DATE May 25, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actress Amy Sedaris discusses her career and new
sitcom "Strangers With Candy"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
This is how one critic describes "Strangers With Candy," the Comedy Central
TV series starring my guest, Amy Sedaris. `It's a celebration of bad taste,
political incorrectness and biting satire, with a high-school-freak-show
setting and a cheesy cult movie ambience.'
Amy Sedaris plays Jerri Blank, a 47-year-old ex-con, ex-prostitute, recovering
drug addict, high school freshman. A teen-age runaway, she's returned to
Flatpoint High to finish school and learn life's lessons again. Sedaris
co-created and co-writes the show with Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert and Mitch
Rouse, comedians she first met during her stint as a member of the Chicago
improv troupe Second City. The idea for the show came from a documentary film
Dinello once saw called "A Trip Back," about a 50-year-old prostitute and drug
addict who turned her life around and began a career as a motivational speaker
for high school students.
The team started with this premise and then combined it with their warped,
satiric take on "The After-School Special," those half-hour morality teleplays
ABC churned out in the '70s for latchkey kids about drug abuse, peer pressure,
broken families and other traumas of adolescent life.
Here's a clip from a "Strangers With Candy" episode about risking unpopularity
by going out with the new kid at school. In this scene, Jerri, played by Amy
Sedaris, is in a golf cart--don't even ask. She's with the new kid, Ricky.
They're making out when Ricky has a sudden revelation.
(Soundbite of "Strangers With Candy")
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) Remember how I said I never met my real
Ms. AMY SEDARIS (Actress, "Strangers With Candy"): (As Jerri) Yeah, that's
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) I think maybe I just have.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Oh, my dear Lord.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) Why, Mom? Why?
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Look, you have to understand I was a teen-age
runaway for 32 years. I did things I wouldn't force on a mule, and that
includes things I've forced on a mule.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) You just gave me away?
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) No, no, never. I traded you for a guitar.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) Oh!
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) God, and all these years I've wondered what happened
to that guitar.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) Do you even know who my real father is?
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Of course. Of course I do. Of course. Florida,
Florida, Florida, Florida--see, it was either this obese bail bondsman with a
harelip or a Cuban. Yeah, I'm pretty sure it was a Cuban 'cause they're as
thick as flies down there. But that's not the important thing. The important
thing is we're together now.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) You just can't waltz back into my life and
be my mom.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Well, maybe I can be your friend.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) That would have been great, but I'm
transferring out again. My foster dad just got a new job.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) No, I won't let you go! Not now, not again!
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) Well, I have to.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) All right. I guess it's for the best, seeing as I
don't have a job or any maternal instincts, but at least I know you'll be out
there, not relying on me.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ricky) Goodbye, Mom.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Well, can't we still make out?
(End of soundbite)
BOGAEV: What I remember about those shows were they were just so dripping
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah.
BOGAEV: I mean, even as a really young kid, I hated them. Do you...
Ms. SEDARIS: I know.
BOGAEV: ...remember watching them...
Ms. SEDARIS: Yes.
BOGAEV: ...and actually--I mean, the window in which you take them seriously
must be about three minutes. I mean, I...
Ms. SEDARIS: Exactly. You just make fun of them. And the terms they would
use were always really queer, which fits for us, 'cause, like, we're all in
our 30s and we don't know what the kids are talking about now, so we just go
with whatever terms we know, and they must be pretty queer, you know? So
we're pretty unhip ourselves, so it's just kind of funny how we just are not
in the know.
BOGAEV: So what conventions did you mine in coming up with some of the plot
ideas? Certainly, getting in with the popular crowd is a...
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah, that's always a big issue. And then we'd come up with a
story idea. Then we'd say, `OK, what would happen in a real "After-School
Special," you know, morally?' We would just try to figure that out and then
we would just try to, you know, find our twist on it. See, we're writing new
episodes now that deal with--I find out I'm part Indian, so I go to this
Indian camp and find out that I'm part Shingobe(ph), and I have to deal with
that. I find out that--we're going to do a musical on homosexuality. What
else? Oh, STD, and I have to tell all the people that I slept with, which
could take episodes. What else have we got cooking? Oh, mental illness. I
found out my mother's lover is mentally crazy, so I'm dealing with that, too.
BOGAEV: And, of course, you always have to be just absolutely politically
Ms. SEDARIS: Oh, yes, absolutely. That's the fun part.
BOGAEV: I mean, that must be a rule for your special.
Ms. SEDARIS: Exactly. Yeah, it is. It's amazing. Some things we can't get
away with and some things we can, but Comedy Central's pretty cool about it.
BOGAEV: The show is, though, unusually raunchy. I remember an episode in
which you, as Jerri Blank, referring to your state of sexual arousal, says,
`I'm as moist as a snack cake.'
Ms. SEDARIS: Right. The snack cake down there.
BOGAEV: I couldn't believe I was listening to the TV.
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah, I guess so.
BOGAEV: Do you ever get in any trouble with the censors? Is there such a
thing as censors...
Ms. SEDARIS: Yes, they do cen--yeah, we give them the scripts.
