Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Austin radio just got a little more splendid

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
'Splendid Table' host Lynne Rossetto Kasper is working on a second book with her producer, who helped her create the show in 1993.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has been exploring the wonderful world of food on her radio show "The Splendid Table" for nearly 20 years, but the program is just hitting Austin airwaves. After a trial run earlier this spring, the American Public Media show now has a regular spot at 11 a.m. Sundays on KUT 90.5.

Kasper and the show are based in St. Paul, Minn., and Austin is one of almost 260 markets where the show can be heard. The affable host doesn't just know how to eat; she was a cooking instructor in Colorado and New York City before moving to Europe in 1985, where she researched and wrote her first cookbook. Kasper and "Splendid Table" producer Sally Swift are in the middle of finishing their second book together, a follow-up to 2008's "The Splendid Table: How To Eat Supper" that is set to come out in fall of 2011. Kasper took a break from the book last week to talk about how the show came to be, how food blogging has expanded our food consciousness and why there's so much more to a dish than its recipe.

Because 'Splendid Table' is new to so many Austinites, give us a quick introduction to you and how you got into food.

I was born and raised just outside New York City; when I reached the age of reason, I moved into the city. I started a cooking school in Denver in the 1970s, and it grew into the biggest teaching school in the state. I loved starting something from nothing, and it was the right moment to do it.

I also taught Chinese cooking in New York City before we moved to Brussels in 1985, where my husband was based, and I was writing about food.

I vowed I would never teach again, but I ended up teaching all the new things I was discovering.

I wanted to do a book that looked at the origins of Italian food. What is it about this food that makes it so beloved around the world? It's just about everyone's favorite foreign food. "The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food" came out in 1992 (and won awards from both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals) about Emilia-Romagna, the only place that can produce Parmesan, balsamic vinegar and Parma ham.

It's about 500 years of eating, and it asked the question, "Why this food in this place?" You can say the land is rich and all that business, but I realized that there was so much more going on.The second book, "The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens," came out in 1999 just when agritourism was beginning. It was the perfect entré to be able to sit down with a family and in an environment to see how the land was worked. You have to understand agricultural systems to understand what the food is about.

Tell me about how the radio show came to be.

We started the radio show in 1993 right after the first book came out and had gotten a lot of attention. I got a call from a woman who says, "You don't know me, but I've worked in radio and television, and I have your book and I think you could do a great radio show." I had written a book that was filled with stories, history and folklore. Food has so much more to say than its recipe. Everyone had told me, "No one's going to fund a book or a show that involves history and storytelling."

But the woman who called, Sally Swift (who is still the show's producer), knew you could do both. We created the show together. We did a six-week pilot in 1993 and then went national in 1995.

The show has a nice balance of cooking and eating out, the history of food as well as current issues. As eating has become so political, how do you tackle the serious side of food?

We keep trying to find that balance between taking the subject seriously but without taking ourselves too seriously. We were talking about these issues 15 years ago. You go to any kind of editorial meeting and people are asking, "What's going to be the trend?" A decade ago, I said, "You will be hearing, sustainable, organic and local." People smiled, but they didn't believe me.

I had been working in the organics field and had a sense of what was coming. It was obvious to me that we would be looking for alternative sources for our food.

We are a small team, so we often illustrate these big-picture problems through guests like Paul Roberts (author of "The End of Food") and Raj Patel (author of "Stuffed and Starved").

One big realization has been that if something is going to be sustainable, it must be sustainable across the economic spectrum. One of the major flaws we have is that most of what is accessible in terms of food choices is accessible to a fortunate few. A significant percent of the population doesn't have this access. It's a big issue.

What have been some of the other big developments you've seen in recent years?

One of the trends that's not new but I'm interested in is this world of food blogging, where you can find amazing information about food from every point of view. There are some people doing some incredible things. One of the blogs I thoroughly enjoy is Eating Asia, and we've had (the author, Robyn Eckhardt) on the show. She's writing about the life she leads and is looking at the food, culture and people with a background of history and anthropology.

We're beginning to have a vague understanding that Southeast Asian food isn't all the same. It's nook-and-cranny eating. We're no longer thinking solely in terms of Chinese, Italian, Spanish or South American, and we're looking at the cultural microcosms in our own country.

So what do you think about celebrity chefs on TV?

The Gordon Ramsay model — the chef as pure personality — is interesting in its popularity. You look at a Jamie Oliver, who at 24 was doing a restaurant in London. His whole appeal was young and charming, but now as a man (he) is attempting to change the world. I think we're seeing people reinvent themselves and the models being played with. Rachael Ray has a talk show that's not necessarily about food, for instance.

I've always had this fantasy about doing a theatrical show about food. Turn it into a performance with sounds, light, dance and music. If I could tap-dance a cookbook for you (laughs).

Food is about all of the senses and all of the sensibilities. It's pure theater. I really am waiting for people in media to get that. On TV, it's still that business of standing in a kitchen and cooking. I'm a firm believer that everyone needs to know how to feed themselves, but food takes on a meaning far beyond that.

Have you eaten your way through Texas yet?

I have barely begun to explore Texas, and I am looking forward to coming and exploring. I've spent some time in San Antonio, and what's not to like? I'm intrigued by the state's cultural mix.

I'm excited to be in the Austin market because I got the sense from reading the ("The Soup Peddler's Slow and Difficult Soups" by David Ansel) and being around cooking teachers from Austin that it's one of the neatest parts of the country.

Do you call yourself a foodie?

I don't like the word "foodie," but I haven't found an alternative. It diminishes the importance of food. Eating is the single most important thing that we have to do on a day-to-day basis. We have to breathe, and we have to nourish ourselves to stay alive. "Foodie" makes it seem like it's a private society.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504