euphoria,” or “Game of Thrones,” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Was it from its origins about original programming, or was it primarily about re-airing movies? And when did that transition occur?
HBO goes on the air in 1972. And I would say that for the first 10 years, at least, its value proposition, what it was being sold on, was the fact that you could get uncut movies uninterrupted at home. And there was also a great combination of some live sports, particularly boxing, that people could get as well. And so there was no real original programming. In fact, if you go back and look at some of the titles, they didn’t have the money to actually produce something. So they were just buying some things. Like the Polka Festival in Pennsylvania was their first big event. Nothing that anybody was going to write home about.
And then what happened was, because of the advent of the VCR and the fact that people then could go to their corner Blockbuster and get these tapes and watch these movies at home, they realized that they had to do more. And that’s when they did that paradigm shift to creating shows on their own and also doing movies.
So it had to be more about just not having commercials. There had to be something else.
Exactly. And they also started to do — I mean, look, the mandate was, let’s just do what the networks can’t. And that manifested itself with basically three headlines. One, let’s show the violence that they can’t. Let’s show the curse words that they can’t. So George Carlin did his famous routine on HBO of the seven words you can’t say on television. And let’s be sexual in nature in a way that networks can’t. So Sheila Nevins, who was there in the early ‘80s, she did this late night show called “Eros,” which then was changed to “Real Sex,” which became a huge hit for the company.
And again, you’re coming back to things where you can’t see it on the network, and these were incredibly unique to HBO.
By the time you have Blockbuster Video and you have VCRs and people are able to watch these kinds of things on their own time and not wait for it to come on HBO, you also have competing premium cable channels, right, like Showtime and Starz. You didn’t write this book about Showtime, you didn’t write it about Starz. What made HBO different from those other premium primarily movie-based channels? Was it the original programming?
Showtime, Starz, The Movie Channel — they never got the traction, particularly early on, that HBO did, because HBO was first to market. They had a lot of support from Time Inc. I mean, Michael Fuchs, who was basically the George Washington of HBO, was incredibly aggressive. And so he made sure that the company had incredible talent relations. So I think that I mentioned in the introduction that when HBO went on the air, there were probably less than a dozen comedy clubs and big comedy clubs in the United States.
And 10 years later, there were hundreds. They went out and made all these deals with George Carlin and Billy Crystal and, I mean, Whoopi Goldberg and everybody. And it became one of these things that created a moat around HBO. So they had a built-in talent pool that helped them even before they were doing original series. And the same thing with music. Huge concerts with Bette Midler and tons of other artists — Whitney Houston and others — that made sure that they had people coming back to them all the time and spending money that their competition couldn’t do.
I’d forgotten about all this. You’re catapulting me back to the living room sofa of the 1980s. And I’m remembering, oh right, “Comic Relief” and Bette Midler and all of these things that were relentlessly promoted on HBO. If you had to say what it is — and perhaps because this is an oral history, different people said different things about what made it successful — what were the primary factors that led to HBO’s creative and business success?
I think that in its first decade, it made a very smart — and this was Fuchs again — a very smart, calculated decision to not try and be a fourth network. It did the opposite. And so, as a result, every programming decision went through a maze. Could you do this on a network? And, is this a network show? Well, then, forget it. We don’t want it. It was funny because when they started “Oz,” which was their first big drama — there had been a couple others before, but “Oz” was their big drama.
The programming executive Chris Albrecht said to Tom Fontana, who created the show, he said, “Let me ask you a question. You’ve worked in network your whole career. Has there ever been anything that you always wanted to do that the networks wouldn’t let you do?” And he said, “Yes, I wanted to kill the lead character in their first episode.” And Albrecht looks at him and says, “Go do it.” I mean, they were obsessed with breaking rules. They were obsessed with making sure that there was a uniqueness. The DNA to an HBO show was different.
And so you didn’t see a lot of cop shows. You didn’t see medical shows. You saw very, very particular shows. And the other thing that they did, which has served them very, very well through the years, was that they made sure that they were a place that people who had worked in both television and movies before and didn’t have a lot of control because studios like to have the power and networks like to have the power — they gave them to the creators.
And so, somebody like Garry Shandling and somebody like Larry — I mean, Larry David, I asked — he could have never done “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for a network. He gets to do whatever he wants to do. And giving the creators and giving the stars that kind of flexibility and freedom was also a big powerful engine for their growth.
I think when most people — and again, maybe I’m just reflecting the people that I talk to — think of HBO in like, what was the first big show, when did it all change — they tend to cite “The Sopranos.” But you said “Oz.” I mean, what were the big successes that really made the difference in HBO’s trajectory?
First of all, there were amazing documentaries that were winning lots of awards about the AIDS Quilt, about — they took on sexuality and gender issues. They took on Vietnam. They took on race way before the networks ever did. And they got a lot of attention. Documentaries and original movies were incredible drivers. But in terms of series, there was a little show called “Dream On” that was done by the duo who would live on to create “Friends.” It was a popular little hit. It wasn’t going to bring in millions, but it got a lot of attention.
