a conversation with Patricia Volk      


Congratulations on your book, and on your upcoming Web site. What will be on the site?

I started out as a graphic designer and my father thought people would steal my ideas if I didn't work my name into them. When I designed a menu for him, I incorporated my name into it. There's a contest on my Web site where the first five people who locate P. Volk in that menu get a free book.

I absolutely loved Stuffed-- couldn't put it down. Can you tell me how you came to write it?

I saw a whole generation suddenly disappearing, and I wanted to get their stories down before they died. Being fascinated by family history, I thought that every generation had someone like me, but that's not the case. My sister has three kids, I have two, and they're just not that interested. But now they're going to have it in their hands, whether they read it or not. At one point I thought I'd finished this book, and then while going through papers I found something I'd written about my great aunt Ettie thirty years ago, before I'd thought of writing at all. So I think this book has been in the works for a very long time.

How do you account for all the remarkable people in your family--for everyone who worked their way into your book as a result of their unique achievements?

You can do this with any family. Everyone who has ever existed has left a mark on the planet, even if what they did was sew buttons at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. When I first contemplated writing this book, I met one of my editors for lunch. She asked what I was working on and I told her I was thinking of writing profiles of people in my family. She said, "I'd never do that--why would anyone be interested in my family?" So I questioned my idea--this was a smart woman saying this. But then I realized that she just finds her family uninteresting. You could write a book about any family. Okay, Jake Volk did tear down a lot of the buildings in New York, but there are always stories about people in families worth telling.

Were you concerned about offending any of your family members, or about revealing too much?

I didn't have a chance to worry about it. As soon as the family heard what I was doing the phone started ringing. They said things like, "If you mention the fact that I have age spots on my hands, you're dead," or "If you think you want to tell my father's country of origin, think again." When family members asked to read it as a work in progress, I didn't let them--I knew that people would find problems with it. As it is, my mother took to bed for five days after the book came out. She wouldn't discuss it with me; she just said, "It was very well written, dear. I don't want to talk about it." She told my sister that she didn't, in fact, threaten to send us to Mrs. Brown's Orphanage, as I reported; she threatened to send us to Mrs. Brown's Boarding School. That was just the kind of thing that I didn't want to haggle about. No one remembers things the same way.

To what degree, then, do you trust your own memory? Do you allow yourself to revise your personal history?

I tried to remain close to the truth; I didn't make anything up for the book. That's not to say that I didn't have my own way of looking at things, but the stories are all true.

One of the things that struck me was a passage toward the end where you mention the snow chair that your father built in the winter. You said, "I haven't thought of the snow chair in years, but tonight it comes back." Did you have many epiphanous memories while writing?

Throughout the book. It snowballs as you write. All I'd written about my Aunt Ettie was The Orchid Trick. Then a lot came back about her apartment, things I might never otherwise have accessed--how she smelled, what she put in her tea.

Did you ever fear that readers would be indifferent toward your family's stories?

John McPhee once wrote a book called The Birch Bark Canoe. I didn't think that I had any interest in birch bark canoes, but I read a piece of it in The New Yorker. The writing was so good that I got transfixed--got single-minded about getting my hands on a birch bark canoe. I couldn't think of anything else. That summer I rented a house with a canoe, and I spent every day in the canoe thinking about that piece. If you can write well you can engage people in a subject that they might not assume they'd be interested in. You can do that with any subject on earth. I had the same reaction to something Ian Frazier wrote--it was a piece about a man who had a fly-fishing shop called The Angler's Roost in Grand Central Station. When I finished reading the piece I had to go to the shop. I introduced myself to the shop-owner, told him that I visited a house in Schroon Lake, and he sold me a fly suitable for that area. I started taking lessons and now I fly-fish. All from that article. I didn't know I was interested in fly-fishing! I get hypnotized when I read, everything else falls away.

Who is your dream reader?

I would love to have readers who are estranged from their families and who, in reading this, would reassess what "family" means. If they have trouble with a certain family member, I'd like them to then recognize the value of that person in their lives. We learn from everyone, even the bad people in our families--the abusers, the nay-sayers, the Pollaynnas and victims--they shape us. To grow you've got to appreciate everyone--not necessarily to love them, but to understand that they're a certain way and why you are or aren't that way. Family is where we learn everything. According to Freud, this is all done by the time we're three-years-old, so you have no choice but to look at these people--they were there from the start.

Today I ran into an old friend of mine, someone I'd parted with six years ago. We'd grown up together, attended each other's sweet sixteens, gone to Loehmannn's together for thirty years, but we had a real falling out. When I saw her today we just fell on each other, and now we're going to get together. I think that families can do that too. Affection is like liver. It regenerates.

Food plays such an significant role in your family, and so in your book. Can you define your personal food philosophy?

As long as you've got to eat to live you might as well make it as good as you can. If I'm going to scramble an egg I'm going to do it right. I've taken on the role of my grandmother--I'm the one now with the big table, and everyone gathers at my house. I never lose the thrill of seeing people I love eat something I've cooked for them.

How have our society's attitudes toward food changed over the years?

