DATE January 5, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Harold McGee discusses the science of cooking and his
book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The more you know about why foods behave the way they do, the science of
cooking, the more you will understand how to prepare good food. That's the
premise of Harold McGee's book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of
the Kitchen." It was first published in 1984 and was described in Time
magazine as a minor masterpiece. LA Times food columnist Russ Parsons calls
it the single best book in its field. And Vogue magazine food critic Jeffrey
Steingarten says, `It changed the way we cooks think about and do things in
Now McGee has written a new edition that includes the latest information about
the science of cooking, takes into account new food trends and explains the
chemistry of flavor and taste. We played part one of my interview with McGee
before the holidays. Now we'll hear part two.
He says that most of what we perceive as flavor really comes from our sense of
flavor. I asked him to explain that since I perceive taste as coming from my
tongue, not my nose. He told me it's really a matter of numbers.
Mr. HAROLD McGEE (Author, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the
Kitchen"): We have receptors on our tongue that can detect a half-dozen or so
different kinds of molecules, and so we have a half-dozen or so different
kinds of sensations that come from the tongue: sweetness; sourness;
bitterness; umami, a Japanese term that refers to the flavor--this is a very
specific taste of MSG, monosodium glutamate. In the nose, though, we've got
hundreds of different receptors that can detect thousands of different kinds
of molecules. And so the tongue, in a way, kind of lays down the basis for a
flavor in a food, gives you kind of the backbone of the flavor. But then the
complications and the distinctiveness comes from the hundreds of compounds
that are responsible for the aroma.
GROSS: Even when there isn't a discernable aroma from what we're eating?
Mr. McGEE: Well, there's a difference between what you can smell by sniffing
a food on your plate and what you can smell from the aromas that come from
inside your mouth, across your olfactory receptors in the nose from inside.
And, of course, the mouth is a very enclosed place, and so things can get
concentrated there, whereas if it's sitting on your plate, you know, the
aromas are going in all directions, and you may only get a tiny fraction of
GROSS: In your book, you say that an exception to the rule--that much of our
taste really comes from our sense of smell. An exception to that is hot
spices, like hot peppers. How do we sense them?
Mr. McGEE: Chili peppers actually activate not a taste receptor but a
receptor that's really responsible for creating the sensation of pain. And
that's a very peculiar thing; that human beings have come to enjoy and
treasure and seek after flavors that actually do cause us pain and do that
because they're meant to deter us from eating. The other thing is that
apparently the compounds that cause those sensations also heighten our
sensitivity to certain other tastes. So, for example, saltiness and sourness
because much more pronounced in the presence of the compounds that give hot
peppers their heat.
GROSS: While we're talking about aroma, it seems to me that the place that's
really using the latest knowledge about aroma and how that enhances taste is
the fast-food industry. 'Cause aren't they really chemically studying that
and consciously using chemicals that literally enhance fragrance and also
Mr. McGEE: Yes. One of the driving forces to understanding more about flavor
has been a desire to not exactly make better foods but to approximate them by
other means. So instead of making, say, a traditional cheddar cheese the
old-fashioned way, which is very labor intensive and takes months of aging in
order to develop the flavor, cheese companies are interesting in knowing,
`Well, what are those flavors that are in the final cheese that give it its
wonderful qualities, and can we get them in there some other way faster?'
GROSS: Do you know what chemically is going on in the flavor of cheddar
cheese and how you can chemically enhance cheese to make it taste like a good
Mr. McGEE: Well, the way cheese and many other traditional slowly made and
especially fermented foods get their flavor is essentially from the breakdown
of the original food materials. So, for example, in the case of cheddar
cheese, it's made from milk, and milk is mainly fat and protein. And those
molecules in themselves don't really have flavor; they're way too big. They
can't escape into the air and affect our sense of smell. What happens in the
course of cheese-making is that various microbes, mostly bacteria in the case
of cheddar cheese, break those flavorless kind of precursor molecules down
into their building blocks: amino acids and fatty acids and things like that.
And it's those things that then interact with each other and with our senses
of taste and smell and give us the impression of a kind of mouth-filling
flavor. And the way to get that quickly is to find ways to accelerate that
breakdown or to add those small flavorsome molecules from the very beginning,
so that you don't have to wait.
GROSS: Your book explained a lot to me about how foods ripen and why I
sometimes am lucky and sometimes not (laughs) with that. Can you explain the
difference between the two different type of fruit and how they ripen?
