Exploring the Link Between Food and Mood

Photo credit: Skinny Chef

For years, I have been struggling with a cyclical winter funk. Breezily dismissing the symptoms, I’d justify it, saying my normal outgoing self needed “down time.” Armed with a stack of books and an arsenal of films, I’d clear my dance card, pull a fluffy comforter high around my neck, and hibernate. Often, I was too tired to read and alternated between sleep and the drone of mindless TV. As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks—shockingly—slipped into months, alarm bells started going off.

What the hell?!

This is NOT normal.

I ran through a slew of possibilities. Seasonal Affective Disorder is quite common in northern climates. Or maybe I’m depressed? I went looking for answers…and it dawned on me.

I‘ve been researching the impact of early childhood nutrition and its impact on the brain. Maybe it was time to look at my own diet? I picked up a copy of “Food & Mood” and suddenly, things started to make sense.

Here’s what I found:

Your brain creates a hormone called serotonin, which regulates your mood. Commonly known as the "happiness hormone", when in check, serotonin is attributed to restful sleep, and helps moderate cravings for carbohydrate-rich sweets and starches. In fact, a critical step in managing symptoms associated with PMS, seasonal affective disorder, and depression is linked back to managing serotonin levels through nutrition. (The rising trend in anti-depressant drugs? Many of those drugs are designed to regulate serotonin levels. I chose to explore my eating habits first.)

Grumpiness and depression are brought on by low serotonin levels and dwindling energy reserves. This triggers cravings for carbohydrate-rich “comfort foods” like pastries, pasta, cereals, and breads. Once satisfied, the serotonin level elevates, and the cravings subside.

The problem? Fuel from these bad carbs is fleeting. Within a few hours, energy levels crash and the cycle—including the symptoms-- is repeated throughout the day.

I began studying the trends in my own eating behavior. For me, PMS and happiness equals a loaf of bread and a hunk of triple-cream Cambozola. Carb loading for serotonin? This made perfect sense. And I’d happily whip up a cake or a batch of brownies before I’d even think about dinner. Suddenly the reasons behind my bizarre eating habits were beginning to make sense.

Nutritionally, I was like a crack addict, constantly in need of a fix.

My drug of choice?


That, teemed with the constant dose of sugar…no wonder I was in a sad state. My serotonin levels were completely out of whack.

Food and Mood” summed it best “The secret is to use the right kind of quality carbs to raise serotonin levels, without causing a spike in blood sugar levels, and get your mood back on track.”

I’d been dealing with this problem for so long, when I read those words, I nearly wept. Not only had this book identified my classic symptoms, but a solution was close at hand.

The key?

Quality carbs.

Whole grains sustain energy and help regulate cravings for sweets. As an added bonus they also help you manage weight and keep blood sugars at moderate levels. (Research says a diet rich in whole grains also helps lower the risk for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and possibly cancer.) Breakfast is also a critical component.* The book discusses this is more detail but let’s just say, it’s non-negotiable. And so is exercise, which helps regulate the blood sugar levels and provides an energy boost—without the calories.

I’ve stocked up on oatmeal, opted for whole grain pastas, and for my bread cravings, I’m now making my own. The publishers sent me a copy of “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day” and I’ve been playing with that. While I’m not in love with the master recipe (needs more salt, the flavor’s pretty bland, and the texture leans towards “gummy.”), it my sparked my curiosity. I’m on the hunt for a delicious whole grain bread recipe…if you’ve got one, please send it my way!

Over the past few months, it’s been quite a journey, examining my relationship with food. I’ve got the lowdown on restaurants and noteworthy chefs coast to coast, but when it came to nutrition and knowing my own body? I was clueless. This has definitely been a turning point.

Here’s to feeling better!

Side note: At this point, I’m not ruling out Seasonal Affective Disorder as another factor in my health issues. In the dark, dreary months of winter, our bodies suffer from a lack of Vitamin D, normally obtained from sunlight exposure. Getting outside—even on an overcast day--can help. Going forward, I’ll be exercising and getting outside more, but I’m not ruling out the need for a lightbox.

