Years ago, Kathleen Flinn and I spoke on a panel about memoir writing. I found her talk to be insightful and fascinating. And, on top of that, she is one of the most generous writers I know. I needed help on flushing out a book proposal once, and she went out of her way to help me. Such kindness!

Kathleen recently came out with her second book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, and I think it is a fantastic read. I caught up with her about her book and her life.

I am deep into your book, The Kitchen Counter, and loving it. Can you tell my readers a little about what motivated you to write the book? How did you find the people to profile?

I had been thinking a lot about what I wanted to “do” with my culinary training from Le Cordon Bleu when I ran into a woman shopping with her young daughter in a supermarket and her cart packed with processed foods. I observed her through the store and ultimately ended up talking to her. She was a smart woman who relied on convenience foods not because she was lazy or didn’t believe that eating well was important, but because she felt she was a poor cook and that got me thinking. Is this the real state of cooking in America? So I set on a project to find out. When I developed the concept for doing a “What Not to Wear” but with food approach, I put ads online and in print for volunteers. Interestingly, despite the volume of responses, the ads yielded the least number of people actually willing to commit to the project when they heard the details. About half of the women in the book came from a call for volunteers that I did on a radio show with two celebrity chefs in Seattle, Tom Douglas and Thierry Rautureau. One was my assistant’s step-daughter, another was her friend. One  was a person I’d worked with years ago, another I met casually at a literary event.

Ultimately, it came down to who agreed to the relatively bizarre requirements. Imagine: I want to come into your house, inventory your kitchen, videotape you cooking and then require you to take 10 weeks of cooking lessons. Afterward, you’d agree for me to follow up for a year and put your life into a book. Plus, you had to be a nice person. I’m quite grateful to the people who were brave enough to consent to all that.

What did you learn about cooking and life from the experience of writing this book and the people you met during your writing adventure?

I learned that there was a lot that I didn’t know about cooking, ingredients, the history of food… I could go on. I ended up doing a lot of research as a result of issues that came up throughout the whole project, from sustainable fishing to the politics of organics to the rise of convenience foods in America. One lasting impact was what I learned about food waste. I didn’t know that the typical American throws away about 30% to 40% of their food. When I started to catalog my own buying and tossing habits, I was surprsied to find I was just as guilty as the next person. I think that I became suspicious of what I call ‘the foodie bubble,” and that while I love good food and cooking, that at the end of the day, it’s about nourishing yourself and the people around you. I also came to firmly believe that more food writers need to spend time in the center aisles of supermarkets, that the message of organic and sustainable is great, but it’s not getting to people buying boxed casserole mixes.

What was the most challenging part of writing your book?

I found it more difficult to write than The Sharper Your Knife. There were a lot of characters, it was a ton of information and I could have written a whole book about almost every chapter. I also lost my laptop after I wrapped up all the final home visits, just as I was sitting down to write the book. Although my husband, Mike, regularly backs up my gear, I still lost a bunch of notes plus audio files from classes, so I had to reassemble many scenes. Although there aren’t a ton of recipes in the book, I wanted to make sure they were all relatively foolproof, so I did a lot of testing myself, and also had a legion of recipe testers.

As a narrative writer, what advice would you give to folks who want to get into writing such books ( like me for instance!)

I think everyone has at least one good story in them, and probably a lot more than that. People read books to “find out what happens” and propelling a story forward is often the toughest leap for writers who, say, feel most comfortable doing more traditional recipe-focused writing. Narrative non-fiction requires taking a step back and looking at a story as a reader would and then using some elements of fictional construction to make it work. A story needs a beginning, middle and end and requires conflict, resolutions, character development and pacing. But recipe writers already have a knack that makes someone a good storyteller. As one of my journalism mentors once told me that good writers are simply good explainers. So if you can guide someone through making a souffle, you can mostly certainly develop your skills writing narrative.