Mr. McGEE: Yeah. There are two basic kinds of fruit that we deal with, one
of which ripens in a kind of explosive way almost or very pronounced way. And
those are fruits that just kind of sit there and look like nothing in
particular and then, all of a sudden, begin to change color and develop aroma.
Pears are a good example, bananas are a good example. Peaches and nectarines
and berries and so on have a very short life span. You have to catch them at
their peak. They're very good for a very short period of time. Before that,
they're not really very interesting. After that, they're just kind of over
the hill and not very nice. Then there's another kind of fruit which really
doesn't go through that. It ripens very slowly and reaches a kind of plateau
and is fine for days, sometimes week. And citrus fruits are the best example
of those. Apples also keep very well.
GROSS: And one of the differences between the way the two different types of
fruit ripen is ethylene.
Mr. McGEE: That's right. Ethylene is a gas given off by plant cells under
various circumstances--often it's a response to stress or to wounding--and
basically speeds up the metabolism of other cells in the neighborhood. And
it's very important in ripening because it helps trigger the kind of rapid
transformation that we see in fruits that ripen that way. So, for example, if
you have a fruit that should ripen that way, a pear or a peach or something
like that, and you really want it to go a little faster, you can enclose it in
something like a paper bag with, say, a banana that's well along in its
ripening because it's giving off ethylene, and it can help nudge the other
fruit along in its process.
GROSS: So how is the food industry using this knowledge of ethylene and how
it affects ripening, and how is that, in turn, affecting the taste of our
Mr. McGEE: Well, it has allowed them to essentially ripen fruits on demand in
the supermarket or in transit to the supermarket, so they can, therefore, pick
fruit from the tree or the vine before it's physiologically ripe, before it's
actually ripened on its own, transport it while it's still relatively firm and
not as fragile as it is when it's ripe and then, either in the truck or at the
supermarket, dose it with some ethylene gas to induce some ripening now that
it's reached its destination. That's very handy for the producer and for the
supermarket. It's not so great for the consumer because it means that the
fruit has been harvested before it ripened on the vine or the tree. And that
means that it's had less time to generate sugars, it's had less time to
generate flavor and it just doesn't taste as good.
GROSS: My guest is Harold McGee. He's written a new, updated, revised
version of his book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the
Kitchen." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Harold McGee. And he has a new
edition of his popular book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the
I don't know if you cook much with microwaves, but what's the difference
between how a microwave oven cooks and your stove? And why is it that you
can't--at least I can't--brown food in a microwave, and the food often comes
Mr. McGEE: Mm-hmm. Microwave...
GROSS: ...particularly if it's, you know, like a fish or a meat or something?
Mr. McGEE: Yeah, yeah. Well, and vegetables, too. Microwaves cook in a very
different way than ordinary ovens do. Ordinary ovens basically heat the air
inside them and radiate heat from their walls and the floor and the ceiling of
the oven, and that heat then gets transferred to the outside surface of the
food that you put in the oven. And then it gets transferred from the surface
of the food to the interior. So the food itself conducts heat from the
outside to the inside, and that's the process of cooking.
The microwave oven acts very different. It's sending out electromagnetic
radiation, and that radiation turns out to affect, really, for the most part,
only the water molecules in the food. It really doesn't affect the other
molecules, the proteins and the carbohydrates. So what happens is that the
electromagnetic radiation from the oven strikes the outside of the food and
actually penetrates about an inch into the food before it's dissipated, heats
the water molecules in that part of the food, and then the water molecules
have to transfer their heat to the other parts of the food. So if a food
doesn't have much in the way of water, then it doesn't heat very well. And,
in fact, if it has water but the water is immobilized, for example, in ice,
then it doesn't heat very well. So you can take an ice cube and put it in a
microwave oven and turn it on, and nothing much will happen for a long time,
until the outside begins to melt a little bit just from the warmth of the air.
And then the microwaves can affect those water molecules, and then they will
begin to affect the rest of the ice cube.
The reason that microwave ovens don't brown foods very well is that the
microwaves basically affect the water content of the food. And the thing
about browning is that it really doesn't begin to happen, those reactions that
generate wonderful flavors and colors, until most of the water is boiled off
of the surface of the food. And that really never happens in the microwave,
or it takes really extended microwave cooking in order to get there. And by
the time you've done that, you've turned the food into something like shoe
GROSS: What do you do to compensate for all the dryness that can result from
a microwave oven?
