Unplated: An interview with Denise Landis
Material culture and the traces of use we leave behind
This conversation is part of the Unplated series, a collection of interviews with folks whose work intersects with food, but who work outside culinary spheres. My hope is that these conversations not only spark your curiosity, but help you think about how what you eat is connected to the world well beyond your plate.
Denise Landis has a couple decades of professional recipe testing under her belt, but her path to food was anything but linear.
Like me, she explored other career options (and worked with historic cookery materials, making us kindred spirits), using those to inform what would ultimately become a career in food spanning work with the New York Times and the founding of The Cook's Cook.
I chose to interview her for this series because her background in archaeology and her connection to artifacts and their study has so strongly informed her work, which in turn connects so well to the themes we’ve all been exploring through interviews so far.
Here, our conversation weaves through the world of material culture, or the tangible objects we create in the process of living. Our discussion of food and archaeology is a reminder that the most important and memorable things are often also the ones we might not expect.
JS: You've been a recipe tester for over 25 years, but you came to it in a non-traditional way. Can you tell me about the path that led you to where you are now?
DL: I graduated from college with a degree in Anthropology, and for seven years I was employed as a contract archeologist. I worked at historic and prehistoric sites all over the USA. The historic sites included the Martin Van Buren house in Kinderhook, NY, and Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, MD. Prehistoric sites included locations in the desert of New Mexico, the California coastline, city and shore locations in North Carolina, and the hills and woods of Virginia. My last job as an archeologist was when I was hired by the US Forest Service, at the Jefferson National Forest (VA), to contribute archeological assessments for environmental impact reports.
I would have continued in that career, or some version of it, but I got married and had two children soon afterward. We were living in New York City and my husband was a book editor (and eventually, publisher). I was not working when I had a toddler and a newborn, so I enjoyed hosting dinner parties, particularly because my husband was -- and still is -- a collector of fine wine. One of our frequent guests was a colleague of my husband, a cookbook editor. When my husband mentioned to me that she was looking for someone to try out a few recipes from a cookbook she was considering for publication, I told him that I wanted the job. She sent over a sheaf of recipes and asked me to call her once I'd made them. I was being paid by the recipe and a mere call seemed unprofessional, so instead I wrote up a critique of each recipe. She liked my work and sent me more recipes. She soon began to send me recipes from books she had committed to, in order to see my frank evaluations and suggestions. This suited me because I could spend my days with my children and test recipes at night while my husband edited manuscripts.
After I'd been testing cookbook recipes for two years, one of the authors I'd worked with asked me if I'd be interested in testing recipes for the New York Times; she had heard they were in search of someone. I applied for the job, was hired, and was their primary recipe tester for twenty-five years until I left to create a digital publication, The Cook's Cook.
JS: What artifacts did you find yourself working with most often as an archaeologist? What other fields (anthropology, history, etc.) did you turn to to help you understand and interpret these objects?
DL: I've always been interested in what people ate and how they prepared their food. In prehistoric sites there are often features that indicate where an activity took place, and what that was, even when actual artifacts are scarce. A dark spot in the ground where a fire had been, a collection of shell fragments where food had been prepared, an area of stone chips where tools had been chipped and shaped. Bones and teeth, whether human or animal, can be very revealing. Tools are always fascinating, especially flaked stone tools with chipped edges. Arrow and spear points can be exquisitely beautiful.
At historic sites, of course, there is usually a written record and great deal of information of all kinds. I've always been fascinated by tales and maps, because people a thousand years ago looked for many of the same things we need today -- a flat sheltered location, access to drinking water and sources of food, convenient routes for travel. This is why shopping malls and highways are so often built on ancient sites and trails. The easiest way across the mountains back in 1600 is very likely the location of a road used today.
All of the research tools used by historians are useful -- these include written records, drawings, photography, myths, ballads, place names, geological history, regional language and accents, carbon dating, the botanical history of a place, even the history of weather and flooding and drought. There is very little that can be known about a place that would not be relevant to interpreting the artifacts that may be found there.
JS: Tell me about the process of recipe testing from a historic manuscript. What special considerations are there? What advice would you give someone trying to interpret historic recipes at home?
