[The articles below are all at least two years old because I'm pretty bad about updating these things. I'd rather write new articles.]
Second Look: Liver, Paste Magazine, May 2, 2016
A Fine Mess of Ramps: Tradition and Community Thrive at West Virginia's Ramp Dinners, Serious Eats, April 25, 2016
14 Awesomely Disturbing Community Cookbook Recipes, Paste Magazine, September 3, 2015
Violets, Boxes, and Stars, Full Grown People, June 16, 2015
Savory mint recipes take summer dinners in a refreshing direction, The Oregonian, August 15, 2014
From Poison to Passion: The Secret History of the Tomato, Modern Farmer, September 2014
For a delicious treat, cook with bacon or chicken drippings, The Oregonian, February 16, 2011
Pawpaw Fever, Food Riot, September 23, 2013
Creedence and the Art of Chooglin', an embarrassment of riches, November 25, 2011
The Child in All of Us: Reconnecting with Julia Child through 'The French Chef', The North Bay Bohemian, August 15, 2007
What’s a sausagetarian?
For a while, I only ate meat in the form of sausage. Though my diet of animal flesh is more inclusive these days, I still try to keep meat-eating to a minimum.
So Sara, what makes you qualified to do this stuff?
My past jobs run the gamut: donut shop counter girl, microbrewery fry cook, sausage cart vendor, wine country banquet server, magazine recipe tester, chocolate factory tour guide, cookwares store floor lead…and probably a few others I forgot. Though oftentimes far from glamorous, such jobs give you the best stories, as well as a thick skin (literally and metaphorically).
If you’re a food writer, you must review restaurants. How cool!
I don’t review restaurants. Some food writers do, but most of us focus on other areas, like recipes, essays, and profiles of interesting folks.
For about a year and a half I was the restaurant critic for the North Bay Bohemian in Santa Rosa, California. Any sane person would have loved it! Me, no. Driving home halfway buzzed with a belly full of beurre blanc and seared tuna, I’d feel like a disgusting gourmand, and sometimes the food at these places was disappointing, and I’d think to myself, “That meal was a lost meal, those calories wasted calories.”
You don’t like to eat out? That’s impossible!
Of course I like to eat out! I just don’t eat out often. I really do get the most satisfaction from cooking at home and sitting down to a simple meal with family and friends, or even by myself, with a crossword.
What do you cook at home, then? Do you have a specialty?
My best ideas come from combining leftover dibs and dabs. You could call this frugal cooking or garbage cooking. Often what I make would be vegan, except it's sauteed in beef or chicken fat.
What led you to attend cooking school?
After dropping out of Ohio State University, I floundered around for a while before moving back in with my parents. Marietta, a charming little historic town at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, offered little in the way of social activities for a disgruntled 20-year-old punk rock aficionado. I grew restless.
I read a lot. My mom would have magazines around the house that she got for free from the proprietress of the wine shop downtown, and I began reading them: Cook’s Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living, Food and Wine, and especially Saveur. To fill my empty hours at home, hours when I was not holed up in the basement typing out false starts to doomed short stories, I embarked upon the sort of project-driven, hobbyist cooking that affluent geeks and retirees excel at: breads made from sourdough starter, homemade jams and marmalade, hand-rolled pasta. Some of these things didn’t turn out so well, but it was fulfilling and worthwhile. I’d always loved to eat, but I realized I also loved how food shapes and defines who we are. And I wanted to write about it.
After touring various East Coast cooking schools, I applied to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The school admitted me conditionally, as I’d never worked in a professional kitchen: I’d have to spend a year working in the industry before I could be enrolled at the CIA. The bastards!
Chastened, I went into the kitchen of the fanciest restaurant in Marietta (read: not very fancy) and asked for a job. I worked as a prep cook there for a summer. They had a cockroach problem at the time.
