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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 12:58 am

“The Splendid Table” comes to Springfield

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Lynne Rossetto Kasper talks during an interview in her kitchen in St. Paul, Minn.

I found out on a Sunday afternoon last month. My husband, Peter, and I had just raided a 75 percent off plant sale. We loaded the loot into our van and were discussing landscaping plans as Peter turned the key. A warm rich voice filled the air. It was a familiar voice, one that's invariably interesting, so we quit talking. We'd heard that voice countless times while driving, so it took a while before realization dawned that something was different.

"Hey ­— that's the radio," I said stupidly. "It's finally here!"

"It" was "The Splendid Table," the National Public Radio show "for people who love to eat." The voice belonged to the show's host, Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Peter and I discovered "The Splendid Table" years ago when traveling, and it was love at first sound.

"The Splendid Table" is an hour-long program devoted to all things edible. There's always a segment with Jane and Michael Stern. The Sterns, who also have a monthly column in Gourmet magazine, have made it their mission to explore American "Roadfood" (the name of their guidebook and website), eating establishments that offer genuine regional food of the sort that's too often swept away in a tsunami of fast-food sameness. Eschewing the trendy and upscale, they discuss their latest finds with Kasper, whether it's a Mississippi barbeque joint, an Indiana perch palace, a New England clam shack, or a Chicago hot dog stand.

The show also usually has a guest. It may be a chef or cookbook author, but it's just as likely to be a winemaker, scientist, or traveler — folks from every corner of the food world. Each episode ends with a call-in segment. In between, Kasper offers tips and tidbits in that chocolate-rich voice that tells you there's a twinkle in her eye, even if you can't see it. But Kasper is no Rachael Ray; her insights and information are always substantive rather that silly.

"The Splendid Table" began in the 1990s. Kasper had been writing articles for magazines such as Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit, and had just published her first cookbook, The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna. It garnered lots of praise; it's the only cookbook to ever win Cookbook of the Year awards from both the James Beard Foundation and the Julia Child award of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. As a result, Kasper received several proposals for a show. "I was the flavor of the month," says Kasper. "But everybody just wanted a recipe show. I wanted to do more than that."

By the time Sally Swift contacted her, Kasper had grown disenchanted with the idea. "I wasn't exactly rude, but I certainly wasn't enthusiastic," Kasper says. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to talk to Swift, who proposed a public radio program. The two found they had similar ideas about how much more a food show could encompass than just recipes. In the introduction to their 2008 cookbook, How to Eat Supper, they articulated the philosophy that's been behind "The Splendid Table"since its inception:

We Americans don't eat, shop, or cook the way we used to. Our relationship with food has intensified, become more controversial, richer, more pleasurable and more puzzling. The American food psyche is flourishing, and we're placing more value on food and its influences than ever before. To have a respectable cultural IQ these days, you must have some nimbleness with the language of food – even if you never cook.

We do a national show about food, and while cooking is part of it, believe it or not, it is a relatively small one. … "The Splendid Table" has taken radio audiences far beyond the recipe. We hope we've given voice to the dimensions of food rarely heard in media – from the quirky to the political, from the grassroots to the scholarly, from the high to the humble. And yes, we talk to cooks, too.

From the beginning, the duo has also had a commitment to organic, sustainable food:

Supporting local, organic, and sustainable growers and producers isn't solely about us and our own well-being. It is about the large view – the environment, the community, the ethical treatment of people and animals, the value of the small and unique. And it's about feeding the people you care about the best you can.

"Thank goodness for public radio," Kasper told me. "They were willing to take a risk and give us time to find our audience. [In commercial media] you get 15 weeks, and if you're not a hit, you're out. The hardest thing for us was trying to explain to program directors that it wasn't just a recipe show."