Mr. McGEE: Well, you can pulse the energy, and that means using a lower power
level. And then the microwave is only on for 10 or 15 seconds and then off
for 10 or 15 seconds and then on again, and that gives the heat a chance to
migrate from the surface to the center and to even out. The other thing you
can do is make the atmosphere of the cooking chamber moist, so that--and that
does two things: It provides more water molecules for the microwaves to work
on and generate heat for the food, and then it provides moisture in the air
right around the food, so that the food doesn't lose as much water to the air.
And so you simply take the care to put a few tablespoons of water into the
dish that you're doing the cooking in and then cover the dish either with
another dish or a plate or kind of loose plastic wrap, and that retains the
moisture and prevents it from drying out.
GROSS: Do you use the microwave for defrosting?
Mr. McGEE: I generally don't use the microwave for defrosting.
GROSS: Is it bad? I mean, does it dry out food in the defrosting process
more than just leaving it out would?
Mr. McGEE: Well, yeah. The problem with defrosting is, again, the microwaves
are most efficient on water molecules that are free to move, and, in fact,
that's the way they heat the food--is by making those water molecules that are
free to move move faster. So in something that's frozen, the water molecules
are actually locked up in crystals and are not free to move, and that's why
microwaving an ice cube doesn't get you very far. When things do start to
melt, then things happen faster, and, of course, that's going to happen
primarily in a frozen food at the surface. And so what ends up happening
often in defrosting in a microwave is that you end up partly cooking the very
outside while the rest of the food simply thaws, and so you end up with a very
So I prefer, when it comes to defrosting, to--which can take forever in the
refrigerator, for example--is just to put the food in a container of ice
water. Even though you might think that the warming up is going to be slow
because the water is icy, in fact, the water is very efficient at moving heat
in and out of various things. It's fluid, and it has a high heat capacity and
so on, so it actually is a very effective and rapid way of thawing a food and,
also, thawing it safely; that is to say keeping the surface at a temperature
that isn't going to allow for the growth of bacteria while the rest of the
food warms up.
GROSS: We're warned about a lot of foods having bacteria, so if it's not
cooked thoroughly, we'll get food poisoning, and if we don't wash our hands
thoroughly after handling it, we can get sick. You hear that particularly
discussed around fresh chicken and certain fresh meats. What kind of foods do
you feel like you need to take precautions around?
Mr. McGEE: Well, it really is the fresh meats and poultry in particular
because we eat poultry with the skin on, or at least it's packaged much of the
time with the skin on. And the skin is going to have the heaviest burden of
bacteria of any part of the food. A piece of meat that comes from a healthy
animal is going to have--its interior is going to be essential sterile. The
interior of the muscle is not going to have any bacteria. The bacteria come
from the processing of the meat, and it usually almost exclusively resides on
the surface of the food. And that's why it's really important when you're
handling food to be careful of both the food surface and any other surfaces
that come into contact with it, so the cutting board, the knife, your hands.
And, also, you should be aware that when you cut food up, that you're
introducing bacteria from the surface to whatever surface it is you're
So it is just a good idea, whenever you're making cooked foods of any kind, to
make sure that at least the surface of the food gets cooked to the boil or
hotter. And that really does take care of most of the risk. For example,
hamburger--the thing that makes hamburger risky is that you take a piece of
meat that is sterile on the inside but has some bacteria on the surface, and
you grind it up, which means that you mix up the inside with the outside. And
so you spread whatever bacteria were on the outside throughout the meat. And
that's why it's advisable, although not wonderful for the texture of the
hamburger, to cook it well all the way through because the bacteria have been
spread all the way through.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Harold McGee. And he has a new
edition of his popular book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the
What do you think of broiling, like broiling steak?
Mr. McGEE: Broiling works very well for very thin pieces of food. And the
problem and the advantage both is that the broiler is very, very hot, so you
get very high temperatures to develop at the surface of the food very quickly.
That means that you develop flavor very quickly, and that's the appeal of
grilled and broiled foods in general. The problem is that if the food takes
more than a few minutes to cook through, then the outside is going to burn
while the inside cooks through. And so there are a couple of ways you can
deal with that. One is to broil the outside or grill the outside at a high
temperature very quickly to develop flavor, and then take it from the broiler
or the grill and move it to a warm but not superhot place, so the oven or a
part of the grill that is at a much lower temperature, and then let the
interior cook through much more gently.
GROSS: How much time should you marinate foods in order to take full
advantage of the marinade?
Mr. McGEE: Well, marination is something that, generally speaking, only
affects the surface of the food. And, in fact, the longer the marinade is in
contact with the surface of the food, it's true that you get more flavor
there, but you can also cause more damage to the structure of the surface.
