The Rituals of Joy

Oklahoma native and James Beard Award-winning writer Molly Wizenberg talks family, food, art and life.

story by Greg Horton | photos by Molly Wizenberg

There are so many clichés associated with nicknaming Oklahoma—flyover country, heartland, tornado alley—it was a genuine pleasure to hear a brand-new name, and one that we can all embrace.

“Oklahoma is definitely ‘tater tot country,’” Molly Wizenberg said. She was speaking on her podcast, Spilled Milk, that she hosts with fellow author and food nerd, Matthew Amster-Burton. In fact, Wizenberg owns three restaurants in the Seattle area with her partner, Brandon Pettit. She also authored two books, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table in 2010, and Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, a 2015 New York Times bestseller about her first foray as a restaurateur.

Wizenberg was born in Oklahoma City, and she grew up here, but she said that her parents “sort of raised me to leave."

“My parents were originally from points East,” she said. “My father was from Toronto, Canada, and my mom from Baltimore. They moved to Oklahoma when my dad got a job there in 1974.”

Ordinarily that would mean she would have, like many of us, sat around a table at family dinner, and at least a few times a month, one-third of the plate would have been occupied with tater tots and ketchup. In the podcast episode mentioned, which is simply called “Tater Tots,” she admits that her parents’ “snobbery” affected her culinary experiences.

Pizza from Molly & Brandon's Seattle restaurant, Delancey | photo provided

“I never have eaten tater tots, I think, even in the presence of my mother.” She means that she never ate them at home when her mother was present, but like nearly every Oklahoma kid, she did have them.

Why is the tater tot so important? Other than being the perfect food—an argument I actually have made while sober—they speak to an ethos of food that Wizenberg embraced young, and now applies to her role as an influencer in food circles. (Her blog, Orangette, is a James Beard Award winner, sort of the Oscars of the food world.)

When asked how she hopes her work contributes to the food scene, she answers in a way many of us appreciate.

“Mostly, I hope I can be an advocate for unfussy, unpretentious home cooking."

“I’m a big believer in scrambled eggs and salad for dinner! It makes me immeasurably happy to hear that people, after reading something I've written, feel inspired to cook and find pleasure in the simple, often-invisible rituals of everyday life," she said.

That she walked away from a Ph.D. studies in cultural anthropology to pursue a food and writing career was never more obvious in our interview than in that answer. Rituals, after all, are the subject of much anthropological study, and the U.S. is terrible at maintaining cultural rituals. There are definitely minority communities that cherish their rituals and pass them to successive generations. But most mainstream “rituals” are grouped around holidays, and while it’s possible that getting drunk on cheap beer at the lake on Labor Day weekend is a ritual, it’s certainly not one that passes something substantial to the next generation.

For many other cultures, though, rituals surround all aspects of life, including or especially eating. Wizenberg points out that food is common to all people in all places. That alone creates a fecund climate for ritual to emerge. 

Molly Wizenberg | photo provided

“Just as we need food, we all need other people—even introverts like me!” she said. “It's not new news that kids thrive when they eat meals with their families, and it's the same for adults. In the States today, food can be a brutal battleground: certain foods are deemed ‘good,’ others are ‘bad,’ and we obsess over our weight and what we should or shouldn't eat, etc. It's easy to forget that food is also about pleasure, and about connection. Historically, it's a communal thing. We are healthier in every way—as individuals, as families, as communities—when we eat together, when we feed each other, when we have to sit down and really talk to one another.”

The rituals she values were shaped around the table, sans tater tots, in her family growing up. While food was important to the family, and her parents instilled a love for foods of all kinds in the young Wizenberg, the rituals were perhaps more important.

“I think the rituals around food were what they cared about,” she said. “We sat down to dinner together every night, as a family, and that was normal, no big deal. I now know how much work that takes. Food was the glue that held us together; cooking and eating together was a given. I want to, and am trying to, raise my daughter with the same vision that food is not a precious thing or something to be fetishized, but rather something that's fun that we can enjoy together.”