I learned more from working at the Levee House Café than from any other kitchen job I’ve had. I learned a lot about what was not good to do, actually, but I was young and cocky and hopefully being thrown into a teeny-tiny kitchen with people whose backgrounds were very different from mine taught me a thing or two about being a team player.
Finally, I was able to begin my schooling at the CIA and it was awesome and engrossing and very hard.
What is Martha Stewart like?
When I did my externship in the test kitchens at Martha Stewart Living in 1998, she was not nice 100 percent of the time. I didn’t interact with her but for a few memorable instances (remind me to tell you the story of the bunny cake). I can tell you that I was a nincompoop back then and was, in all likelihood, a terrible extern. It appears that both Martha and I have since mellowed.
Who are some of your favorite cookbook writers?
Anything involving Betty Crocker and Good Housekeeping in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I also love the Time-Life Foods of the World series.
I still have a fondness for the aesthetic of Martha Stewart’s whole enterprise; she’s a massively competent chef with a gift for hiring other massively competent chefs and cooks and editors to carry out and extend her vision.
Nancy Silverton’s book The Breads of La Brea Bakery was like my Beatles. She gave me had Breadmania. I raised sourdough starters and baked my way through the whole book. Silverton’s willingness to break down and re-build even the most simple preparations taught me that you should never assume anything.
What are your favorite foods?
Beets, goat cheese, chocolate, cacao nibs, asparagus, pawpaws, kale, shrimp and blue crab caught off the waters of Edisto Island in South Carolina…but generally, it’s easier to say what I don’t like. I don’t like frozen lima beans or tarragon very much. I don’t think chicken belongs on pizza. That’s a pet peeve of mine.
What was it like working at a chocolate factory?
As awesome as you’d figure. As a tour guide at Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in Berkeley, California, I ate chocolate every day, and I had pounds and pounds of chocolate at home. And not just workaday chocolate, but Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker chocolate. It spoiled me.
Chocolate is one of the most complex and rewarding foods in the world—food, not candy. Real chocolate has integrity. I learned new things every day, and while I know more about chocolate than the average person, there is so much more I don’t know. At Scharffen Berger, I was fortunate enough to encounter the generous minds of Robert Steinberg, John Scharffenberger, and Brad Kintzer; were I a smarter person, I would have asked them a lot more questions.
A chocolate factory smells intoxicatingly rich, but when I came home at the end of the day, I stunk like old gym socks. This is because when cacao beans (especially well-fermented ones) are crushed, they release an acidic aroma. In the context of the factory it was an ambient smell, but it worked its way into clothing fibers and, outside of the factory, reeked like hell. I had special sweaters I wore only at work just for that reason.
Why did you move away from Portland, Oregon?
Leaving Portland was one of the hardest but happiest things we’ve ever done. I miss a lot of things about our time there. I miss our Oregon friends and family. I miss the abundance of excellent Vietnamese food. There was always good coffee around. I miss reading The Oregonian and the Portland Mercury. Newspapers and coffee: two of the best things in the world.
Your chef coats are so cute.
Thank you! I made them myself.
Can you make me one?
No. I was only able to complete my chef coats through a combination of determined seam ripping and dumb luck.
Didn’t you used to write for Section M?
Indeed I did. You must have been one of the several hundred readers of Section M, the inimitable magazine of the North Bay music scene. The paper was around from 1998-2003, and I began writing for it shortly after arriving in Sonoma County in 2000. Section M had the most emotionally invested readership in the world—despite, or perhaps because of, covering bands barely anyone had ever heard of.
For a few years, I lived for Section M. It made me a writer and allowed me to be a writer, and was an entrée to the scruffy world of indie rock bands. Understandably, my food writing was on the back burner at the time: who needs to rhapsodize about foie gras when there are rock bands around! It was heady, but also very unbalanced for me. I burned brightly and burned out quickly.
Tell me about roller derby. Aren't you on a team or something?
As Carrion the Librarian, I skate with Hades Ladies, the Mid-Ohio Valley's own roller derby team.