Marinades often contain wine, for example, and wine is acidic, and acids tend
to break proteins down. If you leave a piece of meat in a wine marinade for
more than a few hours, then the surface ends up kind of mealy because the
acids breaks the protein down. And there's a difference, of course, between
marinades and brines. Brine is maybe a particular kind of marinade because a
certain salt concentration that ends up allowing the meat to retain more
moisture when it cooks. In the case of a brine, it's important to leave the
food in the brine long enough for the brine to penetrate into the food. And
so you want meat to stay in a brine longer than you would want it to stay in
an acidic marinade.
GROSS: Harold McGee, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. McGEE: My pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Harold McGee has written a revised edition of his 1984 book "On Food
and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) I don't want french fried potatoes, red ripe
tomatoes. I'm never satisfied. I want the frim fram sauce with the oss and
fay with shifafa on the side. I don't want pork chops and bacon. That won't
awaken my appetite inside. I want the frim fram sauce...
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Miriam Toews talks about her new novel. It's based on her
experiences growing up in and rebelling against the Mennonite community.
Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about the fan mania surrounding the
University of Alabama's football team. And David Bianculli reviews the season
premieres of "Alias" and "24."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Warren St. John's "Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer: A Journey
into the Heart of Fan Mania"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The season of college bowl games just ended. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
spent the final part of the season with her head in a book.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
In a recent book called "Available Light," the eminent anthropologist Clifford
Geertz poses this central question about the role of judgment in anthropology:
`What is at stake,' Geertz says, `is a question that has haunted
anthropologists for over a hundred years and haunts us even more now that we
work in a decolonized world. What are we to make of cultural practices that
seem to us odd and illogical? How odd are they? How illogical? In what
precisely does reason lie?'
Geertz's answer, as I understand it, is that a responsible anthropologist
doesn't impose an outside logic on odd practices. Instead, he or she tries to
render those practices according to their own intrinsic logic. That's what
Warren St. John does in his new book "Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer."
St. John explores the phenomenon of fan mania in general and the mania
surrounding the University of Alabama's football team, the Crimson Tide in
particular. St. John is a reporter for The New York Times, and he's also been
a lifelong fan of the Crimson Tide. So as an amateur anthropologist, he's got
one foot in, one foot out of the tribe he's studying. A native of Alabama,
St. John was initiated into fan manhood at age 13, when he had a one-on-one
meeting with the legendary 'bama football coach Bear Bryant. In Alabama,
where reportedly 90 percent of the citizens describe themselves as football
fans and 26 percent associate godlike qualities with the late Coach Bryant,
St. John's private audience was akin to being baptized by the pope.
St. John says at the outset of his book, which takes its Jabberwockyish title
from an old Alabama fight song, that he had a moment of reckoning about
football a few years ago in which he asked himself the soul-searching question
of: Why do I care? "Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer" is St. John's attempt to
explore the mystery of extreme fandom by completely surrendering himself to it
for a season. He takes a leave of absence from his job and eventually even
buys a crummy used RV so that he can really be one with the legion of party
hearty Crimson Tide fans who park their mobile homes at stadium football lots
the Wednesday before a Saturday game.
His book is indeed part amateur anthropology, part new journalism, and it's
thoroughly fun to read. At this point, the expected thing for a non-football
fan like me to also say about a book like this is that it made me get sports
mania in a way I never have before. But actually, it didn't, and that's to
its credit. Implicitly following in the footsteps of Clifford Geertz, Warren
St. John doesn't attempt to translate the cultural practices of rabid Alabama
football fans in ways that render them familiar to an outsider. Instead, St.
John grants these fans the dignity of their otherness. Or to put it in
plainer, politically incorrect language, these fans are nuts, and St. John
vividly, but without condescension, presents them in the full frenzy of their
If that sounds harsh, consider the evidence. Among the folks St. John visits
or lives alongside in these bedouin football caravans are a couple who
deliberately skip their own daughter's wedding, because it conflicted with a
'bama game. Then there's the mother-daughter cheerleading team known as the
huggers(ph) who spend the season ambushing the Crimson Tide players in hotel
lobbies and hugging them. St. John makes a pilgrimage to a funeral home that
sells Alabama coffins, big red fiberglass boxes with white velvet A's sewn
into the lids. The oddest detail, St. John says, is that the coffin is
affixed with a small round sticker that reads "Officially licensed collegiate
product," the same one you find affixed to sweatshirts and baseball caps.
