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Food Radio Legend Lynne Rossetto Kasper on 20 Years of The Splendid Table

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For the past 20 years, award-winning food personality and cooking enthusiast Lynne Rossetto Kasper has hosted the radio show The Splendid Table. She began with a pilot series on Minnesota Public Radio in 1994 and launched nationally in 1995. For 20 years now, Kasper has been guiding listeners through interviews, recipes, cooking tips, and all sorts of food news.

Eater spoke with Kasper to get the story behind 20 years of food radio programming, and the changes in the food and media world she has seen along the way. She explains that where her show used to be unique in approaching "all the dimensions of food," she says now "that's the way food is playing in many of our lives." She puts her show in context of the wider interest in food today. "We saw the changes. Some people have said we nudged some of those, or at least broadened the awareness of those changes in what we were doing."

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The Splendid Table does temporary tattoos. [Photo: Jen Russell/Facebook]

Do you remember recording your first episode?
Well, this is the most vivid memory that I have of the first episode that we did. I was traveling a great deal at that time, when we started the show. It was winter. I live in Minnesota. It was obvious that there were going to be times that I may have not been able to come in to record, so we decided to record something that's called an evergreen — meaning a show that you have waiting there in case there's some sort of emergency.

It was the very very first show I recorded. We had two guests in the studio. I had done a script, we had gone over timing, when to take the breaks, all of that. I was working with my producer, Sally Swift, my partner in crime, and her husband, who was our executive producer. They were in the control room. I went through the whole hour, the interview, talking to the guests, et cetera. I hit every mark the way I was supposed to hit it. First show! It was remarkable. It really was.

I wound up the show, thanked the guests, did the ID of "This is the Splendid Table from Minnesota Public Radio, thanks so much for listening, join us next week." I had this big smile, and I looked up at Sally and Tom in the control room, and the two of them, their mouths were dropped open, their eyes were wide, they looked like the deer in front of the headlights. I had ended the show five minutes early.

Oh no!
Which, of course, in media, in radio, that's a miniseries. Five minutes of dead silence, or five minutes of Beethoven's Fifth, or god knows what else. It became a standing joke about how our first show went.

...Looking at the early shows, we talked to Danny Meyer about the Union Square Café cookbook that he did with the chef Michael Romano. We talked about a duck stew with rigatone, one of their recipes. We also talked with food scientist Shirley Corriher about the science to make better low-fat oven fries. Val Meister, wonderful researcher, did a book on willpower. This was our scholarly bit ... Julia Child was very much a regular on the early shows. She was a friend, but also, she never said no. She was just wonderfully gracious.

Food reaches out in far more directions than slowly standing at the stove.

Those early shows, we were always trying to go for a mix of hands-on cooking and then the idea that food reaches out in far more directions than slowly standing at the stove. We were always looking for humor and satire. I'm a science geek. My background is liberal arts, so of course anybody that has any expertise in science, I look upon as being a deity walking the earth. We always did a lot of science.

Also, we were always intrigued by the people who were doing really solid research in behavior. How is a menu developed? Menus are developed based around what is known about the psychology of human behavior. How we absorb information, what tempts us, how we read something, even though the words aren't there, we read into things. That's all used when you develop a menu.

What would you say are the biggest changes to the show over the past twenty years? How has it changed?
I think, first of all, there's more varied material on food. We were always tracking what was happening in the food world in the broadest sense. One of the great changes was that in the beginning, whenever we mentioned the word "sustainable" or "organic," we had to explain it. Today, you don't even have to think about explaining it. Everyone has a sense, at least, of what you're talking about.

The other thing is that the kind of curiosity that we had about all the dimensions of food, whether you cooked or not. If you never walked into the kitchen, we wanted you to find the show interesting and entertaining. Maybe provocative, too. Now, that's the way food is playing in many of our lives. There's always some small awareness, if not large one, of the politics of food. Even if it's a recall, and realizing how a recall isn't working, or worrying about what's happening with a particular food source. That sort of thing has become, now, mainstream. It wasn't so much when we started out. It was a case where people though we were going to do a recipe show.

