Inside a Reporter's Kitchen, From Italy to Botswana

December  1, 2017

“Good cooking is much easier to master than good writing. But great cooking is something different…”

So muses Jane Kramer in the opening of her newly released collections of essays The Reporter’s Kitchen. As the New Yorker’s European correspondent, Kramer spent years reporting across the continent, seeking to distill for American readers a certain taste of what lay across the pond. She’s published books that speak to a myriad of tastes—in art, in policy, in history. But her most recent project concerns itself with taste at its most literal. The Reporter’s Kitchen reads as both an homage to and a memoir about the acts that have buoyed her during a decades-long career of cooking, eating, tasting, and writing.

Her stories are the stuff of a food writer’s fantasy. Four casually consecutive meals at Osteria Francescana; a conversation with Claudia Roden about the thorny pursuit of authenticity; the briny bite of a sea lettuce foraged by Rene Redzepi on a blustery Danish beach. Yet amidst the cataclysmic star power of those she profiles, she bookends these reports with dispatches from her own kitchen. Kramer’s sentences invite you to relive her culinary woes and wins. She traces a once-inherited stuffing recipe, or rolls paper-thin phyllo, in the hall of a Moroccan apartment. Her curiosity, and beguiling taste, tie together a collection of essays as eclectic as the flavors they conjure.

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We reached out to Kramer in the days following her book’s release on November 21. The following correspondence has been edited for clarity.

Valerio Farris: How did you arrive in the kitchen? And what was the process like for you?

Jane Kramer: My mother was a terrible cook. Her mother, too. My father’s one kitchen skill was sectioning a half-grapefruit to eat with one of those small, pointy spoons. Our cook could produce a credible apple pie—if you didn’t count the crust. So I guess what got me into the kitchen as a girl was an alchemical urge to turn the drab fare of pre-Jasper White New England into something as tasty as Chinese take-out. I was showing off.

VF: This book feels like a meditation on two of your greatest passions, writing and cooking. How, for you, have the two informed each other?

JK: Of course, those two passions informed each other, but as to which came first, it’s the old chicken-or-the-egg question. There’s no answer.

VF: How do you come to know others—the people you write about—through the foods they eat and prepare?

JK: My husband is an anthropologist. I learned from him that there is a life-history in every dish that makes it to the table (or the copper tray or the carpet).

VF: What meals, or food-related experiences, come to mind as some of the more memorable ones?

JK: No contest! By far the most memorable meal of my reporting life took place one night in the Okavanga Delta in Botswana. We were on safari, writing a piece about housekeeping in the bush. Our then 15-year-old daughter took the pictures—including one of a herd of frolicking hippos, arguably the first of their species ever to grace a double spread in the decorous pages of House and Garden. We had procured a spur wing goose—don’t ask—which unfortunately found its way into a pot of boiling oil when my back was turned, but I saved the day with a very fine polenta, thanks to a sack of mealie-mealie and a chunk of cheese of unknown provenance. Hopefully not the hippos.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.