And then there's the fan known admiringly as Heart Guy to the rest of the
community of RV Crimson Tide followers. When St. John meets him, Heart Guy is
wearing a beeper, not because he's on call for work, but because he's awaiting
a heart transplant. The hitch is that if Heart Guy travels outside of a
two-hour radius from the transplant hospital in Nashville, as he does
regularly to follow Alabama games, he's automatically bumped from the
lifesaving transplant list. As Heart Guy explains, if you can't go to Alabama
football games, what's the point in living?
For a non-sports fan, the experience of reading "Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer"
is akin to what I imagine swimming with dolphins would be like. You inhabit a
strange world for a space where the language and customs are odd but riveting
to an extent you know that community from the inside, but you're not of it.
You return to terra firma, happy that you've taken this excursion into the
world of the other, but immensely relieved that you don't live there.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania"
by Warren St. John.
Coming up, Miriam Toews talks about growing up in a fundamentalist Mennonite
community, yearning to get out. It's the subject of her new autobiographical
novel. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Miriam Toews discusses her novel "A Complicated
Kindness" and her life as a Mennonite
TERRY GROSS, host:
Miriam Toews grew up in a fundamentalist Mennonite community in a small town
in Manitoba, Canada. But she dreamed of living in Greenwich Village which
represented everything her town was not. Her new novel, "A Complicated
Kindness," is based on her experiences as a teen-ager. Reviewing it in the
Toronto Star, Noah Richler described it as a truly wonderful novel. He wrote,
`Toews re-creates the stultifying world of exasperated Mennonite teen-ager in
a small town where nothing happens with mesmerizing authenticity.' Here's a
short reading from the beginning of the novel.
Ms. MIRIAM TOEWS (Author, "A Complicated Kindness"): `People here just can't
wait to die, it seems. It's the main event. The reason we're not all snuffed
at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My
guidance counselor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this
place and learn to love it. "But I do," I told her. "Oh, that's rich," she
said, "That's rich." We're Mennonites. As far as I know, we're the most
embarrassing subsect of people to belong to if you're a teen-ager. Five
hundred years ago in Europe, a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own
peculiar religious thing, and he and his followers were beaten up and killed
or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland and Russia until they, at least
some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Ironically, they named
this place East Village, which, I have learned, is the name of the area in New
York City that I would most love to inhabit.'
GROSS: That's Miriam Toews reading from her new novel, "A Complicated
Miriam, what is the preoccupation with death that you describe in this novel?
You write--your character says, `When we were little, my sister and I would
sit in the darkened dining room of my grandmother's farmhouse, listening to
the funeral announcements. They came on after supper, on the local radio
station we were allowed to listen to, because the elders knew that it was
better for little children to listen to the names of dead people being read
out in a terrifying monotone than The Beatles singing "All We Need Is Love."'
Was there a radio program like that that you listened to?
Ms. TOEWS: Yeah, yeah, there was actually. That part is something that I
took straight from my own life. My parents would listen to the death
announcements, you know. I'm not sure if it was every day or every week,
because there was always somebody that they--you know, they would have known,
somebody who had died, some older man or woman. And so, you know, it was a
small community. So this was something that they listened to with great
interest. And, you know, because I was there, I would hear it, too, but that
would--and, you know, certainly, yeah, we weren't listening to--you know, we
weren't listening to The Beatles or any pop or rock 'n' roll, really, when I
was younger. When I got older and when my sister was older, too, and we
became teen-agers, you know, we acquired records and stuff like that, but
before that, yeah, basically, the radio that we listened to would have been
GROSS: What were some of the things that were banned in your community?
Ms. TOEWS: It wasn't so much that things were formally banned. But
certainly, you know, the whole gamut of drinking, smoking, dancing was
strictly forbidden, playing cards, gambling, you know. And with some of the
more conservative congregations--because there are different degrees of
conservatism within the Mennonite church. But the very conservative
congregations, you know, would have banned, for instance, fancy appliances in
the home or, you know, a soft-top car, for instance, you know, just fanciness
that could be portrayed by others as vanity and worldliness. You know, those
were the things that Mennonites are expected to stay away from.
GROSS: Did you rebel against it?
Ms. TOEWS: You know, I came from a quite a tolerant sort of liberal Mennonite
home. My family was quite tolerant and liberal and, you know, didn't come
down hard on me for much of anything at all, but I grew up in a very
conservative Mennonite community, and so I saw--you know, I saw that type of
rebellion. You know, I think I did typical stuff, you know, just drinking,
smoking, whatever it was, but I wasn't full of anger. I wasn't full of rage,
and I didn't feel that I was being crushed in the same way that I've seen,
that--you know, that maybe my characters might feel or that I've seen, you
know, around me.
