Q&A with Freda Love Smith, author of Red Velvet Underground



In Freda Love Smith's new book, Red Velvet Underground, the former Blake Babies drummer and indie-rock musician tells the story of how her rock-and-roll past grew into her family- and food-centric present. Loosely framed around cooking lessons she gave her eldest son, Jonah, before he left for college, Smith recalls behind-the-music stories with the likes of Juliana Hatfield, Evan Dando (Lemonheads), Henry Rollins, and more.

Over the course of the book, which includes 45 flexitarian recipes, Smith reveals how food has evolved into an important means for creativity and improvisation in her life. This memoir is an engaging exploration of the ways food and music have informed identity through every stage of one woman’s life.

To celebrate the book's publication last week, we are sharing a Q&A with the author.

When did you decide to write this book?  

It was an incremental decision, kind of a string of decisive moments. The first moment closely followed my decision to do a year of cooking lessons with my oldest son, Jonah. I was a few months out of finishing my creative writing MA, trying to figure out what to do as a writer. While Jonah and I planned our lessons and made our list of recipes, I thought, hey, I should write about this. The book began as a straightforward document of the lessons, but it quickly began to push against that constraint. I was writing about Jonah’s lifelong love of food and connecting it to his early childhood—when he spent a substantial amount of time on tour with me and my husband, Jake, in our band The Mysteries of Life—and I recalled a time that I observed Jonah, three years old, in preschool. He picked up the toy phone and started talking about strawberries and scrambled eggs—he wanted room service! I felt the book expand out of its framework with that image of my son, who’d moved between worlds, from backstage and sound checks and hotels to a normal domestic life in a small college town, and how I’d moved between those worlds myself, often struggling to reconcile and balance them. As the year of lessons and writing progressed, I couldn’t keep my own stories out of the book. When I’d been Jonah’s age, I had moved to Boston, started the Blake Babies, become vegetarian, and eaten my way across the country. All those stories wanted to interact with my experience as a mother. Once I had the title, the project finally crystallized, and I could clearly see the book I was writing.

Were your experiences with the Blake Babies after your reunion in 1999 (and after the birth of your sons) very different from your initial experiences with the band?

The Blake Babies reunion was mostly a breeze, with none of the intensity, pressure, or struggle that we felt in our earlier years. Not that those early years were all bad. There were plenty of high points, and I’m proud of how hard we worked back then. But the stakes were low for the reunion and we had all significantly mellowed. Recording was fun and easy, and every stop on our brief tour was an opportunity to reconnect with fans and friends. I suspect that I enjoyed it the most. It was a treat for me to play with Juliana and John again, to be able to appreciate them fully for the great musicians that they are, and to revisit my pre-motherhood identity. But I suspect it was also hardest for me. For the first out-of-town show, which was only a weekend-long trip away, I left the still- nursing Henry home with a weary Jake and Jonah and some bottles of milk. Henry was fine. But I was very uncomfortable, pumping every few hours, and when I couldn’t find a place to pump, I had to just do it in the van—modesty was not my primary concern. Poor John and Juliana. I’m not sure I’ve had a more surreal rock moment.

What are your sons’ favorite recipes to cook? What are your own?

Jonah is a senior in college now; he lives in a house in Chicago with three other guys, and most of them can cook, which makes my heart glad. Last year they prepared an entire Thanksgiving feast: turkey, stuffing, pie, everything. Jonah tells me that his specialty in the house is a kind of open-ended variation on the Pasta Fagioli recipe that I gave him when he was in high school, and that I once asked him to cook for me and Henry when I was solo-parenting and exhausted. Jonah calls his current version simply “Greens/Beans/Pasta/Sauce.” I hope he writes a cookbook of his own someday, one for broke 20-year-old college students.

Henry is sixteen and ferociously independent. Recently, Jake and I were going to be out for the evening, and I asked him what he wanted for dinner. I thought maybe we’d leave him money to order pizza. He asked me to buy him a whole chicken and a couple of potatoes, and he cooked himself a full chicken dinner from scratch, using the same recipe that I’d developed when I taught Jonah years ago.

Baking is my original and abiding pleasure in the kitchen. For me, baking is never about sustenance; I don’t bake because I have to, only because I want to. I’ve baked cookies at a couple of different bakeries over the years, and whipping up a batch is easy, almost automatic for me, and I love how excited it makes everybody. Pie is more of a project, but it is my favorite thing to make. There’s a big margin of error, and I’ve raged over my fair share of failures, but when pie is successful it’s absolutely magical. My favorite baking recipe in the book is the blueberry pie, an adaptation of a recipe from the legendary Grit restaurant in Athens, Georgia. I tell the story in the book about how it brought me to tears when I ate a slice on a Blake Babies tour.

What sorts of things did you learn as a touring musician that you were able to apply to motherhood? Has there been anything you learned from being a mom that you were able to apply to your music?

Touring taught me to function on little sleep, to be adaptable to a constantly shifting reality, and to stretch a measly ten-dollar per diem over two meals. These skills proved valuable in parenting. Motherhood softened my heart, taught me that I’m not the most important person in the world, and made me more attentive and empathic, all beneficial attributes for a musician, I think. Motherhood also got me playing quiet and with brushes so as not to wake the baby!

What are you working on next?

I want to keep exploring my interest in the connections between music and food. I interview musicians about food for Paste, and I plan to develop this into a rockers’ cookbook, with musicians contributing their favorite dishes. My working title is Pasta Makes You Play Intense, which is something that bass player Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), used to say often and with conviction in reference to his preferred pre-gig meal.

The historic significance of Carol Moseley Braun

Jeannie Morris

Jeannie Morris

One of the most frustrating aspects of how Behind the Smile, Jeannie Morris's behind-the-scenes story of the victorious 1992 U.S. Senate campaign waged by Carol Moseley Braun, has been received by reviewers is what I'd call the head-scratching element. By this I mean some reviewers' stated curiosity about why this book is being published, now, in 2015, telling as it does a story more than 20 years old now. 


Here are three immediately apparent reasons why Behind the Smile struck us here at Agate as an important book. One: Last time we looked, Braun was still the only African American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate. Her story is of indisputable historic significance. Two: President Barack Obama has stated that Braun's 1992 campaign was an important precursor to his own underdog victory for the same Illinois seat in 2004, when he first became a national figure. How and why Braun won in 1992 has much to do with why Obama ultimately bested two favored opponents twelve years later. And three: when the early favorite for the 2016 presidential election is another woman who's been exhaustively criticized for her relationship decisions, Braun's story is an important cautionary tale about the fraught ways Americans feel about the romantic lives of women in power.

Fortunately, this terrific piece by the Chicago Tribune's  Rick Kogan gives Behind the Smile and its author their due. His essay is a great place to start if you want to learn more about this fascinating and important new book.

Pizza Party! ...and a nominee for an essential pizza cookbook

Our friends at Paste magazine recently shared a list of 6 essential pizza cookbooks.

While there are some great selections there (Tony Gemignani's The Pizza Bible being an office favorite), we wanted to nominate one of our own for the honor:

PASSION FOR PIZZA by the American-Norwegian team of Craig Whitson, Tore Gjesteland, Mats Widen, and Kenneth Hansen.

Not only is this a handsome hardcover with wonderful photography and 50 pizza recipes, but it is also a travel guide containing profiles of 60 pizzerias and pizza-makers from across Rome, Naples, New York, Chicago, L.A., and more.

And if you're lucky enough to live in author Craig Whitson's home state of Oklahoma, you are in for a cheesy treat! Craig will be appearing on Thursday, Oct. 22 at Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City for a homecoming pizza party.

