Providence native Susan Russo is a food writer based in San Diego. She posted her first story on her food blog "Food Blogga" in 2007, inspired by a run-in with airport security at TF Green while she was traveling with a block of Reggiano Parmegiano. Russo also publishes stories and recipes on NPR's Kitchen Window website. Recently, she spoke with the Independent about the local food movement and her memories of growing up Italian-American in North Providence.
You explain your blog's name as "Rhode Islandese for 'Food Blogger.'"
That's right. I grew up in an Italian American family in North Providence, the youngest of three children. I guess that food was really the focal point of our family. My mom always felt that mealtime was much more about spending time together and bonding as a family rather than just to get food or to get nutrition. On Sunday we would have the large traditional Italian family dinner. There would be an antipasto and then usually gravy--which is tomato sauce, but Italian-Americans call it gravy--with tomato and meatballs and pasta, and then we'd have a meat dish with veal or chicken, several bottles of red wine (often homemade) and then some kind of homemade dessert like an Italian sponge cake, or it could be a treat like my grandmother's pizzelle* cookies. And when I was growing up it seemed ordinary. It was just what you did. And then I started meeting people from different cultures and I realized how grand it was and how special it was, and I am so glad that I am able to have that memory.
Who most influenced how you think about food and cooking?
My grandmother. She's still alive, 100 years old and living in Rhode Island. She's not aware of my blog because she has severe Alzheimer's, but I have to say that I credit so much of my love for and comfort with cooking with my grandmother. One of the things I loved about the way she cooked was, it was so simple, in a very small kitchen, with very few utensils, very few pots and pans, and yet from those few simple tools and some basic ingredients she would create some of the most mouthwatering, delicious food I've ever eaten. You know, chicken cutlets, lentil soup, pizza, stuffed peppers, all kinds of salads, lots of vegetables like string beans and tomatoes and artichokes, but nothing was stuffy for her. And she enjoyed it and took pleasure in watching people eat it. There's something about watching other people eat and enjoy it that is so gratifying for a lot of Italian women, and I think I've inherited it.
What was the Italian-American experience like growing up in Rhode Island?
When I was growing up I went to school in North Providence, which had a very large percentage of Italian-Americans, so the children I went to school with were also Italian-Americans. I didn't have the perspective I have as an adult because when I went over to my friends' houses they'd be eating a lot of the same foods. There was a lot more focus on sitting down together as a family, having dinner together every night, bringing homemade lunches to school. I think, largely out of necessity, times have changed and a lot of families have two working parents and it's not possible to do that. And I do think, however--and I realize this is different in different parts of the country--but I think, again, there is attention being paid to sitting down at the dinner table as a time to reconnect, to socialize, to really enjoy food, and I hope that's something that continues to develop.
Do you have any favorite food pairings?
Well, I'm laughing because the first one that comes to mind is chocolate and peanut butter. Not very highbrow, I know. Let me see. I love citrus and fennel. We grew up with it--it's an Italian vegetable with a mild anise flavor. Also, being in California now, I experienced a lot of new fruits and vegetables. Dates are one of my favorites, and I love to pair dates and citrus. And peppery salad greens with strawberries or watermelon.
With Michael Pollan and other environmentalist-foodie writers getting a lot of press these days, how do you view the food-environment connection?
That's something that I have developed over the last few years, and I think it's from living in California. I think moving here where so much of the country's produce is grown really affected me. It was the first time I could actually go to farmers' markets on a regular basis. It was an eye-opening experience. Not only was I able to eat the freshest produce imaginable but also I was able to meet the farmers who grew the food and develop relationships with them, and that makes such a difference. When you actually go and meet the person who picked the strawberry earlier that week or who can explain how those watermelons are grown, it makes such a difference. And I think it changes your attitude toward the environment. All of a sudden you understand what it means to have sustainable food, food that is safe for you, that is nutritious, that is preferably locally grown, that is respectful of the environment, that is respectful of animal welfare, that supports the local community.
There is now a pretty big local food movement in Rhode Island, including community supported agriculture, Community Harvest and the farmers markets, restaurants like Local 121 and La Laiterie. Was any of this around when you lived here, or do you think it's new?
I don't think there were any. But we would go to all the local shops, the local butcher, the local bakery, the seafood, instead of going to the supermarket for everything. My mom would go to the Mom & Pop shops, which unfortunately, I don't know maybe 15 years ago were driven out of business by the big box stores and the larger supermarkets.
Is there anywhere in particular you have to eat when you come back to Providence?
Venda Ravioli is my absolute favorite, and I make sure I have to make it to Venda every time I make it home.
Can you share one food fact you've recently become excited by?
I just wrote about cherimoyas, an ancient Incan fruit reserved for royalty. They're wonderful, sometimes called custard apple as a common name. From the outside they have this green scaly skin that almost looks reptilian, and then when you open it up there is ivory colored flesh that is the most luscious tropically-flavored sweet flesh that is almost like eating custard, and it's so luscious that Mark Twain called it the most delicious fruit known to man. And I can see why.
How did you begin writing and appearing on NPR's Kitchen Window?
I met a blogger who had told me that she had written to NPR, that she heard through the grapevine that they were looking for new writers for Kitchen Window. She gave me the name of the producer, and I wrote a short note and said I liked their program and I had a food blog. She said she liked my writing and I should pitch a story idea to her, and I wrote about fish tacos. And they really liked the piece. It was on the top-emailed stories on NPR for several days, which they told me was unusual, so I was pretty excited by that. And since then we've had a really wonderful working relationship. And they've been really wonderful editors. And I feel really fortunate to have that.
Do you have any food-related wishes for the new Obama Administration?
School lunches should be a priority. Healthy, good-tasting school lunches, so children realize that good food doesn't have to taste bad. I think it's so important to teach children at a young age that they have to feed their bodies properly to feel good about themselves, to have more strength, to become confident. Food isn't about eating something when you're bored or just because you're hungry. It's more than that, it's nutrition.
Do you plan to come back to RI soon?
I hope to in the fall. The fall has always been my favorite time of the year. There's nothing like the fall in New England, with the foliage, the pumpkin patches. It makes you really nostalgic.
KATIE OKAMOTO B'09.5 is the last woman on this small planet.
*From "Food Blogga," Oct. 26 2008: "Pizzelles are Italian waffle-like cookies made from flour, sugar, eggs and butter, typically flavored with anise or vanilla. The name comes from the Italian pizze, meaning 'flat' or 'round.' Believed to be the oldest cookie in Italy, pizzelles have a unique history. According to legend, in 700 BCE, snakes had infested Abruzzo, in south central Italy, and after they were banished, the townspeople celebrated by eating pizzelle. To this day, pizzelles are eaten to celebrate the Festival of the Snakes, now known as the Feast Day of San Domenico. Pizzelles were originally baked over open fire using irons that were embossed with a family or village crest. Today they are made using a pizzelle iron, which is similar to a waffle iron, but has an attractive floral pattern rather than a grid."