GROSS: You left your community when you were 18?
Ms. TOEWS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You say that one of the reasons why you needed to leave is that you
wanted to write. Could you not have written fiction in this community, do
Ms. TOEWS: No, not the type of fiction that I write, not fiction that would
have been critical, you know, of the community, of the power structure, of the
sort of oppressiveness of it. I mean, no. I mean, I could have. I wouldn't
have been, you know, run out of town or anything, but it would have been very,
very difficult to live there. And that whole idea of, you know, shunning,
which is something that Mennonites, again, the conservative Mennonites, still
do. They may not call it shunning anymore, but it certainly looks and feels
and acts exactly like shunning.
GROSS: Describe what shunning is.
Ms. TOEWS: Well, shunning is a Mennonite thing that, you know, if you broke
the laws of the church, you know, which were--and again, these were, again,
interpreted sort of subjectively and arbitrarily by--at least as far as I could
tell, by the powers that be, by the church elders, by the ministers, by the
deacons. The--you know, adultery, for instance, or, you know, any number of
things, you know, drinking or something, that the community would
basically--would shun you literally. I mean, there would be silence all
around. In fact, your own spouse would be expected not to have anything to do
with you, not to sleep with you, not to eat with you. You would live in the
same home, but there wouldn't be any communication. Essentially, you'd be cut
off, you know, you would be isolated. And that's an extremely destructive
thing. I mean, that's--you know, I mean, it's a form of psychological torture
essentially. I mean, I know that sounds extreme, but I know that--you know, I
know the damage that it's done. I know individuals who've been shunned and
who are still, you know, kind of--I mean, that's a devastating thing to have
happen to you.
GROSS: Who in your life was shunned?
Ms. TOEWS: My great grandfather was shunned for a period of time for eloping
with a 17-year-old girl after his wife died. You know, the children of some
of my mom's friends have been shunned for, for instance, babies born out of
wedlock. And then, you know, years and years and years and years later, some
of them are forgiven and allowed, you know, to re-enter the church, and that
often means an awful lot to them. Sometimes, it doesn't mean anything.
Sometimes these people go off, you know, and leave for good and do their own
thing, but sometimes they don't, you know. They stay in the community and
sort of exist as outsiders.
GROSS: You make the Mennonite culture sound very unforgiving.
Ms. TOEWS: You know, and I don't mean to make the Mennonite culture seem
unforgiving, because it's not unforgiving in all respects. There are elements
that are unforgiving and intolerant and unloving. And there are many, many
elements that are exactly the opposite, that are forgiving, that are tolerant,
that are loving, that are truly loving. But certainly, from what I've
experienced, from what the characters in my book experience, you know, there
is a lot of--yeah, of, you know, unforgiving, intolerant attitudes that are
destructive and that are unnecessary and that aren't Christian and that, you
know, should--I don't know.
It's difficult, you know, because, I mean, I still consider myself to be a
Mennonite. My mother's a Mennonite, belongs to a Mennonite church. You know,
some of my closest friends are Mennonites. I'm married to a Mennonite. You
know, I consider my children to be Mennonite. It's not something, you know,
that I eschew, you know, or deny or, you know, have turned my back on, but
it's something that I'm critical of, you know, in certain ways.
GROSS: Now where do you live now?
Ms. TOEWS: I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
GROSS: In a city or in a small town?
Ms. TOEWS: Yeah, it's a city. Yeah, it's a city. It's a half million, over
GROSS: And where you were from had how many people?
Ms. TOEWS: When I was a kid, about 6,000, yeah.
GROSS: What was some of the most challenging parts of leaving a very
homogeneous religious community to go into a city?
Ms. TOEWS: I was very--I mean, I was so excited when I left. I moved
actually immediately from my hometown, which is called Steinbach. I moved to
Montreal which, as you probably know, is very cosmopolitan, you know, large
urban center here in Canada in the East, in Quebec. And so I went there
directly to study French, actually, which is another thing that was kind of,
you know, pooh-poohed in my community. German would have been the language, a
Low German, Plattdeutsch, actually. But I wanted to study French, and I
wanted to live in Montreal. And it was hard. I mean, I did feel like a bit
of, you know, a nerd, a bit of a dork, a bit of an outsider. I didn't think I
was very cool, and I'm sure a lot of other people agreed.
