Q & A With Luisa Weiss: Her New Book, the Future of The Wednesday Chef + Cooking in Germany
If you've spent much of the last seven years reading Luisa Weiss' celebrated food blog The Wednesday Chef, as many of us have, it will not surprise you to learn that her new book is a charming read.
Nor will it surprise you to learn that she's an engaging reader in real life, as she was when she came to Los Angeles last week to read from My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (With Recipes), her recently published book.
What is maybe surprising is that it's Weiss' first book -- it seems like we've been reading her in print for ages -- and that it was thus not only her first book tour, but her first time doing a book reading at all. Not that you could tell.
We caught up with Weiss just before her reading at Vroman's in Pasadena, to ask her about the book, the future of her blog, how the food culture in Germany compares to that of the U.S., and what it's like cooking in Berlin, where she now lives with her husband and their 3-month-old son Hugo. Yes, she's on a book tour with an infant. And you thought blogging in your pajamas was a cushy life. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: So welcome to your book tour, since you just told me that this is your first reading ever.
Luisa Weiss: Yep, the first time.
SI: And this is your first book. And that's weird. Because it seems like we've been reading you for years. Since 2005 at least. So how was it?
LW: Writing the book? It was the hardest work I've ever done. Ever.
SI: You used to be a book editor. So it's not like you went from a career in plumbing to writing a book, with no experience in books or writing or making a successful book. Did that make it easier -- or harder?
LW: I think it made it easier because I had an insider's perspective into the whole book publishing side of things, which made some things easier. First of all, just getting an agent and selling the book and understanding the whole sales process. In terms of the actual technical process of writing a book? I mean, I don't know how you prepare for that. It was unbelievable. It made me respect my former authors so much more. I mean, not like I didn't respect them, but it made me understand them so much better.
And for a long time during the writing, I would sort of Hoover up other people's books on writing. They all seemed to say the same thing: This is the hardest thing you'll ever do and you'll be convinced that you're a total fraud that nobody should have given a book deal to and that's totally normal. I felt like such a textbook cliché, but that is the way you feel the whole time.
SI: Yeah, you do. And you promise yourself, you write in Sharpie: I'm never doing this again.
LW: Ever. I swore up and down. Never again. And so the other day someone's asked me, What do you want to do next? And I was like, Write another book? [Laughs.]
SI: And you're still saying that?
LW: Well, I would like to try and write a novel. I don't want to write another personal book; it's a lot to write about your personal stuff, and in such a more profound way than I did online.
SI: Which segues nicely into the next question: How was the writing process different? You wrote a memoir, and your blog, while certainly not always a memoir, was a first person account of your world and your food.
LW: I think that's what I found so difficult about writing the book. I'd been writing the blog for so long that it was second nature; it's really easy for me to blog. And I put little bits of my life in the blog, but that part's very edited. And so for a long time I really resisted getting into the personal stuff in the book. My chapters were stilted and hideous -- the worst writing I've ever ever read. And my editor was like, Yeah, you really need to go for it, this is terrible.
It was really scary, but when I let myself go for it, then it started to flow. But it's really hard writing about yourself and your parents and people who you love. I had countless sleepless nights thinking, What am I doing, am I betraying them? Am I doing this story justice, am I making any sense -- is anybody going to even care? A lot of self-doubt.
SI: You have a lot of recipes in this book. Was that in your book proposal? One assumes, because that's such a big part of who you are and what you do and what your narrative voice has always been. How are these recipes different?
LW: The blog recipes are mostly from the newspaper sections that I clip. And they gave the blog structure: I would use the recipe and then tell the story. In the book it was often the other way around. I'd tell the story first and then find a recipe that made sense. For some of them it was totally obvious. I wrote a chapter about me and my dad and it was clear that the recipe was going to have to be the tomato sauce, because that's his sauce. Or there's the chapter about going plum-picking with my in-laws and telling a bit of geography about Berlin, and I knew I had to tell the story about the plum jam. But when I wrote about my mother, it took me a really long time to figure out what recipe to even link to her. There was a lot more matching things up, and I had to throw a bunch of recipes out that didn't really make sense.
SI: How many recipes are in the book?