Q&A with Leonard Pitts, Jr., author of GRANT PARK

Q&A with Leonard Pitts, Jr., author of GRANT PARK

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a nationally syndicated and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, as well as an accomplished and critically acclaimed novelist. Following the breakout success of his previous novel, Freeman, Mr. Pitts returns with a taut, thrilling page-turner in Grant Park.

His newest book takes on the past 45 years of US race relations through the stories of two veteran journalists, a superstar black columnist and his unsung white editor. The novel moves between two eras: Martin Luther King Jr.'s final days in Memphis during the 1968 sanitation workers' strike, and Barack Obama's 2008 election-night rally in Chicago's Grant Park.

To celebrate the book's publication, we are sharing a Q&A with Mr. Pitts.

What was the genesis of Grant Park? Where did the idea first come from?

My books usually start with themes, and then characters and plotlines flow out of them.  So this particular book began with a frustration not unlike what motivates Malcolm when he reads the racist email from Joe MacPherson. I was less interested, though, in exploring the racial aspect of communiqués like that than the sheer illogic and incoherence of them. In my experience, as in Malcolm’s, that sort of facts-optional absurdity has become pretty ubiquitous in discussions of race—and other contentious social issues—in the last half-century or so, whether on cable news, online, or in the local paper. If you’re emotionally invested in resolving such issues, it’s a deeply frustrating thing.

So I decided to write about one man’s response to that frustration and, through him, to talk about how our approach to the things that divide us has changed in the last 40 years. That was the nugget of it. From there, of course, the book sprawled to include themes of fathers and sons, the splintering of the civil rights coalition, and the loss and reclamation of hope.


Your book explores themes that have everything to do with the civil unrest that has affected Baltimore, Ferguson, and other parts of the country. Does a fiction writer have any advantages over a journalist when it comes to shedding light on these issues?

Oh, yes. Reality is seldom neat, for as much as pundits like myself like to try to impose social and ideological order upon it.

In dealing with serious real-life issues in a fictional venue, however, you can order the world according to your own specifications to show whatever it is you’re trying to show and to say whatever it is you’re trying to say. The world is what you say it is, subject, obviously, to the constraints of internal logic. But within those constraints, you can manipulate the “facts” in hopes of finding the truth.


As a journalist, was it challenging to fictionalize well-known political figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Barack Obama?

Writing Obama was not challenging at all. In the first place, he doesn’t have a whole lot to say in the book and second, he is in our ears almost every day, so I’m very familiar with his speech patterns. For instance, the whole “Hi, everybody,” with which he enters the room in the book is pretty well known to us after six-years-and-change of his presidency. My biggest challenge in writing him was to get the behavior of the Secret Service correct.

King was just the opposite. The only scene of him not taken directly from the historical record, of course, was the long dialogue with Malcolm out back of the hotel. I rewrote that scene several times. I think I was intimidated by the idea of putting words into the mouth of a man who is so revered and well remembered. I wanted to present an off-duty King, shorn of the marble in which he has so long been entombed, but on my first pass at that scene, I had him speaking essentially in bursts of rhetoric, all of which could be sourced to his speeches and books.

Problem is, even great speakers, when they are off duty, do not speak in rhetoric.  They speak like people. So I really had to struggle with giving myself permission to write him just as a man. Much of what he said and does (the drinking and smoking) are still traceable to the historical record, but I also consciously pushed myself to go beyond that and speculate about what he would have said in this particular circumstance.

It was really kind of a scary, but exciting, thing.


Your rendering of King plays a very active role in the story. How do you think your King compares to other popular depictions, such as the King depicted in Selma?

Well, as already noted, I wanted to present him in a less formal and structured way than we are used to seeing, and I think that’s what the depiction in Selma was about. At the end of the day, I think my novel and that movie are both doing the same thing—trying to free him from the amber of our reverence.

It’s interesting. Over the years, we’ve seen warts-and-all cinematic portrayals of other revered figures—John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson—but only now are we beginning to see that of Dr. King. He was a great and noble man. He was also a drinker, smoker, and philanderer who suffered from depression in his last days. Only now are we getting around to presenting this truer, fuller portrait of who and what he was.


This novel unfolds primarily through two distinct points of view: that of celebrated black journalist Malcolm Toussaint and that of his white editor Bob Carson. Which character’s story was more difficult to tell?

Neither character was particularly difficult, though I did have to take a few passes at the chapters of young Malcolm to get the tone right. For some reason, the scenes of him in Memphis as a teenager interacting with his father were difficult to get a handle on.

Otherwise, the characters were pretty easy. I particularly enjoyed playing with each man’s late-life disillusionment and how each reflected the other.


What are you working on next?

It’s called The Thing You Last Surrender. It’s about George Simon, a Marine during World War II. He experiences a kind of racial coming-of-age when his life is saved by a black Navy messman at Pearl Harbor. He forges an unlikely friendship with Thelma, the sister of the man who saved him. 

As the war grinds on, George finds himself in a very real sense struggling to hold onto his humanity while fighting under brutal conditions in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Thelma is in their shared hometown of Mobile, Alabama, facing a very different racial coming-of-age of her own.

Q&A with Jeannie Morris, author of Behind the Smile

Q&A with Jeannie Morris, author of Behind the Smile

Jeannie Morris, an Emmy-winning journalist and the first woman to win the Ring Lardner Award, has written one of the most in-depth and revealing accounts of the US Senate campaign by Carol Moseley Braun.

At the time of her election, in 1992's "Year of the Woman," Braun was only the second African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, and to this day is still the only African-American woman ever elected to the nation's most exclusive legislative body. Braun has been credited by fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama as a pioneer and important predecessor in his own victorious campaigns for the Senate and presidency.

In honor of this important book's publication last week, we are sharing a Q&A with the author.

The Carol Moseley Braun senatorial campaign ended more than 20 years ago. What was behind your decision to bring this story to light now?

I’ve been harboring a vast amount of material: countless interviews—including with Moseley Braun herself—press reports, my own extensive notes and journals, and the first draft of a manuscript that I chose not to publish after the election. But someone someday was going to write about this complicated, fascinating, and talented woman, and I thought this real-time material should be a part of the historical record.

Since our original intent was to do this book together, I met with Carol in 2011 and asked her if she wanted to revisit her campaign story—update it, get it on the record with the perspective that time allows. Carol flatly refused, saying that those years were the most difficult of her life and she had no interest in reliving them.

But a Google search of this historic figure turns up a paucity of results. I read a series of interviews the US Senate historian did after Carol lost her bid for re-election, and it did not begin to reveal the whole woman and extraordinary politician Carol Moseley Braun truly was. So I decided to re-write Carol’s story as my personal memoir of that 1992 campaign.

I have a second motive, as well.

I want readers to relive the days in October 1991 that led to Carol’s eventual election, that is, the hearings in which Professor Anita Hill testified before an all white, all male Senate panel, explaining to them how Clarence Thomas, whom they were poised to confirm as a Supreme Court Justice had sexually harassed her years before when she had been his assistant. The Senators were not hearing Professor Hill but female America was, and the contempt shown by that panel kicked off what was to become 1992’s Year of the Woman.

The Carol Moseley Braun story is published as our first African American president finishes his second term and our first viable woman candidate seeks to follow him in the oval office. And all of the issues—notably around race and gender—that stirred the electorate in 1992 are still with us today. Hopefully, Carol’s story will contribute some understanding of the deeply ingrained prejudices that still bind our increasingly diverse country. My admittedly cynical guess is that the covert—even overt—sexism Hillary Clinton will face will trump the more subtle racism Barack Obama has had to struggle with.


What were your expectations when you first decided to join the Moseley Braun campaign to record it for a book?

I thought Carol would do what she said she would do: that is, let me ride along with the campaign, be accessible, sit for interviews when she had time, etc.