BOGAEV: ...at Comedy Central?
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah, they do, and they tell us what we can and can't say. But
some things we just seem to get away with, but we don't sit down and try to be
offensive, and we really don't try to be dark or anything. That's just our
sense of humor, which is good for, you know, the three of us, so we're not
just out to do that. But, yeah, sometimes they'll slap our hands: `Ahh, you
can't do that.'
BOGAEV: Physical comedy is really a huge part of the show and part of the
problem of talking about it on the radio. But Jerri's looks really come under
that category. She has some kind of overbite, grimace, and she...
Ms. SEDARIS: Yes. Those are my real teeth, too.
BOGAEV: I was going to ask you.
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah.
BOGAEV: You wear your hair in this weird, outdated, futuristic--or many
styles, of two-tone swirls, up and off to the side. And you're thin but
pear-shaped and seem to have too much hip and thigh half. It's really pretty
Ms. SEDARIS: Well, I wanted a body that is just different than mine, in that
I like it--I just wanted it to be, you know, small on the top and large on the
bottom, and I don't know; I just feel--Jerri's very sexual, and I just wanted
that kind of body for her--You know what I mean?--'cause you never get to see
a body like that on TV, really. And as far as my wig goes, which first of all
is $1,700, and second of all I wanted to look like a golfer--have the head of
a golfer. And then clothingwise, I went to this woman who does wardrobe. Her
name's Victoria Farrell. All I told her was I wanted to look like I owned
snakes. And she just nailed it. She's just so good. The wardrobe on this
show is--and they hand-make things, but I just like the fact that they're
crafty like that, that they'll actually make the dresses for Jerri or
earrings, and I love that. You know what I mean? Like, they're good like
BOGAEV: Do you wear padding on your lower body, or just clothes that fit
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah, I have two fatty suits.
Ms. SEDARIS: My dad's real weight-conscious, and so I had a fatty suit made
for my body, and I wore it home to fool him at Christmastime for a couple
days, and it worked. And so that's what I wear on the show.
BOGAEV: That was years ago, before this whole episode? You had a fatty suit
just made to play with your dad's head?
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah, I just--yeah. I mean, I didn't have enough money to get
the top part made, so I just had it from the waist down, you know? So I have
one of those bodies where you can pick up somebody from behind a bar, but the
minute you walked around the bar, you can watch them take off. `Where are you
going?' Yeah, and it's great. It's just so nice to have a different body.
BOGAEV: Well, getting back to Jerri Blank in the show--the funny thing about
this character is that she's really pretty unattractive, but she thinks she's
attractive, and she's very into sex and she's very comfortable with her body.
And that's not a typical scenario. In fact, you hardly ever see that on TV.
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah.
BOGAEV: The not-pretty girls aren't supposed to be at ease with their
Ms. SEDARIS: All my characters like themselves. I mean, that's one thing
they all have in common. I've never played anybody who didn't like
themselves, you know? Even--I don't know; there's this character David writes
we have in the play who's named Peglet(ph) or Tula Facketts(ph), where I take
my nose off, and she's horrific looking. And every other word is just a dirty
word. But, man, she just loves herself, you know? She wears bikinis and she
just thinks she's hot, but her face is just hideous, you know? I don't know;
I just find it easier to play it that way. I like people who like themselves,
you know? And it's just enjoyable to watch.
BOGAEV: Now this is somewhat related, but maybe not. I know you once showed
up at a photo shoot for Paper magazine(ph), which has a special edition of the
99 more beautiful people. And you were one of them, and you showed up at this
photo shoot with a hatchet and makeup to look like a battered woman.
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah. Well, first of all, I didn't know the issue was on a
hundred most beautiful people. I had no idea that was what the theme was.
And whenever I have photo shoots, I try to think of, `OK, what can I do? What
can I do? What can I do?' 'cause a lot of times the photographer isn't
prepared. You know, they want you to come with some ideas. So I just thought
I would like to look beat up, 'cause I just--I don't know; I'd just look great
and be really happy about it. So, yeah, I brought a makeup artist with me and
he made me look beat up, and it looked so real. Man, it looked great. And I
paid him to do it, so when I walked home and I--as I say, people were looking
at me like I was pretty. You know what I mean? But they were looking at me
because I was all beat up, and then they would turn away, you know? It's
really interesting to have that many people stare at you.
And then I was waitressing that night, and so I wore the makeup to work, and
only one table asked me how I was doing. They said, `Are you OK?'
BOGAEV: Why did you...
Ms. SEDARIS: I was, like, `Yes, I'm in love and she's great.' I just
couldn't--it just broke my heart. I did paid the guy, like, $150 to do it and
I wasn't about to go home and take it off.
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Amy Sedaris. She's an actress, a writer. She's one
of the co-creators and co-writers and the star of the sitcom "Strangers With
Candy," which airs on Comedy Central Monday nights at 10. Comedy Central
calls it its `untraditional after-school special.' We'll talk more, Amy,
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
Ms. SEDARIS: OK.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Amy Sedaris. She co-writes
and stars in "Strangers With Candy," a TV series on Comedy Central which
parodies after-school specials.
