A Conversation With Edward Behr
Wines of the Jura. Olive oil and oysters in Sonoma County. The caves of Roquefort. Emilia Romagna’s ragù, balsamic vinegar and mortadella. American charcuterie.
Edward Behr has devoted his life to exploring, enjoying and writing about the food and wine of France, Italy and the United States. Tough life...
His magazine, The Art of Eating, celebrated its 30th anniversary in November, and Behr has authored two books, 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste and The Food and Wine of France. A third book on Italy is underway.
Behr lives in St. Johnsbury with his wife, Kim, and their sons, Max and Zane. Kim handles the business end and layout for the magazine and comprehensive website while Ed oversees the writing and editing.
Edible Green Mountains: There are plenty of food and wine magazines out there. So what distinguishes your publications?
Edward Behr: First of all, there is no advertising. We provide in-depth features on food and wine from around the world and the people who produce them. We also include restaurant and book reviews. The Art of Eating tends to attract informed writers and readers. Although the magazine has gone fully digital, we do sell a ton of back issues. The website also contains a host of articles as well as the Cheese Anthology, a permanent work in progress.
EGM: Best part of your job as editor?
EB: I enjoy interactions with writers and photographers who are experts in their field. It’s fun to exchange drafts with writers as they polish their piece.
EGM: What brought you to Vermont?
EB: I came to Vermont in 1973 as a back-to-the-lander. I moved to the Northeast Kingdom because it had the cheapest land in the state! I built a Nearing-style stone house, planted a garden and lived in a tent while the house went up. I cast about, did some stone masonry, carpentry and house building. A girlfriend at the time noted that I seemed to be really interested in food. So I went to cooking school in New York City for 10 weeks and got a solid base in French classical technique. I intended to open a French restaurant in Burlington, but happily I didn’t! I saved myself from losing a couple hundred thousand dollars. I didn’t have the instincts of a restaurateur.
EGM: How did you decide to become a food and wine writer?
EB: In 1980, a friend began publishing a building trades magazine.
That inspired me to start writing about what I know and love most. I had no idea what I was getting into. I started with an eight-page newsletter in 1986 and slowly expanded it into a 48-page print magazine.
EGM: As a writer who celebrates traditional foods around the world, what trends have you noticed?
EB: We’re becoming increasingly disconnected from food traditions with each generation. As I research, I look for descriptions from pre-1970, or even earlier. When I travel and interview people, I try to find octogenarians. If you want to understand traditional food, you need to speak with someone who lived in the premodern era, in the time when cars didn’t rule. Food was central, not just something to consume on the run.
EGM: Can you give an example?
EB: Take lardo di Colonnata, the raw pork fat cured with salt, herbs and spices, served thinly sliced, in northern Italy. This particular lardo is made in Colannata, in the Tuscan hills above Carrara. Lardo was an inexpensive, high-calorie staple that nourished the cavatori, the men who worked in Carrara’s marble quarries. The cavatori ate centimeter-thick slices of lardo between unsalted Tuscan bread, along with sliced onion, tomato and wild oregano from the hillsides. Poverty was severe and there was no olive oil, no butter. The laborers credited their survival to lardo. Now people cherish this lardo as part of antipasto plates or use it to flavor minestrone, roast chicken or potatoes.
EGM: And French cuisine?
EB: France is renowned for three fermented products: bread, cheese and wine. France is the greatest country in the world for wheat bread. Eighteenth-century writers were composing treatises on how to make great bread, and their advice is still valid. And cheese? There’s no end to my respect for French cheese.
But above all, French cuisine turns on wine. When you serve wine with all courses, you start the meal with light, younger wines and then progress to older, more concentrated ones. There’s a parallel build of wine and food, a pretty intellectual endeavor, with anticipation and surprise at each stage. The succession of savory courses has to match the wines, thus fish precedes the meat dish. The idea of a chronological meal construction makes for a more complex and sensual experience.
EGM: What do you see here in Vermont?
EB: Our standards for farm to table, as in other rural areas, are pretty high. Anyone who has a garden or goes to farmers’ markets is going to have higher expectations when they go to a restaurant. At the same time, we don’t seem to be as interested in refined food. We’re more casual by nature.
EGM: How about exciting Vermont producers?
EB: I love what Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber, of Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, are doing with La Garagista natural wines and ciders. Albert and Eleanor Leger at Eden Ice Cider, besides ice cider, make a well-executed dry, still cider, and Fable Farm Fermentory and Shacksbury cider are making great strides. People are also growing lots of interesting eating and cooking apples. The cheese situation in Vermont is fabulous. Andy and Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill deserve tremendous credit as farmers and cheese makers. They developed an extraordinary vision, from the cows in the pastures to the way they age and market cheeses. And Red Hen bread is stunning.
EGM: How do you and Kim dine at home?
EB: We eat a lot of cheese and cured meats. And wine, of course. I grill outdoors all summer, and we eat massive amounts of veggies from our garden and from farm stands. When I lived in Peacham, I had an extensive garden that included a 25-foot asparagus bed. Food writers who don’t grow a garden or spend much time in nature tend to bring a lot less to the subject.
EGM: Favorite meals to eat or prepare?
EB: Kim really enjoys my cheese soufflé with a light tomato sauce. My go-to meal is marinated flank steak with tomato gratin and a baked zucchini pudding from a Richard Olney recipe. In the cold months, I make chestnut soup and love the synergy with the chestnuts, chicken stock and cream.
EGM: What else is new?
EB: Two years ago we launched the Art of Eating Prize for Best Food Book of the Year, worth $10,000, as an adjunct to the magazine. The panel of judges includes Eric Asimov, Tamar Adler, Tejal Rao, Lisa Abend and Michael Anthony. The winner will be announced on March 1.
EGM: How do you unwind?
EB: After a day on the computer, I love weeding in the garden. That physical stimulus provides a welcome counterpoint to a day of paper, ink and screen. Kim and I also enjoy drives in the country and exploring Quebec.
EGM: What keeps you in Vermont, rather than France or Italy?
EB: I love our mountains and living in the country, and we have a strong network of friends here. I enjoy the energy of cities but don’t think I could wake up there daily.
FIVE RAPID FIRE
A pile of Red Hen bread, toasted, with butter and local honey. Black coffee.
Favorite childhood meal?
Roast lamb with mint sauce made from scratch.
Cake pie or cookies?
Pie—apple or quince.
A spoon of raw honey.
Bread and cheese.
Maria Buteux Reade loves settling in with back issues of The Art of Eating, a perfect way to travel and feast from the comfort of her armchair.