Interview with Writer Tamar Adler
"We have this whole idea that to be anti-materialist is somehow to be reverent, and to be materialist is to be fallen. Meanwhile, if we were just genuinely materialist, that would make us reverent. I guess that’s why I like cooking. That is reverence, as far as I can tell. So is how you treat people; it’s all the same stuff." —T.A.
I am a tremendous fan of the writing of Tamar Adler—in particular, her 2011 book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, which speaks about eating and cooking in a way I have never encountered before—as if she is only writing about food as a way of speaking about other things: how to live, our relationship to each other, to what might be called God—to the very most important things about life and living. Her prose is exquisite and her tone is humorous, helpful and calm. She has cooked at Chez Panisse, among other restaurants, and counts among her supporters Michael Pollan, Michael Ruhlman and Alice Waters, who wrote the introduction to her book. I met with her near her home in Brooklyn at a little restaurant she chose, where we recorded this interview amidst the steadily increasing chatter around us in the early evening in fall. —Sheila Heti
I. I JUST WROTE A BOOK AND I WANT TO WRITE ANOTHER BOOK
THE BELIEVER: I wonder what your experience of time is.
TAMAR ADLER: Not space?
BLVR: No. [laughs] I’m not interested in that. But time—it seems like the way you explain to people what to do with food—it necessitates so much patience. And when you’re doing these things so lovingly to the food and paying so much attention to your ingredients, I wonder if readers don’t think, as I did, “I don’t have the time to do that.”
TA: I’ve noticed that I’m really deliberate. I like to be deliberate about things, and if I don’t do things in that way… I think this is something about myself, but if I’m not deliberate, things can go badly, and then you have to spend more time in the long run. Do you know the Long Now society? I think I take more of a long now perspective.
BLVR: I know them, yes, they’re fascinating. So what kind of book did you think you wanted to write when you set out?
TA: You know how literature is transformative, but instructions and recipes aren’t? I had this idea of something that could—it would not be a device to convey a message. I didn’t feel like I had a message, exactly. But I felt like I had a way of thinking about specific things that I wanted to tell people, but that in order for these ways of thinking to exist, they had to be attached to a certain thing—so it was food. I think I just wanted to write something transformative.
BLVR: That’s exactly what you did. For me, I feel like not only am I cooking differently, but I’m thinking about how to do everything differently. Your book is so exciting to me. I do think it works like literature. And I agree that instructions don’t change anything. Self-help is interesting, but it’s generally not well-written, but it’s also instructional, but it doesn’t have that thing that literature has, where it changes you. Your book is the perfect synthesis of literature and self-help. I really think it’s a profound book. And I think it’s a new genre, which I want there to be more of. Like, I want people to imitate your book, because I feel like—not only in terms of food, but in every area of my life—I’m affected by your idea of the endless meal, the idea that there are not separate meals but there is one long meal throughout your whole life. That seems so Platonic and beautiful and… I always feeling like I’m starting over every day, so I love this idea of the continuity of everything through one’s life.
TA: Yeah. I guess the main thing I was thinking was—I was just reading The Road to Wigan Pier, which Orwell wrote at thirty-three, which is amazing, it’s so exquisite. And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—I was thinking about both these books in terms of the genesis of the projects and the literary weight of them relative to the assignments. Because in both instances, the writer was assigned to do something, and it was definitely documentary. And they wrote some of the most beautiful prose, not because they were trying to make anything amazing, but because Agee and Orwell write in beautiful prose which is inseparable from their observations as writers. There’s no way that anybody who had one of those assignments now would write anything like those two did, never mind people who are trying to write non-fiction books. I was at a dinner at my mom’s house two or three weeks ago, and one of her friends asked me if I was ever going to write a book. And I was like, “Well I just wrote a book. And I want to write another book.” And she said, “No, a real book.” And she meant a novel. Which I didn’t get for a while. I think people don’t think we’re writers. This is all a way of saying that we’re just not really doing the language thing very well right now.
BLVR: Who? Our society is not making writers?
TA: We, the people who are self-identifying as writers. But Agee and Orwell were doing documentary work for, you know, the government. What I mean is they wrote beautifully because writing was good and people were expecting texts to be integrative. I think now we treat books like mechanisms for conveying a message, which is one of the worst things that could possibly be happening to letters right now. Books are not there to convey a message. If you want to convey a message, I think you should just go talk to somebody.