Your brother is David Sedaris, who's really...
Ms. SEDARIS: My older brother, thank you. Go on.
BOGAEV: Your very old--and you, very young, have an older brother who's well
known to the public radio crowd as a frequent contributor to "This American
Life." He's also an author of a best-selling memoir. Did you watch
after-school specials with him and cut up?
Ms. SEDARIS: I don't remember watching after-school specials with David. I
do remember watching that program that would come on Sunday with the puppets.
What's it called? Not Kuklov--is it "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" or something?
Remember that show? Puppets...
BOGAEV: Yeah, right. Right.
Ms. SEDARIS: ...and Lamb Chop.
BOGAEV: Right. Right.
Ms. SEDARIS: I watched that with David, and they would show old movies, like
that fatty and skinny movie and "The Red Balloon." I watched shows like that
with David, and "I Love Lucy," and I watched shows like that with him.
BOGAEV: So you were close growing up?
Ms. SEDARIS: David and I--he was the one--when we were younger, he would
always do, like, characters and come up with, like, little movie scripts and
stuff for us to act out when we were little. So we were close like that.
BOGAEV: Did you put on real shows in your basement and charge admission?
Ms. SEDARIS: Yes, we put on plays and then, like, if "The Wizard of Oz" was
on TV or "To Kill a Mockingbird," we would charge tickets and, you know,
people would come down in our basement and watch it. My mom would make a
cake, stuff like that.
BOGAEV: So did you think you were going to become a performer? Is that what
you wanted to be, 'cause I think I read something about you wanting to be a
Ms. SEDARIS: I wanted to be a cop and I wanted to work in the women's prison
in North Carolina. I was just fascinated with prisons and criminology. And
then it dawned on me that I could just read those books or just play those
parts. So, you know, I just knew I wanted to perform, but I didn't really
think about it till David called me one day and said, `You know, you really
should move from North Carolina and come to Chicago. There's a place here
called Second City that's perfect for you.' So that's what I did, and then
everything just happened from there. I got in and toured and started writing
BOGAEV: Who were the other members of Second City when you were there?
Ms. SEDARIS: Gosh, let's see. When I was there on Mainstage, Bonnie Hunt
was on Mainstage and Mike Myers. When I was hired, I was hired with Chris
Farley and Tim Meadows and Paul and Steve and Greg, who are all in the show,
and Ian Gomez, who's on TV now. It was, like, all six or seven of us were
hired at the same time, so it was a pretty good year.
BOGAEV: You left Chicago, moved to New York. David was already living in New
York. Why did you move?
Ms. SEDARIS: We were working on a play, and I just thought, `OK, now what I
really want to do is live in New York.' I just couldn't go from, you know,
North Carolina to New York. It would be too severe, so I just decided, `OK,
now is the time to go to New York City.' We were doing plays anyway, and so
we did a play called "Stitches,"(ph) and that's when Comedy Central approached
the cast and said, `Hey, you want to do a sketch show?' So ever since then,
we just kind of fell into TV.
BOGAEV: Well, now, as adults, when you and your brother write together, is it
the same process as when you were kids putting together shows?
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah, it is. David's very disciplined. A lot of people say a
lot of times improvisation is a lazy way of writing, but I'm more up on my
feet. You know, David writes something, and then he can hand it to me and
then I get up on my feet and I act it out or add to it or improvise with it,
and then he'll go back to a typewriter. And it's kind of like that process.
But he's definitely, you know, more the writer. You know, our minds write it
together, but it's a little different. I don't know how to explain it. A lot
of times, we don't really say no to each other, David and I. We just--any
possibility, like, `OK, and the mother shows up on a horse. OK, great.' You
know, we'll just go with it. It's fun like that. But he works really hard,
and it's so nice to work with someone who's really going to go home and work
on it some more when you just want to go home and sleep or whatever. So...
BOGAEV: Well, you seem to have a real physical sense of humor. I can't
really say that David doesn't; I've never seen him read his stories or
perform. But you do seem to specialize in that visual comedy. How did you
Ms. SEDARIS: I don't know. I just--I've always been that way. I just--like
when we do plays and stuff, I'll ask for, like, a door frame. `We gotta have
a door onstage. I just want a door onstage.' And then once we get the door
onstage, it's like I need something just to be, like, `OK, now I'm going to go
through the door.' You know what I mean? It's like I like to be surrounded
by--I love props and I love, like, real furniture onstage and then you just
find stuff and you play with it and just kind of--I'm not like an `actress'
actress. I mean, I can't say, `I love you' or `I lost the baby' or cry
without laughing, you know? I'm just not good at it. So I'd rather
physically try to find a way to find humor.
BOGAEV: Since your comedy is so physical, I'm curious if there are any
comedians you look to as an inspiration or you really enjoy.
Ms. SEDARIS: I'll tell you, I really go for more dramatic performers, people
who can cry on the spot and stuff, like Helen Mirren or people like that. And
then I always look at those people and think, `OK, now how can I make that
funny or, you know, physical or humorous or whatever?' But my heroes or
whatever usually aren't comedians. Like, you have to drag me into a comedy.