What is your favorite indulgence.. in terms of junk food, of course!

I don’t like sweets, but I’ve got a soft spot for white carbs that involve salt and cheese. We’re talking mac and cheese, classic fondue, pretzels, that sort of thing. I’m fairly sure that my version of heaven involves homemade soft pretzels with cheese for breakfast, crusty mac and cheese for lunch and classic gruyere-based fondue for dinner.

Three pieces of writing advice for food writers….

1) Don’t talk about writing, just sit down and do it. Most writers I know find it helps to write everyday, even if you throw most of what you write away. If you don’t have a project you’re working on or you can’t think of anything to write, just give yourself five minutes and write whatever comes to mind. If a blank page freaks you out, then write whatever you’re thinking about in an email to someone — then send it yourself. It’s helpful to develop a routine. Find a slice of time each day, and secure a place to write where you can sit down without much obstacle. That place, by the way, can be outside your house; coffee shops are popular, but I see a woman writing in the locker room of my gym sometimes. If you have to clear off your dining room table, that’s too much effort. Even a half hour of focused writing will make a major difference.
2) Give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft. If you don’t write the terrible first draft, you can’t get to fairly decent fourth draft.
3) Learn something new all the time. The old adage says “write what you know.” That’s fine, you should do that, but you should also set out to write about things you don’t know so that expand your literary and intellectual turf. I recently started to follow a bunch of bloggers who write about Jewish and Middle Eastern cuisine. As a Baptist from the Midwest, I realized that its a culinary blind spot for me. Who knew challah could be so interesting? Julia Child once told me “You can never know everything about anything, especially something you love.” I love food and writing about it. It seems like everyday I learn something new about cooking, about ingredients, about food politics, about cuisines.
So write everyday. Don’t judge yourself too hard. Make a point to learn new things. .

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  1. The premise of her book sounds fascinating–we do sometimes live in our foodie bubbles. For our family, most of the time I make our food from scratch but there are other busy weeks where the convenience foods creep back into our house.

  2. I see the makings of Volume 2 of ‘conversations with exceptional women’..thanks for sharing this!

  3. Thank you, Monica! You’re such an inspiration to me!

  4. What an inspiring piece! Thanks for sharing this, Kathleen. How insightful. And thanks, Monica…for featuring a great author! I’m almost wishing I was one of her “chosen”…would have loved to learn more from Kathleen! Cheers! And now, as you advised…I’m off to scribble a few paragraphs…..

  5. Wonderful interview, Monica, with very helpful tips. Bookmarking this!

  6. I have this book. Now I can’t wait to read it.

  7. Thanks for recommending this book, Monica! I really enjoyed reading it. I just loved the way the techniques and ingredients were introduced and I must admit I learnt a few important things myself. 🙂

  8. I loved The Sharper Your Knife and this one sounds fantastic in an entirely different way. The way she went about it makes for a fascinating project as well as story and I would love if someone forced me to change my food and cooking habits like this! As a writer who also instructs food writing, Kathleen makes many brilliant points about food writing and I think I need to print this out and tape it to my desk just to remind myself of these things every day. Wonderful interview of an extremely multi-talented woman.

  9. Excellent! I love your questions and I love Kathleen’s responses flow into captivating, entertaining lessons and delights. The party post was fun and this one is nourishing. I feel like I just took a fantastic worthwhile class and am sparked to go act on the inspirations. Two gold nuggets for me: “Good writers are good explainers.” and “Don’t talk about writing just sit down and do it.”

  10. What an intriguing and worth-while project! I can only imagine how much research went into this book and I admire you, Kathleen! I live in SoCal and even though we don’t have an off season for most food, the majority of people outside of the foodie bubble (I love it!) do not cook! Some even eat all their meals out or have take-outs.
    And just like Jamie, I am going to print your advice for writers and tape it to the wall just above my desk – it is imperative that I remember it:)
    Thanks you, Monica!

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