Jeff Pearlman

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Anne Byrn

#314
To many she's The Cake Mix Doctor—one of America's finest food scribes and a woman who can transform a handful of chocolate chips and some flour into a dessert masterpiece. To me, she's the person who somehow once filled my (microscopic, ill-fitted) shoes. POSTED June 19, 2017

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I can’t think of many Quaz Q&As that evoke bitter feelings, but here—with episode No. 314—I make an exception.

Back in the spring of 1995, I was the food writer for The (Nashville) Tennessean. Yes, that was my title. And while I burned my toast, added vanilla extract to my eggs, overcooked microwave dinners and failed to differentiate between a leg of lamb and a pork rib, well, hey—I was the Tennessean food writer, dammit!

Then, one day, my editor called me into her office and said, bluntly, “We’re replacing you.”

Replacing me?

Replacing me?!

How could she replace me? What person could possibly top all I brought to the newspaper’s food section? So what if I had flaws? I also had pizzazz! Flair! Sizzle! Growth potential!

Um … no.

The new food writer was named Anne Byrn, and she was—to be blunt—a superstar. The former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Anne had once used a sabbatical from the paper to bake in Paris at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine. I, um, liked French fries and, eh, stuff.

Turns out Anne was fantastic. And a joy. She spent several years at the paper, then went on to write a dozen books, including the widely renown Cake Mix Doctor series. These days, Anne can be found writing, teaching, speaking at book festivals and gardening behind her Nashville home. You can visit her websites here and here and follow her on Instagram here, Facebook here and  Twitter here.

Begrudgingly, I can finally admit she may well have been an upgrade.

Anne Byrn, conqueror of kitchens, you are the 314th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Anne, as you know I’ve spent much of my career as a sports writer. And about, oh, 15 years ago I got really sick of baseball, and walked away from Sports Illustrated to try something new. You’ve been writing about baking for a long time. And I wonder—how do you not get tired of it? Are you ever like, “If I never see another cake, I’ll be a happy woman”?

ANNE BYRN: Baking and baseball might have more in common than you think, Jeff. The science behind them, the passion, the dedication, except you can keep baking a lot longer than you can keep playing baseball! But I know what you mean by this question—and yes, I have been able to write about cooking and family night recipes, and quick appetizers, and stuff to toss in the Crock Pot. I have written other books besides baking books. But I have amassed a lot of knowledge about baking, specifically cakes, and I want to build on that. That’s why I developed a line of natural cake mixes for busy people. And that’s why I researched the history behind our cakes in American Cake. What interests me now are the people behind the cakes, new cakes looking surprisingly old, understanding why we bake. The deeper stuff. Once a baker, or a baseball writer in your case, it is really a part of who you are. You don’t have to leave it, just expand it.

JEFF PEARLMAN: This might sound overly simplistic, but you both write about dessert and are quite thin. How? I’m actually being serious, because aren’t you surrounded by sugar, frosting, etc all the time? And don’t you like the stuff?

A.B.: Let’s just say, I’ve been thinner. But I have been blessed with a high metabolism, I think, because I am always in motion. That helps. And I love two or three bites of cake, and then, I’m done. I don’t have to eat the whole slice. I also love good food—vegetables, fruit, grilled fish, and that really is the mainstay of my diet. I also love gardening, playing tennis, running if needed, throwing the ball for my dog Ella. I will pass along my secret, when I do feel like I am picking up a few pounds and I am in the middle of recipe testing, I give up bread. That helps.

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J.P.: There’s a sentence in your bio that I just love in all its base simplicity. Namely, “I learned to cook by watching my mom.” I know this might sound lame, but can you take me there? What was it like, watching your mother cook? What was the scene? The smell? The joy?