So did “1st & 10,” which was this wacky, very sexually provocative show with Delta Burke and a guy named O.J. Simpson, which had a lot of male viewers. And of course “Larry Sanders,” which predated any of the other comedies that we associate with HBO. And it was the first show that got enormous attention inside Hollywood. And what that meant was that people loved it, they loved what HBO was doing in terms of giving freedom to creators. And it brought in a slew of talent into the network.
You mentioned earlier that you had these long conversations with Jerry Levin. Who were some of the other really key sources for you on this book? And maybe did any of them surprise you in how valuable they were?
One of the things that struck me was just how emotional people were. First of all, HBO was a place that people didn’t date, they married. There were people that were there for 20 years, 25 years, 30, 35 years. They stayed there for their careers. And they were very, very wedded to it. And, I mean, I’m not bragging about this, but, look, I’m sure there were at least more than a dozen people who cried during interviews. Who cried. Who called me back the next day and said, “Now I have PTSD revisiting some of what I went through.” Or, “I sat down with my children last night and started telling them some of the stories that we were talking about.”
Who cried? I want to know.
Laura Dern, who — I mean, she started acting when she was 14. She comes from acting royalty. She’s won all sorts of awards. When she was talking about her series “Enlightened,” she was incredibly emotional. She won the Golden Globe, then HBO canceled it the second year, after the second year. And just going through that and what she went through in that show was incredible. And I think that Lisa Kudrow, again, who had just come off “Friends,” she was in a show that HBO canceled. And it was very, very emotional. People talking about Jim Gandolfini dying and all sorts of things.
One of the things that I realized was that this was not just a place that people checked in on a time clock and left. It was like a tsunami that washed over their lives. And a lot of times, they met their spouse there, or their work ethic caused a divorce, or there were all sorts of tangential things coming off of being part of the HBO experience that I try and cover in the book. And they wind up being incredibly powerful.
There also was a very, very significant amount of important people who got fired and were there for a long time. And for them to talk about those experiences, I think was very, very powerful, and I was deeply grateful for how open they became. Sometimes they were saying things that they hadn’t even said to their own families.
Who wouldn’t talk to you?
Eddie Murphy said no. But I was told it wasn’t personal. It was about his comedy special back in the ‘80s. And when you look back on that comedy special, I think it was somewhat politically incorrect.
Right. Has not really stood the test of time in some ways.
What would you want to ask him if you had gotten to talk to him?
I wanted to talk about the impact that that one night had on his career. I mean, look, Roseanne Barr, she said without her HBO special, forget about it. I mean, it was just huge in her life. And there were many, many others. Billy Crystal said “HBO saved me.” He was going to be on “Saturday Night Live,” which I chronicled in the “SNL” book. And then he actually wound up walking out with his manager on opening night before the show went on the air and wasn’t able to get back on that cast for many years after.
But in between, he said there was a life raft, and it was called HBO and it came along. Person after person, HBO elevated them to a level of notoriety that they just had never experienced before. I wish I would have been able to talk to George Carlin and Robin Williams, and of course, Jim Gandolfini. There’s always that situation where some important people are no longer with us.
Last question. For many years, obviously, when you talked about HBO, it was in the context of cable television. And now, of course, we’re in a world of streaming. And HBO for so long, I mean, it, as you mentioned earlier, it changed ownership. But for so long, it was essentially within the Time Warner family. And now it’s Discovery. How well poised do you think is HBO in this very different future? New ownership, really completely transformed ways of viewing content.
That’s a great question. It’s something that the people at Discovery are wrestling with now as they wait for final approval. But, look, sometimes when the Lord wants to punish you, he answers your prayers. And HBO had such a successful run, particularly from 1999 when “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” just exploded on to the culture. And then there was other hits right after that — “Six Feet Under” and “The Wire,” whatever — that I do think that they got a little complacent.
And for a company that had been so savvy technologically, there was this thing called Netflix that they paid attention to. At one point, there were people inside HBO who said, “Let’s just buy this thing.” But that didn’t work out. One of the things that happened around 2016, 2017, was it was no longer a level playing field. And they started to be — instead of the dominant player, they started to be the one who had their nose pressed up against the proverbial window, wanting the kind of subscriber base that Netflix had.
Look, I think that the next two or three years is going to determine maybe perhaps the next decade in the streaming wars. There’s going to be obviously consolidation, and there’s going to be some winners, and there’s going to be some losers. But I don’t think it can stay the way it is. And HBO went through some real hiccups with HBO Max. But I think that David Zaslav, who’s coming into Discovery, and Casey Bloys, who runs all the content, I think they’re determined to get back on terra firma and somehow keep the brand alive for a new era.
