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065 – Todd Kliman, The Wild Vine, Best American Food Writing 2016

065 – Todd Kliman, The Wild Vine, Best American Food Writing 2016


Wine Work. Taco Work. Writing Work. Welcome to the second in a series of FOUR podcasts celebrating the Virginia Festival of the Book! From March 16th to 19th you will hear from the country’s best and brightest when it comes to food writing. Today’s episode? Award-winning food author Todd Kliman, former critic for The Washingtonian, author of The Wild Vine, and a contributor to this year’s Best American Food Writing series. Todd will be appearing at an event Sunday, March 26th at JMRL as part of that series. Event details are listed below.

I first became aware of Todd’s writing because of his Oxford American piece on Peter Chang which went viral and did much to promote that nomadic chef’s mystique. But it was during Todd’s 2014 presentation at the SFA Summer Symposium in Richmond, where he talked about his book The Wild Vine, that I knew I’d have to meet him somehow. The Wild Vine isn’t just about grapes, but about identity, immigration, and overcoming fear to reinvent yourself. A truly American-born idea. Daniel Norton discovered the only true American grape, the Norton, way back in Jefferson’s time. Norton Street, a 2-block long narrow lane in Richmond marks the location of Magnolia Farm where the discovery took place. His gravestone in Shockhoe Hill Cemetery lies forlornly in a forgotten corner.

“I didn’t write the book because I’m a lover of Norton…I like it…but I like it for what it seems to embody to me…I knew that this was a good story.”

Today accomplished vintner Jenni McCloud of Chrysalis Vineyards is Norton’s champion, an expert in appreciating this often overlooked and misunderstood wine and the only transgender vineyard owner in America. Recognition for Norton and his grape are building. Developments are happening. Listen to learn more. The book is marvelous, such a great story, and it was a thrill to discuss it with him.

Likewise, Todd’s piece in the Best of American Food Writing 2016 is about way more than tacos and mezcal in Mexico. It’s about democracy, his own sense of disorientation, then discovery, and the danger and sense of extremity of culture that permeates everything when you live on the edge of the volcano that is Mexico City. How does one bite of a beetle transport you back 400 years while at the same time showing you the future of foodstuffs? We talk about it.

“You can tell a story and that will be interesting on its surface…but if there’s going to be a connection…there has to be something for me to speak through…I have to be able to connect with it…to bond with it…so I can get into the deeper tissue of it and then write from out of that…my heart and my brain is entirely engaged.”

Most people don’t even know what food writing is, assuming we’re all either cookbook authors or critics. Which simply isn’t the case. Food writing goes deep causing the writer to think, to consider, to connect. When you read a Yelp review or even a review from an esteemed critic, it’s flat, consisting of their opinions and stars. A soundbite that doesn’t do nearly enough to encompass the real work and passion dozens of folks have done to bring forth that meal to your plate.

“I think a piece of writing should be an experience in its own right…when you read it, it stands alongside it, that experience of eating at the restaurant…But that’s not how most people come at it…most people want the information (only).”

The eating environment has changed as well, with fewer folks being “regulars” at restaurants. There’s just not that many places for folks to meet face to face anymore and when they do, they’re on their phones. Social media has changed food. It’s changed how people connect on an elemental level. What is Todd doing to fix that? Stay tuned! Like Norton and McCloud, Todd is in the process of reinvention, refusing to be pigeonholed into the “food writer” label. He left his position at The Washingtonian and is expanding his horizons, including a new book which explores yearning, loss, memory, time, and the nature of joy called, “Happiness is Otherwise”.  Look for it soon. After this conversation? I can’t wait to read it.

“One of the things I find liberating about not being in the role of critic anymore is this constant assessing of what matters and what doesn’t. What’s relevant and what’s not. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the ways that food connect people to other people. Or don’t. It’s also a way of erecting barriers. It has been. And continues to be.”

It was such a privilege to talk at length with one of my favorite food writers whose work I’ve followed for many years. Anyone interested in writing, literature, or who loves the deep questions in general, will get a lot out of this episode. Todd and I connected on so many levels, including our love of African literature, writing, our similar grief process, our parents, and the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. Multiple connections guarantee a fantastic conversation. Which this definitely is. The conversation went another hour after I hit stop. I hope it’s the first of many. Enjoy!

Best American Food Writing 2016
Sun. March 26, 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM
Central JMRL Library, 201 E Market Street, Charlottesville, Virginia
Join food writers Todd Kliman, Jason Tesauro, Joe Yonan, and moderator Holly Hughes as they discuss the Best Food Writing 2016 series.

SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:

This episode is sponsored by and listeners like you who donated their support at Patreon, who wants every creator in the world to achieve a sustainable income. Thank you.


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