Today, I’m delighted to bring to you an Q&A interview with Beth Bader. We here at MotherTalkers know Beth better as Expat Chef, who has endeared herself to many here for her recipe and passion for cooking, healthy eating and food justice as captured at her blog The (Ex)Expatriate’s Kitchen. Beth and co-author Ali Benjamin, founder of The Cleaner Plate Club blog, have recently published their first cookbook, The Cleaner Plate Club: Raising Healthy Eaters One Meal at a Time.
A few notes of journalism – firstly, Beth is a friend, so this isn’t exactly a strict piece of journalism – I’m biased as hell and want the book to succeed! Secondly, this “interview“ took place over IM and is edited and condensed for space, clarity and to cut out random “My kid does this“ stories. Thanks, and without further ado:
R: What was the genesis of The Cleaner Plate Club?
Beth Bader: It started in one way as a hobby I could fit into my life as a new parent. I needed something I could do for me (writing a blog) that would be flexible, ten minutes here, a random hour in the middle of the night there. And, something that I had to do in life anyway, that I enjoyed: cooking. I just pointed myself down the path I enjoyed. The food issues were beginning to surface and there was a lot to write about. The book came along when I met another blogger online. She [Ali Benjamin,] emailed me and said, “We should do a book!” You think, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But people have the best intentions, it just rarely comes to be. Next thing I knew, I have a proposal, a book contract [and a] life goal staring right at me.
R: I like the fact that your approach to the book is really “in the trenches” and explanatory without being condescending. Am I right in thinking that a lot of these recipes have come about because of techniques to encourage healthy eaters?
BB: Definitely. None of them are too complicated. All of them are aimed at getting the best flavor from healthy foods in a way that most kids would try, without really bringing the recipes down to a “kid food” low. And by kid food, I am talking about that limited set of recipes based on sugar, fat, salt and simple carb. The goal is to expand kids’ palates back to something “normal.”
R: Yes – they come across as being adventurous and colorful without being demanding in a molecular-gastro-haute-cuisine sort of way.
BB: Heh. We wanted the cooking skills required to be minimal, and not intimidating. But we also used the recipes to teach how to create meals WITHOUT a recipe. Empowering people to cook, not just instructions without the “why.”
R: I’m struck by that phrase “expanding … back to something ‘normal’…” because it occurs to me that the re-norming is not just for the kids, but also for the adults doing the shopping, preparing and cooking.
BB: Seems like our culture has completely forgotten how to cook. Which is ironic, what with Food Network on 24/7 and all. But there it is. Maybe we all just need permission TO cook again, where marketers and fast food are trying to convince us we are too busy?
R: To that point, what I really enjoy about the book are two features – the pantry shopping list at the start of the book, and the recipe index at the back that organizes things by season. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve whipped out one of my cookbooks, found a delicious recipe and then either discovered that I don’t have the ingredients in my pantry, or that it’s totally impractical from seasonal perspective.
BB: Well, thanks, there’s a good reason the recipes all use the same pantry. It was my pantry! I cook with what I have on hand, recipes come from that one source, so the pantry is limited and seasonal.
… [A] lot of it is all the basics with a slight obsession for spices. We’re on a weekly food budget like everyone else. Growing herbs is absolutely the one way to take your dishes to the next level. Immediate greatness.
R: It works so practically, doesn’t it? they taste great, they’re cheaper than buying those bunches of fresh herbs in the store, and the food miles become “food feet”. what’s not to like?!
BB: And they smell amazing. And somehow even I cannot kill them. I am a lousy gardener.
R: Do you have favorite recipes in the book? People who are longtime fans of your blog … will find old favorites like the mac n cheese recipe and the Florentine meatloaf recipe. But do you have favorites?
BB: I love the wedding soup. And, hmmm, the carrot souffle. My favorites kind of change each season. I’ll make something again and remember I love it.
R: So, what’s next for you? Have you enjoyed the process [of co-authoring a book] enough to repeat it? Does your activism continue in other venues?
BB: I’m still on the path with food. Food justice is growing on my radar. There is a nagging in my heart about those who don’t have access to good food. Hard to fully enjoy a meal when there are so many still hungry. So, that’s a next step. I would like to do a next book, too. But this one has to do well first for that to happen! One thing at a time, I guess. I am also intrigued by creative solutions to feeding more people. Urban agriculture for example.
R: Food justice. Yes. It’s not enough for people to go out there and say “organic is best! Buy only organic!“ then you go into schools or negihborhoods where they’re starved for any fresh produce, conventional or otherwise.
BB: Definitely. Food justice is a movement because so much of it is based on empowerment. Not just handing people money for a temporary fix. I love the creativity in problem solving, it inspires me. So those are fun topics to explore.