Zibby Owens: I’m excited to talk to Phyllis Grant who is an IACP finalist for Personal Essays/Memoir Writing and a three-time Saveur Food Blog Award finalist for her blog, Dash and Bella. Her latest book is Everything Is Under Control: A Memoir with Recipes. She has cooked in world-renowned restaurants, including Nobu, Michael’s, and Bouley. Her essays and recipes have been published in a dozen anthologies and cookbooks, including Best Food Writing in both 2015 and 2016. Her work has been featured in Esquire, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, Real Simple, Saveur, HuffPost, Time, San Francisco Chronicle, Food52, and Salon. She currently lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and two children.

Welcome, Phyllis. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Phyllis Grant: Thanks for having me, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. As I told you when we did our Instagram Live chat, I really enjoyed your book. It is so beautifully written. It’s so unique in the structure to is as well, how it’s short chapters and recipes at the end. It was just fantastic, especially for now, I have to say, so thanks.

Phyllis: It seems to be, people are saying it’s sort of an in-one-sitting read sometimes, which is great. I think partly because it’s so spare, people can gobble it up and not feel like they have to work hard. My goal in pairing it down was to make it flow almost cinematically so that you’re sort of flashing up a building. Then you’re in a dance studio. Then you’re in a kitchen. That flow, it seems like there’s some momentum and rhythm that makes it readable, especially right now when we’re all so distracted.

Zibby: Totally. Could you explain, in general, the plot of the book? Then what made you decide to write it? I know it’s a memoir, so it’s not exactly a plot, but you know, such as it is.

Phyllis: It is my life up until about five years ago, is what it is. I’m fifty as of two weeks ago. It is the appetites and the desires and the career passions and failures. It’s just tracing the things that I have loved. They have all been very physical things, starting with dance and then being on your feet in the kitchen. Then writing for me is actually very physical just in terms of how I write. They’re all connected. They’re all of a piece. They’re all part of me. This book shows how I follow these different little appetites throughout my life, whether it’s food or writing or yoga or dance or parenting, being a birth doula, just really diving in deep to some of these things. I don’t seem to know how to do things in a causal way. That’s sometimes a good thing and sometimes a little dangerous because I go too deep into it and I get overwhelmed. The book is essentially — it lands on seventeen recipes at the end. These recipes are not directly referred to in the book, but they’re alluded to. They’re templates for comfort cooking, which is what I’ve been doing since I had kids seventeen years ago. These aren’t the recipes I learned cooking in restaurants in my twenties. This is the food I’ve cooked for my family for the past seventeen years.

Zibby: That’s a lot more helpful. I feel like the amount of people who are going to replicate a restaurant-quality recipe is far less than the home cooks among us who could actually accomplish these, which is a great feeling.

Phyllis: That’s good. That really was my goal towards the end when I was deciding which ones to put in. I’ve been collecting hundreds of recipes for years that I’ve been developing. It broke my heart a little bit to narrow it down to seventeen. Now it feels like such a relief because each one can have a purpose, either for teaching someone something new, like making tart dough or a template for salad dressing. Start with what’s in this book. Then just look around and see what you have. As long as the balance is about the same, you don’t need lemon. You can use sherry wine vinegar. You don’t need olive oil. You can use coconut oil. What I’m hoping is this gives people a little more confidence to play in the kitchen and not be so rigid and not be so locked into recipes because you don’t learn until you step away from the recipes, at least I didn’t.

Zibby: That’s true. I want to try the cottage cheese pancakes, but I don’t have any cottage cheese right now.

Phyllis: You know what? That’s a great example because if you don’t have cottage cheese, you can use yogurt. You can use ricotta. You can use any creamy thing that you can throw in the blender with the eggs and a little flour, and you have a pancake. They’re packed with protein. Especially with a lot of kids, it’s nice to start the day with the protein. So play, make it without cottage cheese.

Zibby: I will. I really will. We have some yogurt that’s a little too thick that nobody actually likes to eat. I think if I hide it in this recipe, then I won’t be wasting it.

Phyllis: You can add a little orange juice to the dressing. You can add lemon zest, whatever you’re wanting, whatever you have, basically. That’s how we are right now anyway.

Zibby: I feel like your including these recipes was more like a friend at the end of a long phone conversation being like, oh and by the way, you should try making this, as opposed to picking up a book that’s a cookbook. These are recipes and they are user-friendly, but it’s not about the recipes. The recipes are just another gift.

Phyllis: I like that. I like that a lot because that’s often how I end a conversation anyway. It’s like, okay, I’ll send you those five things we talked about, the link to that recipe, and then here’s the thing I’m playing with, and here’s a photo. That is a lovely way of looking at it. Thank you. That’s cool, really cool.