Although I've taught cooking — I don't know, somewhere when the dinosaurs were walking the Earth, around 1968 — I've written about food ad nauseam. To me, it became a broader and more provocative subject. I kept finding that the yellow brick roads I was following to Oz kept forking and taking me down all of these different tracks of thought, or research, of adventures, and that's what we wanted to bring to the air.

We see chefs now opining about the ecological situations that we're facing.

Sure enough, that's exactly what's happening now in so much of what we see in food writing. We see chefs now opining about the ecological situations that we're facing. About the emotional impacts of food. They're doing it with significant scholarship behind them. Then we're seeing scholars who would have looked down their nose twenty years ago, about "food studies" as a serious academic subject. Now these are people who are working in those areas and looking at food as one of the great tells of understanding. Whether it be history, the future, culture, mentalities, et cetera.

I find that incredibly significant. We saw the changes. Some people have said we nudged some of those, or at least broadened the awareness of those changes in what we were doing. I consider that a great compliment, but it's one of the most exciting parts of what's happening today in food.

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[Photo: Jen Russell/Facebook]

After 20 years, what's your creative process? How do you keep the show fresh?
Believe it or not, there's no problem with that. There's endless material out there. It keeps pouring in. You know what it's like? It's rather like wine, because every time you think you've got wine nailed in some way or another. You've found the wines you like and whatever, you realize that wines are made in what, how many countries in the world? Let's say for argument's sake two hundred, all right? Every year, there's another go-round. Every year, each one of those countries, each one of those winemakers, produces something slightly different, because nature has this funny way of never quite duplicating herself. That's what we see in information, in approach, in curiosity.

If I told you twenty years ago... that chefs were not going to be importing Dover sole from France. They were going to be out like Sean Brock, down in the Carolinas. They were going to be going out along the roadsides looking for heirloom plants that they could then save the seeds and plant them and try to recreate the tastes of their Southern heritage, of what they grew up with ...

It's that kind of mentality that we're not just looking solely at the next great recipe. They're looking at all these different dimensions of food, and it's like watching the way a rose opens up. Each petal has a different kind of shading to it, or a slightly different shape. That's what I see happening with a lot of the best minds in food today, when it comes to not just the cooking. A friend of mine said cooking, or working in food, is like the fingers of your hand. It can take you in so many directions. That what I see.

Where else do you see food media heading?
I think the kind of work we're doing is only going to get broader and deeper. We're dealing now a lot more with politics and social issues and ecological issues than we did before, and I think we're going to see more and more mainstream shows doing that. I think the kind of work that Anthony Bourdain is doing on television is, god willing, a big part of the future. Where a thoughtful, smart person, who also happens to have a lot of charisma, goes out and brings you in to places you would never go on your own, or you just might not have an opportunity to get to, and engages...

Newspaper food pages were living in la la land.

I think the other thing that media is going to become more and more engaged, especially what used to be the food page in the newspapers. The thing was if I wanted to know any issues about politics, about safety, about controversy, et cetera, I had to go to the business pages. I had to go to the world news pages. Again, there's nothing wrong with recipes. There's absolutely nothing wrong with focusing on how food works and the fascination and the pure joy of it. The food pages were living in la la land. They could have so nicely melded in a bit of the meat, so to speak.

Look at what you folks [at Eater] are doing. You're emblematic of what's happening. You cover so much. I think a lot of us are doing that. It's no longer enough to say, "Oh, that was a nice restaurant." There's always a story to tell. That's the other thing. We've always been a show about pleasure and there's always joy to be found. That's the other piece, with all this. In some ways you could label it very serious. Not always. We have the other side that this is a romp. We have to eat a couple of times a day anyway. There's really so much to enjoy.

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