A.B.: My mother Bebe was the fifth of five daughters, born three years before the Depression, and her memories of growing up are doing without, making do, and experiencing great joy. She loved her sisters, and they had fun every minute of life. So our house was a crazy joyful place to grow up. We had two or three dogs at a time, a telephone that rang constantly because my mom had so many friends, and there were just always a lot of people at our house because the food was the best on the block. Our freezer was crammed with leftover chocolate cake and ice cream parfaits, and there was always chicken salad and a baked ham in the fridge. You came to our house to eat and have a good time. So when I learned to cook by watching my mom, it was a continuous process of watching her fry chicken in an electric skillet, stir chocolate fudge slowly and carefully over the electric stove, and season warm potatoes with salt and pepper and onion to go into her potato salad. Her kitchen was pure 70s Formica, avocado green appliances, with beige linoleum on the floor. For a woman who didn’t know how to cook when she married my father, she learned because she loved to eat, she loved to think about food, plan menus, plan parties, and give the wonderful gift of food to those she loved.

J.P.: So in 2010 you launched a supermarket line of natural cake mixes, sans artificial ingredients. Which leads to two questions: 1. What sort of crap do we put in our bodies that we should be most aware/concerned of? Can cake taste as good without that stuff?

A.B.: Yes, I put my family’s from-scratch cake recipes into formulation and launched an all-natural cake mix line. My mixes are free of artificial colors and flavors—lots of those in regular cake mixes. And they are free of preservatives and trans-fat. Preservatives in packaged goods are definitely something we should avoid. They extend the shelf life of a food, but do we really need bread to stay fresh for two weeks? Plus, preservatives are high in sodium and crank up the sodium count of the food. Without these additives, cake can taste amazing! It is a little denser in texture, but it has real homemade flavor and that is something with which we need to acquaint ourselves.

J.P.: Can you enjoy, say, a Carvel cake? Like, you’re at a birthday party and there’s a Carvel cake. Or a Cold Stone cake. Or … whatever. A Costco cake? Can you derive pleasure from eating a slice? Or, for you, is it like a trip to McDonald’s?

A.B.: It’s worse. I can tolerate McDonald’s if I am driving and it’s a long, lone highway and I am starving—cheeseburger, fries, small Coke. There was a time when I wouldn’t grace the doors of McDonald’s but then I had three children and that took care of that. But those bakery cakes, well, they are just not my thing. I can taste artificial vanilla. I can break down a cake recipe in the first two bites. It’s just not worth the calories, really. Cake needs to be good. It need to be real. It is always best home-baked.

J.P.: How does your brain work when it comes to recipes? I mean, soup to nuts, how do you create?

A.B.: To create a cake recipe, I start with the basics—flour, sugar, fat, and eggs. Will I use all wheat flour or a mixture of different flours? Then the leavening—what is going to make the cake rise? Are the eggs enough, and am I going to cream the butter and sugar together to aerate and make the batter lighter? Or do I need baking powder or soda to give the cake a boost and lighten it? That is the framework—and then if you are baking with chocolate you might want to use an acidic ingredient to complement, such as buttermilk or sour cream. Flavorings are fun, and completely whimsical – grated zest of lemon or orange, almond, vanilla, Bourbon, cinnamon, etc. And with the frosting recipe, I look for ways to reduce the amount of frosting needed for a cake not only to make it more fresh and modern but also easier on the waistline.

For savory recipes, we use bold seasoning in cooking dinner at our house. We look to Indian flavors, Thai, Korean, and Creole/Cajun as the benchmarks. We use classic techniques—sautéing, broiling, grilling, poaching. But we really boost the flavor. It’s just what makes everyone at my house hungry for dinner. So when I create a savory recipe, it’s got to be flavorful, using good spice, fresh herbs, lots of garlic, and have some topping or side or relish that complements.

J.P.: What’s the story of your biggest kitchen catastrophe?

A.B.: Probably the Christmas Eve turkey that I put in the oven before church and came home to find hadn’t cooked at all because the power went out. (We ate ham.) Or the year we traveled to my in-laws and had promised this beautiful roasted pork dinner with all the trimmings, and alas, an ice storm hit Chattanooga and no power to cook. Until we found a cousin’s home that had power and we took the pork there to roast, let the coconut cake sit in the garage two days to get good and moist, and lit candles and poured wine. Lesson to self—catastrophes occur most often during the winter holidays when you have other people to feed.