You have to drag me, and then when I go, I have such a good time. Like, I
loved "Bullfinger," that movie. Is it "Bullfinger" or something like that
it's called? Eddie Murphy and that--it was so funny. And I saw Jim
Carrey--you know, I've seen him do some stuff, and he makes me laugh really
BOGAEV: "Bowfinger." "Bowfinger."
Ms. SEDARIS: Is it "Bowfinger"? Oh, I loved that.
BOGAEV: That was good.
Ms. SEDARIS: Yeah, and Steve Martin. I just...
BOGAEV: Why do you hate going to comedy shows, though? It seems, you know...
Ms. SEDARIS: Because then it's already supposed to be funny or something. I
don't know. I just go thinking, `All right.' I just don't like to laugh as
much as I like to--like, even my choices in books--I like serious, you know,
stuff, because I guess it's, like, because I can't do it or I don't, you know,
have the tools to do it, but--like, originally, when I came to New York, I did
this thing at a theater called "Laughter through the Tears,"(ph) where I
mounted "'Night, Mother" and "Come Back, Little Sheba." And I stuck to the
script; I just did it more character-driven, you know? Like, funny characters
did the play, but--you know, and people would still laugh and cry, and it was
great, 'cause I knew I couldn't do what Sissy Spacek does, you know? But I
wanted to do that part so bad, you know, that play so bad.
But again, I also pitched it as a TV show. I thought "'Night, Mother" would
be a great sitcom, you know? Like each week the girl tries to kill herself a
different way, but it could be humorous. So that way, I, like--you know, I
like to think of it that way. But again, when I go to a comedy, then I'm
like, `Ha, ha, OK, that was funny. Yeah, whatever.' You know, but it's
usually not my first choice or am I inspired by really funny, funny people.
BOGAEV: Now you also have another career, another job. You're a waitress,
Ms. SEDARIS: I still waitress, mm-hmm.
BOGAEV: ...even though I assume you don't really need the money at this
Ms. SEDARIS: Well, no, and I do it because I always, like--what else am I
going to do on a Thursday night? I mean, I love making money and I have my
whole life. Like, I like making cash. And it's great working--it's
Marion's on Fourth and Bowery, and it's--I make really good money and the
people who work there are really cool, and I also make cupcakes and cheese
balls on the side, and I'm doing pretty well with that little business of
mine, you know?
BOGAEV: You sell them?
Ms. SEDARIS: I sell them. I make them and sell them. And when I do plays, I
sell them in the lobby, and people order them from me. And, like, I sold four
cheese balls--I did the Conan O'Brien show a few weeks ago and I was talking
about my cheese balls and I got four phone calls. And so I sold four cheese
balls. And it's great, because it's something to do with my hands at 3 in the
BOGAEV: Are these the things that are cheddar and port wine or something and
have nuts all over them?
Ms. SEDARIS: Well, maybe that's your recipe, Barbara, but my recipe--I make a
traditional and I make a smoky cheese ball. One's got A-1 steak sauce in it.
Yeah, they're great. Cheese balls are great. I'll make the...
BOGAEV: And when you sell them, are you in character?
Ms. SEDARIS: No. No, it's me. It's me doing it for the money. You know,
I'll stay up all night frosting 150 cupcakes just to make, you know, $150.
You know, it's all--and all the money goes in a big mayonnaise jar. I have a
rabbit named Tattletail and all the money goes into her jar, just, you know,
for her food and stuff like that. So it's my business, Tattletail.
BOGAEV: Amy, it's been a lot of fun talking to you. Thank you very much for
coming on FRESH AIR today.
Ms. SEDARIS: Thank you.
BOGAEV: Amy Sedaris. "Strangers With Candy" airs Mondays at 10 on Comedy
Central. Here's another clip from the show. Jerri is talking with the high
school gym teacher, Coach Wolf.
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Strangers With Candy")
Unidentified Actress: (As Coach Wolf) Jerri, I'm giving you a chance to
reclaim your virginity.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) What?
Unidentified Actress: (As Coach Wolf) Reclaim your virginity. It's a new
movement. Girls all across the country are getting a second chance at purity
by becoming chaste.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) What are you talking about, Coach Wolf?
Unidentified Actress: (As Coach Wolf) I'm talking about giving the damn
thing a rest, Jerri. Look, if you want to reclaim your virginity, let your
fertile valley lie fallow. Start thinking like a virgin. Hey, Barbara, wait
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Well, I can do that. Just don't think about sex,
just don't think about sex, don't think about sex...
Unidentified Actor #2: (As Lou) Hey, Jerri.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Lou!
Unidentified Actor #2: (As Lou) ...I was wondering...
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) Wondering what? Hmm? If you could get me behind the
Dumpster, hike up my skirt and pound home? Well, I'm a virgin now, and this
is one blushing rose you are not going to deflower.
Unidentified Actor #2: (As Lou) I just wanted to ask you to a movie.
Ms. SEDARIS: (As Jerri) A movie, huh? Maybe we could, I don't know, sit in
the balcony, and I could take a bite out of your candy bar while you poke
around in my...
