Darra Goldstein's Magnificent Brain and My Pink Bathrobe

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GastronomicaEditor in Chief Darra Goldstein swept into town the other night to celebrate 10 years of Gastronomica magazine, her quarterly food writing journal about “sensual and intellectual nourishment.” She founded the publication in her copious spare time as a professor of Russian at Williams College. (Read about submission policy here.)

I saw her in a wide-ranging conversation on food, culture, and identity at UC Berkeley with sociology professor Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.

The multiple award-winning Goldstein, who lived in Russia, studied in Helsinki and is the author of four cookbooks, began the conversation discussing Culinary Cultures of Europe, a book she edited where writers from 45 countries laid out views on how food could be used to encourage tolerance and diversity.

Oh, how wonderful to leave my office and computer for a few hours, I thought, and open my dusty brain. I want to BE Darra Goldstein.

Darra GoldsteinBut back to Darra. After that experience, she wanted direct involvement. She went to Israel to work on a project promoting tolerance between Israelis and Palestinians by having them share a meal. It turned out to be harder than she thought. “Food emotions can be channeled into something negative,” she said.

You’re telling me. I prepared a revered Jewish family dish with an old friend, who dismissed it as not as interesting as his family’s Jewish food. See, it’s not just about Israelis and Palestinians. (Funnily enough, Darra met this same guy on a bus in Israel.) And look at the hot-headed comments Joan Nathan got when she wrote about preparing a Palestinian meal for Alice Waters.

The conversation turned to locavorism, an identity more of a political statement in Europe, Goldstein said, where people are concerned about GMO foods and the impact of the European Union’s homogeneity upon their local food.

Here in the US, it’s all about individuality, where food identity is worn as a badge. Eating locally is invested with “all that is good.” Goldstein noted that people are anxious about where food comes from, and knowing is a source of comfort and connectedness.

While she’s all for eating locally, she finds it difficult to accomplish during Massachusetts winters. Besides, Goldstein feels a responsibility to those counries whose economies depend on our consumption of the foods they export. She mentioned Russia’s cutoff of imports of Georgian food, which accounted for 75 percent of Georgia’s Gross National Product. If the Georgians could get their food imported here, she’d eat it to support them.

The speakers also referenced these two articles, both good reads about how our ideas about food are changing: Adam Gopnik’s recent piece in the New Yorker, Le Fooding, about a group that attempts to to “save the preëminence of French cuisine from going the way of the Roman Empire, the five-act tragedy, and the ocean liner;” and Corby Kummer’s The Great Grocery Smackdown: Will Walmart, not Whole Foods, save the small farm and make America healthy?

And then it was over, a mind-expanding 1.5 hours of intellectual thought, a privilege of living in the Bay Area. I’m back in front of the computer in my pink bathrobe, drinking energy tea and telling you about my glimpse inside Darra Goldstein’s magnificent brain.

If you’d like more than a glimpse, see her list of books and publications. And please read Sarah Henry  of Lettuce Eat Kale’s thorough report on Darra’s talk.

Thanks to Nani Steele for the link to Joan Nathan’s piece.


  1. MM Pack says

    Since I couldn’t make this talk, your report is the next best thing, thanks. Darra’s is indeed a brain worth looking into. I highly recommend Gopnik’s Le Fooding piece in the NYorker. French food politics is as strange as ours, but in a different way.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, I think you had mentioned it to me. When she mentioned it again, I thought it was worth putting in a link.

  2. Candace says

    Oh, my gosh, the Joan Nathan comments are absolutely comical! I can’t wait to read the articles and take a look at the books you mentioned. How fascinating! And I had no idea that Darra, the founder of Gastronomica is also a professor of Russian history and the same person who wrote, “Baking Bootcamp?” I just checked that book out from the local library a few of weeks ago and had absolutely no idea.

    • diannejacob says

      It is kind of strange, isn’t it? But just goes to show what a multifaceted food writer she is. When the speaker announced that particular book she smiled an the audience laughed a little bit.

      • Robert W. Brower says

        Darra Goldstein gave a one-hour talk at Omnivore Books last year as part of the monthly Culinary Historians of Northern California series of speakers. After the talk, we joined her for a very long and chatty dinner at La Ciccia, the Sardinian restaurant down the street. Aside from being a nifty dresser and awfully cute, she was a delightful dinner companion. Her storytelling is first-rate. Maybe, it was the wine. For example, Dara humorously revealed that she was required to take and pass a posture class as a frosh at Vassar. This class included “before” undressed posture photos that many Vassar girls believed were secretly sold to Yale students so that they could evaluate potential not-so-blind dates.

  3. says

    Thanks for a fantastic recap of Darra’s talk, Dianne. Even though I was there, blocking your view, I have been meaning to look up the links to various articles mentioned and had only so far gotten to the Corby Kummer piece. Now I can explore the others. Thanks for being a great reporter!

    Oh, and one other thing to mention about food diversity…I was really impressed that, in addition to box lunches, there was a separate table of Passover foods. Who even expects food at a University talk? To find a great lunch (I saw Niman Ranch printed on some of the boxes) and also accommodate those observing the holiday — leave it to Darra!

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Jennie, but if you want great reporting, be sure to see Sarah’s piece in LettuceEatKale, linked above.

      Yes, wasn’t that surprising to see a free high-quality lunch at a free event? Those college students get some serious deals.

  4. says

    Forgot what a delightfully wicked sense of humor you have, Dianne. I linked to you through Sarah’s piece on Berkeleyside.com. I couldn’t fathom any meaning in the Fooding article in The New Yorker and went on to a story about a couple who kill people in order to save wildlife in post-colonial Africa. And as for food uniting people, in my experience there’s nothing like strange or bad cooking to break up relationships and families.

    • diannejacob says

      Great to hear from you, Sylvia! I have to say, Adam Gopnick’s pieces sometimes leave me scratching my head.

      Do you know Sarah? She’s a former investigative reporter, now food writer. Probably lives near you.

      Agreed about bad cooking. Sometimes just the perception of bad cooking is enough. I remember making steak and rice for my boyfriend when I was 18. He was mortally wounded. What idiot would choose rice instead of potatoes? (An idiot whose family comes from China.)