All right, well, we will all be watching. And until then, we can read about how HBO got here. The book is called “Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers,” by James Andrew Miller. Jim, thanks again for being here.
Thanks for having me. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So here’s a request for our listeners. I get lots of feedback from you — some complaints, lots of kind words. Really appreciate it. You can always reach me directly at [email protected] I will write back. But you can also, if you feel moved to do so, review us on any platform where you download the podcast, whether that’s iTunes or Stitcher or Google Play or somewhere else. Please feel free to review us, and of course, email us at any time.
Mayukh Sen joins us now, like many debut authors, from Brooklyn. His first book is called “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America.” Mayukh, thanks for being here.
Thank you for having me. I’m so honored.
So tell me, where did this idea come from? How did you decide to write this book? To decide on seven immigrant women — where did this originate?
I first had the idea for this book back in 2017 when I was a staff writer at a site called Food52. I was 25 back then. And I was writing a lot of stories on figures who belonged to marginalized communities who worked in the food world in some capacity, whether they were chefs, restaurateurs, cookbook authors, what have you. And these were usually figures I felt had not been honored sufficiently in cultural memory in the same way that someone like, say, Julia Child has.
And oftentimes, these people were immigrants, immigrants of color. People of color more generally, women of color, queer people, folks who belonged to all of these different communities. And so a friend of mine looked at my budding body of work at Food52, and he was like, “Huh, I wonder if there’s a larger project here. And maybe it focuses on immigration and food.” And I was like, oh, that’s interesting. But I’m 12 years old right now. I am far too young to take on a project like a book.
So I put it in my back pocket. Fast forward a year later when I’m the ripe old age of 26. I’m like, OK, I am ready to write a book. And I had noticed over the course of that year the proliferation of so many talking points in the American food media that were along the lines of, “immigrants get the job done” and “immigrants feed America.” And I want to be charitable here and say that maybe the editors and institutions who are peddling these talking points were well-intentioned. Yet to me, these talking points continue to center a certain kind of reader whom the American food media has privileged for so long.
That is someone who is white, middle to upper middle class. And immigrants themselves and their labor and their aspirations gets abstracted when you say something like “immigrants get the job done” and “immigrants feed America.” There’s this presumed “us” there who is that privileged consumer. And I felt as though the best way for me to orient readers away from that sort of perspective was to write the stories of seven immigrants, and immigrant women in particular, who had really labored to shape the way that Americans cook and eat today. And I felt as though that was all I could really do within my very limited skill set as a storyteller. So that’s where this book began.
At the old age now of 29 with the book out, presumably.
So did you immediately say it was going to be just women, and why? And was there a man that you thought, oh darn, I have to lose this person?
I was pretty firm in my resolve to focus just on women, just because so much of my storytelling at places like Food52 early in my food writing career had focused on women. And I struggle to understand or articulate really why at first. Because I realized that to this world, I present as a man. I’m a queer person. And over the course of writing this book, I really came to put words to this experience in my perspective. And I came to understand that as a queer person, I have throughout my entire life had a complicated relationship to gender and gender expression.
And that might explain why I feel a sense of kinship with the stories of women more often than I do with the stories of men. And I think that’s why I was gravitating towards these stories early on in my career. So it felt natural to me. Yet I still had to fight that anxiety as I was writing this book. The sense that I do present to this world as a man, even if that doesn’t quite reflect the inner weather of my own gender identity, gender expression.
And I’m sure that many people will look at me and ask, why is it that this person who presents as a man is materially benefiting from telling these stories? Which is why I want to be as sensitive and careful in how I rendered these stories.
In focusing on women, was that because it was particularly more difficult for women to enter the American food world, or was the American food world more hospitable?
My sense is that it was certainly more difficult for women to find their footing in the culinary world in America and certainly very difficult for them to be remembered as well. I mentioned Julia Child in this book. And she is one of the few women who’s really had stamina in American cultural memory. Yet, so often, I found that the work of women in the culinary realm gets very easily overwritten and erased, especially in the proverbial history books.
And I really wanted to combat that with this book. Because when readers pick this book up, they might not know the names of most of these seven women. I gather they might the name of Marcella Hazan, just because she is a well-known figure among American home cooks. Her famous tomato sauce, for example.
I mean, and that one stood out. I was curious why you chose to include her.
To some extent, I wanted to provide an easy entry point for some readers who might have a passing interest in cooking. They might see this book and say, oh, I have heard the name Marcella Hazan. I’m interested to see how she rose to fame and rose to such prominence. But she was such a fascinating figure for me in narrative terms, because she is someone whom many detractors, let’s say, may have characterized as a, quote, unquote, “difficult woman,” which is, of course, such a sexist dog whistle. Yet, in spite of such prejudices, she was able to rise to a place with such prominence in the American mind in a way that a lot of these other women in my book have not been able to. And I really wanted to understand why through writing a chapter on her.