BOGAEV: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Clifford Wright, author of "A Mediterranean Feast,"
discusses Mediterranean foods
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Clifford Wright's new book, "A Mediterranean Feast," is a little hard to
classify. Although it's this year's winner of the James Beard Award for
Cookbook of the Year, it might just as easily have been categorized as a
cultural history text or gastronomic travel log through time and the lands of
the Mediterranean Basin, including Spain, North Africa, Crete, Sicily, the
Balkans, Turkey and the Near East. The book is over 800 pages long with 500
modern recipes rooted in the history of the regions. There are more than six
different recipes for salt cod, dozens for sausage, salads of duck gizzard and
tripe, as well as perennial classics such as cassoulet and hummus.
Clifford Wright is the author of a number of cookbooks and writes for many
gourmet magazines. His unique approach to cuisine began during his earlier
career in international relations when he worked at Middle East Research
Institutes. Today, we think of the Mediterranean as a lush place, but in his
new cookbook, Clifford Wright notes that that's a relatively modern
development. I asked him to describe the Mediterranean diet in the 5th
century where his book begins.
Mr. CLIFFORD WRIGHT ("A Mediterranean Feast"): It was very basic and very
minimal, and it was a subsistence diet. The Mediterranean in the 5th, 6th,
7th centuries was very much like the Somalia we read about today where people
are perpetually starving. Famines were constant. The diet consisted of not
much more than found wild herbs, some cabbage, gruel of various kinds, some
bread, but starvation and the misery in general was so pervasive that there
really cannot be said to have been a cuisine, not really until the advent and
rise of the Islamic era when you have a real golden age of culture, and, in
fact, an age when the Mediterranean is more or less saved from the dark ages
that resulted after the fall of the Roman Empire.
BOGAEV: In this period, were meals differentiated? Was breakfast different
from lunch and dinner?
Mr. WRIGHT: Only at the very, very highest levels of society, among the very
rich and among the rulers. The common people, which represented probably 95
to 99 percent of the population, basically ate whenever they could eat, and
that was not often.
BOGAEV: So for breakfast, what was the--or what did people normally eat when
they scraped something together? A kind of soup which doesn't cost much?
Mr. WRIGHT: Again, it would have been something like some kind of sops,
which is just stale bread soaked in water. Sometimes the food was so poor
that water would be boiled with some stones in it in order to give it some
kind of earthy flavor, but there was no nutritional value whatsoever. And it
was only later as new agricultural products began moving into the
Mediterranean that not only was there more food on the table, which also leads
to an increase in population, which also leads to the development in a number
of cities, which gives rise to new classes of people who create wealth, which
brings us up to today, of course.
BOGAEV: I didn't realize there was this interesting play or a vicious cycle
really between the Black Death, the plague and famine cycles. And you point
out that rats who hosted the fleas that transmitted the Black Plague during
the Middle Ages were attracted by the grain stores kept in case of famine.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, it's a terrible circle of death, really, but the grain
stores were kept to fend off the problems of lack of food during plagues,
except that the rats would contaminate the grain stores. Incidentally, people
have often thought that meat consumption was very little during this period of
time, and, in fact, the opposite was true because meat stores couldn't be
contaminated by rats to the degree which grain stores could, so meat
But the other reason that meat consumption rose in the late 14th century after
the Black Death is because so many people died--some estimates are 50 percent
of the population of Europe was dead because of the Black Death that there
were fewer people to work the farms. So as the farmland reverted back to
meadows and forest, you found an increase of animal husbandry, meaning there
was more meat and fresh meat. So freshly slaughtered meat was very common on
the table at that particular period of time, and then later, of course, meat
consumption dropped again as this kind of wave and flux that continued
throughout the Mediterranean over the centuries.
BOGAEV: Now, in general, even in times of prosperity or not famine periods,
people like soldiers and servants, according to your account, lived on very
little. I mean, it's just astonishing reading your history what they could do
with their day given how austere their diet was.
Mr. WRIGHT: It was really incredible. I mean, the best-fed people, of
course, were the clergy who had access to food. The very, very rich rulers
had access to food, but not always. Sometimes their tables were as sparse as
their servants. But the best fed were certainly the sailors who worked on the
galleys, and their physical activity was such that they needed that level of
calorie intake, which basically matches the kind of calorie intake you would
find today. But that was very, very rare for the most part. People weren't
eating, and most families lived below what is considered a starvation line by
the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization today. I can't
remember the caloric figure, but it was very low.
BOGAEV: Now do people come up with justifications for the great differences
in class and in the diet between the classes? Do they believe that the rich,
for instance, and the poor had different digestive systems?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, it's really kind of an interesting thing. Much of the
understanding of dietetics in the Middle Ages came out of a theory that was
originally developed by Greek doctors during the era of classical Greece and
Rome. And it was thought that the rich had different stomachs than the poor,
and, therefore, they required and needed different kinds of food, especially
fine foods, whereas the poor, because they were so coarse as human beings,
their stomachs were also very coarse, and, therefore, they really should only
eat coarse food, meaning, you know, junky food--turnips, cabbage maybe and
other poor grains like millet or sorghum, whereas the fine wheat would be
eaten by the rich because it was more suitable to their stomachs.