In fact, by the time I joined up at the beginning of the general election campaign our relationship was influenced—as were virtually all of her relationships—by her romantic involvement with her young South African campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews. Interestingly, until the very end when he himself was accused of sexual harassment, Matthews was on board with the ultimate aim of getting a book out of the campaign experience. I’m not sure he understood that I was interested in the truth.


What did you find most challenging about writing the narrative of Moseley Braun’s campaign?

Exhaustion? I’m not sure there is anything like an American political campaign for a many-months-long event in which—if you are an intimate part of it– requires 24/7 attention and boundless energy.

Due to their daily action-reaction-action cycles, all campaigns are by nature chaotic and for me the easy part of Carol’s campaign was the journalism part, that is writing about the politically earth-shaking reaction of women to the Thomas-Hill hearings and the subsequent “movement politics” that led to Carol’s victory in the Illinois primary. Once invited to join the general election campaign, and despite Carol’s always welcoming attitude, I was, like everyone else, subject to the whims of her campaign manager—a man with few management skills. As the campaign progressed secrets accumulated. Frustration pervaded. But I persisted, as did a staff that believed in and was dedicated to electing Carol Moseley Braun.


How does your reporting in Behind the Smile relate to the campaign’s press coverage of the time?

In 1992 the press didn’t pay much attention to Carol during the primary because nobody thought she had a chance to beat Alan Dixon. When she won, the reporting was generally sound—dedicated to getting to know her and her positions on the issues. As defections from the campaign were reported but rarely explained, press coverage became more probing, and while I did no real-time reporting, it was my mission to discover the reasons behind the tensions that were significant markers in the true story of Carol Moseley Braun. For me, the words in the press were secondary, seeking the secrets behind them was primary.


Carol Moseley Braun’s political career was essentially ruined by her choice of romantic partner. Today, people still discuss what Hillary Clinton’s decision to stay with her husband “says” about her. Why do female politicians face so much more scrutiny than their male counterparts?

Hillary Clinton and her husband have a powerful, mutually beneficial partnership—not to mention huge shared interests and ambitions. There was no way Hillary was going to give into the patriarchy and let herself be called a “scorned woman.” She controlled what had to be great emotional distress in the interest of a stable family and her personal vision for a future. Hillary has defied stereotype all her life. And she has paid—and will continue to pay—a high price for that defiance.

Recently I watched a Charlie Rose interview with the movie producer Brian Grazer. At one point Grazer said, “I don’t understand women, Charlie. Never could understand women.” A movie producer who boasts about not understanding women? Why? Because he doesn’t have to. He’s the one with the power. He can hire someone to understand women. But women have to understand men in order to make their way in the world, just as blacks have needed to understand whites to negotiate their way to success. It’s all about power.

And the power belongs to white men, historically and today.

Interestingly, however, in the past two or even three decades, as the cracks in the glass ceiling have widened, the guys in charge have discovered that women make creative and productive workers and especially, good managers. Why? Because they’ve have had to juggle so many roles and hone so many skills—diplomatic skills in particular—to make it in a man’s world.

As she worked her way up to the United States Senate, Carol Moseley Braun had to be a super negotiator, and she was. But Carol always felt—when she was discriminated against or dismissed—it was much more because she was a woman than as an African American. Still, Carol always had two ceilings to battle her way through.

But unlike Hillary, Carol became a victim of her own deep-seated, psycho-sexual needs and fell in love with the wrong man at the wrong time and that man’s manipulations eventually cost her a career. Meanwhile Bill Clinton, who defiled both his family and the office of the presidency, is one of the most popular figures in America.

What does that tell you?


How do you see the effects of Moseley Braun’s senate career reflected in today’s political atmosphere?

Illinois is frequently called “the paradigm state,” primarily because Illinois has voted for the man who would win almost every presidential election. But Illinois is also balanced between rural and urban interests and Republicans and Democrats. Historically, it was an important that it was Illinois that sent a black woman to the Senate. Carol Moseley Braun’s election was empowering to multitudes. Barack Obama credits Carol with showing him the way in Illinois. While women and people of color are still not proportionately represented in our governing bodies, twenty-plus years later an African American child can find visible role models from an attorney general to an astrophysicist. You don’t have to carry a tune or dunk a basketball to be rich and famous anymore.

Carol Moseley Braun’s historical bid for and successful service in the United States Senate should not be underestimated in that continuum as our democracy matures.

Q&A with Jocelyn Delk Adams, author of Grandbaby Cakes

Agate's latest release, Grandbaby Cakes, is written by celebrated food blogger Jocelyn Delk Adams--learn more about her in this brief Q&A about her background, her blog, and her new book, which is already getting a great reaction from media and readers alike.

You’ve said in your blog that you didn’t realize you had the “baking gene” until you were in your twenties. How did you discover your penchant for baking?

I knew early on that I definitely could bake and enjoyed it, but unlike the elder women in my family, I didn’t feel a strong desire to be in the kitchen. A connection was missing for me. Deep inside, I downright rejected the notion of wanting to bake for the pure enjoyment of it. I thought the idea was primitive and anti-modern, but inwardly something kept drawing me into the kitchen. One weekend in my late twenties, I was bored and randomly walked into my kitchen and pulled out the ingredients to bake a pound cake. Something just felt so right that I decided to stop fighting it. I continued to bake every weekend, trying new combinations and spins on my family recipes. From there, it became the only thing I wanted to do and share.

Many of your recipes are steeped in your family’s Southern heritage. Has your life in Chicago similarly informed your baking?

My life in Chicago has altered the way I was taught to bake in many ways. Midwestern and Southern lifestyles have many things in common, such as relaxed philosophies and friendly people who speak pleasantries just because of good home training. However, living in a very hip, urban city like Chicago has exposed me to a lot more culture and creativity. My husband and I love to try new restaurants and bakeries in the city, and each menu has inspired me greatly. We have some of the best chefs in the world here. I realize that these cutting-edge gifts are not as prevalent in Winona, Mississippi, where my grandparents live. The Chicago influence definitely prevents me from getting stale when it comes to my recipe development.

Why do you think it is important to honor family cooking and baking traditions?

Before I started my blog, I noticed that a lot of my friends didn’t cook or bake much. Their daily consumption routines came in the form of take-out and fancy restaurant dining. I was quite similar when I was in my twenties. At some point, I realized the importance of historical reference and legacy. I receive so many emails from readers who are thankful for my site. A lot of readers mention that they love certain recipes that their parents or grandparents made when they were growing up, but that they missed the opportunity to learn those recipes before their relatives passed away. I hope I am helping to fill in that gap and provide a place where people can feel some sort of family connection, even if their loved ones are no longer here. For those that do have loved ones here, and fantastic recipes worth preserving, I hope I am inspiring people to capture those recipes along with their unique history, so they can pass them on to new generations.

What are your favorite unexpected flavors to use in cakes?

I love playing with expected flavors in unexpected ways. One of my favorite cakes in the cookbook is the Arnold Palmer Cake, which is inspired by a favorite drink of mine that combines sweet tea and lemonade. I coupled these flavors in the recipe by creating a tart lemon cake with a sweet tea buttercream. Separate they are more common, but together they create an unexpected flavor profile that just works!

 What do you hope your readers gain from Grandbaby Cakes?

I hope I am making the art of baking seem cool and fresh again for younger audiences, while also honoring those that came before me. But most importantly, I hope I am inspiring a need for families to reconnect, find their legacies, and carry them forward in their own contemporary ways.

What has been the most rewarding thing about turning your blog into a book?

