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My Berlin Kitchen
Luisa Weiss
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INTRODUCTION

It was perhaps inevitable that Luisa Weiss learned to love food from an early age. Growing up in then-West Berlin with her American Jewish father and Italian mother, she was exposed to a kaleidoscope of cuisines that represented the unique circumstances of her life-a buffet of yeasted plum cake, ragu Bolognese, and pickled herring. Later, when her parents divorced, she traveled between their respective homes in Boston and Germany and continued to accrue powerful memories of flavors, places, and feelings she didn't quite understand. By the time she was in high school and college, Weiss had started to cook for herself, the recipes of her past a link to her multinational identity. Still, she never truly seemed to fit in-her life neither here nor there, her sense of home a confusing jumble of places and languages.

Everything changed when a stint in Paris for graduate school reunited her with a childhood friend, Max, and a powerful romantic connection was forged over homecooking and bistro meals, and long walks in the city's fabled streets. For the first time, Weiss felt at ease with herself and who she was.

The timing wasn't right, however, and Weiss returned to New York, brokenhearted, but determined to start her adult life. She quickly found work in publishing, collaborating with cookbook authors and scouting new talent. She also began the blog The Wednesday Chef as a way to cook through the newspaper recipe clippings she'd been saving for years. Shortly thereafter she met a new man, Sam. After a decade in New York, Weiss was engaged, her blog was a hit, her career was booming, and she had a coterie of wonderful friends. All the same, she realized that her heart was somewhere else. On instinct, she went back to Berlin only to discover that she and Max were still very much in love. The question was whether she was willing to take the necessary leap of faith to keep her and Max together, even when it meant leaving her American life behind.

Weiss's delicious memoir details her search for fulfillment while taking cues from her admired blog, The Wednesday Chef blog, as Weiss intersperses the narrative with recipes for the comforting, evocative foods she cooked and ate along the way. In the vein of Julie and Julia and Cooking for Mr. Latte, Weiss finds insight through ingredients, personal transformation through procedure, and the result is a delectable, romantic tale of transatlantic romance.


ABOUT LUISA WEISS

Luisa Weiss spent her childhood shuttling between her Italian mother in Berlin and her American father in Boston. She started her much loved blog, The Wednesday Chef, in 2005, and has worked as a literary scout and cookbook editor in New York. She now lives in Berlin with her husband and son.


A CONVERSATION WITH LUISA WEISS

Your blog has an extremely devoted fan base. Which aspect of your writing do you suspect resonates the most with your readers?

It's hard to know exactly, of course, but something I've read repeatedly in the comments and in emails to me from readers is that they feel like they know me, like I'm a friend of theirs, that my writing comes across as personal and candid. Whether I'm exhorting them to drop everything and go and make a cauliflower casserole or telling them to follow their hearts.

You write with the same candid, intimate tone in this book as you do on your blog, and yet there are certain personal details left out. How did you decide what information to reveal and what to keep secret, and what was that process like for you?

It took me quite some time to get to the point in the book-writing where I could share details of my personal life-at first, I planned to write a drier, more impersonal book. But as those early writing months went on and I got further and further into a stilted, chilly manuscript, I realized that I wasn't really doing what I set out to do and that I had to change tracks. That was when I allowed myself to write just like I do on the blog. Of course, there are many elements of my life, and of my loved ones' lives, that I feel are private and deserve to be kept that way. So I decided that I would share whatever I would feel comfortable telling a stranger on a bus and things started to flow. I'm a pretty open person and there were a lot of elements of my story that I felt could help other people who might find themselves in similar situations. I'm a big believer in talking things out, in hashing things over, in sharing and just being open-I think it's part of what makes us human and, for me at least, it's how I cope.

You write often about being a cultural "hybrid," and the confusion that has engendered in your search for identity. How have you come to embrace this part of yourself?

It was a multi-step process. Realizing that I wanted to put down roots in Berlin was the first step. The next step was figuring out what my life would look like there as an American expat of sorts-listening to NPR every day, for example, or sending my child to a bilingual daycare center. Having found my place in the world has put me profoundly at ease and allowed me to feel fortunate that I have such a collection of cultures at my fingertips. I can be at home in Berlin and New York without feeling wrenched one way or another now and it is an absolute gift.

In some ways My Berlin Kitchen is as much about modern family-being a child of divorced parents, raised by an international "village" of friends and loved ones, and finally starting your own home and marriage-as it is about cooking. Can you talk about the role of food in bringing family together (or apart)?

