I’m Christine Castro Hughes, a designer, writer, and mother of two darling children. I also run a graphic design studio out of my charming, crooked craftsman house. Brunch is my blog. More »
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Monday
Mar042013

brunch with michelle maisto

Michelle Maisto and I met during a fact-checking internship at Buzz magazine, which was the younger, hipper alternative to Los Angeles magazine at the time. Her charm and smarts won me over, and we were fast friends. A year after I graduated from college, we decided to room together. We shared many meals, stories, and laughs in a spacious, light-filled apartment 10 blocks from the beach (swoon). After a year, Michelle got accepted to Columbia's creative writing graduate program, which was sad for me but not surprising at all. The talented writer has lived in New York since.

In 2009, Michelle's first book came out. The Gastronomy of Marriage is a wonderfully honest and sweet memoir about food and her future husband, Rich. (Spoiler: The Christine in the book is me!) A mother to an adorable 2-year-old girl, Michelle continues to write about food, family, and other things on her insightful blog.

Michelle was—and remains—one of the sweetest people I've ever met, and I miss her all the time. This interview was my little way of spending some time with her from the other coast.

Thank you so much for chatting with me, Michelle!

 When we lived together, my culinary skills were beyond lacking—scrambled eggs were a stretch. But I remember you always being so creative and inventive in the kitchen, making moves like using apple sauce in muffins and wonton wrappers for ravioli. When did you start cooking? How did you learn to be so bold and confident in the kitchen? 

What a wacky, fat-averse scientist I was in those days! I was constantly performing experiments, to sort of know where I stood in the kitchen. (Can soy replace buttermilk in pancakes? No? On to the next disaster!) I was also always trying to eliminate calories—how did you stand me? 

These days I'm a different woman in the kitchen—far less experimental (oh, the spare time we had!) but more confident. When I was growing up, my mother was a wonderful cook and always in the kitchen, and since I was a young girl I've loved to cook and particularly to bake. My mother was definitely my model of what it looked like to move confidently around a kitchen and "pull off the trick" of making several things come together at once and seem poised and pleasant doing it. But it was my husband, Rich, who helped me to feel confident in the kitchen. Before him I was a fastidious recipe follower, but from him I learned how to master a few techniques, pay attention to what flavors and textures work together, and then proceed from there, trusting that I know how to get from A to C or D. 

We also threw amazing parties in that bachelorette pad. We even introduced a couple who, might I add, are now married with two kids. High five! Do you still entertain? What's your favorite way to bring people together these days?

I've often said to Rich that if I knew I had one day left to live, I'd probably throw a dinner party—it's my favorite thing to do (6 people is ideal, but 8 can work, too). Which is lucky for me, really, since having a 2-year-old makes nearly every other kind of socializing...tricky. It's fun to have Emmy be a part of the party early on, and then put her to sleep and be able to enjoy literally hours of uninterrupted conversation at the table. I'm also lucky to have married someone who's as much a homebody as I am (and so always happy to play the host). Emerson seems to also have the hosting gene. Whenever she meets someone she likes, adult or child, she tells them, "You come over to my house!"

Michelle, hostess with the mostess, on the right

In your wonderful book, The Gastronomy of Marriage, you share how your relationship with your almost husband Rich changed the way you cooked and dined. Now, you and Rich have 2-year-old Emerson. How has being a mother changed your cooking and eating habits?

Eating well has always been a big deal in our house, but these days we eat more seasonally than we used to, and with even more attention to choosing organic and non-GMO ingredients when possible. I've started to think of food as falling into one of two categories: it either extends your life or shortens it. If there are ingredients in something that I can't read or understand—basically not food, but chemicals or processes—I don't want it in my pantry. And really, those aren't the foods that taste best, anyway. (A homemade cookie always beats a mass-produced one.)

I also want Emmy to enjoy food, and understand that sitting to a meal is something pleasurable and important; we try to be aware that in all the ways we interact with food we're teaching her something and setting an example. When she turned 1, for example, we adjusted our work schedules so that we could all sit to dinner together (instead of Rich and me eating a late dinner after Emmy went to sleep).

One thing I'm trying to be more conscious of is not walking around and snacking, or standing at the counter and popping things in my mouth—I've started to think of this as a bad American habit. I have an Italian friend who laughs that, like the old joke about not being able to skip and chew gum, she can't walk and eat at the same time. Italians sit and savor their food. (So do the French, according to French Kids Eat Everything, a book I totally recommend to anyone feeding kids.) 

I have a foodie friend who is always sharing photos of her 3-year-old son helping out in the kitchen. I always forget to involve Henry, who's now 3 1/2, in our meal prep. Have you and Emerson cooked together? How do you involve her in your meals?

We don't so much involve Emerson as couldn't keep her away if we wanted to. When I start making breakfast on the weekends or even weekdays (we usually all get up around 7, and I start work, at home in my pajamas, at 8, so there's sometimes time for pancakes or French toast), she hurries to the bathroom to grab her step stool and drag it to the kitchen counter. She loves to stand and watch Rich make the coffee in the morning (we have a loud machine that grounds the beans and another that makes espressos), and she's always fighting for space at one of our elbows, wanting to smell something or taste something or be the one to stir. 