Like Julia Child and James Beard, Kasper isn't a professional chef or professionally trained, and almost accidentally fell into a culinary career. Both her parents were of Italian descent. Food was an important part of her heritage, but as a self-conscious teenager, she was somewhat embarrassed by family meals that were different than her perceived all-American norm. Her culinary heritage, however, gave her the chops to earn money while in college majoring in theatre and art.

"I catered seduction dinners," she laughs. "Those were the days before co-ed dorms, and I'd pass the food out through the window for clandestine assignations on fire escapes." After graduation, she ran a children's improvisation street theater group in New York City and worked part time for a Chinese artist. He and his wife gave monthly dinner parties that were formal Chinese banquets. "I was fascinated by those banquets," says Kasper. "They were completely different from any Chinese food I'd ever had."

Kasper began studying Chinese cooking and reading about the philosophy behind it: "how the culture expresses itself through food." And she learned by helping and watching her boss's wife cook. She began giving her own Chinese dinner parties, and friends asked if she'd teach them. "I had no pretense of being an expert," she says. Still, before long she was teaching cooking classes and traveling to Europe "whenever I had two nickels to rub together."

Especially Paris and France. "It wasn't just the food," Kasper says. "The French developed the language of method. I wanted to learn everything firsthand, in Europe or at home. I learned to cut meat from my butcher."

Kasper's husband was transferred to Denver, where she continued teaching cooking classes and writing for periodicals. Much as she enjoyed Colorado, when her husband asked what she'd think if his company transferred him to Brussels, she didn't hesitate: "I was, like, just give me half an hour to pack a suitcase," she says.

Kasper's five years based in Brussels were spent traveling throughout Europe and "learning so much", even as she continued to write for periodicals back home. She kept finding herself drawn back to Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. Was it because that's where her family originated? "No," she says. "Actually they come from two regions just outside of Emilia-Romagna. It was because three of the most iconic Italian foods — balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma and Parmegiana-Reggiano [cheese] come from there. Why? Was there a microclimate? Was it the culture?"

Finding the answers took more than a decade. By the time Kasper was satisfied, she had the material for her definitive tome on Emilia-Romagna's cuisine. Actually, she had more than enough material; even though the book contains 548 pages, deciding what to include and what to leave out was "like trying to have two elephants wrestling in a room." The book garnered critical acclaim. And then Sally Swift came calling….

Public radio may have gambled by giving "The Splendid Table" time to find an audience, but they didn't have to wait too long for a payoff. First aired in 1993, by 1995 "The Splendid Table"was being broadcast nationally. Today it's heard on over 200 stations throughout the U.S. and has won multiple James Beard awards.
Once we found "The Splendid Table," Peter and I searched for it on out-of-town roadtrips, inevitably bemoaning that we couldn't hear it here. When it became available, Peter downloaded it onto his iPod and not having it available locally became less of an issue. Sometimes we'd listen online or play episodes driving around town, but — perhaps because that's how we discovered it — we tended to save them for trips. "Three episodes of 'The Splendid Table' makes the trip to Chicago go fast," says Peter.

For other local "Splendid Table"fans, it became part of a weekly ritual: "My Saturday mornings would be incomplete without listening to 'The Splendid Table' online while I have my first cups of morning coffee," says Sangamo Club manager David Radwine. "Lynne Rossetto Kasper's easygoing listener-friendly format adds to the mouthwatering insightful material."
Even though I've been listening to it for some time, it was exciting to find that WUIS was carrying "The Splendid Table." I'm glad that "The Splendid Table" is entertaining and informing a larger local audience, glad that its sensible message is here to counter the blaring marketing of fast-food, unhealthy food, dumbed-down, overly processed, overly sweetened, overly salted, and overly artificial food. As Radwine said: "It's just comforting to know that our local affiliate is broadcasting it."

"The Splendid Table" can be heard at 3 p.m. every Sunday on 91.9 WUIS. Visit "The Splendid Table" website, splendidtable.publicradio.org for recipes, to hear past episodes, to sign up for the weekly e-mail newletter, "Week Night Kitchen," as well as a host of other information.

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