Full disclosure: Kim Foster is my neighbor. That means that any time I want to hang out with this James Beard Award-nominated writer (for 2017's "The Meth Lunches: The Care and Feeding of a Drug Addict," published locally in Desert Companion), I can just walk over to her house, say hello to her husband David Foster (president of Absinthe production company Spiegelworld) and her cluster of cool kids, and get to chatting in the kitchen, where Kim is a regular fixture. Last week, we talked about food, culture and her monthly Writer's Block cookbook club, Please Send Noodles.
What inspired you to start Please Send Noodles? I started it because I believe in community eating. I think that bringing people together in one spot with food they made with their own hands and sharing that food—getting to know one another, breaking down barriers and stereotypes and expectations—is healthy for a community. I mean, it's just food, but maybe the act of feeding each other makes us better at living together.
Are you a big-time cookbook reader? What do you look for in a good cookbook? I'm really into cookbooks. I read them, keep them on my nightstand, cook with them. And I'm always telling [Writer's Block co-proprietor] Drew Cohen, "You should have this-or-that book at the store."
Oftentimes, what I'm looking for in these books is inspiration. I have a pretty decent pantry, so I can improvise a lot. For example, I bought this book the other day [pulls Maangchi's Big Book of Korean Cooking off the shelf]; she's pretty much the Korean Martha Stewart. [She leafs through the book.] A lot of this stuff I may never do, like stir-fry kelp, because the kids would be, like, "Why would you do that?" But I'll find a couple of things here that I can modify that the kids will eat, or that I may end up serving it at a party. Spicy stir-fry pork? That can totally work for a family dinner. Glazed meatballs? Who doesn't want those? We can do those for a dinner party.
Speaking of: I love the community aspect of your dinners. There's a lot of good mixing and mingling while you fix up your plate. I like that, too. We don't have a table big enough [to seat everyone], so at the end of the day "make your own plate" is the way to go. The only thing that worries me about it is people accidentally putting flavors together that don't belong together, and maybe it doesn't taste good. But people seem to do a fine job with it.
So that's what I look for in cookbooks. The book we did this month [Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin] is really interesting. This is the author's second book; her first [The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks] won the James Beard Award [for Reference, History, and Scholarship]. It was super educational for me, because she talks about African American food ways in depth; about the bartenders and cooks who were famous for working at some country club and making some major dishes. There's a full world of cooks, of types of food and where it came from—who invented this drink, who invented that gumbo—that I didn't even know about.
How did you get into cooking? I used to write about restaurants. Then David and I got married and had our daughter Lucy, and we decided that we would go to restaurants and that our life would not change just because we had a child. We were pretty good for a while; we'd take her to restaurants and she would just sleep. But one time, she got up and ran across the restaurant and into the kitchen, and the chef carried her back out.
So we decided we would have to change our lives a little bit and make restaurant-quality food at home if we ever wanted to eat good food again. We just took it upon ourselves.
It's cool that your kids are growing up with all these flavors. It really makes a difference. You know what [my daughter] Desi did last night? I had just gone to the store, and she put mango slices, cherry tomatoes, orange slices and all these little pieces of fruit in a bowl, and then she said, 'It needs something else." So, she got some parsley from the fridge and put it on top as a garnish. I thought, "Ah, she's watching." She knew to put garnish on top. That comes from knowing that your food shouldn't just be thrown on a plate. I think it's good for them to have such an expansive view of food. How old were you when you had sushi for the first time?
Mid-20s. Me, too. It seems so strange, you know what I mean? I mean, there were no Japanese restaurants where I grew up. There was Chinese takeout. So, there's a level of sophistication, now. I think a lot of it has to do with food TV; everybody knows how to talk like a critic. Everyone's a Yelper; everyone can critique a dish. Everyone knows the lingo.
But those attitudes seem less polarized than in the public criticism of forms of other forms of expression—film, TV, music. Am I off-base here? There are polarizing elements in the food world, but things are changing. Food is very political, now, but in a different way than it has been. When people write about food now, they're writing about race, about sexism. There's a really powerful essay [by Osayi Endolyn] that came out this year, about what it means to eat in a restaurant as a black woman. There are all kinds of writing out there about the way food intersects with people's identities. That's really interesting for me, to see that happening. People are talking about food in a really personal way. So, it's not polarizing in the sense that people are arguing about food, like, [accusingly] "You're a vegan." But we're now in this place where people are talking about what food means to them in a very intimate way, what it means to cultures. We talk about food in a way that isn't beautiful, isn't Instagrammable, that's dysfunctional and hard and weird. There are all kinds of new conversations happening now. That's really exciting.