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J.P.: I notice on your Twitter feed you’ll step outside of food on occasion and share a political thought, a social commentary. Michael Jordan, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse candidates, famously said, “Because Republicans buy shoes, too.” I’m guessing Republicans eat cake, too. Does that sort of thing concern you?

A.B.: I generally fall in the Michael Jordan camp. Who am I to push my political views on people who have the right to vote the way they want? And everyone not only buys shoes but they bake cakes. But when politicians make broad-brushstroke comments about my hometown—Nashville—as if all of us love NASCAR, well that’s going too far. It might work in a country music song, but it doesn’t work on national TV describing my town. So Marsha Blackburn and anyone who tries to stereotype us in Nashville or Tennessee as being this way or that way, please don’t. Those worn out stereotypes are yesterday, gone with the wind, and they just don’t sound right anymore. Nashville is a great place to live and full of wonderful and thoughtful people of all walks of life.

J.P.: I’ve asked singers how they feel about shows like American Idol and The Voice, but I’ve never asked someone in your shoes how you feel about all The Food Network cooking competitions. So … Anne, how do you feel about them? Do you ever find yourself watching Vanilla Ice and Herschel Walker competing to make the bets hamburger? Do you at all think those shows marginalize the skill it takes to be a quality cook? The opposite?

A.B.: I liken the Food Network cooking competitions to eating popcorn or potato chips. It’s enjoyable and you can sit down and eat a lot of it and time goes by and you think, what have I just done? Eaten all those chips – watched all those shows – and I should have been doing laundry or finishing a book deadline. They are really mindless and perfect to watch when you are getting a manicure. But at the same time, I don’t think they marginalize the skill needed to be a great cook or chef. In fact, you have to have some pretty strong skills to get on those shows. One of my good friends is a terrific, shoot-from-the-hip sort of cook and she won Chopped because she can think under fire and fried everything!

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J.P.: We’ve both probably done our share of book signings. I hate them, because I feel vulnerable and naked and always fear two people showing up, just to laugh at me. How are signings for you? How do you approach them? Have you ever had two people showing up just to laugh at you?

A.B.: Oh boy, with more than a dozen books and countless signings, I have handled a crowd of 400 and one signing (Charlotte, NC) where no one showed up. So, what did I do? I had the employees of the book store sit down and I talked to them about the book. You really have to make lemonade from lemons, and if no one is there you train salespeople to sell your book! I approach all signings with no expectations. There is always food to sample—always—but if I have less than 10 people we huddle in a small group and talk food and do a lot of Q&A. With a big group, it’s fun to have a moderator ask questions. Authors always hope for big turnouts!

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ANNE BYRN:

• Out of 100 tries, how often is your name misspelled? And what are the most common manglings?: Fifty. About half the time. Most common are Bryn and Ann Byrne.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Harlem Globetrotters, IHOP, Jimmy Dean fully cooked sausages, Julia Child, Tim Duncan, deer hunting, the number 33, “Diners, Drive ins and Dives,” Tanya Tucker: Julia Child, “Diners, Drive ins and Dives,” Tim Duncan, Harlem Globetrotters, Tanya Tucker, the number 33, Jimmy Dean fully cooked sausages, IHOP, deer hunting.

• One question you would ask Mel Torme were he here right now?: What is this thing called love, Mel?

• Your five greatest chefs in modern American history?: Thomas Keller, Julia Child, Jeremiah Tower, Jean-Louis Palladin, Edna Lewis

• Three favorite Nashville restaurants: Chauhan, Etc., BrickTops

• Grossest thing you’ve ever seen in a kitchen?: Many years ago, catering an event out of a frat house kitchen in Tuscaloosa, AL, and that kitchen was filthy with rodents, bugs. We couldn’t cook there.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Melissa Manchester?: A draw, for sure. She seems really nice. We’d go to lunch.

• How preoccupied are you by our mortality, on a scale of 1 to 100?: 10

• Three memories from your senior prom?: Bad hair, cute date, green dress

• Do you think the Mets’ middle infield is deep enough for a playoff run?: Absolutely!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life