DL: I once taught a class on medieval cooking to a group of students in grades 3 to 5. I used authentic medieval recipes that would be easy enough for children to understand and execute, even if the flavors might be challenging to their taste buds. We made pickled vegetables and pickled eggs, cornmeal griddle cakes, and chicken in almond sauce. The kids enjoyed the process -- and the foods.
My advice for anyone interpreting historic recipes is to first identify your audience and your goals. The interpretation of historic recipes involves understanding ingredients, cooking tools and methods, history and culture, and the writing and editing of the recipes for the intended audience and their needs. Who is the recipe for? Home cook or professional chef? Child or adult? To serve how many -- a party, one or two people, a family of four? Will the cook be shopping from a supermarket or specialty food store or farmers market? How close to the original would you like the recipe to be?
One challenge of recreating historic recipes is that the ingredients that were used may not be available in modern times. Garum was a fermented fish sauce used in ancient Greece and Rome. Some chefs make their own version, but Asian fish sauce -- which is not at all the same -- can be used as a substitute. Many ingredients that were commonly foraged in the USA two hundred years ago are not available for sale, so you'd need to forage your own. And if you are seeking unusual ingredients, be sure you learn not only to recognize them but how to properly prepare them. I once tested recipes using acorns, which need quite a bit of leaching in water before being safe to eat and palatable. There is also the question of cooking method. If you are interpreting a recipe for Indian tandoori chicken, are you prepared to build a traditional tandoor fire pit?
JS: Tell me about the first ever manuscript you tested recipes from: What surprises did you encounter? What did you learn about the process that helped you with future projects?
DL: I was extremely lucky in my career because I learned on the job. I was a competent home cook, but not in any way a chef (which is a professional title and not to be used interchangeably with the term cook). This was before we could Google everything, so when I had a question about a recipe I would call up the author of the manuscript. And it happened that my questions gave the authors useful insights into their work -- after all, the books were being written for home cooks like me. The first full book I tested was a wonderful book on Italian cooking that is still in print and now has a TV show associated with it. But I encountered a problem when I was testing the chapter on pasta. There was a recipe for pasta dough with instructions that more-or-less said "roll out your pasta," and I was ???? I had no idea what to do. I spoke to the author and she rewrote that chapter with detailed instructions.
As I gained experience in recipe testing I learned about recipe editing, and the many critical details that can't be overlooked. Experience taught me to foresee possible problems. Are amounts accurate? Does the recipe really make 3 quarts, 4 dozen cookies, serve 4 to 6? Is the recipe organized so that one person can make it? Can parts be prepared ahead of time? Does the recipe make sense -- or does it say to preheat the oven while marinating the meat for four hours, or instruct to cook the fish and then make a sauce while the fish sits and gets cold or dry? If the recipe calls for "4 ounces dried pinto beans," do they want 4 ounces weight or have they confused 4 ounces with a half-cup (fluid measure)? And my experience in adapting the recipes of professional chefs for home cooks taught me about the differences between commercial kitchens and home kitchens -- how they are run, their ingredients, their equipment, and the work of a team versus the work of a single cook.
JS: Once you moved into recipe testing, how did your background as an archaeologist strengthen your work as a recipe tester?
DL: As an archeologist I had learned to be attentive to detail, and this was definitely an asset when it came to recipe testing. I also had honed my skills as a writer, something that has served me well. Recipe testing requires recipe editing. You can make the most amazing food the world has known, but if you can't write down what you've done in such a way that someone else can replicate it, you will take your talents to the grave. Now, videos are enormously popular and helpful, but somewhere along the line the recipe still needs to be written down...in captions, on a blog, on a scrap of paper...somewhere.
JS: What unique insights does your background at the intersection of archaeology and recipe testing provide? What can we learn, as cooks and as eaters, by thinking from both these perspectives?
DL: I have often thought that archeology and recipe testing were similar in that each field involves exploration, a constant flood of new material to observe and learn about, and never-ending surprises. Archeology is evidence of our history on this planet, our way of asserting who we are today by showing who we were. Food does this too, through memory, history, family, culture. The things we cook and the way we eat say as much about us as the objects we use.
Follow Denise's work on her website and on Instagram.
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