Zibby: You’re welcome. I loved, also, in this book how you wrote about being with a child and walking through — I want to read this scene when you’re walking around Manhattan, if you don’t mind, just one paragraph. “I walk through Manhattan with a warm six-month-old baby strapped to my chest. I walk to stay awake. I walk because that’s what nannies do. Playing mom comes naturally to me, but parenting someone else’s child is the loneliest of boredoms. I am twenty-two.” Then you talk about what it’s like to be a nanny of a baby. This is before you have your own children. What was that experience like? Did you find it as boring to be a parent, or was it worse as a nanny?

Phyllis: That’s such a good question. Definitely worse — well, I was going to say worse as a nanny, but the thing about being a nanny is you hand the baby back at the end of the day. Whereas with your own kids, you might be bored out of your mind, but there’s more at stake. You love the child more deeply. It’s a lifetime commitment. It’s easier to stick around, I would say. Nanny work, it made me not just bored, but lonely, sad, like deep pit in my stomach sad, which is such a strange reaction. I was taking care of someone’s child, but it didn’t feel inspiring yet. I suppose I didn’t find that inspiration until I had my own kids. It took me a few years even with my own kids. I didn’t love my kids at first. I write about that. As babies, the attachment came very slowly for me. That’s a really devastating feeling. It’s sort of similar to what I felt as a nanny, that feeling of disconnect. Thank goodness for the cooking with my kids. When I finally got them into the kitchen, I started to connect with them more than I did when we played, say, Chutes and Ladders. I hated that game. There are certain games, I just can’t even look at the box.

Zibby: There’s so much pressure for moms to enjoy the baby years and the early times. It’s not always enjoyable for everybody. That’s a lot of people’s least favorite part about having kids. Yet I think people feel way too guilty ever admitting that. My older kids aren’t as old as yours. They’re almost thirteen. Now I have friends who are like, I’m much more of a five and up type of mom. It’s laughed at and okay, but when you’re in it, it is not really okay to say that.

Phyllis: No, not at all, but I think that’s true. We all have our time period where we feel more connected to the kids. We’re more helpful. We’re more relaxed. That’s how I feel now with my son who’s twelve. There’s just this great banter. We can read the same things and watch the same things. There’s still this innocence to him. Whereas my seventeen-year-old daughter, it’s different, as it should be. She wants to be with her friends. That’s just killing me right now. Luckily, they have their phones. I never thought I would say that, luckily my kids have phones. They’re seeing their friends faces. They’re talking and they’re laughing.

Zibby: My daughter, for the first time yesterday actually, was crying at how much she misses everybody. She’s been such a trooper, but it is so hard. She’s so social. I think for some kids — half my kids are fine staying home. The other half would much prefer to be out with people.

Phyllis: It is the waves that we’re feeling as grownups. The kids, I think they are more resilient. They are stronger than we are. Most of them are less fragile somehow. They just adjust to the new normal. Thank goodness they’re so resilient. I feel like I’m surrounded by grownups who are not really adjusting at all. During the cocktail Zoom hour, there’s always someone falling apart.

Zibby: You also wrote about 9/11 in this book. You did it in such a way that you never actually say you’re writing about 9/11. It’s one of the ways that you’re — unless I missed it. You don’t reference the date. I mean, you make it clear. It comes after a scene where you’re eating and you’re married. Then all of a sudden it’s, “We spend the morning looking downtown. There are no cars. They come later driving too fast, speeding uptown filled with people in suits covered in ash.” All of a sudden, you have to pick up, okay, wait, where is she now? What’s going on? Then all of a sudden you realize. Then you’re immersed in another moment with you. This is the trick you keep using. Maybe this is the cinematic vision that you were referring to earlier. How do you do it without confusing the reader? It wasn’t really confusing. How did you do that?

Phyllis: I think partly because, and I can’t remember if we talked about this on the previous Instagram Live, but this book was a really long memoir at one point a few years ago. A lot more of those details were in there originally, like probably saying 9/11 and really giving the specifics and the date and the World Trade Center. Although, I think I do mention that at one point. You’re right, it’s not for a quite a few paragraphs do I even say the South Tower starts to fall from the sky. I think by pairing it down so carefully for so many years, I was able to leave behind just enough. That was my goal. Sometimes, like for example the page before when we get married and then we eat twelve cakes, that’s really you all you need to know about that day because that’s all I remember. You know what? We didn’t have a wedding photographer because — I don’t know why. I just was like, we don’t need to spend money on that. This was before I started taking my own pictures. It just wasn’t important to me. We have one photo someone took of the twelve cakes. That’s it. For me, that’s the wedding. Again, with the pairing down, it wasn’t that I wore my mom’s wedding dress or that I had my parents on either side of me walking down the aisle. Although, those are beautiful, moving details for me. When I was examining that particular day in my life, it was the cakes that just rose to the surface as most important, the essence. I’ve used that word a lot. I’ve been talking about this book a lot this week, various podcasts and so on. The word essence keeps coming up. That’s what I was hoping to do, is find the essence of that day as opposed to all the details.