All right, I want to go to the other six women. But while we’re on Marcella, let’s stay here for a moment. Where did she immigrate from? Obviously Italy, but where in Italy? And how did she become so prominent as a cookbook author in particular?
So she had been born in — oh my goodness, I’m going to butcher the pronunciation here — Cesenatico, I believe, which is in the region of Emilia-Romagna.
Ah, the food center of Italy.
She came to America from there. And she moved to Queens, I believe, in the mid-20th century with her husband Victor, who is still alive — although she is not. And she fell into food. She was not an able cook by any means when she came to America. She only knew how to make gruel for pigs during World War II. That was the extent of her culinary expertise. Yet once she came to America, she moved to Forest Hills, Queens, I believe, and she felt extremely lonely. And the food made her feel so lonely, because she just found American food culture completely baffling. She went —
Yeah, exactly. And I don’t blame her. But she went to a cafe in her early days, for example, and had a hamburger. And she was totally perplexed by the idea of ketchup and this idea that you could pour just a bunch of the sludge on this glorious meat or whatever. And she hated supermarkets. She just could not quite get used to culinary life in America. And so she felt as though the best way to make a home for herself, really acclimate to this otherwise unfamiliar environment, was to begin cooking.
So she began spending time with the cookbooks of an Italian food writer named Ada Boni, whose name I hope I’m not mispronouncing but I probably am. And through that, she became a more skilled cook, and she eventually began teaching cooking, which led to her first cookbook in 1973. And then she became a huge star.
How did she even get that first cookbook deal in the early ‘70s? Was that a time in which cookbook editors were more open to women cookbook writers, and particularly the immigrant women?
I would say after the 1965 Hart-Celler Act is when you see an increased appetite — sorry for the pun.
That’s OK. Puns and mispronunciations of names are perfectly acceptable on this podcast.
Wonderful. I hope listeners feel the same. But I believe it’s after 1965 when you see a lot of publishers becoming more open to publishing cookbooks by immigrant female authors in particular because of loosening of immigration laws. And so that was the time in which Marcella was entering the fray, so to speak. And around that same time, you have figures like the Indian-born actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey, who comes out with her first cookbook, “An Invitation to Indian Cooking,” in 1973. And there are a few other figures in my book, like the French-born Madeleine Kamman, whose first book comes out in 1971. It’s called “The Making of a Cook.” So there certainly is an increased fervor in the publishing landscape for those sorts of cookbooks.
You chose not to include Jaffrey as a chapter.
Yeah. And it’s tough, because I have to admit, when I was in the proposal stage for this book, I did include her, because she is such a rich, compelling character in narrative terms. And I’m someone who grew up wanting to be a film critic, actually. And so the fact that she straddled these two worlds of food and film because of her work as an actress fascinated me endlessly. Yet I found myself gravitating more towards the story of Julie Sahni, who was very much her contemporary and whose narrative I feel does not get as much attention as it might merit, especially because she is reportedly, and according to my research, the first Indian woman to be an executive chef of a New York restaurant, which is quite an accomplishment.
Your chapter on her is called “Her Own Quiet Rebellion.” So tell us a little bit about her, and where was she a chef?
She was born in India. And Julie had a fascinating life, because she began her childhood as this prodigious dancer. She did a lot of Indian classical dance. She performed around the world. And then she bounced into architecture in her college years, and that’s what brought her to America. She came in the late 1960s to study eventually at Columbia and get her graduate degree there in urban planning. And she worked for New York City in urban planning for about a decade. Yet she fell into food because she had always loved food very much. And she began her own cooking school in 1973 in Brooklyn, and her career blossomed from there.
And by the 1980s, she really devoted herself full-time to cooking. She wrote her first cookbook, “Classic Indian Cooking,” in 1980. And the attention that she received as a result of that book led to a stint as the executive chef of two restaurants in Manhattan — Nirvana Penthouse and Nirvana Club One. And this was in the mid-1980s that she was there. And just in speaking to her about her time at these restaurants, it seems so hectic.
Because she was essentially a single mother at that point. Raising a young son, working on a follow-up to her first cookbook while also serving as the executive chef of these two very popular restaurants that were hangouts for a lot of folks who were lingering around from the disco era. So she was there until 1986. And in speaking to her, I came to understand that she found the pace of that job just too frenetic to really sustain. And so she left that job and eventually just resumed teaching and wrote more cookbooks, started leading tours to India. But that is her career. But what I admire so much about Julie just as a subject is that she focuses on the work. And in writing about her and her story, I didn’t find her chasing celebrity, which you see so often even today in the American food media. And it’s quite refreshing.
Did you see that among any of the women here?
A few may have wanted to really make a name for themselves, certainly. And I try not to judge that impulse too much. Because I could relate to it, a lot. Early in my career as a food writer, I came to this industry with such a sense of fraudulence. I felt as though I did not belong in this world because I’m a queer person of color, I’m writing from a different center of gravity from most people who are my peers and my colleagues.
