‘If you watch, she’ll start salivating,” Sally Swift says from a control room in the Minnesota Public Radio studios. “It’s really funny.”
She’s talking about Lynne Rossetto Kasper, who on the other side of a large window is settling into a detailed description of a marinated chicken dish that Carly from Chantilly, Va., could prepare in a small kitchen.
“This sounds like something from the 1950s, but it really works,” Rossetto Kasper says, spouting off a list of ingredients as though reading a mental recipe: “soy sauce, apricot jam, a ton of garlic, vinegar, a little chili paste and some mustard, dark mustard.”
The two are taping the call-in segment of “The Splendid Table,” the groundbreaking public-radio food show they created 20 years ago. And Rossetto Kasper is squarely in her element.
When Sharon from Superior, Wis., calls with a what-to-do-with-garlic question, the show’s longtime host — despite having answered that question “a jillion times” over the years — dives in once more. She riffs on the virtues of mincing versus pressing and eventually works her way to a recipe for toum, a garlic paste.
“That’s probably more than she wanted to know,” Jennifer Luebke, the show’s technical director, says about the caller.
“She’s getting a dissertation,” says Swift, managing producer. Then she adds: “People ask the same questions. There’s nothing new. In cooking, everyone starts somewhere.”
But when Rossetto Kasper, in her trademark silky, deep voice, signs off the call with a kicker about “50 shades of garlic” and a belly laugh, the production team — which also includes producer Jennifer Russell — changes its tune.
“Well, now we have to use it,” they say in near unison.
When “The Splendid Table” launched, it dared to deliver recipes along with explorations into the whys of what we eat, at a time when American culture was far less food-obsessed. Food Network, for instance, was barely two years old and had yet to make cooking a televised sport.
Since the show’s pilot in 1994 and debut in 1995, its audience has grown steadily. “The Splendid Table” was ahead of its time as American Public Media’s first show to launch a simultaneous Web site. Now “the show for people who love to eat” and the Web site reach nearly 1 million listeners and visitors weekly, not to mention a devoted podcast and social media following.
The show owes much of its staying power to a production team that functions like family: sisters, to be exact. “The four women who started the show are still together, which is crazy,” Swift, 54, said over lunch in the Washington area, where she now lives five weeks out of six. (The team has since added Web producer Laura Kaliebe, who also works as a production assistant for the show.)
“How can it possibly be 20 years old?” Swift asked. “How can we possibly have made it to where we are?”
Swift and “the Jennifers,” Luebke and Russell, were in their early 30s when the team assembled, raising two kids apiece alongside busy production schedules. A lot has changed since then. Their six kids have grown up, and so has the country’s culinary scene. “I think we finally found a food culture,” Swift said.
But with that culture — and an influx of on-demand entertainment options — comes more competition, even on public radio. “America’s Test Kitchen,” the TV show and magazine empire of Chris Kimball, started a radio show in 2012. And other programs, such as WBUR’s “Here and Now” and APM’s “Dinner Party Download,” regularly feature food coverage.
Although “The Splendid Table” airs on more than 400 public radio stations (including WAMU-FM, 88.5, at 3 p.m. on Saturdays), individual station managers are always looking at numbers and reevaluating their mix. Just last month, the NPR affiliate serving Charlotte, N.C., WFAE, put “The Splendid Table” and “America’s Test Kitchen” on its chopping block after they failed to garner enough listeners over a two-year run on Sunday afternoons.
“I just couldn’t get the show to have the audience,” said Dale Spear, the station’s content and program director. “It was more a decision about the genre than the show itself.” Shows like this, with a more focused appeal, he added, “live in the podcast world today.”
Indeed, a growing number of people aren’t tuning in live but instead are “destination listening” to shows such as “The Splendid Table” in podcast form, but Swift said that’s not the doom-and-gloom phenomenon they thought it might be.
“Listening breeds listening,” she said, though it’s difficult to measure the exact audiences of podcast vs. radio, which could have some overlap.
The show faced down a potential crisis recently when American Public Media, which produces and distributes “The Splendid Table,” announced cutbacks that include 10 layoffs at Minnesota Public Radio and the cancellation of the live show “Wits.”
“The Splendid Table” escaped trims, but the competition and the economic climate have kept its tight-knit team focused on maintaining relevance, especially as the show enters its third decade. More outside contributors are conducting interviews while Rossetto Kasper steps back a little, for example. But one thing apparently will never change: Despite the competition, despite the fact that listeners can get a world of cooking information with a few swipes on their smartphones, they still love to call “Lynne” when they’re stymied by a new ingredient or an entertaining conundrum in the kitchen.
“Thank God they don’t just go to Google, you know?” Luebke said while recording segments in St. Paul. “We wouldn’t have a call-in segment.”
Regular listeners like Lindsay Smith, a Washington-based food systems consultant, say the call-in portion is their favorite part of the show. The spontaneity they envision is genuine: Though the episodes are recorded and pieced together in the studio, Rossetto Kasper still answers callers’ questions completely on the fly.
