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Betty Fussell

Jim Poris - June 2002

Food Arts presents the June 202 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Betty Fussell, the food historian and cookbook author whose endeavors have plotted the major coordinates of American cooker, particularly corn. "What could be more appropriate to the cooking of a hybrid people than a grain that was a hybrid of the hard flint of the North and the gourdseed of the South and that multiplied best not by inbreeding but by crossbreeding," Fussell writes in I Hear America Cooking (1986), in which she gleefully roots out "the characteristic taste of American food, that triple combination of salt, sweet, and crisp that the French deplore."

Scholarship may be her calling card, but uninhibited wit, bemusement, and plain all-American golly-gee curiosity are the literary engines that make her books must-read page turners. With food as a vehicle, "my interest as a journalist is always history—where I am, where I came from, and what that means," she says.

"[Food] keeps me grounded in small pleasures that add up to big ones that kill time by savoring it, in memory and anticipation," she offers as her reason for writing about food in her memoir My Kitchen Wars (1999). "Food conjugates my past and future and keeps me centered in the present, in my body, in my animal self."

"Betty brings a sharp intellect and fine writing ability to a field that hasn't always had those attributes," says Jan Longone, the curator of culinary history at the University of Michigan and owner of the Wine and Food Library in Ann Arbor. "She takes her material quite seriously. And it goes without saying that The story of Corn 1992 was her major contribution, for no one had explored corn, which is so very American, in such depth."

As with many Americans, Fussell—the product of an unadorned, teetotalist Calvinist upbringing during depression and wartime in Riverside, California ("like the Midwest but with great weather")—carried a tin ear and cotton palate for the rhythms of American cooking until the near-licentious flavors she encountered during European sojourns with her ex-husband made her see behind the white-bread section of America's larder. The ecstatic experience got her cooking food a lot more ambitious than the canned-food meals of her youth. An academic with a Ph.D. and a specialty in Elizabethan theater, with teaching, essay writing, and her part-time acting to show for it, Fussell was asked to translate her newfound culinary ability into a book—Masters of American Cookery (1984), which profiled James Beard, Craig Claiborne, M.F.K. Fisher, and Julia Child. Her book list blossomed—it now includes eight other titles, with a second volume of memoirs in the works—as did her output for magazines and journals, her tours on the lecture circuit, and her work as a food consultant.

As a sage of the sensual—albeit one with a beaming smile—she likens food's ability to stir every human nerve ending to art. "Food's like street theater—immediate and temporary. Only difference, thankfully, is that food is every day."