Writing a cookbook has been a dream I’ve had since I first bought the domain for my site. I figured it would come much later, but this timing definitely feels right! While the recipes—both savory and sweet—on my site represent a large part of who I am, this book allowed me to delve deeper into a single dessert subject and my own family history. I loved sifting through vintage photos and hearing the funny stories behind them. I adored talking to my grandparents about their history and seeing how it all ties back to me. The blog just touches the surface of what I am able to share in the book. I’m so privileged to be the vessel that carries a family legacy forward in a unique way. 

What advice do you have for novice bakers who pick up Grandbaby Cakes?

My advice is to start with easier recipes and then challenge yourself with harder recipes. Novice bakers need to gain the confidence that comes with knowing they can create a successful recipe. The intimidation factor melts away as soon as that happens. Just remember that baking is supposed to be fun and relaxing.

China and Greece Underpin Belgian Finance Minister’s new book, A Giant Reborn

The ongoing Greece-centered eurocrisis and the spectacular fall of share values on the Chinese stock markets are the two dominating issues in worldwide economic affairs during the summer of 2015. Both developments provide evidence in support of the main thesis of my new book A Giant Reborn: Why the US Will Dominate the 21st Century (Agate Publishing).

If you think we’ve seen major changes in our broader economic environment during the last three decades, prepare yourself for more of it—much more of it. I see signs all around us that the era of what I call “turbochange” is already upon us. Simply put, turbochange is the intense, rapid, large-scale change that will inevitably characterize the 21st century and shake up our society at large. There are three main drivers behind turbochange: knowledge and human capital, entrepreneurial drive, and globalization.

More and more, knowledge and human capital show signs of what economists call “increasing returns to scale,” which means the more you have of these two items, the faster ideas develop. Worldwide, there is an increasing number of people engaged in research. Modern modes of communication allow these thinkers to connect quickly, which increases productivity and invites entrepreneurial drive.

Entrepreneurial drive is necessary to turn knowledge into products and services that add to people’s welfare and wellbeing. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, entrepreneurial activity was absent in large parts of the world, especially the Communist-dominated parts. Today, most of the world is engaged in entrepreneurial activities.

The cross-fertilization between fast-growing knowledge and human capital and feverish, worldwide entrepreneurial competition is bolstered by globalization. Most societies will have a hard time dealing with all this turbochange.  The societies that are able to adapt to this change will be in the best position to succeed economically. In this respect, the United States clearly has the upper hand over its main rivals, China and the European Union.

As many others noted already before me, the United States eats, breathes, and loves change. It’s deeply entrenched in the American DNA as a consequence of historical, institutional, and sociological characteristics. Dealing with (turbo)change is often messy, and the consequences are often unpleasant for many citizens, but Americans do not hesitate to look change straight in the eye and go for it.

This attitude contrasts sharply with the way China and Europe deals with change. The spectacular fall in the Chinese stock market is just one more sign of China’s relative inability to deal with change. Over the past several years, Chinese authorities have continuously applied increasing doses of monetary and budgetary stimulus to the economy.

By now, the economy is a huge bubble. The ruling Communist Party in China took the extravagant stimulus road because its leaders are frightened of the perception of substantially slowing economic growth, a prospect that has now become inevitable. The recent devaluation of the Chinese currency is another desperate attempt by the Chinese authorities to stimulate economic growth.

China’s leaders do not want to be confronted with the political and social consequences of slowing growth. This adds to China’s already existing problems with pollution, corruption, and inequality, among others. A worldwide turbochange-environment will deeply impact China’s already substantial internal problems. China lacks the historical, institutional, and sociological setting to deal constructively with turbochange.

Likewise, the member states of the European Union are deeply entrenched in their existing social and economic models. Change has proven to be a thorny issue; turbochange will prove to be worse. The ongoing Greek crisis greatly underpins this argument. The third rescue package for the Greek economy may be the only way out of the deep hole the country is in, but it will be very hard to implement.

The only way to deal conclusively with the Greek drama is to fundamentally strengthen the Eurozone’s institutional framework. One way or another, this means a loss of national sovereignty for the nineteen member states of Europe’s monetary union. This exercise continually proves to be a hard nut to crack, to put things mildly.

Not everything in the US runs perfectly, far from it. Issues such as political gridlock, crumbling infrastructure, overall debt, and inequality cast a long shadow over the country’s future. Nevertheless the proven ability of American society at large to deal positively and constructively with change will strengthen America’s relative position as the era of turbochange comes upon us.


Since October 2014, Johan Van Overtveldt has served as Belgium’s Minister of Finance

The Blue Zones diet expert endorses Sardinian food in New York Times

The New York Times last weekend featured a big interview with Dan Buettner, author of the new book The Blue Zones Solution. Buettner has studied longevity around the world and identified five "blue zones" where people appear to live exceptionally long, healthy lives. One of these blue zones is Sardinia--and one of the very few (and, we think, easily one of the best) Sardinian cookbooks available is Agate Surrey's The Sardinian Cookbook, by cooking instructor and sommelier Viktorija Todorovska, who knows a thing or two about the good life. Viktorija's book also delves into Sardinian culture, history, and lifestyle. If you're interested in what comprises good and healthful living in the Sardinian blue zone, this is an excellent resource.


Agate at Printers Row 2015

It may be a shroggy Friday, but the weekend promises to have plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures for this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest. Agate will be returning in full force to the Chicago Tribune’s annual book festival (the largest in the Midwest), and we will be joined by plenty of terrific authors.

Come visit Agate staff in Tent CC, located on Dearborn St. just north of the intersection at Polk, for deeply discounted prices on new books and backlisted titles. If you’re interested in meeting any of our authors, check out the schedule of demos and talks below. Most Agate authors below will be signing copies of their books at the Agate tent a half hour following the conclusion of their program.




Sat., 10-10:45am, Jones College Prep/North Auditorium

Clarence Page, whose book CULTURE WORRIER celebrates his 30 years as a Chicago Tribune columnist, will be appearing on a panel discussion with David Axelrod (Believer) and Kristen McQueary as moderated by Chicago Tribune Editorial Board member Bruce Dold. Tickets Required. More info here.



Sat., 10-10:45am, Center Stage

Join Chicago Tribune columnists Mary Schmich and Eric Zorn for coffee provided by Peet's Coffee. More info here.



Sat., 10:30-11:00am, Good Eating Stage

Summer Miller will be demonstrating recipes from her book, New Prairie Kitchen, which profiles chefs, farmers, and artisans from the Great Plains states of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. Miller’s writing has appeared in Saveur, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Edible Omaha, Edible Feast, Nebraska Life, Omaha Magazine, and the Reader. She blogs at www.scaldedmilk.com. More info here.



Sat., 11:15am-12:00pm, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5030

Jabari Asim will be a part of a panel discussion titled “Fiction: City Lit” with Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, author of Painted Cities and LaShonda Katrice Barnett, author of Jam on the Vine. The discussion will be moderated by Karen Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards for the Cleveland Foundation. Tickets Required. More info here.



Sat., 2:00-2:45pm, Jones College Prep/North Auditorium

Kenneth C. Davis, author of The Hidden History of America at War, will be appearing in conversation with Mark Jacob, author of 10 Things You Might Not Know About Nearly Everything. Tickets Required. More info here.



Sat., 2:30-3:15pm, Good Eating Stage

JeanMarie Brownson is the former Test Kitchen Director for the Chicago Tribune. JeanMarie is a co-owner of Frontera Foods, Inc., along with Chef Rick Bayless. She will be demonstrating recipes from the new Chicago Tribune cookbook Summer Cooking, as well as her own cookbook, Dinner at Home, which will be published in November 2015. More info here.  