* Until recently, I’ve never made a habit of eating breakfast. As I learn more, I realize how critical breakfast is, and I’ve become a big fan of oatmeal and cereals. Just as I was figuring out the link between feeling better and eating better, I received a sample of the Nature’s Path line. Nutrition and sustainability are a major focus for Nature’s Path, and that had a lot of appeal. While I’d steer clear of the Nature’s Path granola bars (gut bombs) and toaster pastries (a la pop tart), the cereals were a happy find. I tried everything—including the gluten-free offerings. All of them were winners. My favorites were the flax seed cereals and any of the granolas. If you’ve got kids in the house, the kid-focused cereals (Granola Munch) and flavored oatmeals will make even the most finicky eaters look forward to breakfast.

Vermont's Brattleboro Farmers Market

As a traveler, I fear the days of pulling off the freeway and having your pick of mom & pop joints are long gone. Today, travel in America has lost a certain amount of luster. Strip mall sameness from Tulsa to Tacoma...close your eyes and there are few markers to identify...you're not at home anymore.

Across the land, farmers markets have swelled in number and for me, reclaim that sense of travel wonder. While in Vermont, visiting author Crescent Dragonwagon, we made a point to stop at the farmers market. Nearby Brattleboro, Vermont boasts a destination-worthy gem. In contrast to Seattle's parking lot or blocked off street format, Brattleboro's farmers market take place in a grassy lot, complete with semi-permanent structures, picnic tables and a large sandbox for the kids. Short on hustle and bustle, it's the kind of place where you spend a few hours, bump into your neighbor, and share a homemade ginger ale.

Coincidentally, a book called "The Great Good Place" was my reading choice for this trip. "The Great Good Place" explores the sociological influences of a notion called the "third place" -- those spaces in our lives where we gather for community, including cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, and hair salons. (Starbuck's CEO, Howard Schultz, was greatly influenced by this premise, and factored the "third place" concept in the design of their stores.) In Brattleboro, the farmers market is their "third place." Ripped straight out of a modern Norman Rockwell piece, it was heartwarming watching friends and neighbors reacquaint themselves after a snow-packed winter, followed by what the locals call "mud season". No question. Brattleboro's farmers market...is the heart of the community.

A large sandbox keeps the kids amused while parents shop or hang out near the perimeter and chat.

A hot cup of chai and Green Mountain Bluegrass makes for a perfect morning.

It took me a while to figure out...no, he wasn't with the band. Fiercely independent, this kid brought his guitar...looking to play pick up with the various musicians! He stole the show every time.

Massage? Why not!
Sign says "Dispositions Adjusted"

Back-of-the-truck lamb. Grass-finished, whole or halves. Pelts for sale too.

Got any idea what "Ham on Hay" is?

People here are serious about social justice and activism. Shirt says, "Dignity has no borders."

Drinks: Hot ginger milk tea, homemade ginger beer and a fabulous organic honeycomb sour. Eats: Pan fried dough, ho-made fish cakes, and Mexican grilled cheese.

Mile High club, Vermont-style. Beef, Lamb and Pork.

(notice the shaft of wheat tattooed on her arm?)

Vermont Maple Syrup blind tastings. He refused to tell me what grade we were trying, insisting I identify my favorite first, by taste. Fancy is the lightest grade in color and has the most delicate flavor while Grade A Dark is darker in color and has a more pronounced maple flavor. Because of the intensity in flavor, Grad A or B is best for baking.)

Bit of Trivia: Why is pure maple syrup so expensive? It takes 30 - 40 gallons of Maple tree sap to make 1 gallon of syrup (66.9% sucrose)

I Remember...Springtime in Vermont

There are times, when a profound moment touches me deeply. I have no words. Well-intended drafts pile up and and eventually, my feeble attempts concede defeat.

"Nothing," as Crescent's father used to say, "is wasted on the writer."

And so it is.

Given enough time, the words ferment, and eventually ripen in my subconscious.

May 2008
Putney, VT

Vermont conjures up images of Bing Crosby's White Christmas, fall foliage in a blaze of orange and yellow, and of course, maple syrup. It is also the home of many noteworthy writers, including my good friend Crescent Dragonwagon.

