An interview with cookbook author Marie Simmons
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler with photos by Robin Jolin
It’s a recurring question posed to those of us with large cookbook collections: “Why do you need so many?” These days, when a few key words typed into a search engine will quickly yield several good recipe options to fill any need, the idea of spending hours perusing cookbooks seems absurd.
But most cookbook collectors will say that they are not interested merely in figuring out what to make for dinner. The volumes on the groaning shelves of my own huge cooking section represent a personal history and a beloved hobby, as well as an atlas to the places I have traveled or would like to travel. For some people, part of the collection might represent a life-long quest for good health, or affiliations with various organized concerns.
Visiting cookbook author Marie Simmons at her home in Richmond for the first time, I recognize her as a kindred spirit the moment I see the walls of her office, which are lined, literally floor to ceiling, with cookbooks. Certainly she has heard the “why do you need” question a million times and will have some unique insight.
“So, why do you need so many cookbooks, Marie?” I ask.
“It’s a weakness . . . or a strength . . . or a fetish, perhaps,” she replies. “It’s part emotional and part intellectual.”
Marie says she has lots of books of every genre, not just cookbooks. Some are there because she loves the look and feel of them, others because she is curious or fascinated by the subject.
“I don’t necessarily cook from my cookbooks, which seems like an oxymoron,” she says. “I don’t even cook from the books I write, once they are published. I probably have ten published recipes that I make because they are favorites. But that’s all.”
Cookbook aficionados are known to read cookbooks simply for entertainment, and Marie is no exception. “I find headnotes fascinating and fun. Food is culture and culture is the story of a people. Or in the case of a cookbook, it might be the story of the person, the person’s family, a place. I enjoy and refer to over and over again the cookbooks that have a bit of personality, humor, anecdotes, those that describe the lineage of a recipe, share a sense of place, a mood . . .”
Marie, like many curious cooks, uses cookbooks to learn about foreign cuisines. “If it’s an Indian dish, I have three or so authors that I’ll consult with via their books. It is always interesting to compare and to learn.”
When she’s researching for a book she’s writing, she consults her collection often. “Reading what a favorite author has to say about a certain ingredient or dish sometimes sparks an idea for more research on a subject, which in turn feeds me, not with a fork, but emotionally, culturally, and intellectually.”
Those Italian Roots
It’s no surprise to learn that Marie grew up in an Italian family, where “feeding people” was a passion. Née Marie Antoinette Mataraza, the author had family members who actively taught the children in the family to cook. She recalls being four or five years old and standing on a step stool watching her mother clean squid. “Once I watched her remove an un-laid egg from the innards of a hen whose life had been interrupted—her destiny was our soup pot. I had two siblings, and since the hen only had two feet, the three of us would haggle over who would get the chicken feet in their soup bowl. Obviously, we weren’t squeamish when it came to our food.”
From her grandmother she learned baking and she says she remembers gathering at holiday times “in either Nana’s or the large basement kitchen of my Aunt Rita to make dozens and dozens of Nana’s legendary ricotta-filled ravioli. Everyone helped because in those days our holiday meals meant thirty places set at long tables.”
Marie says there were no cookbooks in Nana’s house, although Nana “loved to read recipes in the newspaper, clip them, and collect them in a notebook.” She says that her mother had one single cookbook: “It was the Talisman Italian Cookbook by Ada Boni, which had a red, green, and white dust jacket. I don’t remember my mother using it, but I used to read it even as a child.”
Like many home cooks who put meals on the table every day for their families, all the women in Marie’s family were instinctive cooks who didn’t use recipes. “Except now I write recipes for others to use. It’s been an inspiring journey,” she says.
The Journey into Cookbooks
Marie’s interest in cookbooks began in middle school when she started checking them out from the library. “The assortment wasn’t too sophisticated—after all, it was the 1950s—and there were mostly things like Betty Crocker baking books.”
She says that the first cookbooks she owned might have been the Gourmet cookbooks. “They were a bit daunting. A certain amount of expertise in the kitchen was assumed. But still I loved to read them. I don’t remember actually cooking from them.”
When she left home for college, she delved into learning French cooking, or, as she likes to say, “I wanted to make boeuf bourguignon, béchamel, and béarnaise.” But one day, while indulging with her husband in a fancy meal at the top of the World Trade Center, she had an epiphany:
“Much to my amazement, our entrée was garnished with a fried squash blossom. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘I grew up eating these as a snack sitting on the back steps with my brother and sister.’ I immediately decided to step away from my obsession with French food and take a good look at my roots. Along the way I stopped sautéing in butter and began tasting olive oil. I cooked my way through Marcella Hazan and researched many other Italian cookbooks, including titles by Ada Boni. I delved into other ethnic cuisines like Indian, Asian, and Eastern Mediterranean and along the way my pantry grew by leaps and bounds.”
