February 7, 2012

Table Talk: 10 Juicy Questions for Spilled Milk

Welcome to Table Talk, where we sit down to chat and talk gossip with noteworthy voices in the food world. Got a suggestion for an interviewee? Email me. 

Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster-Burton are the voices behind the hilarious food podcast Spilled Milk. Each episode, the duo dishes up their thoughts and tries out a recipe on a different theme, be it Thai salads, hot dogs, or milkshakes. Molly is the blogger behind the simply splendid food blog Orangette. Matthew is a food writer for Gourmet.com, the Seattle Times and much more, in addition to his blog Roots and Grubs. Oh, and they've each published a book. It suffices to say these two know how to talk about food.

Today, they share their thoughts on food and comedy, eating at college, the time Molly slept walked into a pool, and much more. Read on!

Will: What was your favorite breakfast cereal as a kid?

Matthew: Cracklin' Oat Bran, although it was then just called Cracklin' Bran. It hasn't held up well.

Molly: Like Matthew, I was a fan of Cracklin' Oat Bran - though I'm pretty sure it was called Cracklin' Oat Bran, not just Cracklin' Bran. But Matthew is an old man, so maybe things changed between his day and my day?  I also liked Honey Nut Cheerios.

What drink would you order at the bar on a first date? 

Matthew: I'm terrible at ordering drinks and hope I never again have a first date. The drink you order says a lot about you, right? Is there a drink that says, "Don't sleep with this guy under any circumstances"? I would probably inadvertently zero in on that one.

Seriously, if we were at a cocktail-oriented place, I'm probably confident enough to say, "I don't know a lot about cocktails; what do you think I should try?" Otherwise, beer.

Molly: I love Campari, so I'd probably have a Negroni.  Or just a Campari and soda. But actually, if I were on a first date, I wouldn't want to be in a cocktail-type bar.  I'd hope to be somewhere less fancy, maybe a dive or an old pub, and there, I'd just order a beer.  Probably a lager.  And some potato chips.

If Lady Gaga came over for a dinner party, what would you serve her?

Matthew: Pasta. Who doesn't like pasta?

Molly: I'm with Matthew on the pasta.  I think I'd make Marcella Hazan's recipe for tomato sauce with butter and onion, and I'd cook up a batch of meatballs.  Lady Gaga's outfit is going to set us all on edge, so it's best to keep the food easy.

Why is it called "Spilled Milk?" Does the show title bring up some traumatic childhood memories?

Matthew: We rejected a bunch of other titles and were amazed to find there wasn't already a show called Spilled Milk. The only rejected name I remember is Kitchen Fire. All of my traumatic childhood food memories involve being asked to try a food I knew I would hate. Nowadays, however, I make plenty of mistakes in the kitchen and always feel like an idiot. The other day I dropped a whole sheet pan of tater tots, and most of them rolled into the pots-and-pans drawer under the stove. I'm going to be finding stray tater tots for weeks, unless mice find them first.

Molly: Matthew took care of the first question for me.  (YESSS!)  But as for the second: I've never spilled a glass of milk, now that I think about it.  I have, however, walked into a swimming pool while asleep (age 3), had a boy name his dog after me (age 7), and accidentally run through a screen door (age 12), so I've got plenty of other traumatic memories to obsess over.

You've described Spilled Milk as the show where "we combine food and comedy in a bowl and stir it up until it explodes." Have you always considered food and comedy a natural pair? 

Matthew: I consider anything and comedy a natural pair. I will turn anything into a joke. It's a classic emotional defense mechanism, but it works for me.

Molly: Until we started doing Spilled Milk, I didn't think of myself as a funny person.  I never really thought about comedy.  I don't want to get sappy, but I'm grateful to Matthew for laughing at my jokes, for making me feel comfortable enough to try out those jokes, and for making me funnier in the process.  Our tapings are one of the best parts of my week.

Every week you cover a different subject  for each episode - from peanut butter to banh mi to crusty corners.  Is there a most memorable episode for each of you? Do you dream of returning to the puffy snacks episode or the rice balls episode?