BLVR: To me that’s not the problem with what books are doing. I don’t think people are trying to convey a message. I think people are just showing off. Writers are trying to show their skill. They’re trying to show off—“I’m a great writer”—and they’re not trying enough to communicate.
TA: I guess genre is important, because my genre is food writing. A lot of people who are writing books about food are just trying to get a message across. So in that sense a book is a calling card, because they have a message and that’s one way of conveying it. I don’t feel like that. I don’t think I have some message that I want to convey in as many ways as I can. I literally just wanted to write this book. Do you know what I mean? I guess what I’m comparing is the idea of having a message with just having a great project—like, a report on the state of sharecroppers, a report on the unemployed in England. Even in those situations, those writers wrote utterly beautifully. Now I feel we have the opposite. I’m not talking about pyrotechnics-gymnastics prose. Even friends of mine who are writing important things to be written down—the whole idea that you don’t—that you’re not trying to write things beautifully! You know, I wasn’t trying to do anything, I just couldn’t write my book any other way. And I’ve had people write to me, “Oh, if I had your grasp of language…” I’m like, “What do you mean?”
BLVR: So that came very naturally to you, your sentences? You didn’t struggle for a voice? When you started writing, that was your voice?
TA: Yeah! I mean—
BLVR: No, here’s the question. Do you feel like you had an assignment? If you weren’t trying to convey a message—and you’re saying these guys had an assignment—what was your assignment to yourself?
TA: No, I don’t think that I had one. What I mean is that they had an almost opposite situation. The assignments they were given—now would have become a blog post.
II. BAD JUICE CONCENTRATE
BLVR: What did you understand your project to be when you started out?
TA: I wanted to write something like How to Cook a Wolf. Itcouldn’t really be like it, but I wanted to write a book that could do that.
BLVR: Do what?
TA: I think for me, that book actually made true what she was saying what could be true. What she said was we can live more gracefully and elegantly and in a more human way if we can—not just cook with ease, but eat well. If we can eat with gusto and a sense of entitlement to pleasure, we’ll be happier. And that was mostly about—I mean, it was about cooking, but mostly it was about eating. A lot of it was about eating. I felt like if I could do that for people now, who have a different set of problems… I mean, pleasure isn’t our problem exactly right now.
BLVR: So what are the problems that you see in people today? That you wanted to correct? I mean, that’s a crazy thing to want to rewrite a book! That is so fascinating to me. I want to tell you one quote. Do you know Raymond Radiguet?
BLVR: He was Jean Cocteau’s prodige and young lover. He died when he was twenty-one and he wrote two brilliant books, and Cocteau was kind of fascinated with Radiguet, cause Radiguet’s heroes, the writers he’d grown up with, were Cocteau and Cocteau’s friends. And Cocteau was like “Us? But we’re the vanguard!” It was crazy to him that they were the classics for this boy. But the idea Radiguet had was that the way you make a great work of art is by imitating it, and in your failure to imitate, that is where the beauty in your work lies, and that is where genius lies. It’s not in the success, but in the failure. I can see that in your book. You have one book as a model, which is the master. But why did you feel the need to rewrite—I mean, rewrite is the wrong word—but adapt that book, or do to that book what you did?
TA: I mean, that book is so good! And it is a really similar thing to Radiguet. How To Cook a Wolf feels like a novelty right now, I think.
BLVR: In what way?
TA: Cause we’re not trying—we’re not going to save all our canned vegetable juices in a gin bottle in our freezer. If we did, I don’t think it would help us. A lot of the stuff in her book now would seem like the over-economizing that was a part of what I wanted to stop. When I started writing—in 2009, 2010— there was this economize like crazy thing. But it wasn’t saying “save stuff.” It was saying “shop at Costco and drink bad juice concentrate.” It totally took pleasure out of the equation. I feel like some of her advice might sound like that today.
BLVR: It would sound like “shop at Costco”?
TA: It would sound to people today like “take pleasure out of the equation.” I think there are things in her book that didn’t sound bad then, that would sound sort of too bad now.
III. WE’RE SO SILLY ABOUT SO MANY THINGS
BLVR: I think men do this for other men all the time: men, like Andre Breton or William Burroughs, they’ll write, and then they’ll have all these young men trying to write like them. And I’ve never heard—maybe this is not right—but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a young woman admiring another woman’s book and being like, “I’m going to do that.” I feel like women always want to do something that’s theirs, whereas men are quite happy to be like, “That’s the alpha dog and I’ll imitate them.”