Marie’s first job out of college was as a test kitchen editor at Woman’s Day magazine. She later worked as food editor for Cuisine and after that magazine folded in 1986 began her freelance career, contributing to newspapers and magazines, such as Bon Appétit, where her column ran for 18 years. She co-authored her first cookbook in 1986 and has authored or co-authored 22 more since then, with the most recent, Fresh & Fast Vegetarian: Recipes that Make a Meal coming out this spring.
When asked how she develops a new recipe, Marie says it mostly begins in her head. “I have a taste memory bank that is sharper than any other memories—like the name of my best friend or the title of the book I just finished reading. So I may think about a flavor that I love and then zero in on how I would like to taste it. I could begin with a specific food triggered by a walk through the local farmers market or my favorite produce store, or it could be triggered by the thought of a specific seasoning, for instance pomegranate molasses or fresh dill. Then I think backwards from seasoning to main ingredient. Or, it could go the other direction: main ingredients—for instance, fresh beets—then to the seasoning. Of course along the way I am thinking of preparation and techniques for cooking. I do a lot of decision making and decision breaking on the thought level. Often I go to my computer and write out a rough idea of the recipe. Then I go to my kitchen, with printout and pen, and get out a bunch of ingredients—sort of like a massive artist’s palette—and begin chopping, cooking, and so forth. Once my hands touch the food, things move quickly and the recipe begins to take shape. I often say that in order to write about food, I must touch it first. I trust my hands to inform my palate and trigger the response in my brain. Part of this is more intuition than any cerebral activity. Somehow I just know. I also know when something isn’t quite right. Usually I can catch myself to make changes along the way. Or, I do it as a retest. The process is interesting and tasty.”
Picking a Piece of Heaven
Marie has always been inspired by fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. “We shopped at roadside farmstands when I was a kid,” she says, and so she knew that fresh corn was eaten in July and August, apples were picked and eaten in the fall, and strawberries in the early summer. “Living in the Bay Area for the last fifteen years my shopping and cooking habits haven’t changed that much, except that now I can pick Meyer lemons from a tree in the yard, can shop farmers markets year-round, and have access to fabulous local olive oil, cheeses, meats, and produce. The first summer here I was blown away by piles of fresh figs at my farmers market the likes of which I had never seen. Here instead of buying one fresh fig at a time for a couple of dollars, like I did in New York City, I could buy a pound for the same price. I bought lots of figs and began cooking with them, writing about them and then writing Fig Heaven. That book was the happiest and most delicious cookbook experience of my career.” •
COOKBOOKS BY MARIE SIMMONS
Good Spirits (co-authored with Barbara Lagowski) (New American Library 1986)
365 Ways to Cook Pasta (Harper & Row, 1988)
Better by Microwave (with Lori Longbotham) Dutton 1990
Rice, the Amazing Grain (Henry Holt and Company, 1991)
The Light Touch (Chapters, 1992) Nominated for both the James Beard and Julia Child cookbook awards
Italian Light Cooking (Putnam Publishing, 1992)
A to Z Bar Cookies (Chapters, 1994)
A to Z Muffins (Chapters, 1995)
Lighter, Quicker, Better (co-authored with Richard Sax; Morrow, 1995) Won both the Julia Child and James Beard cookbook awards
Fresh & Fast (Chapters, 1996; reissued by Houghton Mifflin 2004)
Beans and Grains chapter for the New Joy of Cooking (Scribner 1997)
A to Z Pancakes (Chapters, 1997)
Holiday Celebrations (Williams-Sonoma, 1998)
A to Z Puddings (Chapters, 1999)
The Good Egg (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) James Beard Cookbook Award for best single subject 2000
Cookies (Williams-Sonoma, 2002)
The Amazing World of Rice (William Morrow, 2003)
Essentials of Healthful Cooking (co-author; Williams-Sonoma 2004) Nominated for a James Beard Award
Fig Heaven (William Morrow, May, 2004)
Mastering Soups & Stews (Williams-Sonoma 2005)
Things Cooks Love (Sur la Table, 2008) Nominated for a Julia Child Cookbook Award 2008
Fresh & Fast Vegetarian: Recipes that Make a Meal (Houghton Mifflin, April 2011)
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Oakland-based photographer Robin Jolin has a passion for fresh, sustainable food and has devoted much of her seven-year career to photographing this subject. In addition, she documents numerous restaurants and boutiques, focusing on capturing the atmosphere of these places and the creativity of the individuals responsible for creating the items in her viewfinder. www.robinjolin.com