Crescent lives in a rambling 1795 farmhouse, nestled among the rolling hills of Southeastern Vermont. For years, this was her family's treasured summer home. Today, pine wood floors creak underfoot and collections along the walls conjure a sense of history.

The hand-drawn characterization of Bill and Hillary Clinton pays tribute to her inaugural contribution.

Black and white images smile back at me and I do a double take. "Wait! Is that John Wayne?"

Rummaging through a nearby bookshelf, she says casually, "My father was his biographer." Crescent points to an old hardback collection of his books, some in English, others she's managed to cull from international print runs. Next to these, sit an abridged collection of her mother's work (Charlotte Zolotow, editor and author of 70 children's books.)

Crescent is a writer too. As the author of 48 books, her work straddles two distinct genres: cooking and children's books. A James Beard Award-winner in one camp (Passionate Vegetarian, Workman Publishing) and a Coretta Scott-King Award in another camp (Half a Moon and One Whole Star, Macmillan Publishing).

She's also the author of two novels (one, The Year It Rained, published in five foreign editions and a New York Times Notable), a book of poetry, and many magazine articles.
(You may recall...last year I took a trip to San Diego and attended her 3-day Fearless Writing workshop.)

I have grown to love Crescent for much more than career accolades. Energetic and sharp-witted, she breaks out in a fanciful story--complete with a cockney accent--at the drop of a hat!

Crescent's extremely well-read and knowledgeable in an astonishing number of areas. Her former students--from Julia Child to Alice Medrich will tell you, at the heart of Crescent's Fearless Writing classes, the true essence is....Fearless Living. With an easy, infections laugh, she embraces a life-well lived.

The view from my room.

On the corner slope, a swimming hole...or ice skating pond, depending on the season. Too cold for swimming, we cruise by slowly, keeping a close eye on a newly-hatched clutch of ducklings.

This, my friends, is wild ginger.

Crescent is an avid gardener. We harvested spring rhubarb, which made its way into a crisp recipe, featured in her book "The Passionate Vegetarian." Hand-cranked buttermilk ice cream was the perfect compliment. (A side note: Cooking preparation began by...grabbing a copy of her own book off the shelf. This struck me as odd, and I asked about it. Hefting the 1,120 page "Passionate Vegetarian" she said, "Why not?" Simple as that. Any other filing system would be... redundant.)

In the garden with Crescent and her love, documentary filmmaker David Koff.

Evenings were still quite chilly. You'd find me...cozying up to the potbelly stove, curled up in that red chair, book in hand, with a cat nearby.

Ahhh...lilacs in the spring. The variety here is much more fragrant that the blooms I've encountered in the Pacific Northwest.

For years, Crescent ran a highly-acclaimed B&B called Dairy Hollow House. The thoughtful touch of an innkeeper has never subsided.

Breakfast on the screen porch with the scent of lilac wafting in the room. Herb omlette, cut fruit, and a basket full of whole-grain muffins, served with raspberry butter.

Sightseeing in nearby Northampton, MA. This area has a number of old train dining cars, now permanent restaurants. We took a pass on Kathy's Diner and headed 'round the corner.

Tiny Amanouz Cafe in Northampton is a gem of a restaurant. Specializing in Moroccan food, my meal was hauntingly delicious. Since this trip, I've been on a mission for Moroccan food and nothing I've found comes close. (From my doorstep, Mapquest tells me it is exactly 2,950.56 miles to Amanouz Cafe. Did I mention it was hauntingly delicious???)

Wall-side menu at Amanouz Cafe.

Moroccan tagine with kefta, lamb meatballs seasoned with onion, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, fresh parsley and mint.

Walpole, N.H. - Northeastern U.S. architecture. By Pacific Northwest standards, this house was massive. Notice it's been added on over the years.

This house is next door to the one above.

Exploring the uber charming Walpole, NH, L.A. Burdick Chocolate is a required stop. For me, pastries in the adjoining cafe beconned. A happy respite, I sampled several items and took the rest back to Crescent's. The chocolate coconut cake with lime butter cream frosting and toasted coconut does justice to Burdick's legendary reputation. And their hands-on Chocolate Cooking School has me conspiring to go back soon! (Note: Burdick's has outposts in Cambridge, MA and New York City)

Cute-as-can-be, the Corner Grocery store is packed with gourmet delights.