Matthew: I'm always surprised by which episodes turn out especially well--it doesn't seem to have much to do with the topic. The only topics that are predictable duds are ones where either Molly or I knows much more about the subject than the other. My favorite episode is probably Apples (episode 52). Are apples inherently funny? Not at all. But this episode came out hysterical.

Molly: I have fond memories of the breakfast cereal show, and the junk food shows, and last year's Valentine's Day episode.  But like Matthew, I'm happiest with our apple show.  As for puffy snacks: I hope never, ever, EVER to return to that one.  We did it as a live taping (in the food court at Microsoft), and it was excruciating.  Turns out, the presence of an audience makes us deeply unfunny.

How did you guys get interested in writing/blogging/talking about food in the first place? 

Matthew: Back in the 90s, my wife and I lived in New York, and she was going to grad school and I was working at an internet startup. I wasn't interested in my job, but I was interested in watching Food Network for hours (it was good then) and eating at every restaurant in New York (I made it to a good solid 0.0002% of them.) That's when I started putting food writing up on the web, and I've been doing it professionally now for over ten years.

Molly: I grew up in a family that's sort of obsessed with cooking and eating, but I didn't get serious about it until 2004.  I was in graduate school, and I liked what I was studying, but at the end of the day, all I really wanted to do was think about and write about food.  At a certain point, I was miserable enough that decided to make a leap.  I decided to quit graduate school and just get a job, and in my free time, I would try to do some food writing and hope that I could go somewhere with it.  A friend suggested that starting a blog might be helpful, so I did, and there you go.

You once did an episode on dorm room food (how relevant!). Molly, self-serve frozen yogurt (quote: "let's be honest, that was all that mattered") is still a highlight of college life. And Matthew, the breaded chicken patty sandwich is still as popular as ever.  Did you guys have any tricks for eating well on campus, or was it mostly frozen yogurt and chicken patties for 4 years solid? 

Matthew: That's great news about the breaded chicken patty. My strategy for eating well in college was ordering pizza every night at 11pm. It wasn't even good pizza, but it was certainly better than dinner at the dining hall.

Molly: I was mostly a vegetarian in college, so I always loaded up on whatever vegetables were on offer in the dining hall, and I ate a lot of beans and rice.  You can't go wrong with beans and rice.  And frozen yogurt.  Don't forget the frozen yogurt.  My senior year, I lived in an on-campus apartment with a friend, and we cooked for ourselves.  Lots of avocado and marinated tofu sandwiches, some homemade pizza, a decent amount of soup.  Soup is a lifesaver, because you can make a lot at a time, and it actually tastes best if you put it in the fridge and forget about it for a couple of days.

On that note, a lot of college students out there are interested in food blogging. You've both started very successful blogs. What would you say to someone interested in starting a food blog?

Matthew: To say we've both started very successful blogs is unnecessarily generous to one of us.

To someone interested in starting a food blog, I would say: figure out your niche. What aspect of food would you have to be physically restrained from writing about? Because if you don't really, really care, (a) your blog will be boring, and (b) you'll stop posting after two weeks and no one will notice. And remember that it takes a really long time for a blog to build a following, even if it's great.

Oh, one other thing: don't write fancy. Write the way you speak. Read your work aloud before posting it, and see if it feels natural. New writers often think they have to use big words or fancy turns of phrase if they want to be taken seriously. It's not true.

Molly: Matthew nailed it.  Jerk.

What are you cooking for dinner tonight?

Matthew: Pasta. Lady Gaga's going to be here any minute.

Molly: I'm in Ohio right now, holing up at my friend Ben's nice, quiet house to try to get some work done on my next book.  Ben is a great cook, and he's taking the lead tonight.  It's Super Bowl Sunday - my first time watching!  I'm 33, folks! - so he's making chicken wings, and we're going to smash up some guacamole to have with chips.  I made chocolate chip cookie dough the other day, so I'll probably bake off some of that.

Matthew wrote the book Hungry Monkey and created the blog Roots and Grubs. Molly is the blogger behind Orangette, wrote the book A Homemade Life, and just opened Delancey, a restaurant in Seattle, with her husband. Find them on Twitter @mamster and @mollyorangette

**Check out previous Table Talks with Adam Roberts, The Amateur Gourmet and Big Girls, Small Kitchen**