And to mitigate that sense of fraudulence, what I did was I chased recognition. And I was so fortunate to receive it from certain awards bodies and institutions and whatnot pretty early in my career. And that opened up a lot of access to capital and opportunity that otherwise would not have been available to me. So I was that person once upon a time. Yet now, I don’t have a desire to be famous or anything like that. Yet I understand the impulse, because that can allow you to survive in America and make enough money to live.
Well, you may not have a choice. Your name is on a book. But how did you decide in the first place? You mentioned earlier that you were also interested in film criticism, and how did you ultimately decide to go in the direction of food writing?
Well, I didn’t quite decide. It was fascinating. So I began my career as a food writer back in 2016. I had graduated from college back in 2014. And in those two years, I had been freelancing, writing about film and television and music. Basically every aspect of the culture except food. And then I get an email from this editor at Food52 asking me, “Hey, we noticed your writing on these other subjects. Have you ever thought about food writing? Because we’re hiring for a staff writer at Food52, and we don’t want a ‘food person,’ quote, unquote, to take on this job. We want someone who isn’t necessarily an avid home cook or a restaurant enthusiast to take this on and just write about broader culture through the lens of food.” And I was like, you know what? I am 24. I would love a full-time culture writing role with salary and benefits, because those were so hard to come by five years ago. And they are hard to come by now. So I was like, yeah, I’ll take it. I felt totally ridiculous in my first few months at Food52, because I had always seen food writing as the domain of rich, straight white men. I think it was probably “Mystic Pizza” or some movie that lodged this idea in my head. All food writers are just stuffy dudes.
That was so far from the way that I saw myself. And so I never thought that food writing was really an option for me. But I’ve been here for five years — never expected that to happen. But here I am.
I mean, what would you say is the appeal of food writing versus — I mean, you can have criticism, obviously, cultural criticism about anything, whether it’s film or food or books. What’s the appeal about writing specifically about food? What makes it interesting?
From a pure prose perspective, I would say the opportunity and capacity for sensuality and beauty when writing about food is what I find so attractive. And I didn’t really let myself experience that joy early in my food writing career, because I was so scared about writing about food as an object. I was like, I’m going to describe it as delicious, or some cliched word, right. Yet that was the part of this book that was the least arduous. Or the most fun, let’s say, was actually allowing myself to have some fun with the food descriptions. And I don’t know that any other realm of cultural writing really provides that kind of opportunity.
A number of the women you write about in the book wrote memoirs. And I imagine that was quite helpful in the process of working on the book. Chao Yang Buwei and Elena Zelayeta, for example, both wrote memoirs. How did you use those memoirs in writing this book, and did you check their version versus the larger record of their work and their lives?
Absolutely, yes. Those memoirs were so instrumental to me crafting each of these chapters. Because five of the seven women whom I focus on in this book are no longer with us. And in the absence of their presence, I really wanted to understand how they spoke and how they wanted to present themselves to the world. And I really wanted to find them speaking in their own words. And so, the way that I sought that out was to find their memoirs or cookbooks with memoiristic passages or any interviews that they gave throughout their lifetime that really presented themselves speaking without that filter.
So that was the first step in building each of those chapters, the posthumous ones, was to find each woman speaking in her own words. And that was the foundation of each chapter. And then after that, that’s when I started supplementary reporting and research. And I was digging around on ProQuest and Newspapers.com to find how these women were rendered by the press, let’s say, in their lifetimes, and whether that went against the way that they presented themselves in their memoirs, or if those two aligned.
So memoirs, obviously, present one form of writing. But many of them also wrote cookbooks. So I’m curious, what do you think you can tell about a person by reading their cookbooks?
Well, when you look at cookbooks just in terms of ingredients, for example, you can tell a lot about the challenges certain women face, let’s say, and maybe the audience for whom she was writing. For example, you’ll see that early on in this book of mine, some of the women who I write about were offering ingredient substitutions that maybe cooks in their countries of origin may not have used, because they were writing for a very specific kind of audience and a general audience, let’s say, of white middle to upper middle class Americans who might not have access to certain ingredients, and as a result, may need to use something like peanut butter for a certain Chinese dish.
And that is what I found so rich and interesting about spending time with all of these cookbooks just as documents. They really told you about the presumption of audience and just the challenges that each woman faced in writing for that audience.
One last question. Why do you think some of these names became and remain familiar to a general lightly cookbook-reading audience, say, as opposed to dedicated food writer, and some of them have just faded away?
Yeah, I think that the answer to that really is in just the press and the American food media. And I hold myself responsible for this, because I’m someone who’s practicing within the field right now. But a lot of these women, you’ll notice, did not even get obituaries from certain newspapers. And that can be —
I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Yeah, which newspaper? But I think that getting an obit in a place like The Times, for example, can really do a lot to keep a certain woman’s legacy alive and at least part of a cultural conversation. And so I think that just looking at the ways in which the press may have treated some of these women in their lifetimes, or shortly after they died, can tell us a lot about why some of them may not have had the stamina to be present in our cultural memory in the way that others had.