You know, and then eventually--I mean, I'm still--now I've lived in the city
for, well, you know, like 20 years. But you know, I still feel--like, I still
miss my hometown. I still think of it fondly. I still think of my childhood
which was a wonderful time in my life. It was very nurturing. It felt very
safe. Everybody knew who I was, what church I went to, who my grandparents
were, who my parents were, you know, the part of Russia my, you know, specific
grandparents came from. You know, I mean, it was just--and I still miss it,
you know, and it's only 40 miles down the road. But I don't have anybody
there anymore. My dad died. My mom moved to the city. My sister lives in
the city. You know, it's kind of--I have some old aunts who I love dearly
but, you know, don't see very often. I don't know. It kind of lives on, you
know, in my memory as not that bad a place.
GROSS: You have three children, all teen-agers. Are you bringing them up
within the religion?
Ms. TOEWS: No, no, not at all. You know, it's kind of--you know, I mean, how
does a Mennonite define him or herself as a Mennonite? It's kind of--you
know, I consider myself to be a Mennonite. My husband, I consider him to be a
Mennonite, but he doesn't really think of himself as a Mennonite, because he's
never belonged to any church. And, you know, the kids, because of their last
names here, in this city, everybody knows, you know, what Mennonites are and
who Mennonites are and what they're kind of about. And so because of our last
name, it's clearly a Mennonite last name, and so they would be considered to
be Mennonites. But no, they don't go to a Mennonite church.
Again, my mother is, you know, part of a Mennonite church, and she--you know,
she, you know, certainly wields a type of influence on them which is a
positive, loving Mennonite thing.
GROSS: Well, what are some of the values or other aspects of the Mennonite
religion that you still really like?
Ms. TOEWS: I like the whole idea of community. I like the idea of, you know,
large extended families, of, you know--I mean, I have over 30 first cousins,
so, you know, I mean, I don't even know my second cousins. Second cousins are
somebody, you know, that basically, within the Mennonite culture aren't even
considered really relatives. Just, you know, my parents were second cousins
actually, which is kind of funny. You know, one of my best friends is
actually my second cousin, but we never think of each other as second cousins,
because that's all sort of--you know, there are way too many first cousins
that count as we're immediate family.
But no, I miss that. You know, I miss that whole--and to a certain degree, I
still have it, you know. I mean, certainly, on my mother's side, you know,
we'll get together, all the cousins and stuff, you know, every few years, and
they come from all over, and we'll have a good time. But yeah, so there's
that. And I'm still eating a lot of the Mennonite food, you know. My mom
prepares it. I prepare it. What I do miss, something that I do miss is the
singing. Mennonites are known for their singing, for their a cappella singing
in four-part harmony. It's very moving, you know. I have to stop myself from
crying, because it's so beautiful to me, and I remember that very fondly.
GROSS: Your parents were second cousins.
Ms. TOEWS: I know, it sounds crazy, but it's true. Yeah, my sister and I are
GROSS: Yeah, are there any taboos against second cousins marrying?
Ms. TOEWS: Apparently not, no. No, there aren't. I mean, nowadays--although
I know younger people, too, who, you know, are second cousins and married.
But no, I don't think there is a taboo. Is there some kind of law against it?
There is certainly a taboo against first cousins getting married, I know that.
GROSS: I guess, you know, it's possible that there could be, like, health
issues, like, you know, genetically...
Ms. TOEWS: Oh, well, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...passed-on health issues when there's, you know, marriage within the
extended family like that.
Ms. TOEWS: Absolutely. Well, it's kind of interesting. Me, I and my
sister-in-law, we are second cousins, so that's--OK, so my husband's brother's
wife and I are second cousins so that our kids actually, her kids and my kids,
are first cousins, because their dads are brothers, but they're also third
cousins, right, I think, because their mom and I are second cousins, which
sounds pretty freaky. It's kind of embarrassing to say, but, you know, it
seems to have all worked out more or less.
GROSS: Your new novel is set in the kind of community that you grew up, in a
small Mennonite community in Canada. Do you want to write about other places,
or do you want to keep your writing to the type of community that you're from
and that you know so well?
Ms. TOEWS: I really want to write about other places. I think it's--I'm
really--I really feel that, you know, I've said a lot of what I know that, you
know, your background, the place where you're from and all of that stuff will
seep into, you know, it'll seep into your work, you know, forever, right? I
mean, it always does. I mean, that's unavoidable. But I definitely want to
move on. And, you know, I've lived in other places. I've traveled around the
world and, you know, I think it's definitely time, and I'm looking forward to
writing about other places.
GROSS: Well, Miriam Toews, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. TOEWS: Thank you very much. It was nice. Thanks a lot, Terry.
GROSS: Miriam Toews' new novel is called "A Complicated Kindness."