Ian Belknap and Lindsey Muscato, BARE-KNUCKLED LIT

Sat., 3-3:45pm, RedEye Stage

WRITE CLUB is the world's greatest competitive reading series, featuring only the most audacious and fearsome of writers and performers. The show consists of 3 bouts of 2 writers each representing one of two opposing ideas (assigned in advance). They are given 7 minutes each to convince the audience of the superiority of their idea. Overlord and Founder Ian Belknap and co-producer Lindsay Muscato will host the show; local writers will compete. More info here.


Erin Harper and Marianne Mather Morgan, GANGSTESR & GRIFTERS

Sat., 4:15-5:00pm, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034

Two of the Chicago Tribune photo editors who helped put together this fascinating collection of classic crime photography from the newspaper’s archives will be appearing to discuss the process of making the book and the cases it portrays. Tickets Required. More info here.




Sun., 11-11:30am, Good Eating Stage

Anupy Singla, the bestselling cookbook author and America’s foremost source on authentic Indian home cooking, will be demonstrating recipes from her newest book. Singla is the founder and CEO of Indian as Apple Pie, her company that creates and sells custom spice blends and unique homegoods. Singla was formerly an on-air TV reporter for CLTV News and Bloomberg TV. More info here.


Mike Zajakowski and Chris Walker, CHICAGO PORTRAITS

Sun., 1:30-2:15pm, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034

Two of the Chicago Tribune photo editors who worked on the stunningly beautiful coffee-table book, Chicago Portraits, will discuss how it came together. The book portrays beautiful photographic portraits of famous Chicagoans, well-known visitors to the city, and everyday locals, as shot by award-winning photojournalists. Tickets Required. More info here.

Q. & A. with Summer Miller

Summer Miller is the author of our latest Agate Midway release, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Cooks, Farmers, and Artisans of the Great Plains. Get to know Summer and her lovely new book (photos by Dana Damewood) with this brief interview:

Why did you write New Prairie Kitchen?

I’ve said that this book is a love story, and it is. I wanted to validate living here not only to other people, but also to myself. I didn’t always, but I’ve learned to value Nebraska and its neighboring states as remarkable places. There is a softness and gentle rhythm about life here, and I find that soothing. I think the same is true of our food. It is wholesome, experimental, even artistic at times, but always deeply satisfying and without pretense. I’m also fairly utilitarian in my approach to things, even writing. The book couldn’t just be about beauty, it had to have a function beyond pleasure. In my work as a food writer, I noticed chefs had access to great local artisan foods and regional specialties, but it was incredibly time consuming for an individual to vet the sources and hunt down products. I wanted to make it easier for home cooks to find regional foods and use them in their own homes to feed their friends and families. I also hope it inspires others to seek out the gems in their own backyards, and to support the risk-takers among us. I admire the spirit of the people who start a business from a dream. 

In the book you explain that you set out to learn more about what was available within a 200-mile radius of your hometown, Omaha. What was your most unexpected discovery?

Honestly, it was the generosity of the people I encountered along the way. I met most of the farmers and chefs who are featured in the book for the first time through this project. We were strangers who became great friends. Their willingness to share their stories—sometimes very intimate stories about struggle and hardship—or to stop an interview midway through and let me pick it up with them six hours later, because my newborn woke up from her nap, was inspiring. Their patience turned out to be vital because it took me four years to finish this book. I expected to write the stories of people. I didn’t expect to fall in love with them, their homes, or their families, and in many cases that’s exactly what happened. As far as the food aspect is concerned, I was shocked at the sheer volume of amazing artisanal products all within a day trip from my home. Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota have vast stretches of farmland between towns and cities, which can make the distance between one place and another seem longer than it really is. I had a goat cheese and fig turnover in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that was worth every minute of the 2 hour and 41 minute drive it took to get there, and I still daydream about some of the cheese I’ve eaten in Iowa. 

What is the most common misconception about Great Plains regional cooking that you’ve heard and why is it wrong?

Steak houses. Steak houses. Steak houses. Meat and potatoes. Meat and potatoes. Meat and potatoes. In Omaha, specifically the cattle industry, the packing plants, and yes, even the steak houses are an integral part of our history, and to some extent our present, but we are more than beef eaters. That steak-and-potatoes perception overshadows the great work happening in these states on daily basis. I think it’s in the nature of the chefs who have these ground-breaking places, and the artisans like George Johnson and his daughter, Emily, who produce world-class artisanal vinegars from an isolated town of 160 people, to not expect recognition, so they are driven by an unyielding love of their craft. The result is a region filled with treasure troves. 

What role does food play in your life? In your family’s life?

Food has always been a way for me to express both emotion and creativity. A long day in the office means a quiet night in the kitchen. When I can’t fix things, when the world will be what it will be, I can always cook. I can create something that, at the very least, meets the basic need of nourishment for those I hold dear. There is a rhythm to cooking that’s calming to me. Once I had a family to feed, the calming rhythm turned into orchestrated chaos, but such chaos has its own merit. Putting dinner on the table with a baby in a high chair and a toddler at your feet is an epic challenge. I probably lost as many battles as I won during those early years, but I kept at it and I’m glad I did. Now, preparing a meal has become a time where my children share their lives with me. I can ask my son a thousand times what he did at school that day, and I usually get, “I don’t know.” But while I’m chopping onions he is stirring sauce, suddenly the bits and pieces of his day come spilling out without any prompting from me. 

What advice do you have for beginners who just made the commitment to eat locally and seasonally?

Eating locally and seasonally, and cooking from scratch, is an evolutionary process. Give yourself permission to fail and time to learn about cooking and your food community. Start with familiar food items and branch out from there. I’m not really “a dump out your cupboards and start new” kind of person, I’m more likely to take small steps toward change. I think it’s critical when undertaking any kind of lifestyle shift to be aware of what you can manage. If you have a house full of young children, a job, and a spouse who travels, making a sweeping commitment to learn how to cook everything from scratch, local, and in season inside of a month is probably not going to lead to success, Try starting with a focus on breakfast. Switching from high-sugar cereals to making eggs on one morning and oats on another can be mastered without much fanfare. The time commitment is still minimal and both changes are affordable. Oats can be made into granola, as it is in New Prairie Kitchen, or prepared the night before as refrigerator oats, or in the morning as a hot breakfast. Once you’ve stopped reaching for the cereal box, and cooking in the morning is second nature, move onto learning three ways to prepare a new vegetable. Oh, and to stop wasting money on boneless, skinless chicken breasts. A whole chicken is a better deal every time, and you get so much more from the bird. 

Playing With Fire featured in new film

At the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner explains how the celebrated new documentary Merchants of Doubt highlights the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer-nominated series "Playing with Fire"--collected in an Agate Digital ebook of the same name.

Callahan, Roe, and their colleague Michael Hawthorne (who's not in the movie) published "Playing With Fire," a 2012 series of articles exposing the flame-retardant industry. These articles made them finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and the short citation on the Pulitzer website inadequately describes what they accomplished: " . . . for their exposure of manufacturers that imperil public health by continuing to use toxic fire retardants in household furniture and crib mattresses, triggering reform efforts at the state and national level."

Merchants of Doubt makes several points: the Tribune reporters worked two years on their investigation; the so-called leading scientist in the field was a lying stooge for the retardant manufacturers; the supposed citizens lobby championing retardants in home furnishings and children's clothing was a front group for the manufacturers; besides being unhealthy, the retardants didn't work; and Big Tobacco benefited by directing blame away from the cigarettes that started fires at home to the environments that supposedly allowed those fires to spread.

Wading Home: from novel to opera, a story of rebirth

From Rosalyn Story, the author of Wading Home

Nearly five years ago, Agate published my novel Wading Home: A Novel of New Orleans, set in the Crescent City just after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood that almost destroyed it. I’m not from New Orleans nor do I have any connection with it, other than having visited many times over the years and finding it to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. While working on a theme for a novel to follow my first, More Than You Know, I had no trouble seeing a narrative woven around the events of the last days of August 2005; you had only to watch the news every day to understand the real-life, heart-breaking drama that was unfolding.

