Saturday Six Pack: J.M. Hirsch
1. You majored in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. How did you go from that to writing about food?
The moral of the story: life rarely takes you where you expect.
I loved philosophy and enjoyed my time in Edinburgh more than I can say. After I earned my master’s degree, I considered going to law school, but instead decided to get my PhD. I specialized in applied ethics, which basically means taking ethical theory and applying it to real life situations. I was accepted to do my PhD in Edinburgh, but I was young and wanted adventure, so I got myself into the program at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had just been elected the nation’s first black president, so it was a very exciting time to be there.
Back then the only jobs for philosophers were teaching (things are different now – many companies and medical facilities actually have ethicists who consult on difficult decisions, etc.). The problem was that I quickly realized I didn’t enjoy teaching. Within a year I dropped out and moved back to New Hampshire where – as a true Gen-Xer – I lived in my parents' basement for a while.
Not long after, I landed a job as reporter at The Associated Press based in our Concord office. I started out covering crime. But I’d always been into food. So when the opportunity came along, I jumped at the chance to write a weekly cooking column for AP. My timing was right. This was about 12 or so years ago, just around the time our nation started paying more attention to food, and more people were recognizing the interplay between food, agriculture, health and the economy. So as AP found itself needing to cover food more aggressively, I was in the right place at the right time. About 10 years ago I became the AP’s food writer, and a few years later I took over as editor.
2. If you could invite three (living or dead) philosophers to a dinner cooked by anyone, who would be the guests and who the chef?
It would almost be more fun to invite three chefs and have a philosopher do the cooking! The interesting thing is that today many of the best chefs do dabble in philosophy. Or rather, spend considerable time pondering – and trying to balance – the often far-reaching ethics of our food choices.
But as to which philosophers I would invite… I’d start with John Stuart Mill, who spent a lot of time considering how the rights of the individual weigh against those of the society. I’d be curious what he’d say about the ethics of corporations controlling so much of our food system and whether the government has a duty to intervene in issues such as fast food, obesity and food safety.
Next up, you’ve got to have a Greek. I’d go with Plato. This guy obsessed over finding the ideals of every thing – trees, governments, rights, etc. He maintained that every thing we know in the world is merely a shadow of those ideals. I wonder what he’d make of genetically modified foods. Because tomatoes that are part fish presumably mess with his whole shadow theory.
Finally, to keep us grounded – Bertrand Russell. He’s not considered a heavyweight in most philosophical circles, but I liked him for his ability to bring it all down to a level the average person could understand. We’d need that during this dinner. Because presumably there is wine at this dinner and I can handle only so much high-level thinking when tipsy.
As for the cook… I was tempted to say Alton Brown because he is a tremendously intelligent guy (don’t let the Food Network silliness fool you). I think he could keep pace with the guests. But in terms of chefs who have truly and deeply considered the ethics of food, its production and its cooking, it’s hard to beat Dan Barber (of New York’s Blue Hill Farm restaurants). I learn something every time I listen to him. He could hold his own against the others. It doesn’t hurt that he is a killer chef, too.
3. Your new book, Beating the Lunchbox Blues, has made me realize that I've condemned myself to a relatively tasteless lunch for the last decade. Where were you 10 years ago, and why do so many people sentence themselves to a lifetime of bland turkey sandwiches?
Gosh… Ten years ago I was just getting started in food writing at AP. I didn’t have a child, so I was having dinner parties weekly, sometimes twice a week. The very thought of that makes me tired now. I was just about to publish my first cookbook, “Venturesome Vegan Cooking” (I haven’t been vegan since those days, but was raised that way).
I have no idea what I ate for lunch those days. And here’s my dirty little confession. I’m not a big lunch eater. Never have been. In high school, I think I went in the cafeteria once in four years. In college, it was all about the coffee. I must have eaten something at some point, but I don’t recall what.
As for why normal people box themselves in, I think it’s because most of us have an impression of what a lunch is supposed to be. Those impressions probably are based loosely on whatever their parents packed for them. But most people boil it down to a sandwich, a hunk of fruit and a drink. And when you limit yourself to that, it really is hard to be creative (and to be excited about it) day after day. Other people limit themselves to that because they assume anything else will be too difficult or too time consuming.
I guess I never came at it from those angles. Not because I’m a gifted chef or have all sorts of time to ponder these things. But my day job as AP food editor forces me to be creative with food. And so I treat lunch like any other meal. That means anything goes. Once you realize you can pack or eat anything you want, it’s easy to be creative. And you quickly realize that being creative doesn’t require tons of energy or time. None of the lunches I pack for my son – deli meat sushi, carpaccio, DIY steak tacos, etc. – takes more than 5 minutes to assemble.
4. You are the first author published by Rachael Ray's new cookbook imprint. How did your collaboration with her happen?
Thanks to my day job, I’ve known Rachael for many years. About two years ago I learned that she was getting her own cookbook imprint with Simon & Schuster. Though I was working on a book at the time, I knew that wasn’t the book to pitch to her. I’d been doing my blog about my son’s lunches – LunchBoxBlues.com – for about two years at that point and it was started to get a lot of attention. I’d been on Martha Stewart’s television show and NPR several times. I knew that if I ever was going to do a book based on this blog, this was the time and Rachael was the one to do it for. She’s been very active in reforming the school lunch system, so she really gets the importance of giving kids good, delicious, healthy foods. When we sat down to chat about it, I told her she’d done so much for kids eating school lunches, but I wanted to do something to help the families who brown bag it. She got it immediately. That’s when the hard work started. I had to actually write the book. And quickly. Being her first book meant I needed to get it in to the publisher in just a few months.
5. How often do you eat out, and where do you go when you do?
Well… OK. So, this is a hard one to answer without offending people. But the truth is, I don’t live in New Hampshire because of its robust restaurant scene. I love New Hampshire because I love our way of life here. I love the people and the feeling of community I get walking down the street. When I became editor about eight years ago, the job was in New York. I said I’d take the job, but only if I could keep living in New Hampshire. So while we don’t have much in the way of great eats, we do have a great state that I have no desire to leave.
So I mostly go out to eat in New York (I go down for work about once a month). Here in New Hampshire, I love the Barley House in Concord (very family friendly, good, solid pub food). Republic Cafe in Manchester is great, too. And I love their emphasis on local foods. When we need an indulgence, we’re all about Arnie’s Place ice cream in Concord. We will sometimes venture up to Portland, Maine, which has an amazing food scene. You can’t go wrong with Duck Fat up there.
6. You've been convicted of murder by gluttony for all the people who happily gorged themselves to death after buying your cookbooks. What do you choose for your last meal?
I’m an incredibly lucky guy. Thanks to my job, I’ve been able to eat some of the world’s best foods from the best chefs in the best restaurants. It’s an amazing treat to be able to experience those things. But despite all those many great meals, my last meal would have to come from my mom. I’d start with fruit salad. Sounds crazy, I know. But she knows exactly which fruits I like and which proportions of each. It reminds me of childhood. Then I’d want her spanakopita (Greek feta and spinach pie). We’re not Greek and none of us can remember why she started making it. But for as long as I can remember, she has made it for Thanksgiving instead of turkey. I would need a massive hunk of that. I’d finish it off with a half-gallon of cookies and cream ice cream. When I was a kid, my dad and I would split one (I haven’t always been this thin…) and hunt for the “whole cookie” we believed was hidden in each container.
The simple fact is, food is about memories and feelings. And for my last meal, those are the memories and feelings I’d want.