Zibby: It’s almost like you’re making a reduction of a sauce. Have you used that a lot? I have to come up with something new.

Phyllis: A few people have said that. That’s exactly right. Another friend of mine had a very similar analogy, which is — do you know about dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes?

Zibby: No.

Phyllis: They’re these tomatoes. They’re so beautiful. In California in the summer, they’re all over the place at the farmers markets. What they do is they deprive the tomatoes of water. They’re almost like reduced tomatoes. They’re small. They’re deep red. They almost taste like a tomato sauce reduction because they’ve been deprived and they have to suck nutrients out of the soil because they don’t have water. My friend Anne, actually, she read my book and she texted me right away. She was like, “Your book is like a dry-farmed Early Girl tomato.” I thought that was such a lovely thing to say. It’s very much like this reduction of life, the essence. I didn’t set out to do that originally. The book that I wrote many years ago wasn’t good. It wasn’t right. I keep using the word bloated. It was just too much. Sometimes I wonder if I went too far in the other direction, but once I started reducing it down, I couldn’t stop, I guess is what I’d say, until it felt right. Although, it was hard to let go. There was a point where my agent said, okay, stop.

Zibby: Leave us something.

Phyllis: Exactly. I could’ve rewritten it for the rest of my life.

Zibby: It’s not a magazine article. I’ll just read one more. This is your full commentary on a move, which would take me like twenty thousand words to describe. You just write, “We moved to Berkeley in the condo above my Grandmother Phyllis. We worry a lot about how noisy we are, the barking dog, our toddler’s tantrums, our fights, my occasional throwing of a plate or a book or a clog, every single episode of Six Feet Under.” Then that’s it. Then you move on. It’s so great. It’s so perfect. It’s almost like little poems, not to keep analyzing or not that it matters this much to keep talking about the form, but it is what I think is so unique about the way in which you tell your story. I really respect when people try to do it in a different way because I read so many books.

Phyllis: Thank you. It’s funny. When I hear you say the clog, the book, I can see the dent in the wall from the book in the bedroom. I remember the clog flying through — these are things, they are dramatic, but they’re also just what happens every day, something like that. When we have little kids and marriage is hard and everyone’s sleep deprived, a plate will fly across the room every now and then.

Zibby: You’re not coming to my house. I’ll tell you that much. I’m going to keep my cabinets closed.

Phyllis: I haven’t thrown a plate in a decade. Those days are over.

Zibby: Maybe I’m okay then, oh, my gosh. When you were writing this, it sounds like the process was very involved given that it was essentially a completely different book to start. How long did it take from when it was what you called bloated, which I’m sure was also just an awesome book, to now with the reduction version 2.0 of this book?

Phyllis: I think it took about three years, but I wasn’t working on it a lot. My husband is a writer/director/actor. He had a film called Captain Fantastic staring Viggo Mortensen that he wrote and directed and toured with that for a few years. It was really all-encompassing. I didn’t have a lot of time because I was home alone with the kids. My meditation or my peaceful ten minutes, if I had them, would be with this book. I would spend sometimes ten minutes, sometimes five minutes. Sometimes I would just grab one sentence and rework it in a day. That’s partly why it took so long, but I loved it. It didn’t feel like a burden. It just felt like every time I got to sit with the book and move things around, it got better and stronger. I also worked with a freelance editor, my friend Kenzi Wilbur. She was my editor at Food52. She helped me. Every few months, I would send it to her. She would go through and give me some comments. We both had the same desire to really figure out what we could cut out. There was a lot to cut out. As we talked about last time, you were saying maybe pull some of those things back and look at some of those fragments. Those cutting-room-floor fragments might be worth playing with now.

Zibby: Totally, get another couple books out of them.

Phyllis: Exactly. Although, I don’t know. In some ways, I feel like maybe I took out the right stuff. I don’t know.

Zibby: Would you want to write another book on a different topic now? Are you kind of over the whole book writing thing? Are you just getting started? How do you feel about it?