BOGAEV: So what changed to make life easier than in the Mediterranean? And I
think you point to the Arab influence in the Middle Ages.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, what I try to do is pick three--I really talk about three
major historical events or epochs that influence the kind of food that began
developing in the Mediterranean from the modern era on--the modern era being
about the early 18th century--on up until today, and what makes these cuisines
so wonderful today. The first is what I call the Arab agricultural
revolution. One scholar called it the medieval green revolution. You have to
remember that about this time in the 8th and 9th and 10th century, the
greatest civilization at the time in the Mediterranean is the Islamic
civilization, which is really quite new. It's only a couple hundred years
And the Arabs, as they expanded their influence into the Mediterranean, made a
number of enormous changes, especially in the areas of hydrology and
irrigation, bringing a new agriculture that made land more productive. And
some of these food products are very important, such as hard wheat, which led
to the development and invention of macaroni and couscous, of hardtack, which
is known as ship's biscuit also, and other foods like rice, which is very
important, became a staple in some countries; sugar, eggplant, spinach and a
number of other vegetables.
Then the second great epoch fact that happened was the age of exploration,
which was tied into the development of the Renaissance. The Renaissance came
about as a result of this increase in population and the rise of cities. With
more cities and a new class of people called the bourgeoisie, who were
creating wealth, and the wealth was actually created by virtue of trade, you
had the development of this concept of good living, which meant you had the
patronage of the arts, music, theater and, of course, gastronomy, of leading
to the development of new cuisines. Without the age of exploration, you
wouldn't have all these fantastic food products coming from the New World,
which helped alleviate a lot of the starvation in the Mediterranean; the two
most famous being potatoes and tomatoes, but a host of others--a variety of
squash, beans and so forth. And what was interesting about this age of
exploration, a lot of it was made possible by the fact that crews can now
begin taking very long journeys across the open ocean as a result of having
storable food in the form of hardtack, and macaroni as well, which is a
product made from hard wheat, which was introduced by the Arabs.
BOGAEV: Now I don't know if you can put this to rest, but I thought the
common myth was that Marco Polo brought spaghetti or macaroni back from China,
and that's when that food became common in the age of exploration.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. And it's actually not true, but what's interesting about
it--and it should have been picked up much earlier--that is when Marco Polo
was in China, talking and writing his diaries about what he was discovering,
he talked about finding vermicelli. He used that word, and lasagna. And he
used that word. Well, if he knew these words--these weren't Chinese words
after all, they're Latin derivative words and Italian words--he was already
familiar with vermicelli and pasta, macaroni before he even left Venice. And,
in fact, the earliest very clear reference we have to macaroni comes from 12th
century Sicily, which at the time was under the rule of the Normans, and there
was an Arab geographer, very famous geographer named al-Drisi, who wrote a
book called "Book of Roger," where he describes the pasta factory in Trebbia,
a little town near Palermo, where they were making atria(ph), which is the
Arabic word for vermicelli. So it's pretty clear that vermicelli--that is
macaroni, which is a generic term for all pasta or noodles--was probably
invented some maybe hundred or 200 years before that time in the area of
either Sicily or Tunisia.
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Clifford Wright. He's the author of "A
Mediterranean Feast." It's a part cookbook and part history text of the
Mediterranean region. It won this year's prestigious James Beard Award.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: We're back with food writer and historian Clifford Wright. His new
book has just won the James Beard Cookbook Award for excellence. It's called
"A Mediterranean Feast."
And I've read often that this or that food or dish was brought back by the
Crusaders to France or to England. Is that another myth?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. I think it really is, and one of the main reasons is that
there were already mercantile contacts between Italian traders and Western
Europe before the Crusaders set off on their journeys. There was already
contact happening in culinary exchange. In any case, the Crusaders, for the
most part, were religious zealots and mercenaries who really had no elementary
interests. They were interested in military conquests. And, in fact, they
were so awful at agriculture, their agriculture was essentially subsistence
agriculture and not a money agriculture. So they were really not producing
any kind of foods that could be transported. It's possible they were
responsible for the introduction of certain kinds of spices, such as balm,
which was used in church services. But for everything else, very, very
little. They were located, for the most part, along the Levantine coast,
running from Lebanon, parts of Syria, down south through what is today Israel
into certain places in Egypt, and they were very, very limited.
