INTERVIEW: Nicole Villeneuve

Nicole Villeneuve writes about the favorite recipes of famous writers at her blog, Paper & Salt. A comparative literature major, she works in book publishing by day and cooks in her tiny Manhattan apartment by night. She has written about food and books for the Daily Beast, Huffington Post and, among others.

In this interview with Paper Tape editor Kristy Harding, Nicole talks about Paper & Salt’s process and origin story, her cross-country adventure, and what’s on her reading list and going on in her kitchen.

PT: How would you describe Paper & Salt?

NV: Paper & Salt recreates the dishes that iconic authors discuss in their letters, diaries, essays, and fiction. I describe it as part food and recipe blog, part historical discussion, and part literary fangirl-ing, which is probably as close to a cogent description as I’ll get!

PT: What is Paper and Salt’s origin story?

NV: I work in book publishing, so I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by writing and authors. I was working on a collection of Hemingway’s letters that I started really getting into the connection between author and their eating habits. Hemingway was a great lover of food and drink, as you can tell from his fiction, but he was also jotting down notes about his favorite meals in his letters and articles. I decided to recreate some of those dishes, to get a better sense of who he was and really make him come alive as a person, not just as a “famous writer” that you can never get close to. Turns out that a lot of writers have a deep connection with food, which you can see in their letters and diaries, so the blog really grew from there.

PT: One of the things that always impresses me about your posts is the depth of knowledge you have of the authors you write about. What is your research process like? And how do you choose which authors to write about?

NV: Thanks so much! Researching the posts is a lot of fun; I learn a lot about the writer, but I also discover new things about food history, forgotten dishes, and the creative processes and routines of these literary greats. Sometimes there’s an event I want to tie in to the post—for the 100th anniversary of In Search of Lost Time, I looked at Proust’s madleines (or lack thereof) and I wrote about Alice Munro when she won the Nobel. But I usually pick authors pretty randomly, based on whatever I’m interested in at the moment, and then see if any of their personal papers (letters, notebooks, diaries) are available, either in a book or through the library that holds them. Sometimes there’s nothing food-related, but often there is. Then I go back through biographies written about them to see how food played into their lives: what their relationship with food says about them more generally. Besides the recipe and little anecdotes, I try to get each post to tell that larger story—which is probably way I only post twice a month or so!

PT: You mention in your about page that you’re from the Bay Area and currently live in New York. As someone who made that journey in reverse–I grew up in Connecticut and until recently lived in Berkeley–I’m curious about your experience.

NV: Oooh, Berkeley. Now I’m thinking about pizza from Cheeseboard.

I originally came to the East Coast for college, figuring that it would be a good time to try existing someplace else for a while, and I ended up just staying out here—partially because most publishing jobs are in Manhattan and partially because I didn’t want to move all my stuff back! It’s hard to beat New York, especially because of all the food and literary things happening every single day. I love the serendipitous nature of the city; since I don’t have a car, I’m always stumbling upon something I never would have found otherwise. But the three things I really miss are my family, great Mexican food, and California farmer’s markets. Even the Union Square Greenmarket here doesn’t really compare.

PT: What are you reading right now? And cooking?

NV: I guess it’s cliché for someone who blogs about food, but I’m reading MFK Fischer’s How to Cook a Wolf, which is so warm and rich and beautiful. If you like her (and I know so many food writers do) I’d also recommend Julian Barnes’ essays, which aren’t all about food but are similarly fantastic (and funny). I’m also reading James Salter’s All That Is, but I just started so I can’t give you my full review yet!

My kitchen challenge right now is trying to recreate these roasted cauliflower crostini I had with Nicole Gulotta of Eat This Poem. It’s just cauliflower, ricotta, parsley, and sea salt—really simple, but simplicity is one of the most difficult things to master! If I have any success, I’ll share the recipe.

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