On Saturday night, as the Eagles stumbled to playoff elimination and a bitter cold made icicles of all souls, an auditorium full of white people (with a few Asians for good measure) waited expectantly for Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, to take the stage of the New York Times auditorium. Ms. Garten would be interviewed by Alex Witchel as part of the Arts and Leisure Weekend, three days of interviews of white people (with one Asian for good measure.) [Joke though I may, I do think some attempt to integrate the programming would have been nice.] Anyway, at approximately 6:10pm Ms. Garten, clad in a nice flowing black pant suit, walked on stage. She was led by her interlocutor, Ms. Witchel, tall with perfectly coiffed blonde hair.
Those expecting any real substance from the discussion were soon disappointed. Though Ms. Garten has led a very interesting life — cloaked perhaps in an easy going East Hampton's nonchalance — Ms. Witchel seemed more interested in probing its dullest corners, delineating the workaday details of cookbook writing and television show making with blunt chisel. It was like a Georges Perec novel but without the attention to detail with moments seemed cut from a Christopher Guest movie.
Alex Witchel: You shoot 20 shows, one every day, over how long?
The Barefoot Contessa: [Pause] A 10-12 hour day.
Alex Witchel: No, over how many days?
The Barefoot Contessa: Oh...about three weeks. [NB: Twenty days!]
Ms. Witchel, who is married to NYT columnist Frank Rich also seemed very keen to communicate that she and Frank and Ina and Jeffrey often spend time together off the stage. "Jeffrey and Ina and Frank and I were at dinner..." was an easy lead-in for many a question. I imagine in Ms. Witchel's mind a conversation between two friends — streamed on the internet, broadcast into the minds of the lucky attendees — would make thrilling content. True enough but it doesn't matter how interesting either party is if the conversation is made up of, in the main, questions like:
AW: I hate to be selfish but....do you use an instant-read meat thermometer?
TBC: The secret to using them is to stick them in the side of whatever you're measuring so you know when it reaches the center.
AW: So you do use one. Because I have this thing and it has this thing and this round dial thing and... [She describes an instant-read meat thermometer.]
TBC: Um, yes. I use an instant-read meat thermometer.
AW: What brand? Because I want to go to Zabar's and buy one!
AW: My friend who actually has a convection oven wanted me to ask, "What's the deal with a convection oven?"
TBC: I don't use one.
AW: Oh... what's the deal with high altitude cooking?
Later, Ms. Witchel read a Grub Street post about Garten's inclusion on the Five Worst Cookbook List of 2010 in its entirety. Garten dismissed the group by, rightfully, pointing out they were more lobbyists than a disinterested panel of experts.
However, it wasn't all dross. Ina Garten, one feels, could make the most boring dinner party interesting. She's smart. She's funny. She cusses. The most interesting parts of the evening was a brief and woefully under-explored excursion into Garten's childhood. "I emerged a fully formed Contessa," she joked. Actually it turns out Ms. Garten's mother was a very strict nutritionist. "She saw food as a medicine," she explained, "I was always hungry when I was a kid." Ms. Garten quoted Julia Child who said, "I've never met a nutritionist who liked food." Behold, the psychological underpinnings of a TV chef! However, the conversation progressed.
Another nice thing about Ms. Garten is she's a curmudgeon, a species dear to my heart. She doesn't like tasting menus: "I never do tasting menus. they give me a headache." She's not very adventurous, eating-wise. Asked about her recipes she says, "You have to want to eat them. It's not fish eyes and foam. It's not oyster ice cream." When in New York she likes Danny Meyer's restaurants, Daniel Boulud's ,and Babbo. She likes eating there with her husband, Jeffrey, and yes, with Alex and Frank, too.
· All Ina Garten Coverage on Eater [-E-]