Perhaps we can gather a little something about what Crusader cooking was
really all about, and what their role may have been during the Latin kingdom
of Jerusalem, which is the late 12th century, more or less; it lasted for
about 100 years. Streets in Jerusalem were named after the people who worked
on the streets. So, for instance, there was the Street of the Leatherworkers
and the Street of the Silverworkers, and there was one street where the
Crusader cooks worked, and it was called the Street of Bad Cooking. That
might tell us something about that notion of Crusaders being responsible for
BOGAEV: Well, here's another long-held assumption, that all those spices used
in medieval cooking--cloves and the like--were used as preservatives, and also
to maybe mask the smell of rotting meat. Is that true?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it's not true for two reasons, and two really quite
obvious reasons. One, spices were enormously expensive, so the only kinds of
people who would ever need to preserve meat are the poor. The rich don't need
to preserve meat, because they can eat it fresh. They can afford it. Well,
the poor are hardly going to use expensive spices to preserve meat. They
already have two other sources they can use: salt and the sun. That's one
The second thing is, as I mentioned earlier, with the Black Death, you had a
situation where meat consumption was always of fresh meat, so there never
really was a case where spices were needed to preserve anything. Spices were
used to enhance the flavor of food, and that was the main reason people were
so fascinated with spices.
BOGAEV: Why are the medieval dishes so sweet, or is that just a modern
Mr. WRIGHT: No. They are sweet, and they're very spicy. There's enormous
amounts of spices used in some of these dishes for the rich. Now I'm not
talking about the poor, who weren't using it, and you'll read some recipes
where it requires a pound of spices for a recipe for 12 people. That's a
ridiculous amount of spices for any kind of dish. Really what it had to do
with was two things. One, it was the taste of the time, and to explain that
may be impossible, about why we like particular tastes. The second reason was
this new class of bourgeoisie often wanted to demonstrate its cultural and
economic superiority to other classes by doing so through the consumption of
goods, and one of those consumables was spices, because it was so expensive,
and remember that sugar was considered a spice as well at that particular
period of time.
BOGAEV: So it was being ostentatious.
Mr. WRIGHT: Absolutely. I mean, just the way--today, you hardly can go into
a fancy restaurant in a major American city and not have something served with
lobster and truffles and caviar.
BOGAEV: Foie gras.
Mr. WRIGHT: Exactly. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Are there dishes that you uncovered in researching this book that
you're especially proud of, that date back, or perhaps were in danger of
becoming obsolete or lost?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, to be honest, I think that most of the recipes
in this book are probably in that category, because one of my major concerns
was capturing this authentic cuisine, and my definition of authentic is if you
were to make a recipe out of this book and serve it to a native of that
region, they would say to you, `Yes, this is it.' That's as far as I would
want to go with a definition of authentic, that the native would recognize the
dish, that you had done it correctly.
So many of these dishes, I think, are rescued, in a way, because some of them
are not even being made anymore in people's homes. An example is in Lebanon
and Syria and in Turkey, sunflower seed oil and Crisco is coming to replace
olive oil in cooking, because people think of it as being more modern, which I
find is a development that's sort of sad, in a way. It's very similar to the
development in American cuisine when we gave up, in the 1950s, fresh
vegetables for canned and frozen ones. It's a backward step, not a forwards
step. And you see this happening because people want to be modern, and
there's a conception of what modern is, not a conception that I necessarily
But to answer your question about what recipe, I mean, I would say half the
recipes here are probably being rescued, as far as I can tell, but there's a
couple from Venice which I had a lot of fun finding, and one is this risotto
that is made--it's a very heavy risotto, you would hardly want to serve it as
a first course; it's really a main course--where it's made with this kind of
cut from the spine, and you really can't find this anymore, so that was nice
to find those kinds of recipes and have people help me develop them.
BOGAEV: How did you research the book and track down these recipes?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, by traveling what seems like endlessly, and traveling on
the cheap, too, I must say. But sometimes a recipe would come in the
strangest way. There was a time I was flying to Cairo--I think from Rome; I'm
not sure where I was flying from--and I was sitting next to an Egyptian
dentist, and we got to talking, and he told--I told him what I was doing, and
he got so excited and immediately started giving me recipes as he remembered
his mother making them. Well, when I finally got home, I tried them out, and
they were terrific, so they're in the book now. That's one way.
But the incredible thing about talking about food as you travel, no matter
where you are, people just love the fact that you're interested in their food,
in their culture, and genuinely interested, and doors open up. I mean, there
would be some strange times of--the one I remember is, I had arranged to live
for about a week with an Egyptian peasant woman in upper Egypt, in a little
village, a little house without electricity, two--you know, a propane stove,
no floor, just animals running in the house and very poor people. But they
had a TV, and I remember the first day we went over, I was surrounded by all
of these Muslim women dressed in black and here was me and my buddy, you know,
in our Hawaiian shirts, and on the TV was "The Cosby Show," and it was so
bizarre to be in this incredibly primitive place, cooking with her, learning
about Egyptian food in this peasant village, and at the same time to be these
American guys--and you can't imagine how unusual it was to be a man hanging
out with women in these Muslim countries. They just thought it was a hoot.
BOGAEV: Clifford Wright, I want to thank you so much for talking with me
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, it's been a pleasure.
BOGAEV: Clifford Wright's new book, "A Mediterranean Feast," is the winner of
this year's James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year.
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on season finales. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Season-ending finales
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Even though May isn't over, the television ratings period known as the May
sweeps ended last night, which will mean a different sort of television for
the next several months. TV critic David Bianculli looks at this year's
season finales and the whole idea of season finales in general.