But I think that also lets out a lot of people from the discussion. Regular people who aren't food writers are not talking about the intersection of food and gender identity, you know? It's more along the lines of "Did I enjoy that muffin?" There's a higher level of dissection going on, but on a different level, people are more accepting.
Did your interest in writing about food develop at the same time as your passion for cooking? Yeah, because I was a blogger! And I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Back when blogs were a thing—around 2005-2007—there was a whole thing; people called it "mommyblogging." It was basically an opportunity to be confessional, to write about real things and have an audience immediately looking at it. I am, in my heart, a blogger. If, during that time period, anyone had said to me, "Would you like to put this piece in The New Yorker?" I would have said "No, because I can post it on my blog and I'll get X amount of people to come read it." They were my people, my audience. I loved blogging; I loved the immediacy of it, the interaction, the community.
I was really engaged in that world. The two [creative disciplines] really coalesced. I would cook, and then I would talk about it. I would screw up a dinner, and I would talk about it. I would do something amazing and I would talk about it. My first pig roast, I wrote about it. And I enjoy writing about other things, too, but it just happens that food intersects with all of them.
Did writing about food make you better at it? Or did cooking make you a better writer? I'm definitely a better cook because I write about cooking. You have to do research when you're writing; you have to make sure that what you're saying is true. Anything you put down on paper as a writer makes it real. That's why I'm a really bad story pitcher: I don't know what the story is until I write it. I often don't know how I feel about something until I've written it down. That goes with cooking as well, because I can sort of process what I did and how I did it.
You asked about the connection between my cooking and my writing? Well, I write in the kitchen. You know how you have to go away from a piece of writing—shower, take a walk, something like that—to get some perspective on it? Well, I'll just cook something. It's sort of a meditative process, especially if it's a dish that I've made often. That re-centers my brain on the piece, and I'm able to go back to it refreshed.
We've often talked about Vegas' home chefs. What about them fascinates you? Well, there are a lot of good restaurant writers in this city, and they're doing their thing. And my voice doesn't add anything to that.
The food world isn't just restaurants. I recently went to a Samoan feast at a Lutheran church. The church ladies made some pretty spectacular food to honor a pastor who was flying in. The ladies cooked all night, and the food was just ridiculously good. The lady in charge of cooking for the event was stirring a huge pot of chop suey, made with canned corned beef. Others were making lau lau, folding pork and butter fish into taro leaves and steaming them. There were little cups of fish cooked in coconut milk with onions and carrots, fried whole fish and banana. ... It was just really extraordinary. And the ladies were so welcoming, letting me come to the event, shoot pictures and ask about their food.
At one point, my friend Messeret, who is Ethiopian, was talking to a Samoan woman, Sana. Messeret told her that in Ethiopian culture, you're supposed to leave food on the plate. It's rude to eat all the food. Sana said that in Samoa, it's rude not to eat everything on your plate. And there was this wonderful moment where both of them were laughing over this cultural faux pas. So, when I think of food culture in Las Vegas, it's not about whether this restaurant or that restaurant is good; somebody else is writing about that. To me, the real beauty is those Samoan women, cooking away. I wouldn't say writing about things like that is a calling, but it is a place where I can add my voice, because there isn't one there now.
It's not so much about home chefs, as a thing. But I care about those people who are out there making this food with a lot of love.
Meanwhile, in your other world: Who do like among Vegas' local writers? I'm reading a lot of young writers. Our young writers are really, really good. I think we're going to see some brilliant stuff coming from them. When I see Summer Thomad writing about and photographing the things that she cooks, or when I read Sonja Swanson writing about catching grasshoppers, or [Las Vegas Weekly's] Leslie Ventura, when I read her or listen to her podcast ... I see these young women who aren't just talking about food; they're talking about the culture. They have a real sensibility for the work; they come at it from an entirely different place than you or I would. They grew up in an era when cultural identity is really important. I just love seeing what they do. And every time one of them comes out with something really great, I get really excited to see these young women just killing it.
OK, one last thing I gotta know: Where do you go to stock that versatile pantry of yours? I have a bunch of different places. Chinatown shopping is the best shopping; you can get anything there. I also shop at 99 Ranch on Maryland Parkway; Aladdin Market; International Marketplace; and at the farm store. C-A-L Ranch, on Jones. The farm store is my favorite. I go there to get chicken feed [the Fosters have their own coop], but every once in a while, a farmer will show up with baby goats in tow. Something weird and crazy happens every time I go to the farm store.
PLEASE SEND NOODLES Writer's Block Book Shop, facebook.com/groups/PleaseSendNoodles.