But when you think about why someone like Marcella Hazan has endured, it’s for a few reasons. Partially it has to do with the fact that she was seen back in 1973 as the answer for American home cooks who were maybe struggling to get Italian cooking on the table and had equated Italian cooking for so long with Chef Boyardee or Rice-A-Roni, right? And she was at the right place at the right time. And I don’t say that to disrespect her immense talent — which she certainly had, she was very, very gifted.
Yet she, like a lot of the other women in this book, also possessed material privileges that allowed them to enter this industry at all. And I do hope that moving forward, more books like mine will be written by much more talented, much more hardworking younger journalists who focus less on figures who may have had the material privileges that these seven women had.
Well, you are certainly doing your part to expand and solidify the historical record here. So thank you very much, and thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Mayukh Sen is the author of “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America.”
My colleagues John Williams and Greg Cowles join us now to talk about what they’re reading. John, let’s start with you.
Hi, Pamela. Hi, Greg. I’ve been reading a very lovely memoir that was published this year called “Now Beacon, Now Sea,” by Christopher Sorrentino. He’s a novelist normally. And he’s the son of a novelist who, in midcentury, or I guess a bit later than that, was quite well-known but isn’t very fashionable these days, Gilbert Sorrentino, who I think was a bit of an experimental fiction writer. I haven’t read him. And I actually hadn’t read Christopher before.
But I picked up this memoir because it deals with things that I tend to like, which are a close reading of one’s relationships with one’s parents and also memories of New York City. And so, it starts with this incredibly arresting and depressing image, which is Sorrentino finding his mother in her Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, apartment, and she had died quite a bit of time earlier and there were all of these New York Times copies stacked up outside her door. And somehow, people in the building hadn’t put two and two together, and so she was in quite a terrible state.
And it’s a prologue that he opens with, finding her like this. And he asks himself, what kind of a son have I been? And then throughout the book asks himself all kinds of questions about his relationships with her and his father. And what it opens out into — I would say that it’s for fans, even though it’s a very different voice, fans of Vivian Gornick’s memoirs that bring back a New York that’s pretty much vanished at this point. He remembers his mother’s childhood on the Lower East Side. She was Puerto Rican but didn’t like people to know it. But as he said, she was also very disdainful of acceptance in white society, especially among quasi-artistic bohemians, who both she and her husband held in pretty low regard. And so he does this great job of painting a portrait of them. Their marriage was, like many, strained and odd. His father was a workaholic. He wrote all day. He was very much a creature of habit. Got up at the same time, had the same food, worked for hours and hours. And so his mother was lost in that world. They moved to California for a time where he taught at Stanford, and they felt like shut-ins there for 20 years or so before coming back to New York.
But really, the book is just — it’s all about his voice and the way that he, in a very plain but smart style, gets at all of these things without really a sense of bitterness, on the one hand, or nostalgia on the other. It’s just a very clear-headed look at a family and what it means to come from strange people, which we all do, by definition. And so I’m about two-thirds of the way through. And I would recommend, if this sounds at all like your kind of thing, to also read — we had a very lovely and in my opinion accurate review of it in the Book Review, by Eleanor Henderson.
And so I would urge people to look that up as well and read that if they’d like to know more before maybe diving in themselves. Greg, what have you been reading these days?
Well, I’m finally reading a novel that spent years on the bestseller list — “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles, about the affable and aristocratic Count Alexander Rostov. He’s been sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel after the Russian Revolution and how he copes with his reduced circumstances and manages his time there over the ensuing years. I feel a little silly even summarizing what the book is about, because I feel like I’m the last person in America to finally get to “A Gentleman in Moscow.”
The book is determinedly light and impossibly charming. Sometimes I think of this kind of novel as a tap-dancing book, which is to say that it requires great technical mastery to appear very casual and effortless. And it’s almost manic in its overt eagerness to entertain. And it is truly entertaining. It has real storytelling chops. The virtues of the big old-fashioned raconteurs like a Dickens or Twain, just hurtles merrily along, juggling ideas about class and art and food and politics and decency.
I should say that besides reading it in the book, I’ve also taken to listening to the audiobook on my walks. It’s narrated by Nicholas Guy Smith, and he’s got this perfect, great, mellifluous, honeyed British voice. But at some point with this kind of novel, I always reach a moment where I ask myself, do I like tap dancing?
There are some touches in this book especially that veer on the sentimental or the twee. The count adopts a one-eyed cat and he is himself adopted in his turn, adopted in a way by a sprightly young girl who lives at the hotel, like a Russian Eloise. And I feel like a curmudgeon saying that I want more than mere entertainment. But at those moments especially, I do find myself wondering what it will all add up to. Where John said that his book opens up into this other thing, I keep wondering where this book will open up to.