Phyllis: I have been collecting recipes, as I mentioned. I’m working on a cookbook, for sure, mostly comfort food, a lot of salads, a lot of tarts. I’d like to write about perimenopause, actually. I’ve been gathering some information from other friends going through it. I think that’s going to be my next either essay or a book like this. There’s a lot of food woven throughout that experience as well for people as hormones shift, and a lot of emotion, a lot of similar stuff to this book, actually. I feel like that’s the next phase in my writing. My kids are old enough now that I don’t want to write about them. That’s different in some ways because something will happen, and there’ll be great dialogue and a great exchange. It’s something really powerful that I want to tell the story of involving my kids. Sometimes I’ll take notes on that and set it aside. Most of the time, I just let it go. That’s hard. I also feel like I have my kids in this book when they’re young, but it just doesn’t feel right to write about them as teenagers. I can write about my little toddler in my arms. That feels appropriate because it’s still my story. I feel like if I were writing about my twelve and seventeen-year-olds now, it’s too much of their time and their stories. They’re not mine to touch in some ways. That’s what I’ve been realizing, which is hard because I want to write about what I’m experiencing. Maybe at some point I will. Maybe it’s just time. Maybe in a few years or in a decade I’ll be able to.

Zibby: I would keep writing them down because otherwise you’ll forget. I forget everything unless I write it down. Then maybe one day you’ll want to write a fabulous novel and this will be a character and you’ll have all this background stuff, or wish you’d written it. Or maybe you’ll want to just look back on it and remember your kids.

Phyllis: One other thing in terms of just the structure of this book is that I pulled a lot of stuff from emails that I had written to friends. Partly, how I got through some of the harder stuff is by writing about it to my friends and having a back and forth. When I’m writing about my kids now, it’s in those emails. I’m just realizing they are in a place where I can capture them, unless all emails disappear. Every now and then, I have that fear of, oh, my god, I’m going to wake up and that cloud, it’s going to be gone.

Zibby: Totally. I’m like, I should print everything. I should just spend a day printing and printing my heart out. Otherwise, you put it on a tiny little thing and I’m like, what are these? Then I throw them out. It’s like my entire college I throw out without even realizing it.

Phyllis: It’s so true. Emails, if you keep them, that’s our diary in some ways now. Thank you for that reminder to write these things down and pull them together and keep them for who knows what. The stories with my teenagers are just as important as the stories with my toddlers. It is complicated, though, when you step outside yourself and into someone else’s story. That was the hardest stuff to write in my book, actually, stuff about my mom. She lost a baby at twenty-four weeks. That was the last thing I wrote. I actually ended up rewriting it. She actually told me it was much harder than what I’d written on the page and much more devasting and much more blood. I interviewed her about it. This is right before the book locked. I was able to rewrite that paragraph about her. It felt more accurate. It felt really important to her that it was, obviously, more accurate. That’s the hardest stuff, when I was writing about my Grandma Phyllis too because I don’t know exactly what she was feeling at ten when she was cooking for her mom when her dad just died.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Phyllis: Just sort of what I was saying about emails. I’ve had various friends tell me over the years to just keep your fingers moving. Whether you’re tweeting or emailing or handwriting a letter to a friend, that’s all writing. It’s all a practice. It’s a meditation. Just keep your fingers moving, I would say. Don’t be afraid to just write some really bad stuff. I have written some really bad stuff. Just get it on the paper. A great writing exercise is to do what I did with this book, is to take something that’s way over-written and try to pair it down to a few sentences. It’s a really fun game too, if you’re into writing games, which some of us are.

Zibby: Anyone with some extra time, line up the writing games. Forget Chutes and Ladders. It’s all about writing games now.

Phyllis: Actually, you know what would be a great exercise is to open any book and grab a paragraph, whether it’s a novel or a memoir, and then try to reduce it down to one sentence, rewriting it to one sentence. That can be really fun too.

Zibby: You should post that. You should post a challenge and then have people post their answers.

Phyllis: I like that.

Zibby: That would be fun. That would inspire people to write. Or just post the paragraph and then have people reduce it.

Phyllis: That’s so cool.

Zibby: Call it the daily reduction or something.

Phyllis: I like it.

Zibby: No, seriously, it’s fun. You could make it a newsletter. That would be fun to play.

Phyllis: You are an ideas person. I have a few friends just like you. I sit down with them and by the time we’re done with tea, they have ten assignments for me on things I need to do.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Phyllis: No, I actually find it so comforting because I don’t know what I am, but I’m not an ideas person, so thank you.

Zibby: I feel bad because I’m always like, here’s what you should do. I’m like, this is bad. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I have tons of bad ideas, but I do have a lot of ideas.

Phyllis: I love it. That’s great.

Zibby: It was really great chatting with you today. I’m going to try the pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. I’m excited about it. I’m moving this out of my office and into my kitchen.

Phyllis: I like that. That’s cool.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for your book, Everything is Under Control. I hope you’re right.

Phyllis: Me too. Knock on wood. Come on. Thank you so much. This was really fun.

Zibby: This was fun. Thank you so much.

Phyllis: My pleasure. Talk to you later.

Zibby: Buh-bye. Take care.

Phyllis: Bye.