Now, nearly ten years after the storm, the story goes on. The city is rebuilding. The schools are better, the restaurants are full. Some neighborhoods are thriving. But others still struggle to reclaim their former glory, to reconstitute the rich culture of family history and tradition that is generations old.         

While the story of post-Katrina New Orleans seemed perfect fodder for a novel, a theater piece with classically trained singers, an orchestra and a children’s chorus, performed on an opera stage before an audience, was the furthest thing from my mind. But on April 2, 2015 some 35 vocalists and instrumentalists will perform a ‘staged workshop’ production of Wading Home, an opera in two acts based on my novel, in the downtown arts district of Dallas, where I live. The Dallas-based composer Mary Alice Rich, a good friend for many years, had approached me with this idea about two years ago. She convinced me that Wading Home had all the requisite drama, intrigue, and musical possibilities of an opera, with all the attendant elements: heroes, adversaries, obstacles, and a life-changing journey fraught with moments of tragedy and triumph.    

When the work was completed within the following year, I applied for a grant from the Sphinx Organization in Detroit, a group that supports and promotes diversity in the arts, to mount a production. As a violinist with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, which accompanies many talented competitors in Sphinx’s annual competition for black and Hispanic string instrumentalists, I was eligible to compete for the $250,000 in grant awards available only to Sphinx affiliates. I was awarded a $40,000 grant, and Wading Home the opera went from notes on a printed score to a production in progress.

Like a film, an opera is a massive endeavor, requiring teams of talented artists and technicians onstage and offstage. We partnered with another nonprofit organization, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, a 38-year-old presenter of theatrical, visualm and performing arts. We assembled a cast of wonderfully gifted classical singers headed by Donnie Ray Albert, the internationally known baritone, another friend of mine for many years. Other brilliantly talented friends came aboard the project: Barbara Hill Moore, the great soprano and distinguished vocal pedagogue at Southern Methodist University, became our musical director, and my friend and colleague from the Fort Worth Symphony, pianist Shields-Collins (Buddy) Bray, is our coach-accompanist. And there are many, many others.

Often, in our planning meetings, I thought of those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies with the formulaic plot: a couple of neighborhood kids with big dreams decide to put on “the greatest show this town has ever seen!” They borrow an uncle’s barn for rehearsals and, after a two-second film dissolve, a slick, million-dollar production unfurls onto the screen. Such are the movies, and we realized very quickly that putting on an opera in real life is not that simple. As composer, co-librettists, and producers, Mary Alice and I found ourselves in unchartered territory, mounting an opera from scratch with no experience, and many times we wondered if we had gotten in over our heads. But as time passed and rehearsals pressed on through Dallas’s winter ice storms (which shut down the whole city twice), singers’ illnesses and emergencies, unplanned expenses, and cost overruns (our $40,000 did not go as far as we thought it would) we managed to navigate our way through the whole production process, and a bona fide opera was taking shape.

As the rehearsals progressed, we saw something extraordinary take place. Our group of singers became a family of artists with a common interest and devotion to the undertaking. We were, we realized, making history. To our knowledge, never in recent history had an opera with a cast of mostly African-American artists and employing African-American cultural themes been conceived, created, and performed in Dallas, Texas. Some cast members, having been born in Louisiana themselves or having a personal connection to New Orleans or Hurricane Katrina, found a measure of pride in the story of the Fortier family’s heroic struggle. Thanks to Agate’s generosity in supplying each cast member with a copy of Wading Home, singers were able to establish deeper bonds with their characters. Little by little, what existed first just as words on a printed page was lifted up and given musical life through the glorious voices of some of the most talented singers I have heard.

We look forward to our performance on April 2 as just the beginning, and hope that Wading Home: an Opera of New Orleans will live far beyond this first performance, and finds future audiences in New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, and every other city where Hurricane Katrina’s 250,000 evacuees now make their homes.

But mostly we hope that as the tenth anniversary of the storm approaches, our production will shed light on the truth of the aftermath of the devastation: that even though there is the undeniable progress in this city revived from near-destruction, the struggle continues for those in the areas hardest hit, the low-lying, workaday neighborhoods filled with people who have contributed so much to New Orleans’ incredibly rich culture.

That’s why we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use our production to give something of value that would last beyond the final curtain: during our free concert, we will call for donations, 100 percent of which will go to the Dallas-based Bruce Foote Foundation, which provides college scholarships for talented young singers, and to The Roots of Music in New Orleans, an after-school program providing academic tutoring and music instruction to middle school children.

It’s been a long journey from printed page to opera stage. But in the end, the goal of our opera production is not only to commemorate a time in our country’s history when a great city, faced with the possibility of extinction, was brought back from the brink. It is also our goal to celebrate, through music, New Orleans’ gift to the world, and the fortitude and endurance of this great American culture.

Agate's passion for pizza

As part of what's now a modest series of reflections by Agate staff on the topics of new Agate cookbook releases, we offer some personal thoughts from Agate staff members on pizza, to recognize and celebrate this week's release of our Passion for Pizza: A Journey Through Thick and Thin to Find the Pizza Elite. Herewith:

--"I make my own, usually, with my own pasta sauce as the base, dough made from a blend of mostly atta but also bread flour, and with buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, and either pulled pork (if we have any left over from a previous meal) or prosciutto as the toppings. The only brand of frozen pizza I buy is Paul Newman. The extra thin multigrain crust is excellent; our favorite is the margherita. If we eat pizza out, it's always Giordano's stuffed with spinach. It's not really pizza, per se, but it's the best."

--"Oh, you know I'm a pizza curmudgeon. I could spout off about this topic in my sleep. Even after 10 years of Midwest living, I flinch whenever "deep dish" and "pizza" are used together. Deep dish is not pizza. It is casserole. And don't even get me started on how they cut thin-crust pizza here into squares. [I like a] thin, floury crust that's crispy outside and soft inside—the idea is that it should provide a solid base yet be receptive to being folded in half, lengthwise. Tangy sauce, but not too much of it. Enough mozzarella to cover it but not so much that it's a gooey mess. Cut into slices. Heaven. All-time faves are Joe's in NYC and Salvatore's in Allentown, PA."

--"Deep dish all around. My fav? Lou Malnati’s—butter crust, sausage pieces (NO wheel please), and pepperoni. On the other hand, one pizza lover in this house favors Gino’s East, wheel/patty of sausage and extra sauce, while the other prefers a classic Giordano’s deep with cheese only. We have been known to bring back one of each from Chicago on many occasions. Thank god for the half-baked option."

--"My favorite pizza includes margherita toppings on sourdough thin crust, cooked in a brick oven. I prefer pizza that doesn't use any canned tomatoes and includes only the freshest basil—tons of it! After living in Europe, and in Chicago where deep-dish reigns supreme, I've come to find the simplest pizzas with the freshest ingredients are the best. My favorite pizza restaurant has to be, hands down, Biga Pizza in Missoula, MT. The pizzas are seasonal and the specials change regularly. Each pizza is made fresh to order and once they run out, they're out! The place is small and always has a line."

