On Eating Well
Elissa Altman mixes her two loves: cooking and writing| From Alumni Notes | By Amy Laskowski
Elissa Altman, in her Newtown, Connecticut, kitchen, writes about food for the Huffington Post and in her personal blog, Poor Man’s Feast. Photo by Edward A. Brown
Elissa Altman fell in love with cooking at Warren Towers. No, it wasn’t the dorm food that awakened her senses; it was a book. For Christmas during her sophomore year, two friends gave her a cookbook with a card that said, “Merry Christmas! Any idiot who can read can cook!”
“I dipped in and out of it, and the cooking bug bit me, hard,” recalls Altman (CGS’83, CAS’85). “I have a distinct memory of sitting in my South Campus suite, reading my very first issue of Gourmet and thinking, I want to write about food.” Altman now dishes on food for the Huffington Post and on her personal blog, Poor Man’s Feast. She’s also associate editorial director of Reader’s Digest (“my day job,” she says).
After graduating from BU with an English degree, Altman worked in publishing and attended the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. The natural transition, she says, would have been to become a chef, but the long hours didn’t appeal to her. “I find myself far more interested in the way people eat across demographics,” she says.
She began writing for the Hartford Courant, and later became the paper’s freelance restaurant critic. She hated it. “Who am I to sit down in a restaurant and either make or break their future in maybe one or two meals?” she says. She left the paper in the wake of a dispute about a negative review of a big-time advertiser.
She decided to turn her longtime Courant column, “The Economical Fresser” (Fresser is a Yiddish-German word for someone who loves food), into a cookbook. “The point of the column was largely to show readers that what constitutes a good meal, or good food, is rarely tied to whether or not it’s ‘fancy,’” Altman says, “but rather how it is prepared and how lovingly the ingredients are treated and presented.”
Her book, Big Food, was published in 2005. Altman says she was intrigued by the popularity of warehouses such as BJ’s and Costco. Shopping at these warehouses, she writes in the book, can lead to impulse purchases and wasted food.
Altman knows from experience about the pitfalls of buying in bulk. One winter, she bought eight pounds of Meyer lemons at her local supermarket, enticed by the price and her craving for a taste of summer. She dreamed of the exotic dishes she would conjure with the hard-to-find fruit: Moroccan-style couscous, Greek lemon-and-egg soup, and candied Meyer lemon slices on top of a rich chocolate tart.
Reality soon hit. “The refrigerated shelf life of a Meyer lemon is approximately two weeks,” Altman writes in the introduction, “and sure enough, two weeks later, my glorious lemons grew hard, unattractively crusty, dry, and furry, and completely inedible. So I threw them out. Seven pounds of them.”
After a colleague introduced her to an editor at the Huffington Post, Altman moved her musings from print to online, and she now writes about current topics, such as the demise of her old favorite, Gourmet, and last fall’s film Julie and Julia.
In 2009, she decided to start Poor Man’s Feast, which she describes as a food memoir, with recipes, advice, and personal stories. It has more than 25,000 regular readers, which Altman attributes mostly to word-of-mouth, with a little extra help from her fan page on Facebook.
In a recent post, she recounts her scramble when some vegan friends came for dinner (note: Mexican chocolate tofu pudding needs “super fabulous high quality” vegan-friendly chocolate), and another recalls her love of Spam.
At home, in Newtown, Connecticut, she will often whip up a recipe, like one of her favorite Indian dishes, Goan shrimp curry, when she’s deciding what to feature on her blog.
For Altman, food is one of the most revealing windows into our culture. “There is nothing more human than sharing food,” she says. “It makes us who we are. And if I can contribute to the cultural dialogue by writing about it, I will have done my job.”
You Asked, We Answered
Readers took advantage of our invitation to ask Elissa Altman about cooking and smart ways to buy in bulk. Here are some of those questions, along with Altman's responses. Learn more in her book, Big Food, or by visiting her blog, Poor Man's Feast.
QWhat are some tricks for extending the shelf life of foods? I already freeze half of my produce and bread, but what can I do with the rest? (For example, I’m now saddled with an open 65-ounce jar of marinated artichoke hearts, which I love but can’t eat fast enough.) — Kelly (SPH’08)
AHi, Kelly. It really depends on what it is you’re left with. For example, in Big Food, I talk about making primary dishes and then secondary dishes from leftovers (i.e., the open jar of marinated artichoke hearts). The key is to plan well before you buy, so that you know that when you’re dealing with the inevitable overflow, you’ll have a use for it in your kitchen. My suggestion for those marinated artichoke hearts: freeze some of them in small freezer bags. Use the balance in salads (chef’s salads, pasta salads, grain salads). Hope that helps! Thanks for writing.
QI’m a recent BU grad interested in pursuing a career in professional food writing (so yes, you have my dream job). I would greatly appreciate any insights you may have to share if you would consider discussing your career with me further. I can be reached by e-mail if you could spare some time to arrange an informational interview. — Elizabeth Mattey (COM’09)
AHi, Elizabeth. Feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll chat.
QHello, I enjoyed reading about you! My question is about potatoes. I never know how much to cut off. I see cooks on TV and even at home who just quarter them and off they go into the pot or onto a baking tray with olive oil. I spend forever cutting off little blemishes, eyes that haven’t sprouted anything yet, green spots, etc. They end up not looking very even, which is okay for mashed potatoes, but not for roasting. What is necessary and what is too much? Thank you for your time. — Cornelia
A Hi, Cornelia. Ah ... a question that is near and dear to my heart! I always feel so wasteful, cutting off what may be far more than I need to. Simple rule of thumb: if it’s brown, it needs to go. If it’s green, it needs to be peeled entirely — and if the flesh is green, it needs to be tossed into the trash. If the blemish is just on the surface and doesn’t impact the flesh, don’t worry too much about it. But if it is a deep internal blemish, it should be removed. Use the pointed end of a potato peeler to scoop out the offending bit. If you wind up with a lopsided potato and you’re roasting, simply quarter the spud, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and go for it. Nobody minds rustic when it comes to roasting. Hope that helps!