For those of us who came of age during the seventies and eighties, some ambivalence remains. Amy Albert C81, senior editor at Fine Cooking, loves her job, but resists being pigeonholed. (Shes quick to tell people that she also sings in a band, trained as an actress, makes photographs, and has other interests.) Theres an image of food people as precious and narrow-minded, only interested in the good life, she says, when in actuality food is a reflection of culture, a mirror into the way that people live.
The writers Albert edits come from diverse backgrounds; one has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. And its not unusual for writers to change specialties: Alan Richman was a sportswriter for The Boston Globe before he became the food and wine columnist at GQ, a position he held for 14 years. Randall Lane C90 considers food writing a sideline from his real job giving editorial direction to magazineseven though his only nomination for a National Magazine Award to date was for his wine writing in Time Out New York. In the nineties Lane founded the now defunct P.O.V. [Start Me Up, May 1998]. These days, as editorial director and president of Doubledown Media, he is in the midst of launching two new magazines, Trader Monthly and Justice.
My own interest in food writing had been spurred first by Fishers approach to the subjectin which, while writing about food, she was also writing about wartime rationing, discovering Europe with her new husband, or the some-time pleasure of eating aloneand then by articles in magazines like Gourmet and Food &Wine, which convinced me that food writing could be a legitimate endeavor.
As I read more, imagining myself published in their pages, I was surprised to find that a number of Penn alumnicontemporaries of mine, in fact, people I knewhad gotten there ahead of me.
I had seen the name Pete Wells C85 on the masthead of Food &Wine magazine, but it wasnt until I saw a photo of him alongside his feature on Captain Bacon in the May 2003 issue that I recognized him as a former colleague from The Penn Press. Even after I had identified Wells, I assumed that the Lisa Futterman whose name also appeared in Food & Wine had to be a coincidencesomeone else who happened to share that name was an expert on the restaurant scene in Chicago. It couldnt be the Lisa Futterman C85 who had dated one of my housemates.
When I read a profile of Wendy Artin C85, a painter living with her husband and child in Rome, in the March 2003 issue of Gourmet, it confirmed my suspicion that the Joshua David C84 whose features appeared in Travel & Leisure and other publications was the same one I had known at Penn. By the time I saw Betsy Andrews C85 at a press dinner in New York and learned that she was a senior editor at Zagat Survey, best known for their influential restaurant guides, I wasnt even surprised.
Everyone who graduated from Penn is either a doctor, a lawyer, or a food writer, it seems, Betsy deadpans.
Not only did I know them all from Penn, they were all connected to each other. The off-campus house where Pete, Betsy, and Lisa lived their junior years, was also home to The Penn Press. Pete recalls writing about sensory-deprivation flotation tanks that promised hallucinatory experiences; Betsy took on the University with a story about how recyclables werent actually being recycled; and Lisa, a fine arts major, provided illustrations. At their kitchen table, in the days before desktop publishing, they pulled all-nighters, cutting the galleys by hand, preparing the layouts by pasting type onto boards.
Putting together the magazine was not the only activity that united them. Their house, nicknamed Beulahs Supper Club, was a place where they cooked together, or took turns cooking, several times a week. Lisa was already an accomplished cook by junior year. Betsya vegetarian at the timewas known for her falafel and vegetarian chili. Pete, meanwhile, was teaching himself to cook using cookbooks as references, but his memories of Philadelphia cuisine focus on cheaper eatspork sandwiches, olives and cheese from the Italian market, cheesesteaks from Genos or Pats, and soft pretzels from the Reading Terminal Market.
Joshua, a frequent visitor to the house and a contributor to the magazine, says he was initially drawn to the Press as a way to get to know Stephen Hirsh C85, whose brother Bill C83 was the magazines editor at the time. The two have been a couple ever since. Joshua also worked at the then just-opened White Dog Cafe, as did Lisa and Betsy; it was so tiny, he recalls, that the restaurants laundry was done upstairs in owner Judy Wicks apartment.
In their senior year, Pete and Betsy, who shared an apartment with two other friends, hosted a tuna casserole bake-off that highlighted the differences in their cooking styles. Pete made something really complicated, haute cuisine; he followed a recipe and used wide, round rigatoni, Betsy says. Mine was canned tuna, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and the rest of the spice cabinet. Who won the contest? It was a tie, she answers.
Like cooking, food writing comes in different styles and flavors. Its not all restaurant reviews and recipes: it can also be the history of salt, an argument for sustainable cuisine, or the story of how a young boy and his grandfather connected while gutting fish. Which, I thought, might help explain why these friends, with similar interests, but different academic backgroundsin history (Pete), fine arts (Lisa), anthropology (Betsy), and design of the environment (Joshua)all found themselves writing about food.
I decided I would ask them.
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