Ed Behr is the food writer too few people know about. His fame lies in the world of chefs and enthusiastic home cooks, but he and his magazine, The Art of Eating, should be better known.
His recipes are deceptively simple, but the devil is in the details of his writing. Behr tracks traditional dishes threading through their histories and their techniques.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did The Art of Eating begin?
Ed Behr: Twenty-five years ago, I was living in the obscure kingdom town of Peacham, Vt. This is old-school northeastern Vermont.
A friend of mine had started a building trades publication, and he didn't even have power. So I figured, if he did it, I could do it. I was looking for ways to use my mind more, and somehow I loved food more than I had ever been consciously aware.
This thing started out as a humble eight-page black-and-white food newsletter and turned into a magazine all these years later.
LRK: How many subscribers do you have?
EB: Oh goodness. Not even quite 10,000. But we did a count a year ago. We found that we were in 52 countries. So we attract a certain kind of person all over the world.
LRK: Describe how you approach a dish.
EB: Well, it's usually something that speaks to me and that I want to know more about. I love it when it's connected to a place, when it's a taste that really could only come at its best from one particular spot on the globe. Then I start looking at the climate and soil and culture that made the dish -- everything that tells you what the essence of the dish is and it explains how it came into being.
LRK: You're called a traditionalist, but is that how you see yourself?
EB: I'm certainly not offended by that. I think that tradition is this wonderful anchor, but I love modern food. I mean, I'm happy to go to a fancy, high-end restaurant and eat something wacky and crazy, but tradition is still so important. Even for those wild and crazy chefs, they are almost without exception anchored in some kind of tradition that establishes a foundation.
I think that traditional food comes from before the time when we were distracted by so many other things, like transportation and electronics and so on. It's when food was more central to everyday happiness. Those dishes are really considered. People have really thought about them, and that's why they are so satisfying and form a foundation.
LRK: What would you say today to people who want to cook but don't have a lot of time? What would you say to them about where to begin or just how to step into the kitchen?
EB: Start with ingredients that don't need transformation. Just get used to being in the kitchen. I used to stand at the counter and snack on great cheese or bread, or a things that really don't need preparation -- cured meats, olives, it goes on and on. Then begin to do the simplest kind of cooking.
You can just fry a piece of meat in fat very quickly and add salt and pepper with a nice little condiment. It could be capers and salt. It could be a squeeze of lemon. It could be parsley from the garden. Just begin in the simplest ways and then keep adding.
But whatever you do, don't make it a burden. Find the pleasure in it. It's just so relaxing to do something physical at the end of a day when you've been doing something that is just keyboard and mind and eyes.
LRK: Where do you get ideas for the holidays?
EB: I'm so reflexive. I go to chestnuts, big roasts of meat, big pieces of meat you can carve at the table. Onions. Big lusty full-flavored foods. Potatoes, of course.
I'm a huge fan of chestnuts. I always make a chestnut soup this time of year. We have chestnuts in the refrigerator right now, waiting to be cooked into something like soup.
I love things with red wine at this time of year, like red wine reductions. This includes pears poached in red wine with the red wine reduced almost to a syrup and spices.