'Tis the season...for fiddlehead ferns.

In this area, folks are serious about food matters. Homeland security goes hand-in-hand with food security.

Bulletin board outside the local co-op grocery store. Add your energy-saving solutions to the quilt. Entries include: need, consume & use less energy; carpool, reuse & recycle; shop second hand stores; and organize errands for efficiency.

The famed Chelsea Royal Diner in Brattleboro, Vermont. Their website says it best "The Chelsea Royal, a vintage 1938 Worcester Diner. Decor and food speak of times gone by with Daily Blue Plate Specials, generous portions and extremely friendly pricing. The Royal Diners' cuisine is probably best described as 'high-end home style'."

Delighting the kid in us all, next door is the Royal Soft Serve Stand. Notice the cherry on top?

Inside the Royal Diner car. Behind me is an old school soda-jerk style counter.

Next up? A visit to the Brattleboro Farmers Market.

Officials Destroy Artisan Food & Small Farm Fruit, CDH Responds

Chicago's Flora Lazar operates her artisan craft food business out of a shared kitchen on the city's West Side. After obtaining permits, the Department of Health paid her a visit--standard operating procedure for a new business. What followed, is anything but standard.

During their inspection, Chicago Department of Health determined Lazar had obtained the wrong permits. In a maneuver that sparked outrage throughout the online community, the Department of Health proceeded to throw bleach on thousands of dollars worth of artisan food and local fruit.

"This puts me out of business for six months," Lazar said after losing the irreplaceable fruit. "I have done everything by the rules. Instead of making the food at home, which I could easily do, I sought out and rented space in a licensed kitchen.....I paid my $600 and invited the inspectors here today."

Covering a story for the Chicago Tribune, reporter Monica Eng was on the scene when the inspectors arrived, "Inspectors cited no health problems with any of the food. They even encouraged Lazar's son to eat the confiscated granola bars from Sunday Dinner Club. They only said the food was prepared by chefs who didn't have the proper business licenses to prepare and sell it."

The food itself was deemed safe for consumption, but due to a snag in the permitting, it was not available for sale. Fair enough.

The city's next step--destroying thousands of dollars in froze fruit purees and artisan food--is baffling.

Read the Chicago Tribune's story here.

Got feedback for the Chicago Department of Health? Weigh in here.



I contacted the Chicago Department of Health, hoping to get their take on the situation. Today, I received the following response:

The City of Chicago licensing requirements for a shared kitchen require every business to be licensed separately. This is because individual businesses are required to be registered and licensed by their separate legal entities and separate business activities.

In terms of health and safety, it also ensures that each individual business meets the sanitation certification required to operate a food business. And that’s important when you are preparing and serving food to the public. (As you may know, every year in the U.S. food borne illness causes about 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.) We take food safety seriously, and we require restaurants, caterers and others to do the same.

On Thursday, Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) inspectors visited Kitchen Chicago because two of the food establishments renting space there (Flora Confections and Sunday Dinner Chicago) had requested the inspection required to obtain a City business license.

When they arrived, Health inspectors found that both Flora Confections and Sunday Dinner Chicago were already operating---without the required City license, without having passed a Health inspection, and in violation of a “cease and desist” order that had been issued on January 21 by the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Health inspectors discovered several unsafe practices at the facility, including:

** Food from an unknown source
** Food that had already been prepared somewhere else under unknown conditions and which was stored in unmarked plastic bags

Because the food in question did not meet health and safety standards---the same standards that all food establishments in the city must meet---Health Department inspectors ordered and supervised the discarding of about 120 pounds of food from the two businesses; and they ordered an embargo on the walk-in cooler (no food in, no food out), pending further inspection.

The food in question was not discarded simply because of a licensure issue---it was discarded because Health inspectors viewed it as suspect, and potentially unsafe for consumption.

The food in question was also not allowed to be removed off the premises and served elsewhere in a private or public setting, as it had already been viewed as suspect, and potentially unsafe for either private or public consumption. Allowing potentially unsafe food to simply be served elsewhere, public or private, would be a breach of our duty to protect Chicagoans from food borne illness.

The Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection had an open line of communication with the business owner of Kitchen Chicago prior to this incident and continues to have an open line of communication with Kitchen Chicago to assist them and associated businesses operate in accordance with the law. They are working to see that Kitchen Chicago and those businesses that lease space from Kitchen Chicago get licensed as quickly as possible; we will continue to assist them until all of their licensing matters have been resolved.

We at the Chicago Department of Public Health do all we can to make Chicago a place where restaurants, caterers and other food-related businesses can thrive and prosper. But at the same time, we absolutely insist that they operate legally and adhere to all food safety and health laws and regulations, which are designed to prevent food borne illness and protect the public health.

Thank you again for contacting us to share your concerns.

--Tim Hadac
Director of Public Information
Chicago Department of Public Health

Interview with Sur La Table's Renee Behnke

I was raised in a small Midwestern town – an unfortunate spot smack in the middle of America, bordered by the murky Illinois River and corn fields as far as you can see. Like the Sears catalog for turn-of-the-century farmers, the Sur La Table catalog was our lifeline to the rest of the world.

Delivered with the mid-afternoon mail, the arrival of our Sur La Table catalog was steeped in ritual. Everything came to a halt. Mom would brew a fresh pot of coffee, grab a pack of Marlbrow Lights, and while away for hours, dog-earring nearly every page. While she never actually made a purchase, in a way, it didn’t matter.

“Dreaming,” she would say, “Is more fun than owing.”

Situated on a steep slope in Seattle’s bustling Pike Place Market, is the original Sur La Table. When I first visited Seattle, the Sur La Table catalog had such a hold me, I couldn’t imagine an actual store! It was like visiting Never Neverland. Merchandise towered to the ceiling, and gleamed with stainless steel racks. I stopped in a momentary blindness, as the sun glinted amongst a crock of wire wisks. Tagines from Morocco, pasta machines from Italy, Le Cruset and dainty financier molds from France! I was in heaven…


Renee Behnke (right) and her neighbor

Armed with a savvy retail background and a passion for cooking, Renee Behnke purchased Sur La Table in 1995. Seventy-four stores –and counting—she is transitioning into her new role as president emeritus. Cooking, entertaining, and her massive garden are at the heart of who she is. Travel, as always, figures prominently.

Renee is engaging and extremely generous, and what follows is a discussion about her life in food. While shorter pieces prevail in online media, I hope you will indulge me. This is our conversation, in its entirety.

Traca: Your book “Memorable Recipes” was named by NPR as one of the 10 Best New Cookbooks for summer. And it’s up for another award this week. Congratuations!

Renee: It’s exciting. Attention for the book is coming from a lot of different directions. When you think about writing a cookbook, you never know. There’s so many that come out.

I tried to appeal to a broad cross-section of people. I also talk a lot about my garden and how it plays such a big role in the food that I cook and eat. In the back of the book, there’s a section with party notes. I outline how to plan parties, and tie it together with recipes in the book. I think it gives the book a different twist.

Traca: Gardening is a big element in your life. Tell me a more about your garden.

Renee: It’s over the top! We have three full city lots. The front of the house is an herb garden. And one lot is my working garden with vegetables. It’s all raised beds. We planted 37 tomato plants and last year, I canned over 50 quarts of tomato sauce--half roasted and the other half we made on the stove-top.

When I travel, I bring back seeds. I have seeds from Europe and I planted Spanish beans, brought fig trees in from Italy. We’ve got corn, peas, lovage, lots of lettuce, and a large variety of garlic. It’s an amazing garden for someone who lives in the city.

Traca: What motivates you to grow such a large garden? Do you manage to consume all the food?

Renee: We give a lot of it away. We have neighbors who are East Indian (pictured above), so I grew a variety of peppers for her. She pickled the peppers for different Indian dishes. We use a lot of the produce, and give the surplus to friends.

We entertain a lot and a good deal of that food is from my garden. I host four to five major dinner parties a month, with more than 10 people attending each party.

Traca: Tell me about your dinner parties. I can’t imagine hosting five dinner parties a month!

Renee: The number of parties vary, but I have two fabulous women who help clean up.

