Several of women you write about ― Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters ― are Bay Area cooks. Are there any others you think have shaped our own food scene?
I'd have to say Judy Rodgers, though she's not quite of that generation, and Madeleine Kamman, to a degree. Patricia Unterman. Personally, I learned a lot from that Bakers' Dozen group; [group leader] Flo Braker, who wrote a column for the Chronicle, is another one of those women who took one subject and wrote lots of cookbooks. That group of women doing cooking classes, who were a generation before me.
One of the many things I appreciated about your book was the way you defended Alice Waters. I've seen you interview her, and you poke-poke-poked at her high-mindedness; you really captured my own frustrations. But then in the book, you called attention to how much she has done.
She's a maddening person on many levels. But this anti-Alice backlash of the last few years, it's like kids rejecting their parents, not appreciating what the generation before has accomplished. Alice does live in a rarified world ― I don't disagree with that ― but she's really done it, had her hand on the rudder for a long time.
How did you see San Francisco food culture change during your six years here, and how has it changed since you left for the New York Times in 2004?
Well, I'm a huge fan of Northern California food. That was where I was getting shaped as a food writer, though I was predisposed to like the West Coast. I went to school at Michigan State but did an internship at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I moved into this house where my roommates were cooking whole salmon. I had no idea of the West Coast way of cooking. I had never seen a Dungeness crab.
I liked that style of cooking, and the seasons that seemed to change every two to three weeks. I liked grilling, and I'm not embarrassed to say I have a gas grill, and love to grill fish and meat and vegetables for dinner outside. People say, you know, Kim. Olive oil isn't a sauce. And I say, if it's good olive oil....
While I was at the Chronicle, we saw the rise of food politics outside the Chez Panisse canon. I mean, Michael Pollan wasn't Michael Pollan yet. Now, we see Michelle Obama saying that what we eat matters to our health and that organic vegetables matter.
Then there are all the crazy dirt wizards and people who want to farm for a living, and the pickling maniac thing ― people who are really into home ec. It's happening here, too, but I notice it more among younger friends who are cooking in the Bay Area.
How does your time in the Bay Area shape what you write about at the Times? How have your topics changed when you moved to the East Coast?
I guess [what I write] is less cooking-oriented than it used to be and
more culture-oriented. In New York food becomes like music, theater,
fashion ― here everything is a churn of thought and ideas, a culture
expressing itself. Here I write more about how food fits into a
cultural moment, whereas in California, it was more about the food
itself, where it came from, what made it good ― in a way, food was more
integrated into life. I think fit in more on the West Coast than I do
in the East Coast.
So tell it to me straight: Does everyone else in the country believe our hype?
Yeah, everyone who cares about food wants to go to eat in San Francisco. San Francisco is a little smug about that, but it has reason to be.
What do you think we spend too much time talking about here?
Worrying about what everyone thinks of you.
Ha! [Sigh.] When I was Seattle, people used to get
excited every time New York paid attention to us, then criticize the
coverage for getting it wrong. San Franciscans, well, we act like New
York is supposed to pay attention to us.
San Francisco does feel that inferiority complex, but secretly, New York knows that San Francisco has it going on. Just
get over it, San Francisco. You're the gorgeous younger sister, and
everything goes your way. New York is the frustrated, put-upon older
sister ― maybe wealthier, maybe more accomplished, but she knows that
everyone's attracted to the good-looking younger one.
Not that I'm recreating my own family story here.