TA: That kind of makes sense to me. Also, I’m completely comfortable and happy saying, “All I wanted to do was write something like How To Cook a Wolf.” But—I don’t know if this is true in the male idolizing—I have no interest in ever talking about MFK Fisher. People want to talk to me about her sometimes and I don’t know what to say. She was an amazing writer. There are all these people who adore her and sort of fetishize something about her that I don’t. Maybe that just reflects discomfort in the fact that I… you know… I read this book of hers and wanted to do something like it. Maybe even at some point when I was writing my book, I realised I couldn’t write like MFK Fisher, and that stopped being the project.
BLVR: Was her book actually as much about how to live as yours is?
TA: I don’t know how much of my book is about how to live.
BLVR: Why did you make a choice not to write about your life in your book? You don’t talk about your relationships, you don’t talk about your family, you don’t talk about what you do at night, it’s very very focussed on the kitchen. Why?
TA: It’s not about me! I mean, the book’s not about me. So… I didn’t see any reason.
BLVR: You wrote somewhere that—I think it was on your blog on your website—that you never let yourself want to be a writer.
TA: Did you?
BLVR: Yeah, it’s all I wanted.
BLVR: Yeah, it’s the only thing I ever wanted. [laughs]
TA: Oh! That’s so functional! I think we’re so silly about so many things. I think we’re utterly—I mean, we’ve really lost the plot when it comes to what we have, what we need, where we’re starting from, what’s around us. I just think we’re really silly. It’s true that I never wanted to be anything in particular. I think part of that did come from being a really sensitive kid, and hating when people asked me questions, because I always feel like I can’t answer any questions. I think I’m just a very sensitive person in some ways. So I felt like whatever I was thinking was being squashed when I was asked about it. Don’t you think we’re silly?
BLVR: Yeah, but I have no way of correcting that. I feel like I have the opposite problem from you. I mean, my problem is that I’m so like a sponge that I absorb all the silliness. I’m very susceptible to everything around me. So that’s why your book was like this new thing in the world, saying, “This is a better, more sensible way; this is more wholesome.” That’s the word in my head: wholesome. You know?
TA: Yeah, I do. I always give people this advice when people ask me how to do things—and it’s not like I’m in a position to advise people on how to do anything. But I feel like we try to make these big decisions, and really we only have to make small decisions, in all moments. I don’t understand the big decision thing. What are you deciding? In fact, you can’t make the big decisions. You do not have the power to. And so it’s hilarious. I really hope that satellite out there orbits one degree to the left! Well, great, you know? There is a chance that your desire for that, depending on the course of your night, could possibly have an effect on that—but it’s unlikely. Maybe that’s where sensitivity and the Long Now match up, because I only make small decisions. But what that means is that I’m making actual decisions, not imaginary decisions. I think that probably what happens is we make a lot of imaginary decisions, and then because we’re distracted making those, we don’t make the small ones—the real ones. And we find ourselves, like, “Wait – I don’t understand how I got here!” It’s like, “Well, you didn’t make any decisions.”“But I did. I went to law school, and I picked a firm, and I decided to go to Geneva that summer,” and it’s like—but you didn’t choose what you were going to buy at the market, you didn’t chose what you were going to do the next day. So right, I never chose what I wanted to do in life because I didn’t know, and I was so angry when people asked me what I wanted to do. It was like, “Right now? I want to stop having this conversation.” But I never—
BLVR: But do you have goals for your life? Do you have goals or no? Because people who have goals for their life feel like they’ve got to make decisions towards those goals.
[a toddler who has been running around the restaurant falls and wails loudly; her mother picks her up and comforts her]
TA: I remember that feeling. Do you remember that feeling? Suddenly the world is so big around her and the room is deafening. And you’re closer to comfort than you are now. If that happens now, we brush it off. Then, it’s like, you’re so much closer to the things that make you comfortable. I’d like to go on writing. I’d like to have children.
BLVR: I want to make the right decision about kids. I want to make the right decision about that. That’s what I’m preoccupied with right now.
TA: But there probably isn’t one.
BLVR: I know, but then to be happy with whatever decision I make.
TA: Well, probably you don’t know yet. Okay, here’s a goal that I have. A goal for my entire life is to not get upset about not being able to make decisions that I don’t have the data for.
BLVR: Right. [long pause] Did you grow up with a religious context of any kind?
TA: Yeah, we were really religious Jews. We were very observant Conservative Jews.