I have a lot of famous chefs that come to town and they’ll cook with me. When Marcella Hazaan or Alice Waters visit, we’ll cook a meal together. And then I have a lot of friends. We enjoy cooking dinners together.

For years I did Sunday night dinners with family and friends. When I was working, I didn’t have much time to do big dinners, except on Sundays. So we would invite different couples with their kids. I think one of the things that happens is that you know your friends, but you often don’t know their children. I’d make a big dinner and there’d always be something the kids would never eat. Some kids only ate hot dogs and Cheerios, but everyone had to sit at the table together. After dinner, sometimes we’d have a talent show. It was great because we got to know everyone’s kids better, and their kids got to know everybody else.

Traca: You’ve been hosting Sunday dinners for over 30 years. Where did the inspiration for that come from? Are you part of a big family?

Renee: I am part of a big family, but only my sister lives here. The rest of my family lives in Oregon.

When I was married before and went through a divorce, we had a lot of kids. Then when I married my current husband Karl, he had two young kids. Sunday dinner was a way to get families together. At the time, I was also on the road a lot and Sunday was a great time to bring everybody together.

When I was on the road, I’d travel to different countries and cook with people in their homes. And then, when I came back, I’d want to practice cooking what I’d learned. So I was able to test recipes and try new techniques. I’d let everyone know, “I was just in Vietnam for a week…and we’re going to make a new dish.” They’d come over. I’d make the dish and we’d try it together.

I also rent houses and invite friends to travel with me. We’ll split the cost and rent a house for a week. We hire a chef… and cook together. It really raises your awareness about sharing food with friends.

Traca: Your passport gets a workout! What is it about travel that fuels your passion?

Renee: I’ve always been fascinated with world cultures.

Traca: Ethnic food in America is another thing entirely.

Renee: If you’re in Italy, you eat Italian. If you’re in Vietnam, you eat Vietnamese food.

We live in a multi-cultural country. All these people have come to the U.S. and just because they’ve moved here—for whatever reason—they didn’t quit eating the foods they grew up with.

In the United States, you and I could have great Vietnamese food for lunch. For dinner, we could go to a great Mexican restaurant. Tomorrow morning, we may have French pancakes. You can go anywhere in the U.S. and eat cuisine from around the world. That doesn’t happen in other countries. That is only in the United States.

Immigrants in the U.S. immerse themselves in foods their homeland.

Traca: And that’s reflected at Sur La Table?

Renee: When we bought Sur La Table, it was a French cooking store and it was modeled after stores in France. I traveled extensively, and was fascinated by the food of each country. So we changed the original concept to reflect a broader, multi-cultural appeal.

Traca: You took a hands-on approach, exploring foods from other cultures. But cooking those foods in America has its own set of challenges. What was your experience?

Renee: I researched and cooked in all these different countries.

The more I traveled, the more I was overwhelmed by their love of their cuisine. People that live in Greece or Morocco – unless they’ve traveled a lot – have never experience cuisines outside their country. Their passion for local food is unmistakable. And when the food travels back to America? It’s not the same.

Very seldom do you find authentic ethnic food in America. For example, when you go to Mexico, our thought of Mexican food is tacos and quesadillas. But when you go to Mexico, like Oxaca, those people spend days making their family’s recipe for mole. Nobody here is going to make mole! And half the people don’t know what it is.

There are very few restaurants in America that make truly authentic Mexican food. That’s true of every country, actually.

When I cook in another country, and you attempt to translate it back to the American table, it becomes a very different thing.

Traca: For example?

Renee: Cooking in Morocco…it’s important to understand the concept of the tagine, which is the basis of most of their cooking. But when you come back and you want to enjoy a lamb tagine in America, finding an authentic recipe is difficult. You either buy a book by an author based in that country, or you go online and try to find a recipe. But most of the recipes online are not tested. Even in cookbooks, there’s an element of risk. Only about 20 percent of the recipes in cookbooks have been tested by somebody else. So they’re not proven recipes.

If someone wants to make a chicken and apricot tagine, the first thing they do is go to Costco and buy a big bag of apricots. Those apricots have all been pumped up with sugar! And then the recipe says to add 1/3 of a cup of honey. The finished dish ends up being syrupy…and it’s not the real deal.