LW: I think 44, 42. Most chapters have one, some have two, some don't have any. Luckily my editor gave me that freedom. I'd said that every chapter should have a recipe, but like for the heartbreak chapter -- I lost my appetite. When I'm sad I don't want to eat.
SI: When did you move to Germany?
LW: December 15th, 2009.
SI: Before or after you got your book contract?
LW: After. I decided that I wanted to move back to Berlin in the summer of 2009 and I wrote a proposal and had it sell in the fall, and a couple months later I left. But I'd actually quit my job before the book sold. I was pretty committed to leaving, and I thought, if worse comes to worse and the book doesn't sell, I'll get a job there doing whatever. But it sold and thank goodness, because I don't know what I'd be doing otherwise.
SI: You were born in Berlin. How long did you live there before you moved back?
LW: It's complicated. I was born there, and then my parents split up when I was 2 or 3, and then I moved to Boston with my dad. And from 2 or 3 until 10, I spent the bulk of the year with him and summers and Christmasses with my mother. And then when I was 10 it flipped and I went to school in Berlin and saw my dad in the summer. I went to college in the States, went to Paris for a year in grad school, and back to New York and started work. So I hadn't lived in Berlin for 15 years.
SI: But you've been fluent in German since the beginning.
LW: Yeah. Trilingual. [Italian!]
SI: Your professional food life has always been here, in the U.S., in New York. How has food culture over there been different?
LW: [Laughs.] It's so bad. It's hard to go from New York, any big city in America -- even in small cities. The food culture is so incredible here. The food revolution made such a huge difference. And Germany is just so behind. Europe in general is not where America is, funnily enough.
SI: In what respect?
LW: The whole farm-to-table, super local, locavorism is not as much of a thing.
SI: Over here we think of it as being that way. Oh, they live in the village and they make their own duck confit. No?
LW: No. I mean I don't know what it's like in small towns in France, but not in Berlin. Berlin is surrounded by farmland and it's hard to get vegetables that are local.
SI: That's surprising. Why?
LW: It's a total mystery to me.
SI: Do you have farmers markets in Berlin?
LW: Greenmarkets in Berlin are filled with wholesalers. They get the same fruits and vegetables that the grocery stores do and they sell it at the market. There's one or two markets a week that are farmers markets. One or two -- in the whole city of Berlin. It's really weird.
SI: Because it's still pretty agricultural, once you get out of the city.
LW: Yes. Brandenburg, which is the region that Berlin is in, is filled with farmers. But there isn't the public interest yet. I really think Germany is where America was, I don't know, 30 years ago. In that sense. There isn't the appreciation for local food, for supporting local farmers, not even for heirloom strains of apples and things.
SI: And we think of Germany as being, well, so much more advanced.
LW: Well, it is advanced in other ways -- power and things like that -- but in food... It has come a long way. It's much better than it was when I was a kid, in terms of ethnic restaurants and things like that. But not compared to America.
SI: Do you see that changing?
LW: There's been a huge change in the German population. A lot more Asian people have come to Germany, so as a result there are a lot more Asian offerings than there were when I was a kid. But there's still nothing near to the authentic ethnic foods that there are here in the States. The population is so much smaller. And the Germans are really phobic about spice and flavor.
SI: Has your cooking changed a lot because of that?
LW: No. No. If anything I've become more experimental. We eat a lot spicier things now than when I lived here just because I crave the heat more.
SI: You compensate.
LW: But now my cooking's changed because I have a 3-month-old baby.
SI: And you're on a book tour.
LW: It's crazy.
SI: So what are you going to do with your blog now? It's changed a lot, as it would.
LW: It has. I don't really know. Sometimes it feels a little stagnant, and I'd like to shake it up in some way rather than always so the same formula of recipe, story. But I don't really know how to change it, because on the other hand I feel like that's what my readers like. I have this wonderful relationship with them and I don't want to break that. I know how I feel about other blogs: You like things going just so. I think also I need to get back into the rhythm of cooking again. Right now it's so hard to find the time to cook that I feel constantly torn.
SI: It'll sort itself out. And there's been so much going on.
LW: Although I got one comment from a lady who was like, We would all be so much happier if you posted more! And I was like, I'm sorry, but I had a baby!
SI: Right. Maybe tell her to go read the book.
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