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the season premieres of "Alias" and "24."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New season beginnings of "Alias" and "24"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The high action drama series "Alias" returns to TV tonight. And on Sunday,
"24" begins another season. TV critic David Bianculli has been waiting
eagerly for both of them and has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
Two action dramas return to TV this week. There's Kiefer Sutherland saving
the day one hour at a time on "24" and Jennifer Garner saving the world one
wig at a time on "Alias." And they have an awful lot in common. They have
very attractive leads who shoulder the majority of the screen time. They move
at a relentless pace. There's always a question about whom to trust, even
among their fellow spies and loved ones. And every once in a while, both
shows reinvent themselves by shaking things up entirely.
"Alias" did it last year after two seasons in which Jennifer Garner, as CIA
Agent Sydney Bristow, seemed to have settled into her world of espionage. She
had made peace with her parents and bonded with a boyfriend, all of whom were
fellow spies. Life seemed good, so series creator J.J. Abrams shook the
show's foundations and Sydney's world by starting last season with a two-year
fast-forward. Sydney woke up in the Far East with no memory of those two
years and with all her loved ones presuming her dead. Her boyfriend had
married another woman, and the entire season was a quest for Sydney to find
her past, her place and herself.
On "24," every new day, each 24-episode cycle of hourlong real-time
installments, has started with Kiefer Sutherland's Jack in a new place. This
year, the story picks up 18 months later, and Jack starts off far away from
the pressure cooker world of CTU, the counterterrorist unit. In the interim,
he was dismissed from his job by the agency's new boss, and he's enjoying a
quieter life with his new girlfriend. Her father, played by William Devane,
happens to be secretary of State. And in the opening hour of "24," he and his
daughter are kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists. Needless to say, Jack is
on the case, with or without official approval. And with the new CTU boss,
Erin Driscoll, being the one who fired Jack for being a heroin addict, he's
not likely to get that approval. Alberta Watson, who played a similarly
flinty spy boss on the TV version of "La Femme Nikita," plays Erin.
(Soundbite of "24")
Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Erin, I need to speak to you.
Ms. ALBERTA WALKER: (As Erin Driscoll) You're done here, Jack.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Just listen to me.
Ms. WALKER: (As Erin Driscoll) I'm detaining you.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Erin, just listen to me. Secretary Heller is
my responsibility. Now I need you to reinstate me on a provisional basis
until I get him back.
Ms. WALKER: (As Erin Driscoll) You don't give me orders, Jack. I'm detaining
you until an investigator from division can take your statement. I'm going to
recommend that you be arrested for torturing a suspect and rendering him
useless for questioning.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) You weren't getting anywhere with him.
Because of me, Sherek told you everything he knows.
Ms. WALKER: (As Erin Driscoll) You'd better hope so. Would you please escort
Mr. Bauer to a vacant office until division gets here?
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I'm fine. You're making a mistake.
BIANCULLI: The new year of "24" begins strongly, and William Devane as the
kidnapped secretary of State matches Sutherland in intensity and magnetic
screen presence. The first four hours moves swiftly, even in real time, and I
can't wait to see more.
As for the new "Alias," the shift this year is a major effort to not only
change things but simplify them. Before the two-hour season premiere is over,
Sydney has walked away from her old job and colleagues at the CIA, but, as with
Jack Bauer on "24," circumstances and fate dictate that she doesn't go far.
This two-hour "Alias" premiere isn't as strong as previous season openers, but
it has a lot to accomplish and a lot of exposition to get through. And as
revisionist history goes, it's a lot more satisfying than having Bobby Ewing
step out of the shower, as he did on "Dallas," to announce that the entire
previous season was a dream.
The dream for "Alias" is its new time slot. J.J. Abrams' drama never found
the audience it deserved on Sunday nights, but now that his other prime-time
drama, "Lost," is one of the season's biggest hits, ABC is rewarding Abrams by
moving "Alias" to Wednesdays, following "Lost," hoping viewers will stay tuned
for both shows.
"24" also starts the season with an expanded premiere, two hours Sunday, two
more on Monday. Then, like "Alias," it moves to a new night and will be shown
Mondays at nine. Both of these are smart scheduling moves, especially since
the mid-season starts for these shows guarantee that they'll finish out the
season without interruption, no repeats, no pre-emptions, just two really good
shows every week, shows that seem even better when surrounded by such hideous
mid-season reality series as "Who's Your Daddy?" and "The Will."
Welcome back, Jack and Sydney. It's been a long wait, but it's worth it.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.