BLVR: So you ate Kosher, you went to synagogue…
TA: My brother and I went to Jewish day school and our father was very intentionally religious, even beyond being observant. When I was a little kid he had a guru and he meditated every day. We understood—or at least I did—that it was a question of handling spirit and divinity in whatever form.
BLVR: There’s the Hassidic idea that whole world was God and spirit, and then everything shattered into matter, and all that God and spirit went into everything, and the human’s task is to reveal the God and spirit in everything—in their daily interactions with things and people. I feel like that’s the way that you treat food; like there is this kind of—it’s not just an onion, it’s an Onion. There’s something like onionness. And you respect the onionness or something. It reminds me of the Hassidic bringing out the qualities of things, you know?
TA: C.S. Lewis—I really like him on divinity a lot, even though he’s talking about Christian divinity—he says that God does not hate things. God made them. We have this whole idea that to be anti-materialist is somehow to be reverent, and to be materialist is to be fallen. Meanwhile, if we were just genuinely materialist, that would make us reverent. I guess that’s why I like cooking. That is reverence, as far as I can tell. So is how you treat people; it’s all the same stuff.
BLVR: Yeah. I feel like part of the problem is everyone—and I include myself—is looking at the next thing. There’s a feeling that if you’rejust standing looking at what’s in front of you, something’s going to pass you by and kick you off your path or whatever.
TA: I know. Isn’t that amazing?
TA: It’s so interesting. I mean, like, who cares if you get kicked off your path, because when you get to the next place you’re just going to be looking at the next thing. I think we do an extraordinary job of amortizing happiness. We manage to somehow defray the benefits of anything we do. We never get it.
IV. THE OPPOSITE OF PERFECTION
BLVR: Here’s a very specific question. What’s your relationship to email?
TA: When I’m excited about something that I’m working on, which usually means somehow having had real terror instilled in me, then I answer it at night. And when I’m not terrified, then I answer it constantly. Didn’t I answer your email two seconds after I got it?
BLVR: Yeah. My experience of the people who are most successful, let’s say, is they always answer emails instantly. I think it’s a perception in people that if you answer emails instantly you seem like you’re not really important because if you were, you wouldn’t answer your email instantly. But everyone I know who’s—yeah, it’s the opposite.
TA: That’s really interesting. I’ve never thought about it like that before. I definitely have never analysed it, but maybe I’m unconsciously modeling this, because I haven’t been worried about answering emails immediately. You know, I have mentors, like we all do, and I’ve definitely observed that the mentors who I get the most from are also the ones who are probably the busiest, and they always email me immediately. Michael Pollan, who’s a food writer, always writes back immediately! He seems to always be available. And it’s not like he’s not working. I think he probably is a procrastinator, like me, which means that when he’s not actually under the pressure of a barrel against his head—
BLVR: I’ve noticed it too, it’s bizarre.
TA: For me, I don’t have any reason not to answer immediately, other than when I shut off my email when I’m writing and I’m in it, but when it’s not shut off—
BLVR: You’re there.
BLVR: I wanted to ask you, what’s the opposite of perfectionism? Because there’s a real distance from any idea of perfect in your book. You’re interested in the ordinary and the painterly…
TA: I think it’s just what’s there.
BLVR: What do you mean?
TA: I feel like what’s there is on some level the opposite. I mean, I guess the whole idea of perfection would have you thinking that the opposite would be disaster. But it’s not a polar situation. There isn’t perfection and then something in opposition to that. I guess we’re all working in the service of perfection. But perfection is imagining things, so I guess what’s really there must be the opposite.
BLVR: What’s your relationship to a fantasy life?
TA: I think I had a several year period where I had an idealized version of things, and I was dating my ex-boyfriend, and I was unhappy. Not with him but with everything we had, because it wasn’t something else. But how am I supposed to know what anything’s supposed to be like? How can I possibly know that?
BLVR: I wasn’t going to ask this, but that question makes me wonder, do you believe in God? In the traditional sense?
TA: I guess I believe in divinity, but I don’t know what that means. I do have a sense that… I worked for the Quakers, who believed there’s the light of God in everybody, and that made a lot of sense—they don’t create a situation where there’s a monolithic God—and I’m comfortable with that idea because it doesn’t really matter whether there’s still any of God left. Maybe it’s just the ineffable. But there is something beyond words. I usually feel like it exists in nature.
BLVR: You don’t go to synagogue?
TA: No, I go to my family’s house for holidays. I don’t go to synagogue to find God. I go for a walk.