“Call-ins are my sport,” she said, which would make Thanksgiving Day her Olympics.
On that morning each year, “The Splendid Table” hosts “Turkey Confidential,” the one time the show goes live with a call-in show offering holiday triage for home cooks already elbow-deep in their birds.
“People want to tell their stories about their disasters or when they were a kid and the turkey blew up,” Rossetto Kasper said of the two-hour event. “I love it, because you really have no idea what’s coming.”
Swift first heard Rossetto Kasper on PBS’s “Frugal Gourmet” talking about her book, “The Splendid Table: Recipes From Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food” (William Morrow, 1992), soon after it debuted.
Compiled over the course of a decade, the 500-page tome focused on the history, culture and recipes of the Italian region that gave the world Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar. It won a James Beard Foundation award and an International Association of Culinary Professionals award. And Swift, a fellow Italian, was blown away.
After reading the book and hearing the voice, Swift, who had a background producing TV, film and radio, cold-called Rossetto Kasper: Would she be interested in piloting a food program?
Swift’s then-husband worked for Minnesota Public Radio and helped her find a little seed money to produce a pilot and, in the early years, a live call-in show. Russell and Luebke joined the team soon after.
The book’s breadth and depth were a fitting preview of the show that Rossetto Kasper would come to define as its jovial host.
For the show’s 10-year anniversary, the two returned to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, visiting many of the places featured in her first book. Swift remembers driving up switchback roads to a bakery in the tiniest of countryside towns whose tigelle bread had wooed Rossetto Kasper years before. There on the wall was a framed copy of the New York Times review of the cookbook from 10 years before.
“It had been there since the day it was published, because she wrote about this bread,” Swift said. “I just wanted to cry.”
In person, Rossetto Kasper is exactly how she sounds on air. Ask her how she got into the food radio business that “did not exist” at the time, and it’s not long before she’s asking the questions.
“So, tell me about you,” she asks a reporter a few minutes into dinner at Hola Arepa, a Latin food truck-gone-restaurant in Minneapolis, sounding much the way she does when she greets callers on the show: “So, what’s on your mind?”
When the food arrives, Rossetto Kasper slips into storytelling mode, which she comes by naturally.
“You’ve got to taste the arepa,” she says between bites of the beef-filled cornmeal cakes, starting into a quick description of its South American roots. “This is the kind of thing that you eat and you are set to plow the fields — after you have a nap.”
Rossetto Kasper’s interest in the story behind the food, and the people, is what first took her career into the kitchen. Despite her Italian background, or perhaps “as an act of rebellion,” it was Chinese cuisine that captivated her as a young married woman living in New York City.
Soon, she had leveraged her insatiable curiosity, a well-seasoned wok and ingredients from nearby Chinatown into small cooking classes taught for friends. When she and her husband, Frank, moved to Colorado with his job, she started Lynne Kasper’s Cooking School of Denver, with a focus on mastering French techniques. It was, after all, the age of Julia Child, whom Rossetto Kasper had come to know personally and would later have on the show several times.
“Teaching cooking, I think, is what leads to all of this,” she said. “You have an interaction with people, and you’re thinking on your feet. Every time you teach something, you learn something.”
That desire to learn, mixed with the authority of someone who’s cooked a wide variety of cuisines, is part of what makes Rossetto Kasper such an affable on-air host.
Still, “she is perfectly happy taking a call about how to measure flour and is delighted about it,” said Swift.
In recent years, the show has relied more frequently on a stable of contributors (such as Francis Lam, Pati Jinich, Melissa Clark and Rebecca Sheir) who interview guests for short segments in lieu of Rossetto Kasper, whose voice still presides over most interviews and weaves the segments together. “That’s where we’re going as we move ahead,” said Swift. “It lets Lynne focus a little bit more on things that really pique her interest.”
Using contributors also lets Rossetto Kasper, who wryly gives her age as “somewhere between 60 and death,” take some time off. She’s pulled back the number of hours she gives to the show in recent years, though it’s still very much her baby.
It helps that Swift can write scripts in Rossetto Kasper’s voice as easily as in her own, even from Washington. Swift moved to Silver Spring in 2010 to marry Michael Franz, professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore and a former wine columnist for The Washington Post. Though her absence means fewer holiday dinners with her second family (they’ve shared a half-dozen Thanksgivings), Swift still flies back to the Twin Cities to produce 26 shows a year.
It also helps that the team behind the scenes is as efficient as they come, storing information in one another’s brains the way that long-married couples might.
“The cool thing about working together for so long is you do become this family,” Russell said.
“You finish each other’s sentences,” Luebke said in the next breath.
Swift credits some of the show’s success to a stroke of lucky timing. It turns out, 20 years ago was just the right moment for Rossetto Kasper to lead us into a love affair with food. And when it comes to expertise and on-air personality, Swift said, “all these years later, I still don’t know anyone who remotely comes close to her.”
Pipkin, a freelance journalist in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com. Sally Swift and Lynne Rossetto Kasper will join the Free Range live chat with readers Wednesday at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.