When it's cold or rainy on the weekends, she and I also do a lot of baking—banana bread, zucchini bread, cookies. Though her favorite thing to make is a cake, or cupcakes. Every cake is a "birthday cake."

What are Emerson's favorite foods to eat and your favorite foods to cook for her? 

Emerson could very happily exist on pizza, pancakes, what we call "shake shake shakes"—smoothies made milk and frozen fruit— ice cream and ice pops. Today we came in from building a snowman and the first thing she asked for was a "bing-bong"—an ice pop, in Mandarin. 

My favorite things to make for her are a) foods I know she'll eat without prompting and b) foods that I think of as nutritionally extra awesome. Rich is sort of horrified by the way I'll add ground flax seed to just about anything I can get away with... 

Do you have any tips to share with other moms who may not be so adept in the kitchen? 

Buy real foods—not prepared or processed foods with more than a dozen ingredients—and just prepare them simply.

One thing I try to always have in the house is frozen organic peas. They can be served steamed with butter, when you need to add a vegetable to a meal or be tossed with pasta, pancetta and a little cream and/or grated cheese. A favorite in-a-pinch meal in my house is fried rice. If we don't have leftover rice (barley works too) I'll pick up a carton of brown rice on my way home from picking Em up from school. The basic premise of fried rice is something good to learn (it's just a few steps, and only one pan to dirty), because it lends itself to whatever you have in the house. I also like it because, if Emerson only eats a few bites of dinner, she's ideally gotten rice, egg and peas—three food groups—in each bite.

How has being a mother surprised you?

It's humbling in a way I couldn't have imagined. As a younger person I imagined that I'd teach my child everything I know and fill her up with so much good stuff. In reality, it's as much about not passing on my most idiotic/lazy/unsavory qualities. These little people are mirrors, reflecting us back at ourselves. To be a parent, I've found, is to be constantly reminded of one's need to cultivate patience, compassion, mindfulness and the ability to be tender in stressful situations. 

So true! I love your Chitalian blog posts that share, among other things, how you're teaching Emerson to speak Mandarin. When I read them, I can't help but think they might be the seeds of a new book. Am I psychic? If not, do you plan on working on another book?

I do indeed have a book in mind about learning to speak Mandarin with Emerson. If "Gastronomy" was about exploring identity though food, the next book, I hope, will be about exploring it through language. Both my parents speak Italian, and I grew up being told I was Italian, but when I finally traveled to Italy in my late teens, I realized that of course I wasn't—without language, we can't penetrate a culture or fully experience it. Rich speaks Mandarin, so I didn't want Em to miss out on the opportunity of learning it, and more richly experiencing that part of her heritage, and I figured the only way that she'd really become bilingual was if we were all speaking it at home, so I committed to learning it, too. 

While the initiative was focused on Emerson, the experience has been fascinating for me—and kind of altering. I've read that in each language we're a different person, and I think there's really something to that. (What other person will she be in Mandarin? Who will I be?) It's been fun to think about how language is altering my household, and my sense of who I am, and even to literally enjoy the language itself, which is constructed so differently—often more literally, but poetically—than English is. For example, "happy" is "gaoxing," or literally, "high heart." Isn't that lovely?

Let's talk about writing. I have always romanticized the process of penning a book. I know it's hard work and I vaguely remember you even saying you got up at 5am every morning to write yours (since you were also working a full-time job as a mag editor). Still, I bet there are other people who think that it would be fun to see their names on the spine of a book. Do you have any advice to those of us who have that dream?

Just write, write, write. Seriously. Probably 80 percent of the challenge is just getting your butt into the chair each day and focusing. If you can force yourself to do that every day, whether for 30 minutes or 3 hours, you'll get there. The words that are on the page are manageable—it's the ones you've yet to get down that are stressful. 

Also, you never know when your brain is going to work out something and offer it to you—an idea, a phrase. I try to always have an index card on me. I've learned to have zero confidence that my brain will hold on to something for me until I get around to jotting it down at a more convenient time.  

Do you have any favorite chefs and/or writers? What makes them so special?

My favorite food writer is MFK Fisher. I could read Long Ago in France on a loop. So much food writing these days turns me off—it's writing about the food, which seems gauche. Very "first world," if that makes sense. Fisher and the classic food writers understood that the food is the vehicle, not the destination. 

 

What's on the horizon for you, professionally or otherwise? Any plans to visit Los Angeles (hint, hint)? 

I wish I knew. These days I get by one hour at a time. A trip to Los Angeles really is a MUST soon, though. I can't wait to hug you and your cutiepies.

Ditto to you and yours!

All photos courtesy of Michelle

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Reader Comments (1)

I loved reading this thoughtful and easy conversations between two writers, mothers, friends. And I am teary eyed at the mention of brunch with such incredible women....I'll take brunch with Michelle even if the other women aren't available to join us!

March 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErin

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