And it may get there. I’m almost halfway through, but not quite halfway through. And there are hints of maybe a darker future. And it’s certainly entertaining enough that I’ll keep reading and see what it amounts to. Because all of America can’t be wrong.
Well. I’m curious about why you picked it up, because actually I have a similar story, which is that fairly long after it came out, I read it because my dad was almost literally harassing me to read it for a long time. Because he really loved it. And I thought, we have — he was a good reader, so I thought, all right, I’ll get to it. And it is. It is strenuously entertaining. And I almost felt it was like a Wes Anderson movie. It has a —
Oh my god, I was thinking about Wes Anderson because —
There’s the “Hotel Budapest.”
Yeah. And then the way he creates and imagines this hotel — I mean, it is very, very vivid and richly imagined, and it’s brilliant on that —
It’s a world unto itself. I thought a little bit of the Steven Millhauser novel “Martin Dressler,” also, which does this hotel that just opens up into an entire world.
Yeah. And I have to admit here that, like Wes Anderson, I guess, sometimes — we won’t get into him — but I was so impressed by this world, and it felt so different from things I was reading at the time. And then I think I probably stopped about halfway through because it did feel like the world was so brilliantly created, but what was happening in it was just, I don’t know, too pat or too —
Well, that’s my resistance to it. It’s very nicely written. Sentence to sentence, he’s really a vivid, fluid writer. The language is great. So there’s nothing cliched. But there is something pat in the storytelling and in how determinedly, studiously light he keeps it.
Yeah, it makes you feel almost childlike sometimes.
Yeah. I mean, and introducing a 9-year-old girl into that only reinforces the childlike aspect of it. There’s a fairy tale aspect, which is a choice that he’s making, and it contributes to the entertainment factor. But maybe — I don’t know. I mean, you didn’t get past the halfway point. I have not yet. So again, he may overcome that.
It’s funny, we’re talking as if we’re trying to convince people, when like you said, everyone already has their opinions.
No, no, no. I’m totally left out. I have not read Amor Towles. But I would like to circle back — it’s just too tempting — to Wes Anderson for a moment for just a sidebar. Because I am not a huge Wes Anderson fan, to put it mildly. And watching “The Royal Tenenbaums” was — I had this experience like when I saw the movie “Chocolat.” I don’t know if either of you had the unfortunate experience of watching either of these in the theater, where you’re essentially trapped.
But what was worse for me is that I felt so alienated from my fellow man, because there was a palpable sense in the air that everyone else was wildly appreciative. And I felt a skin-crawling sensation of discomfort, shame, unhappiness. I just really —
Give me death. Give me plague.
I mean, I —
All right, John, I sense a rebuttal coming.
No, not a rebuttal. It would be a separate podcast. I have a lot of thoughts about Wes Anderson. But I understand and feel the same skin-crawling as his career progresses. I wish he weren’t quite as stuck in his aesthetic as he was. But his early movies, “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” meant a lot to me at the time.
Oh, the Texas thing.
Well, maybe, a little bit. There’s a great piece on Slate from years ago about how essentially the first couple of movies were written with Owen Wilson. And once Owen Wilson stopped writing with him, the humor got less biting, and it all became even more twee. And so I think that’s the Rosetta stone of figuring out Wes Anderson’s career.
Although, I would like a carve out for “Isle of Dogs,” which I — aspects of which I really enjoyed.
What about “Mr. Fox“? You didn’t like that?
I couldn’t watch the whole thing.
It was my Amor Towles. It was my Amor Towles novel. I got about halfway through.
If I can take the conversation off of Wes Anderson.
You’re not trying to get back to books, are you?
You’re reading something by Wes Anderson?
A coffee table book about his movies.
I just read a memoir called “Ghost Light,” by Frank Rich, and it came out about 20 years ago. And it is a coming-of-age memoir. I had this interesting experience reading this book that I’ve had a couple of other times before, which is, I’ve known Frank and have been friends with him for about 10 years and only just read his memoir. And it’s one of those things that it’s hanging over your shoulder and you feel like the person assumes that you’ve read the memoir in a way.
But I’ve had this twice before with two friends who, in those cases, they hadn’t written a memoir when we first became friends. But only after a decade or so of my knowing them did they write a memoir. And there’s this thing that happens where you think you know someone, right. You feel like you know them pretty well. You may even know the story that they tell in their memoir. But then, of course, reading the book, you find out so much more. So quickly, those two earlier memoirs — a good friend of mine, Alysia Abbott, wrote a memoir, “Fairyland,” which came out — gosh, I want to say maybe —
Five years ago?
Eight years ago?
Was it that long ago? Yeah, probably.
