Lisa Rubin has a whole lot to say about table decoration, the evolution of chickens and spice blends that transform drab dishes with their zingy ethnic flavors. She dishes it out - live - every Tuesday on her gabby gastronomic radio show, "Food for Thought," on WGDR.
It's surprising enough that Goddard College, which is known for its lefty politics, hosts Vermont's only regular cuisine-themed audio show. Rubin keeps listeners guessing, too. Her free-form presentations veer from interviews with farmers and chefs to calm expositions on nutrition to effusive descriptions of favorite dishes like shrimp 'n' grits. Despite her New York accent - she's a native Manhattanite who arrived here in 2002 - she's a convincing advocate for Vermont-y pleasures, such as pert dill pickles paired with sticky sugar on snow.
When she's not broadcasting her culinary knowledge, 43-year-old Rubin runs the Farmhouse Café and Catering Company on the land where she resides with her husband and daughters in East Calais. The restaurant is open on an advance-reservation-only basis; it's a destination-dining spot that offers an experience Rubin says is akin to having a private chef.
Rubin has the background to pull off such a venture, having studied with culinary luminaries such as Sheila Lukins of The Silver Palate and Jacques Pepin. She admits she had a crush on "the fabulous and handsome" Pepin, with whom she shares a "rustic yet refined" attitude toward food.
How do you make the transition from toque to earphones? Seven Days asked Rubin what it's like wearing so many hats.
Seven Days: Your husband's in advertising; you're a caterer. What made you two city mice become country mice?
Lisa Rubin: 9/11 spurred it on a little bit . . . A couple situations created this vision of "Hey, let's get out of here." We're definitely into skiing. We love B&B-ing and antiquing, and doing all the things that are so fabulous in Vermont.
SD: Why "Food for Thought?"
LR: Because it can be almost anything in the world of food. I knew I had thousands of shows in my head. There's so much to do, and so many different arteries of subjects with food: family and diet and health and history and culture and money and all those things.
SD: You have a busy catering business and a café. How did you end up with a radio show, too?
LR: People at the café would tell me, "You have a great radio voice and you have a lot to say." It was a real osmosis between knowing people, doing catering at Goddard and knowing about college radio. I just walked in and kind of introduced myself. I said, "I've got a show I'd really like to do" . . . Two months later, I had my show.
SD: Does "hosting" a radio show require any of the same skills as hosting a dinner party?
LR: I have a little glamour in me, a little citified sparkle. I'm not salt of the earth, but I can be comfortable in any kind of atmosphere, with any kind of person. I do have a passion and a certain kind of earthy sophistication. But everyone here tends to respect each other's diversity. I'm just another ingredient in that pot.
SD: In your introduction to one show, you say you want to help listeners broaden the scope of their food consciousness. How do you go about doing that?
LR: To people who are really heavy-duty, I must seem like Holly Golightly; to other people I might be too informative. I try not to be serious, even though . . . sometimes I hope to scare people a little bit, to change their paradigm about how they eat . . . I'm very into the ability to empower people that they can eat well with a little or a lot of money . . . I hope to not sound preachy, but to make it thought-provoking. I don't rant and rave.
SD: At WGDR, you've got to be your own engineer. How did you pick it up so quickly?
LR: I'd had some experience in recording studios. My sister is a musician, so I was kind of a studio rat. I was pretty adamant to get on the air fast. I kind of like to throw myself into the fire. I always have to challenge myself and just go for it, and then I realize it's not that bad.
SD: How long does it take to put together a show?
LR: My shows are created very fast. It's mind-blowing, even to me. On average, maybe two hours. I have a lot of chutzpah sometimes. Sometimes an hour and a half before the show, I'm putting it together. Sometimes I'll just do a beautiful reading. Sometimes I'll do beautiful food quotes and I'll put on some music. My intention is to give a good-quality show, and I want the listener to feel there's a preparedness there, and that I'm not just going to be tripping over my words and a lot of fragmented information.
SD: Can you explain your creative process?
LR: I have this little journal; I have these scribbles of headlines or themes. So, even if I have one idea, one little "food for thought" that I jot down, I could probably create 20 shows from it. God, you could have like 50 shows on just the food allergies. There's a trickle-down effect for me . . . just one word can inspire me.
SD: Goddard doesn't have statistics on who's tuning in. Do you know how many folks are listening? What kind of feedback do you get from the locals?
LR: I don't have a dialogue a whole lot with people, so I don't know how they're reacting to what I'm saying - if it's bringing up emotions, or if it's just entertaining or informational. It's a little bit of a one-sided thing. I'm giving out a lot of stuff, and I hope it's being received well and making someone feel good that day.
People do call in sometimes, and they'll make nice comments. The show does conjure up a lot of food memories for people - good, bad and ugly. I seem to get more vocal responses from the lighter, more entertaining shows.
SD: In your show on Easter and Passover foods, you feature some klezmer music. In the one on foods of the South, you start off with Ray Charles. Do you always have music in your shows?
LR: If we're talking about African food, I'll throw in a little African. Moody food, I'll throw in mood music. It's like peanut butter and jelly; it just goes together perfect. You need it to help create the atmosphere. But sometimes there's no time for music.
SD: Food TV: Love it or hate it?
LR: I used to really enjoy the cooking shows more than I do now. As long as it sparks someone to cook, I guess there's nothing really bad about it. But I feel the self-importance of it all . . . they [celebrity chefs] have an amazing voice, and they're not preaching enough of the beneficial elements of our work.
SD: You've talked about topics as disparate as the ancient history of eggs, foods of the American South and maple syrup. What are some other subjects you've delved into?
LR: I've had shows on the differences between Cajun and Creole. I got so into the different kinds of sandwiches, so I did one on the history of the sandwich . . . the Reuben and Muffaletta. Talked a little bit about Madagascar and all of their amazing spices: their black pepper and ginger. We talked about vanilla, and chilies and cloves. We did some stuff on the Low Country. I had someone over from Christ Church, and we talked about soup kitchens. I'm probably going to do a little bit more on nuts because I love to cook with nuts. And certainly barbecue is appropriate, because there's a thousand ways to talk about barbecuing.
SD: You've said that you could do 50 shows on food allergies. Given the time constraints, how do you decide what to talk about during a single show?
LR: I guess because of the length of the show, I'm able to give a blend of things. Otherwise there would be a boredom factor. I need to create a colorful perspective on all the different areas of that subject . . . historical, nutritional and all that. I consciously do that to blend all the aspects of a food and give it that stage [i.e., the show], and give all its positives and its negatives.
SD: Your shows aren't scripted, so you're constantly ad-libbing. That's not easy to do for an hour. Is it tough for you to listen to the recordings?
LR: Sometimes I cringe and sometimes I love them. Because it's community radio, I felt like this was a good first vehicle for me to better myself with language, writing and research.