--"For years, probably into my early thirties, I would have told you that the best meal I ever ate was a large slice of pepperoni pizza washed down with a Dr. Pepper, which was presented to me one summer evening when I was ten years old and which I consumed outdoors. The town I grew up in on the East Coast didn’t have terrific pizza, but I certainly consumed lots of it, especially after late nights out with my friends. After moving to Chicago, I embraced deep-dish and stuffed pizza—I believe there’s good pizza and the other kind, to paraphrase Duke Ellington’s judgment regarding music. There’s great thin-crust, deep-dish, neo-Neopolitan, cracker-crust pizza all over, but unfortunately there’s also plenty of terrible renditions of same. I believe that it’s important to understand pizza as bread with stuff on top of it. Whatever kind of crust you’re using, if it’s not good, it’s hard for the pizza to overcome that. Favorites: Lou Malnati's for deep dish, John's on Bleecker for the traditional."

--"To me, a pizza can be thin crust or thick (or deep dish, which I also love), but it's not pizza without mushrooms. There is just something about the flavor and texture of high-heat-roasted mushrooms that makes pizza, well, pizza to me. My favorite deep dish is Gino's East, but that's probably simply because that was my first, real Chicago deep-dish pizza. I still love deep dish, and my favorite is mushroom, spinach, tomato and garlic from Lou Malnati's. After going vegetarian in the late '90s, and for a while, dairy-free, I've also branched out into more non-traditional pizza. One of my favorites is the super-thin crust pizza at Bluestone in Evanston, with pesto, goat cheese, mushrooms (of course), garlic, and basil. I once asked how they got their crusts so thin and crispy, and it turns out they use flour tortillas instead of pizza dough! It changed how I make pizza at home forever. If I want thin crust, I've found the best way to cook it at home is to use flour tortillas, brushed with some olive oil, tossed on the grill until they are firm and crispy. Then top with whatever you want and grill again to warm the toppings through. It's amazing (and SO easy)." 

--"I make my own pizza on a fairly regular basis using a variety of ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, sweet Italian turkey sausage, fresh baby bella mushrooms, provolone, and mozzarella cooked in the oven is the standby for me. I go for a white pizza with a mushroom bechamel sauce, fresh mushrooms from the farmer's market, white truffle oil, and parmesan cheese cooked on my grill when I am feeling ambitious or when it is a nice day. The grill imparts an amazing smoky flavor to the bechamel sauce and a nice crispy crust. I tend to seek out authentic Neapolitan pizza or Chicago-style deep dish when I go out, but nothing beats the pizza of my childhood. Someguy's Pizza in Indianapolis, IN has my favorite pizza of all time. It is cooked in a wood-fired oven and uses the best mix of cheeses that I have ever tasted on a pizza. I always go for my standard (some would call it boring) childhood pizza consisting only of the fresh wood-oven cooked sausage and cheese. It immediately sends me back to my childhood every time I visit and take a bite. I tend to eat my pizza in a fairly non-traditional way. I typically cut the crust off of the pizza first and eat it before I start on the main portion of the pizza slice. I think this goes back to my childhood mantra of 'always saving the best for last.'" 

--"Pizza is best when it's circular, simple, and spinached. Its procurement should spring from spontaneous circumstances dictating the need for unassuming and filling sustenance—pizza should never be a planned meal. Its consumption should be effected—always—with the cutlery that distinguishes gentleperson from oaf."

--"This may be shocking, but as a child I didn't like pizza. I thought it was greasy and rubbery, and pepperoni weirded me out. That and pizza's association with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who scared me at the time, combined to create an impression of it being a non-food. Then my family got into grilling pizza outdoors during the summer on the barbecue. My dad was into buying fresh dough (pulled into random shapes—not circular) and using fresh garlic and tomato slices instead of canned sauce. It was SO GOOD--super smokey and melty. And thus, I became a pizza snob."

--"I have many fond childhood memories of celebrating my birthday at Chuck E. Cheese's, hopped up on pizza and video games. My tastes became more refined with age, and as a family we began ordering from purveyors by the names of Edwardo and Malnati. Of all my favorite pizzas, however, I think the one with which I have the most deep-seated personal connection is of the frozen variety. There are few things that remind me more of home, or of late nights spent hanging out with my brother, than popping a Home Run Inn "froze peez" into the oven. My brother and I have been accused by friends of having an unhealthy loyalty to this Chicago brand, an accusation that reliably spurs heated knee-jerk defenses from both of us. Several years ago, my mother thought she would be creating a warm family memory by taking her sons to the original Home Run Inn pizzeria on 31st Street before a White Sox game. Though the pizza was satisfactory, the consensus was that it did not compare to the kind in the grocery aisle that came in the box. Maybe with its ubiquity and variety across the country, pizza has as much to do with sense memory as it does taste. It's a food as much about where you are and who you're with as it is about shape, style, and toppings." 

--"Who am I to say what is and is not good pizza? Who died and left me in charge? No one. How I feel is this: All pizza = good pizza and any pizza > no pizza. Would you rather eat a piece of pizza out of the garbage, or nothing? The pizza one. To burn the roof of my mouth on a piping hot piece of pizza is to live. So seize the day, I say. Embrace the pizza—all pizza. I can't change the direction of the wind, but can I adjust my sails to reach my destination? You bet. And my destination? It's that piece of pizza over there. It's on the floor, sure, but it looks good, and will I eat it? I will."

National Pizza Day

In celebration of National Pizza Day, we offer this Q&A with Craig Whitson, a co-author of our forthcoming PASSION FOR PIZZA: A JOURNEY THROUGH THICK AND THIN TO FIND THE PIZZA ELITE, due out from Agate Surrey next month.

What prompted you to write this book?

My very first cookbook was about pizza. In 1998, my coauthor Tore Gjesteland and I submitted 20 recipes to the unofficial world championship for pizza that takes place at Pizza Expo each year in Las Vegas. We didn´t win, with 19 of the actual pizzas, but ended up winning the Dessert category with our Pecan Pizza Pie. Winning the competition inspired us to write a book called JazzPizza.

Fast forward to 2009. I had gone on to write three books about grilling, one on American food, and one on Italian food. I began to notice as I got older that I continually returned to the simple foods I grew up with. I found myself wanting to revisit the world of pizza. Over the next year or so my wife and I visited important pizza capitols such as New York, Chicago, Naples, and Rome.

In the summer of 2011, I met Tore at the annual pizza and wine bash a mutual friend of ours holds during the Gladmat food festival in Stavanger, Norway. It didn´t take long for our conversation to turn to pizza. Tore explained that he was entertaining the idea of doing a new book about pizza. I told him about my own pizza project and we discussed if this was something we might do together. We agreed that what we each wanted to do was to make a book about the world of pizza. There are lots of great pizza cookbooks and great books about the history of pizza. We wanted to show what goes on behind the scenes in the world of pizza. This quickly led to the idea of traveling to the two most important pizza countries, Italy and USA, to visit the pizza elite, and to tell their stories.

The book could easily have been about the coolest pizzaiaoli and the pizzas worth traveling a long distance to eat, but we also wanted to visit the producers of great tomatoes, flour, cheese and other ingredients. We also wanted to talk to journalists, corporate executives, delivery boys, and pretty much anyone with a connection to the world of pizza.

We realized we were talking about a pretty hefty undertaking. We understood that the people and the topics we would be presenting deserved a beautiful presentation. Both Tore and I had worked with Kenneth Hansen, who had worked on a number of Norway´s most beautiful cookbooks. We met with Kenneth and he told us about the photographer that a project like this would just have to have: Mats Widén. With Kenneth and Mats onboard, we started the three-year-plus journey of this book.

What should readers expect to find in Passion for Pizza?

This is a book that will enhance the best of coffee tables. The photos will inspire readers to pick up their phones and order their favorite pizzas. It will also inspire emptying the piggy banks to cover the cost of a visit to Caiazzo, Italy or Phoenix, Arizona. The stories and interviews are short, allowing readers to pick up the book from time to time and meet the passionate personalities that together give us the great pizza we all know and love. The book would not be complete without recipes. We have included dough and sauce recipes that will give many home cooks a whole new way to approach pizza baking. The pizzas themselves cover the whole range, from a great cheese pizza or Chicago deep-dish pizza to more exotic pizzas topped with squash blossoms or brussels sprouts. The recipes are very easy to use and there is a strong focus on a balance of ingredients. The recipes have "user friendly" written all over them.