People have become much more health-conscious, to the point that they deprive themselves. There's also a cranked-up need to be new and different. When my father had the restaurant he made staples that everybody cooked--the continental menu. Now we've gone beyond fusion--chefs are merging pomegranate juice with something you never would have imagined pomegranate juice being merged with.

There will probably be a huge resurgence toward comfort food post-September 11. That's one reflection of the tragedy--people want to get cosseted now. I envision restaurants that are like homes--restaurants that you can wear your bathrobe to. The hostess will greet you and it won't be impersonal. She'll say "Darling--so nice to see you again!" even if she's never seen you before. It may be a Disney-esque thing--a safe-haven, where they'll say, "Come, let me feed you!"

What is comfort food to you?

I love really good slow-cooked oatmeal with maple syrup or brown sugar. Cereal is comfort food to me--there's something so perfect about it. I love milk and I love the toasted flavor of cereal. I suppose my ultimate comfort food is coffee. I go to sleep at night knowing that tomorrow I'm going to have a fresh cup of coffee. I'm going to lie in bed looking out the window and organize the day. This was something I couldn't do the whole time my kids were growing up. I was morning coffee-deprived until they went to college. I'd rush to get them ready and out the door, and then I'd go to work. Now I have the luxury of drinking a rich, fabulous cup of coffee in the morning.

In one article you described "culinary heartbreak," when a favorite food item is discontinued or a recipe changes. What food do you miss the most?

That would be Schrafft's fudge. I'm on the eternal search for it--whenever I go to a new town and there's a candy store, I buy one piece of fudge, try it, and it always falls short. I've come close. There was a candy store in Saratoga Springs, New York that had a fudge very close to Schrafft's.

What makes Schrafft's so good?

It's an extremely complex taste. I think they put brandy or cognac in it. It lingers and its sweet, but it has a sultry undertone. It had the perfect texture too. It was the best ever, and they've discontinued it. I've heard that Julia Child was also a Schrafft's fudge lover. I was going to write and invite her to spend an afternoon together to see if we could come up with the recipe, but she moved to California.

What do you predict will be the next trend in food?

We'll go back to comfort food. A meatloaf to write home about, with a crusty outside. I would like very much to see what David Bouley would do with a meatloaf. It's not a humble dish, but people take it for granted. I'd like to see what the New York glam chefs do with comfort food. I'm not talking about mashed potatoes with truffles; I'm talking real vanilla pudding made from scratch with vanilla beans and BST-free whole milk, echt vanilla pudding

We'll also be eating forest food. That's going to be the new trend. We're living in such an apocalyptic time that we're going to start to forage for our food as we all take to the woods. We're going to have to learn how to prepare shelf fungus from trees, and which ferns make the best soup. The new trend is going to be forage food: pine cone stew, paté de cattail, lichen mousse.

You've said that you associate caviar with Marilyn Monroe's death, that you can't eat it without thinking of her. Are there other foods that trigger associations like this?

I can't eat duck à l'orange without thinking about my son. I took him to Paris when he was a teenager and he ordered it in a little restaurant that no longer exists. It was duck à l'orange taken to new heights--he gave me a taste and it was remarkable. We were supposed to go somewhere that night and he didn't want to--he just wanted to go back to the hotel. The duck à l'orange was so exquisite that he didn't want to dilute the experience.

I once entered a clam-eating contest. I was in high school and I'd gone to visit a boy who was in college--it was a big deal. I was winning this contest and he was humiliated. Of course there's no limit to how many clams you can eat--by the time you've eaten ten, they've already been digested. He was embarrassed, and I really liked him so I made myself lose the contest. When I think of steamers, I think of that creep. He wasn't in the contest--he was Kosher.

Are there any foods that you won't eat?

Anything with licorice in it. But that's it. I don't eat fish eyes either; growing up there was a girl in my building, Hillaire Coughlin, who loved fish eyes. When we served fish at home we would send a plate of eyes up to her in the elevator.

One of the issues you address in Stuffed is the conflict between food and body image. Like so many people, you and your sister attempted all sorts of diets, which is challenging if you love food. How can we as a society avoid this inclination to deprive ourselves?

I would like there to be a magazine featuring real people--or even real models. My daughter used to work for a fashion magazine, and she'd send me annotated issues. I'd see these women that people model themselves after, and they were completely painted. The only things that resembled reality were their eyeballs--their teeth were done, their noses and lips were done, their moles were removed. It starts young. My kids went to private schools in New York and from the time they were in fourth grade their classes were filled with anorexics. It starts very early--they all want to look like Kate Moss.

What matters most to you in life?


Do you think it's possible for people who do not have stable families to replicate these bonds elsewhere?

Can you make your own family out of your friends? Thank God, yes. It's important to look at your family with an eye toward who they are as a way of understanding who you are. But some people have rotten families.

It used to be, when families all lived close together, that that was what you knew best. Friends were secondary. Now you can choose and surround yourself with people that fill your life in a good way.

What are you working on now?

I can't say much about it because it's bad luck, but I'm working on a novel that takes place in New York. I do think that everything that's written from now on will reference September 11th. It can't not. It was the defining event of our time.

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