We all know the studies about the importance of family dinner. And I think it can't be overstated. It's the one time every day when the family has a chance to gather together and share a meal and I feel really strongly that it should be a non-negotiable part of family life. The act of cooking for your family can be tiring and a pain sometimes, but it's such a deep expression of love and affection. You are nourishing your life's partner and the children you made together, you are laying down the foundation of your children's whole lives, you are showing them what it means to be a family. I was a full-grown adult before I found out that not every family gathered around the dinner table together every night. For my family, it was such a given. It would have never occurred to anyone, not my father or mother or me (or extended family, when we were on vacation) that dinner wasn't something to be made together and shared. I think it can be a great opportunity not only for education (how to cook, how to set the table, how to divvy up chores like washing dishes or clearing the table), but also for getting to know your children, getting them to talk and share their days. Especially in our age of digital distraction, I think it's important to give children rituals and traditions and there's no better place for that than in the kitchen.

There's a chapter in the book when you recount your struggles with writer's (and cook's) block-the irony, of course, is that you write about it so articulately. When did you realize that this moment was part of your journey and how did you decide to include it in the memoir?

It was probably around the time when I realized that my difficult first year in Berlin was going to have to be part of the book. I couldn't just spin a fairy tale about me and Max-I had to be honest about all the hard stuff, too. Since the writer's block and my total ham-fistedness in the kitchen were happening at the same time, it seemed only natural to include both struggles. The insanity that I felt at the gooseberry cream cake disaster, once I'd gotten over it, was too funny not to share. The experience was exactly what I would have blogged about (in fact, I did) and it absolutely deserved to be in the book. It's so important for me to be real with my readers and not give them the impression that my life is perfect. Nobody's life is, and people who give that impression do a disservice to others.

A common theme here seems to be about memory, and the ways it can set us up for disappointment. When you returned to Berlin as an adult, it didn't quite live up to your expectations, for instance. How, if at all, did this experience change the way you think of "home" or your past?

I wouldn't say it didn't live up to my expectations. I just didn't think that the first year would be so daunting. But once I got settled and found my rhythm, living in Berlin actually became even better than in my memories. That's not to say I don't ever want to live anywhere else-Berlin certainly comes with its own set of things to complain about-but I feel very lucky to be here.

As an avid recipe collector, you must have had dozens of potential dishes to choose from. How did you narrow it down to the selection for this book? Are there others that you were hoping to include?

Because the book followed a fairly strict arc, I didn't find it that difficult to narrow down the recipe list. Many of the chapters were written around recipes that I absolutely had to include (like the Rote Grütze or the potato salad); for others, I had to think hard about which recipe would best fit a particular story (like the chapter on my mother or the chapter about the preparations for my wedding). There are a few that didn't make the cut, like the recipe for my mother-in-law's meatballs or her mother-in-law's cheesecake, but maybe they'll make it into another book one day.

Some blog authors string together posts for a book, but this content is entirely fresh, so to speak. How did writing the book change the way you write your blog or interact with your readers? What are your plans for the blog and/or future books?

I feel that I can be much more open with my readers-after all, now they know my life story! It's a really wonderful place to be, actually. The blog has always felt like a knitting circle to me, a cozy place with lots of friendly people who like to cook and talk about it. Publishing the book (and going on the book tour) only confirmed that deep sense of community. I can't imagine my life without the blog anymore-it's such an important part of my daily existence. At the moment, I'm struggling a bit to find time to blog (and cook) because so much of my day is consumed with my toddler, Hugo. But he's heading off to daycare soon and I'll return to a very productive routine then. I hope! As for a new book project, I'm working on a German baking cookbook that I'm very excited about.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Once her parents divorce, Weiss is forever caught between their worlds. How does this affect her development, both positively and negatively?

  2. What is it that draws Weiss to Paris and why does she eventually leave?

  3. How does cooking transform Weiss's mindset and perspective through her twenties and into her thirties?

  4. For many authors, homesickness is a form of inspiration. How does Weiss write about the places she's lived, and which memories seem to be the most formative?

  5. As a child and later, Weiss is particularly taken with her mothers' friends Joanie and Dietrich. What do these friends represent for her, and why is she so attached to them?

  6. After several years and a long engagement, Weiss ultimately has to make a decision about her relationship with Sam. What does she decide and why? How would you make your decision if in a similar circumstance?

  7. Which recipes in the book seem the most appealing to you? Which of Weiss's descriptions of food were the most evocative?

  8. As a person with multiple cultural identities, Weiss struggles to fit in. How does she learn to reconcile the different pieces of her background and find belonging?

  9. Weiss makes a big personal transformation during a trip to Paris. What changes for her and how does this impact her life?

  10. Weiss explores different notions of home in her memoir. What constitutes "home" for you, and why?