DAVID BIANCULLI (TV Critic):
You know, back in the old days of TV, let's say the '60s and '70s, prime-time
series didn't end their seasons with flashy finales. Except for weekly soap
opera shows like "Peyton Place," they just ended, serving up an episode of
"Mannix" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," that wasn't much different from the
one the week before.
But that was before shows like "Hill Street Blues" brought serialized story
lines to the regular drama series, and programs like "Dallas" and "Twin Peaks"
showed how you can get people buzzing all summer with the right cliffhanger
mystery. Who shot J.R.? Who killed Laura Palmer? Those were the season
finales that launched a thousand ships, or at least a thousand newspaper
articles and magazine covers. Since then, almost every TV drama, and an
increasing number of the sitcoms, have gotten into the season finale game.
They're like dozens of kids running around the same community pool, all
shouting, `Look at me, look at me!'
This trend has gotten out of hand, and for two reasons. One is that when
every show proclaims itself as special, it's a harder sell. The other reason
it's gotten out of hand is that with every show presenting and promoting its
season finale, the overall effect is that all the six networks basically are
reminding viewers they're about to close shop for the summer. Yes, there will
be new summer series this year. After the astounding success ABC had last
summer, launching "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," you better believe it. But
those favorite shows you've been watching faithfully since last fall, new
episodes of those series won't be back until September. Actually, make that
October, because NBC is covering the Olympics from Australia the last two
weeks of September this year, so the networks won't be launching their new
shows against that competition. So when we say goodbye to shows in May, we're
waving goodbye for five months, and the networks wonder why their overall
audience share erodes each year.
As for specific finales this May, how many of them were worth it? Most of
them, despite all the hype, delivered pretty much what was expected. Mulder
was abducted by aliens on "The X-Files," explaining why David Duchovny would
be in fewer shows next season. Daphne and Niles finally committed to one
another on "Frasier," a move that will change the dynamic of a good but aging
show that really needed a change. Chandler proposed to Monica on "Friends,"
Bobby and Lindsay got married on "The Practice," and Captain Janeway of "Star
Trek: Voyager" became the second starship captain to be turned into a Borg
during a season-ending cliffhanger.
Some finales this year were truly strange. Al Gore played a cartoon superhero
version of himself in a what-if episode of "Futurama," which is worth hearing
just because it's so improbable.
(Soundbite from "Futurama")
Unidentified Actor: Who are you people?
Vice President AL GORE: I'm Al Gore, and these are my vice presidential
action rangers(ph), a group of top nerds whose sole duty is to prevent
disruptions in the space-time continuum.
Unidentified Actor: I thought your sole duty was to cast the tie-breaking
vote in the Senate.
Vice Pres. GORE: That and protect the space-time continuum. Read the
BIANCULLI: In a sci-fi show called "The Others" on NBC, ended its season by
killing all its characters in an alternate reality dream state. Since NBC
canceled the show, those characters, like the series, will remain dead. No
Which finales work the best? Aaron Sorkin served up two of them. On "The
West Wing," an already excellent episode ended with a sudden assassination
attempt, and we'll have to wait until October to find out which characters got
shot. And on his "Sports Night" sitcom, the season finale was built around a
fear that the show within a show, also called "Sports Night," would be
canceled. At the end, a billionaire investor saves the day and tells the
show's producer, played by Felicity Huffman, why.
(Soundbite from "Sports Night")
Ms. FELICITY HUFFMAN (Dana): You're keeping the station?
Unidentified Actor: Yeah.
Ms. HUFFMAN: They're keeping the show.
Unidentified Actor: Yeah, it's a good show, Dana. Anybody who can't make
money off "Sports Night" should get out of the money-making business.
BIANCULLI: That's basically Aaron Sorkin delivering an author's message to
ABC, and guess what? ABC canceled "Sports Night" anyway.
Other excellent season finales this year included "Once and Again," with its
slow-motion walk through the front door; "NYPD Blue," with Andy Sipowicz
praying to God in a most emotional manner; "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," with a
dreamworld confrontation setting up lots of new possibilities for next season;
and "Roswell," with a cliffhanger that also changed the status quo for next
And finally, though the entire episode didn't work as well as I'd hoped, I
loved the final scene of the all-musical episode of "Ally McBeal." The
episode used almost a dozen old Randy Newman songs, and the closing selection
was the best choice of all. James Naughton, who plays Ally's father, sat at
the piano and serenaded his daughter with a beautifully sung rendition of
Newman's a "Real Emotional Girl," a song that predates Ally, but actually
could have been written with that character in mind. I'll close with that,
and with the hope that if we're stuck with the concept of season finales, at
least they can all aspire to leave us with something worth remembering.
BOGAEV: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.
(Soundbite of "Real Emotional Girl")
Mr. JAMES NAUGHTON (Ally McBeal's Father): (Singing) She's a real emotional
girl, with her heart on her sleeve. Every little thing you tell her, she'll
believe. She really will. She even cries in her sleep. I've heard her many
times before. I never have a girl who loves me half as much as this girl
loves me. She's really emotional.
BOGAEV: That's James Naughton singing the Randy Newman song, a "Real
(Station credits given)
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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