‘Licking the Spoon’: A Conversation with Author Candace Walsh

- November 7, 2012

"The pages of "Licking the Spoon" will make you laugh, cry and feel very hungry"

Candace Walsh has spent a lifetime developing an intimate relationship with food. In "Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity" (Seal Press, 2012), she chronicles her hardscrabble childhood, with a father who forced her to clear her plate of some of her own vomit, a stepfather who nearly choked her to death and a mother who was unequipped to help her.

Through it all, Walsh took great pleasure in the joys of ice cream, cookies, her grandmother's recipes and other foods that helped ease the pain.

When a boyfriend leaves her in Paris, she comforts her broken heart with chicken fricassee, pain au chocolate and café au lait. The "browned pieces of bone-in chicken in a creamy white sauce with mushrooms and onions, a glass of white wine to complement the delicate flavors," savored in a bistro, get her through a rough night, as food ultimately will continue to do for her.

The pages of "Licking the Spoon" will make you laugh, cry and feel very hungry, as Walsh describes making seafood mushroom risotto with littleneck clams, shrimps, rings of stretchy calamari, oyster, hen-of-the-wood chanterelle mushrooms, leeks, saffron and stock. Or ropa vieja from her grandmother's recipe, buttercream cakes, chocolate brownies during pregnancy and other delicious dishes that see her through the landmarks of her life.

Walsh joins with Santa Fe James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Cheryl Alters Jamison on Thursday, November 15 at 6 p.m. at Collected Works Bookstore for a conversation and about food writing, food memoir and the relationship between the two.

"Licking the Spoon" was born after an ex-boyfriend gave Walsh a copy of Nora Ephron's novel "Heartburn," which chronicles the failing marriage of Ephron and Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story in 1972 with fellow journalist Bob Woodward. (See "All the President's Men" for more about that story, and there's also a great film version of "Heartburn" starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.)

"It was quote unquote fiction but everyone could tell it was a public figure who was going through it," says Walsh. "I thought, gosh I really want to do this, too. This was back in '97 and I was in my 20s and the whole food memoir thing hadn't happened. I never thought of myself as being a food-obsessed or food centric person, but people would say that I was such a food person and I thought, well, I guess I am."

A few years later, when Walsh was finishing up a second anthology for Seal Press, her editor asked if she had any book ideas. "I told her I had thought about a book that would have chapters named after food.," Walsh says. "I did a proposal and she bought it."

Walsh hopes that her memoir will help others struggling with a difficult childhood, a failed marriage or other challenging issues.

"A lot of people think if you had a bad childhood or a harsh learning curve or a lot of setbacks in life, it's easy to feel defeated," she says. "But my main goal is to show by example that if you continue to follow your bliss, go toward the things in life that bring you pleasure instead of going back to the things that make you sad, at some point you'll reach a critical mass. All those things that happened won't be so powerful anymore. For me, it was food. For someone else it could be nature, dance, aviation. Don't listen to the voice that 's saying you're not good enough. Go towards what feels right, what feels sparkly and inspiring."

Food continues to play a leading role in Walsh's life, even though she recently married and is raising two young children and working full-time as the editor of New Mexico Magazine.

"I might have a day when I'm exhausted and I don't have it in me to cook dinner," she says. "Other times I pick a recipe, go grocery shopping and come home and end up having a spat about something minor with my wife. But I've already started cooking, so I have to stick with it and not go off and sulk. It's transformative and at the end of the process when we do sit down, I've moved beyond the moment of crankiness and the dinner I envisioned has been restored."

Walsh recently returned from a honeymoon to Europe, where she was recharged by the incredible foods she found there, rooted in a rich history of gastronomy.

"Ever since I got home, I've been cooking up fun stuff, revisiting old recipes, trying new ones," she says. "We were sitting in a French wine bistro in London and the amount of reverence around food was incredible. We were sitting there, looking through a window and watching French guys cutting cheese samples, people choosing cheese and bread really solemnly. We thought we've got to continue this. We have two kids and despite my best efforts, all they really want to eat is pizza, macaroni and cheese and hamburgers and hot dogs. They love grilled cheese, so I thought let's do a smorgasbord with cheese from different parts of France. I had a lull but it came back with a vengeance."

After her trip, she is now experimenting with macarons, the famous French cookie made with almond, sugar, flour and egg white dough. "But in France they put all these amazing flavors, like rose syrup," she says. "I am obsessed with recreating them."

Walsh edited the Seal Press anthologies "Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women" (a Lambda Literary Award finalist) and "Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On." She served as features editor of Mothering Magazine, co-founded Mamalicious magazine, and is currently the managing editor of New Mexico Magazine. She lives in Santa Fe with her wife Laura André, their two children, and two dogs. Find more Licking the Spoon stories and recipes at www.lickingthespoonbook.com

Here are a few recipes from "Licking the Spoon."

Spanakopita  (Serves 12)

This recipe from Chapter 1 was brought over from Crete by my great-grandmother Maria. In tracking down the recipe, I reconnected with my cousin Stacie, who gave it to me. I then passed it on to another cousin, who thought the recipe went to the grave with Maria’s daughter Christina.

2 cups curly-leaf, a.k.a. savoy, spinach (not baby or flat-leaf spinach)
1 pound cream cheese
1⁄2 pound farmer cheese, or chèvre in a pinch
1⁄2 pound of large-curd pot cheese or cottage cheese
Salt and pepper
1∕8 cup of freshly chopped peppermint, or a tiny droplet of peppermint extract (“Don’t overdo it, or it tastes like mouthwash,” according to my cousin Stacie). I also sub in oregano if I don’t have peppermint.
1 pound of phyllo dough
3 eggs
3 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit

Wash the spinach, remove stems, dry the leaves, and then chop them. Add salt, pepper, and peppermint and toss.

Put the cheeses in a large mixing bowl and break them up with your hands. Mix them together. Whisk eggs separately, then add to cheese and stir briskly to incorporate.

Start adding the spinach mixture into the wet mixture. You need to squish the spinach with your hands. Keep adding spinach and squishing it until it’s all added into the main bowl and has an even consistency. I think my great-grandmother squished it until it was completely broken down, but I stop before that because I like the texture.

Make a phyllo base, in your rectangular oven-safe pan, by buttering and stacking a couple of layers. (When I’m working with a smaller pan, I take about 6 phyllo layers from the package and lay them flat in the pan. There’s a lot of extra length, so I pack the spinach mixture in and then wrap the phyllo ends over the filling, like flaps.)
Pack the spinach mixture on top of the phyllo. Top with more phyllo, then brush top with butter.

Before baking, cut rows through phyllo, because it’s way messier to cut it after it is cooked. Bake until phyllo is brown, for about 40 minutes.

Koulourakia (Greek Butter Cookies)( Makes 6 to 8 dozen cookies)
These cookies have been enjoyed by five generations of my family in this country. I can only imagine how far back they stretch into the daily life of previous generations in Crete.

2 cups unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 eggs
8–9 cups flour
3 tablespoons baking powder
1⁄4 cup sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Cream butter and gradually beat in sugar. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla to butter and sugar mixture and beat until uniform. In a separate bowl, sift flour and baking powder. Add flour mixture to wet ingredients, in batches, until a soft dough forms.

Lightly flour your hands and pick up a handful of dough. Roll it into a snake shape, and then roll it into a tightly wound C with curled-in edges or a tightly wound S with curled-in edges, or bend it in half and twist the lengths over and over each other.

Place on a greased and floured (or nonstick) cookie sheet, brush with egg, and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.