The way a recipe translates…is not always correct. So my mission was to help people understand the difference, and make it the best it can be.

Traca: Creating that authentic experience can be a challenge, especially since cookbooks have changed so much over the years.

Renee: The old recipes from Julia Chilld, Paul Bocuse, and Marcella Hazaan…those recipes were all tested by experts. Now, you’ve got people who just pump out cookbooks. The recipes are not necessarily good. It’s frustrating because people spend time and money to create a recipe, and it’s not always the best.

In a modern sense, Ina Garten has proven recipes that are easy to prepare. Your results are always good. But you can’t say that about a lot of the new cookbooks.

Traca: Food in America is quite different now. What changes have you seen over the years?

Renee: A lot has changed. The Food Network came into play, and along with that, the rise in celebrity chefs. Some of the celebrity chefs cook amazing food and others…just don’t. It also became very expensive to eat in a restaurant that has quality ingredients.

I was reading an article in the LA Times about chickens. Have you seen it?

When we were growing up, we got chicken from a guy that raised them. And then the grocery store phenomena exploded. Today there are so many rules about raising chickens and selling them in a grocery store, that chickens are soaked in a chlorine solution. If you buy chicken at the grocery store and it has that thing that looks like a diaper under it to collect water? That’s horrible! 20% of a chicken’s weight is water that’s been pumped into it.

Today, people are focusing much more on what they are eating.

When we were young, nobody ever talked about cholesterol, or roughage. We just ate really good food! There was no fast food. McDonalds came into the west coast around 1963. And if you went out to lunch and ordered a “diet plate”, you had a hamburger patty, a scoop of cottage cheese, a slice of tomato and a piece of lettuce. You’d get two rye crisps and then they’d put a big basket of bread in the middle of the table. That was your diet plate!

For the next forty years, people went sideways because what they were eating was terrible.

Now, if you order fettucini alfredo, everybody at the table looks at you like you’ve lost your mind! It’s important to eat everything in moderation.

Traca: What about the plethora of cooking shows on TV? It’s helped promote cooking again, yes?

Renee: People are cooking more at home. But too many young people today rely on mixes. They don’t know how to bake a cake from scratch. Baking is a science.

Traca: True. When I moved to Seattle, I started taking classes at Sur La Table. That’s how I learned how to cook. When did you start cooking in earnest?

Renee: I started cooking in New York, in Little Italy when I was in my mid-twenties.

I worked with a man in the garment industry and we went to dinner in Little Italy. I started talking with this old guy, asking how they made the various dishes. He said, “If you want to come when you get off work, you can cook in the back with me. “ This guy was in his 80’s. So I started doing that when I was in New York. I was there about 10 days a month and I’d cook with him in Little Italy. I never wanted to work in a restaurant, but I was so fascinated, learning from this old guy.

Traca: And from there, you expanded into other cultures?

Renee: I was a buyer for Nordstrom and left because I was hired away by Bon Marche (department stores). I went on buying trips to Europe, going four times a year.

Then when I went to Israel and I met this woman who worked with our Asian buyers. She gave cooking classes in her home. This woman was born and raised in China, and left. I took classes from her for three years. We cooked food from every province in China.

I was fascinated by authentic Chinese food; it was so different from the food we had in Chinatown. For three weeks a month we’d go to her house for cooking classes and one week a month we’d visit one of her friend’s restaurants and eat whatever she ordered for us. Then we’d learn how to cook those dishes the following week. I got so fascinated by it!

So then, whenever I would travel and meet different people on business, I’d say “How did you make this?” They’d invite me to their house…and I’d get to cook with them.

In my 30’s, there were cooking stores near my home and I started giving classes. It was a growth progression. I was totally fascinated by what you could do with food.


How to Throw a Party...without Breaking the Bank

It's no secret that I love a good party. My personal philosophy:

Forget diamonds and fancy shoes.

If I've got to choose?

I'd rather have a party, thank you.

I lob invitations, easy as breathing, "We should get together! I've got some friends I want you to meet."

But you see, here's the catch.

I am not independently wealthy.

Last time I checked, there's no trust fund.

And you know as well as I do, parties aren't cheap.