Wizenberg and Pettit’s daughter, June—named for June Carter Cash—was born to in 2012. 

Having a child makes even the most experimental of chefs rethink their relationship to food and dining. 

There is a point in every parents’ life when they realize that some culinary battles will not be won. Chicken, French fries, and ketchup really are three separate dishes to a toddler, and you can try to add a green vegetable if you like, but it will simply become an art project until the child is ready to eat it. “I try not to anguish over what she's eating,” Wizenberg said, “and instead I try to just put good food on the table, give her the space to make her own choices, and enjoy her company.”

Wizenberg forms some of her thoughts about food and dining and connecting around loss as well as success in her books, both published by Simon & Schuster. In A Homemade Life, Wizenberg mentions poet James Wright, an artist who wrote eloquently about cancer, death, dying, and grief. She took a bold step several years ago when she decided to make her food blog a life blog, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. The loss of her father was devastating, and rather than compartmentalize her life into a bizarre taxonomy with two categories—food and etcetera—she chose to talk about grief and loss.

Molly's father, Burg, and a friend | photo provided

Last December’s Orangette blog post (orangette.net) reminisces about her father, and her Oklahoma upbringing: “Today it’s been 14 years since my dad died…. Burg would be 87 now, and I’m sort of glad I never had to see him diminished by old age—or, at least, not more than he was diminished in his last weeks, as cancer had its way with him. He would be glad to know that Mom and I now live a block apart, within sight of Puget Sound, and that one night in August, when things felt hard and I needed comfort, I pulled out an old t-shirt of his that I’d kept all this time but never worn, a royal blue Classen Grill t-shirt with the logo on the back and the words “peaches and cream” written in four languages on the front. It still smelled like him, and I put it on and slept in it, and I felt better. Wherever he is, I hope he’s doing it up right, as he was in this photo (he’s on the left, with family friend Ed Fretwell on the right), drinking something boozy out of a plastic coupe in a swimming pool, eating well, and grinning about it.                                                 

The challenge for artists is to find ways to make connections with other humans, to find ways to communicate a thought or a feeling or moment—a shapshot from a life, framed as an anecdote or painting or poem. Wizenberg draws a parallel between the artist and chef, as well as the artist and the parent who cooks for her child.

“To me, art is about creating a feeling,” she said. “When I write, I hope I help my reader to ‘feel’ something, to feel something that they wouldn't otherwise feel. I hope, for instance, that I might help them to understand an experience that they may never have had. That's what art is for, right? To help us understand and feel what it means to be a person, in all its complexity and confusion? Am I getting carried away? Maybe?”

No. Not at all. She continued.

“In any case, food, though also a basic human need and so on, is also about feeling. We not only use cooking to take care of other people, but I think we can all agree that food also makes us ‘feel’ things—comforted, uneasy, whatnot. When we cook and feed ourselves, and the people we care about, we are reaching them on a level that's deeper than just nourishment. It sounds very pie-in-the-sky, I know, but I mean it. Food, like art, is an opportunity for understanding.”

Wizenberg credits her history teacher at Casady High School for teaching her to write well. Dr. Stephen Gens passed away a few years ago, but she remembers him as the one teacher who pushed her the hardest, and built upon her critical thinking skills she learned at Westminster School. To be able to write well and think well are often gifts of teachers who care.

There are no new projects on the horizon for now, although she does say she want to write another book eventually. Wizenberg said for now she wants to focus on being a parent, co-hosting Spilled Milk, running the restaurants, and writing on the blog. These are the tasks that fill out her life and give her joy. The food scene, is such a thing exists, is tangential to that.

“I'm not, at this point, very interested in food or any food scene; I'm mostly interested in people and the way we live, and food is just a handy lens for looking at that,” she said.

Orangette.net. Follow @mollyorangette for updates.