And it’s a memoir, a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in the Haight, Actually on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, by her gay activist poet father who ended up getting and dying of AIDS while Alysia was in college. And it’s a really moving and beautiful memoir. I encourage people to read it. And I knew the basics of the story, but I didn’t know things like Alysia being left at home alone and deciding to be responsible as a little child and wash her own hair. But of course, did this with an entire bottle, I think, of baby shampoo on the carpet. Just being way too young to take care of herself.
And so saw this completely new side to her after reading that book. And then the second one was a book by another good friend, Mindy Lewis, who wrote a memoir called “Life Inside.” I think it came out now about maybe 10 years ago. And Mindy had been basically a rebellious hippie girl, and in 1968, as a teenager, was going to be-ins in Central Park and dropping acid and not going to school and doing things that her very middle-class mother didn’t especially appreciate at the time.
And her mother then turned her over as a ward of the state and had her committed to the Psychiatric Institute in Upper Manhattan, where she spent the rest of her adolescence locked away and put on Thorazine. A very “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” kind of situation. And so again, I knew the bare bones of that story, but I learned it in a completely new way in reading that memoir. And so, Frank Rich had neither of those experiences. There isn’t huge trauma, although there is all the sturm and drang of childhood. And his parents divorced at a time when divorce really wasn’t common.
What it is is it’s just an extraordinary coming-of-age memoir of someone who you realize was destined to become the theater critic for The New York Times, which of course, he was for many years. He just grew up absolutely loving the theater, going to it as often as he could, listening to albums of shows before he was able to see them and then after, and re-enacting them. Creating dioramas of scenes from shows, trying to figure out what was going on in a Broadway musical just by listening to the music. And then afterwards, comparing his impressions.
And he hung out at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., where he grew up, so frequently that he was eventually asked by the house manager to take tickets on Saturdays at matinees while he was still in high school. And then there’s just this incredible recreation of a time and place, which is one of the great things about memoir. You really get the sense of this middle-class Washington, D.C., but small-town life within Washington and its suburbs. Very 1950s mom and pop kind of environment where he never quite fit in.
And in part because of his parents’ divorce and his mother then remarried, and he had their very effective foreshadowing — a stepfather who turned out really not to be great. But of course, it’s complicated, because his stepfather also enabled him to attend the theater much more than he would have had his mother not remarried this man, Joel. And he ends up with these extraordinary circumstances. It just feels like he was constantly in the right place at the right time.
In one show, he is sitting with Jackie Onassis and John F. Kennedy right behind him during the early years of JFK’s presidency. Well, there weren’t really later years alas, but during that presidency. And then he befriends a boy at camp whose father is in the theater. And he is very early in on listening to what eventually became “Fiddler on the Roof,” but I think was called “The Old Country Folk,” or “The Old Country” — it had some very unpromising title, and he and his friend just thought it was an awful show and was going to be a huge bomb. His friend was really worried that his dad was going to write another flop.
And it’s this golden era of early Broadway, and he takes you into that world. And the title, “Ghost Light,” comes from the idea that a ghost will enter a theater, an empty house, if it’s ever left completely dark. A theater superstition. And so you leave one light on to make sure that the ghosts won’t go in after the audience and the performers have gone home.
Did Frank end up liking the finished version of Fiddler?
Yes. Oh, yes. He’s seen it many, many times. It definitely leaves you wanting another follow-up memoir. The book ends really when he gets into college. And so obviously, there’s a lot more to be told there. And he’s written a book that collects a lot of his theater criticism. But you really want to follow up with the characters that he has in this book. And it does feel like he somehow knew everyone, had met everyone before they then went on to become someone.
It always feels like that’s one of the — working in books is a dream, but there is the theater scene, and the being out in the world and meeting more people and going to shows is so romantic.
I always admire a memoir — it’s like “This Boy’s Life” — that can really get back into that mindset of childhood. Just to those feelings of loneliness and being misunderstood and not really getting what the grownups are doing or saying. And he just captures it on a really visceral level. Just the emotions of childhood.
I’ve been reminded with Sondheim’s death and all the tributes to Sondheim that I lack the gene for theater. I’m not a huge theatergoer. And I’ve never been all that interested in it, despite the tributes and accolades. I believe Sondheim was a genius. I believe there is genius theater to be seen. But I always loved reading Frank Rich on the theater. And maybe going back and reading about his roots growing up there would give me more of a taste for it.
I mean, it’s the coming of age of a critic, too. So I think you would like it, Greg. All right, let’s run down the titles of what we read again.
I read “Now Beacon, Now Sea,” by Christopher Sorrentino.
I’m reading “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles.
And I read “Ghost Light,” by Frank Rich. But I also mentioned two earlier memoirs— “Life Inside,” by Mindy Lewis, and “Fairyland,” by Alysia Abbott.
Remember, there’s more at nytimes.com/books. And you can always write to us at [email protected] I write back — not right away, but I do. The Book Review podcast is produced by the great Pedro Rosado from HeadStepper Media, with a major assist from my colleague John Williams. Thanks for listening. For The New York Times, I’m Pamela Paul.