The Splendid Table turns 20

The Splendid Table

Last night I had the pleasure of attending The Splendid Table’s 20th Anniversary Celebration at the historic Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Splendid Table radio broadcast debuted in 1995, and host Lynne Rossetto Kasper has since received numerous accolades, including two James Beard Foundation Awards for Best National Radio Show on Food. Kasper has also written several highly regarded cookbooks, including the program’s inspiration, The Splendid Table, and The Italian Country Table.

The celebration included several guests: frequent Splendid Table contributor Melissa Clark from The New York Times; Enrique Olvera, author of Mexico from the Inside Out; Minnesota singer/songwriter/spoken word artist Dessa; and Francis Mallman, author of Mallmann on Fire. Several culinary celebrities offered video tributes, including Jacques Pepin, Ruth Reichl, and Mario Batali. After viewing Batali’s segment, Kasper reminisced about a conversation with the chef in which he waxed poetic about a cured pork fat product he wanted to introduce in his restaurant. Kasper asked him how he expected to sell slices of fat to weight conscious, “size 2” women in New York City. His response? “I’ll call it white prosciutto.” He did; and it sold.

The Splendid Table owes its longevity to storytelling like this, Rossetto Kasper’s silky voice, and her long-standing production team. The team – Sally Swift, Jennifer Russell, and Jennifer Luebke – joined Rossetto Kasper on stage to discuss the origins of the program, how the food world has changed, and what they expect in the future. Swift approached Rossetto Kasper soon after the release of her first cookbook, and the two hit it off. Both of them wanted something different than the standard recipe program – and they got it. The show’s concept was unique in the mid-1990s, and Swift recalls that at the outset they had to explain terms like “sustainable” and “organic”, words that are now well-rooted in the cooking lexicon–thanks in part to The Splendid Table’s influence.

Rossetto Kasper’s ability to coax interesting tidbits from her guests was on display throughout last night’s show. Melissa Clark shared her experience of being the only person in her MFA writing courses who wanted to write about food. While other students were penning memoirs or novels, an animated Clark explained that she was composing long essays about the importance of cutting red peppers into strips instead of cubes. Her advice to aspiring writers was to do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door, describing how her work as a coat check girl in Larry Forgione‘s restaurant allowed her access to the chef, which led to working with him on a cookbook.

Although a seemingly odd choice for the program, singer/songwriter Dessa added interesting perspective. Not only did she perform two songs, she also sat down with Rossetto Kasper to discuss serious food matters. She described her commitment to understanding how the food system routes money and power, and how privilege factors into the equation. She also noted the pitfalls of “letting perfection stand in the way of good” when it comes to ethical eating, saying that while she attempts to make responsible choices while on the road, she doesn’t tour with a chicken coop.

Enrique Olvera’s responses both illustrated his devotion to the craft of cooking and provided insight into the complexity of Mexican food. He described one of his favorite dishes at his Mexico City restaurant Pujol, the mole, which has been simmering now for over 800 days. Olvera described mole as “the complexity of simplicity,” saying that it exemplifies his goal of creating new flavors, as numerous ingredients combine to create a unique taste, different from the individual components but incorporating aspects of each. Olvera’s intensity while discussing subjects like corn, which he feels is an expression of terroir just as wine is (there are over 80 types of corn available in Mexico), has put Mexico from the Inside Out into my cart. (Bonus – it’s part of the Phaidon special offer to EYB Members). Should you find Olvera’s explanations a bit esoteric, please know that he thinks Nutella on a tortilla is fantastic.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper & Francis Mallmann

Francis Mallman likewise displayed a deep passion for his craft. He related being jealous of the oven as he puts a chicken into it, likening it to someone trying to date his wife. As he peers into the oven, he said he thinks “What are you doing with my chicken?!” It is part of his quest to understand how cooking transforms food. When discussing one of his favorite subjects – fire – he described it not as “manly”, as it is often considered, but rather as “a fragile and beautiful thing.”

Now the part that many Splendid Table fans are waiting for: yes, there was a “stump the cook” segment, in which Rossetto Kasper used ingredients that audience members had written on slips of paper prior to the show. The five ingredients she pulled out of the box were: Salted Nut Roll, cloudberries, soy yogurt, burnt bacon, and ketchup. Despite this odd lineup, the dish she created on the fly, while not something I’ll make any time soon, sounded more attractive than I expected. 

Although Rossetto Kasper is stepping back a little and allowing more outside contributors like Melissa Clark to conduct interviews, there’s no indication that she plans to leave the show. When asked what the future might bring, she said that they “would never run out of material,” to which Swift added “or things we want to eat.”

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