As a Norwegian-by-way-of-Oklahoma, you seem like an unlikely pizza scholar. How has your unique background as a chef informed this book?

I'm an Okie at heart, but have lived more than half my life in Norway. I prefer caps to horned helmets and in ideal world I would divide my time equally between my two homes. I grew up with pizza. The foods I remember best from my childhood are Southern specialties like fried chicken, real barbecue, and the like. We ate a lot of Mexican food, some Italian (lots of red sauce and meatballs), and pizza. Pizza wasn´t our food, but pizza fit in perfectly with the other foods we loved. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who loved good food. Basically we ate two kinds of food: homemade food that my mother or grandmother made, and homemade food made and served at any number of restaurants in Oklahoma City. I won´t lie and say there was no fast food in the picture, but this came much later. Most of the pizza I consumed as a child and teenager was made by dedicated pizza bakers. Pizza has been important throughout my career in food, more as a must-have dish than something I featured on the menu at the restaurants I ran. I am fascinated by pizza, and at its best, pizza is food at its utmost. A great crust with simple toppings in the hands of a master is a stunning piece of work. For me complicated sauces and expensive ingredients just can´t match up. Give me a Pizza Marinara and, as with a perfect brisket, I´m the happiest of campers. 

Is there a certain variety of pizza, from anywhere in the world that you feel is underrated?

In Italy I´d say that the most underrated variety of pizza is the all the ones not made in the area where you live. Italians are famously loyal to their local dishes, and why not? Romans often prefer a crispier crust and they can cite any number of reasons why Neapolitan pizza isn´t as good. But it is. There are great pizzas to be found even in the most unlikely of places in Italy. As far as the US goes, Chicago’s deep-dish pizza has been run through the wringer. For many years I was among those who disregarded this pizza, but after having eaten some truly stellar examples, I have become a convert. I can´t eat a lot of deep dish pizza, but I'd love to have a slice of sausage pizza from Lou Malnati´s or Burt´s Place pretty much any time.

What is your next venture?

To promote the book and go back to being a pizza consumer. I hope that as many people as possible will get a chance to experience the world of pizza through this book, and I´ll be happy to join them at the table eating great pizza! 

Agate offices closed 2/2/15

Agate is digging out from under 20" of snow this morning. Our offices are closed, but much of the Agate staff is working from home, if you need us.

Maxine Clair Q&A

We just published Maxine Clair's wonderful memoir/guide to creativity Imagine This--here is more from Maxine about her remarkable career journey and the story behind her new book.

Photo credit: Carol Clayton Photography

Your books always drew from the well of autobiography, to some degree, but Imagine This is the first that contains overtly autobiographical sections. Did you ever imagine you would write this?

My life and how I have experienced it is what I know. Memory and imagination are very closely aligned whether I’m writing actual fact or fiction. That familiar ground informs my writing process and the content. In my character-driven stories, the characters, events, and situations are invented. But their emotional and psychological responses to life come through the filter of what I know: as a maker, how aware I am of realistic possibilities. Stories flow from that. Universality flows from that combination. I am always pursuing expansiveness for my characters whether we call it “coming of age” or “coming to terms with life.” Inner conflict gives rise to outer conflict, and resolution follows the same inner-outer pattern. At some point, I wanted to go beyond the mental or psychological inner conflicts and explore metaphysical principles as the deeper cause and effect. The nonfiction form seemed to be the best fit, and so I chose it for Imagine This. In writing the book, I got to play just as deeply in language as I do in fiction. Though memoir can get dicey when I tease out what is and is not relevant to the work at hand, autobiography offers no such choice. For me, that’s the good news. Autobiography is necessarily a voluminous venture. I never imagined that I would not write memoir. And I never imagined that I would not find a way to include the metaphysical. 

Did you find the shift from fiction to nonfiction difficult? Has it affected your prose or identity as a writer?

There was a clear hiatus in my writing, a time when I wondered if I would ever write another conflict-resolution story. With Imagine This, the difficulty in navigating the shift to nonfiction had more to do with sustaining coherence between the narrative slices of memoir and exposition that includes how-to exercises and examples. I did not consciously adopt other stylistic elements; my voice is my voice and I trust that that will always come through in the prose. Usually there is a moral imperative, and I must find a way to tease it out. I was aware of reining in my imagination when it wanted to take over the narrative. There seems to be a little more leeway for poetic elements to creep in as I write stories. Yet, in writing Imagine This, I found a sufficient degree of “poetic” freedom—it is hoped—to ward off any persistent infection of flat prose.

As far as identity is concerned, I am a writer. The marriage of content and form is a foundational notion to which I subscribe. The form is determined by what I wish to convey. These days, as long as the work is interesting, few readers outside the academy care what genre terms we use, or how we mix the elements. Critics, too, are probably willing to stretch definitions and hyphenate labels.

Who are your influences, in writing and life, and how have they made their presence felt in Imagine This?

I never like this question, because I don’t believe I can know all of the influences. Much of what influences us is unconscious. I am born into a certain place and time, and ideas and ways of expressing them can be pervasive throughout my sphere of living. But I will say what I have said many times, music is at the root of my love for language, and putting that together with any moral imperative, any idea that begs exploration can be put down in one form or another. Allowing that flow is my love for writing. My mother’s creatively-expressive music was my greatest conscious influence. Her gospel cadences shot through with jazz are still like cell memory, and that can never be lost. Improvisation finds its own way in language—consider the cross-over of scat-bob and rap. It found its way into my own voice. So maybe it’s in the DNA. When I encountered the women writers of the Black Arts Movement, like Toni, Alice, Lucille, N’tozake, Maya, June, Sonia, Nikki—I purposely omit surnames to illustrate the iconic stature of these women—there was a clear resonance. Rather than “influence” I believe I took permission from them. Yes, I stand on their shoulders, but at the time, they conveyed to me that it was entirely correct and life-affirming to make art of whatever you want to say in your own unique way, and let the power of it stand on its own merits. They expanded the canon for me when my vision of a canon was limited. Lo and behold, my voice was what having a “literary canon” was all about.

Did you find it difficult to wrestle concepts like creativity into practical, reproducible terms?

“Challenging” is a more accurate term for this undertaking. I was compelled to return again and again to my own simple, fundamental definition of creativity: bringing a no-thing into existence as something. Obviously this makes open-ended any discussion of the concept of creativity. It provides a platform from which I could marry the idea of creative expression as a portal to personal transformation, and some of the principles involved in manifesting anything in life. And since I could never put a dent in the volume of writings about such sweeping concepts, I could share my own experience of this avenue to transformation, which I see as a sacred journey. I believe that if Imagine This resonates with readers at all, it is because they are at a similar juncture in life. When you feel that there is more living inside of you than your life can contain, your life gets bigger. My conviction is that creative expression in any of limitless fields is a sure-thing avenue to a bigger life. I have spelled out ways of personal fulfillment and collective enrichment that come with such a venture.

Any final words of advice for struggling dream-seekers?

I want you to know that every life is uniquely remarkable. We can live making conscious choices about how we spend our time and energy or we can believe that life just happens to us. The choices you make about the work you would love to be doing are always tied to your life purpose, and will bring fulfillment. Finally, you create not what you want, but what you believe, and what you can accept. Wake up to wherever you are right now. Get clear about your passion. Keep going. The way to arrival and success is shorter now than it has ever been.