While I'd love to host multi-course dinners and imbibe my friends with fine wine, let's be realistic. (Yeah, in the early days I flipped the bill for sumptuous parties. I'm still paying for them!) Long ago I realized, if I want to have parties...something's GOT to change.

So what's a girl to do?

How do you throw a party without breaking the bank?

Five years and a stream of parties later, I've finally got a system that works. For me, it's potluck or the kitty.


Share the labor. Share the cost. Discover new foods.

First thing you need to know: A potluck requires a theme. The word "theme" conjures up visions of luaus and leis and frankly, makes my skin crawl. But over time I've learned, people like to center themselves around an idea. So get over it, and pick something!

Ideas run the gamut. Broad stroke ideas like Appetizers or BBQ work well. Swine divine pork party? Dumpling feast? Or how 'bout a cookbook-themed potluck? (I need 12 lifetimes to cook through my books, how 'bout you? Grab your friends and get cooking!)

Often I'll pick a theme that begs for a story, and serves as a conversation point for guests. Last year I hosted an Americana-themed potluck and encouraged guests to explore regional or nostalgic dishes from their childhood. It was a blockbuster event with over 90 attendees! (See photo above.) The table heaved with pulled pork, baked beans, carrot and raisin salad, rootbeer floats, home made bagels, and brownies. Half the fun was discovering new dishes ...and figuring out who made them! (Who brought the jello mold?!)

Experience has taught me a few things:

1. Pick a theme.

2. Some folks don't cook. Fine. Give them an assignment: bring a cooler & ice, extra wine, a case of beer, or come early and help move furniture.

3. Goodwill/Salvation Army/Thrift Stores are like gold! Pick up wine glasses, plates, sliverware, serving platters and utensils here. Who cares if they match? These are your friends, get over the Crate & Barrel-I-can't-have-a-party-until-it's-perfect mentality. Life is short. People will remember the good times, not the your mismatched plates. (Even better? Throw caution to the wind and grab the funky ones. Iowa State Fair, anyone?)

Party time!

I provide:

- The venue
- Music
- Plates
- Silverware
- Glasses
- Serving utensils (always in short supply)
- Napkins
- My potluck contribution
- A couple bottles of cheap wine

The rest? It's up to my guests.

Trust me, I'm a control freak by nature and this takes a leap of faith. Fortunately, my friends are good cooks and potlucks give them a chance to strut their stuff. Relax, and enjoy what comes....


The premise here is simple. You shop, you cook, you host the event. Instead of bringing a dish (a la potluck), your guests bring cash.


You expect friends to pay for dinner?

Yes, happily.

In a restaurant, you split the check. Why not do the same at home?

For me, the kitty is not an actual kitty but a vessel for cash. Use a champagne bucket, vase or cookie jar...whatever. I stick the kitty by the door and guests deposit funds when they arrive. If folks need to leave early? No worries. All I need is a hug and a kiss goodbye.

It's a fabulous system that makes a festive win-win situation for everyone.

Pssst. On a budget and you want to host a seated dinner? See Potluck point #3. Thanks to Goodwill, I've got service for 40.


A typical invitation spells it out:

What to Bring: a potluck dish or $, and a bottle of wine

Experience has taught me...people have no idea how much they really drink. Over the span of a 3 hour party, I can drink a bottle of wine myself. (1 bottle = 750 milliliters or 25.4 ounces, which gives you about four, 6-ounce glasses of wine.)

I'm still baffled by couples who only bring one bottle of wine. Over time, I've learned. The more couples at your party...the more likely you'll run out of wine early, hence the secret stash.

I always keep a secret stash of wine, just in case we run out. It's not the good stuff...but by that time of the night, it usually doesn't matter. (Yes, I'm talking about Two Buck Chuck.)

A bottle of wine per person is about right. True, some people drink more, others drink less but for a typical party, plan on a bottle for each person. If you have a high couple-to-single ratio? Invest in a secret stash. You're going to need it!


It's true, I love nothing more than bringing folks around the table. Life changes so quickly...and after loosing the people you love? I regret holding back, worrying about trivial stuff like matching silverware.

Grab your friends and celebrate!

Ready to party? Which will you choose...potluck or kitty?