Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of fourteen cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
A contributing editor for Saveur and Edible Piedmont, Nancie has written on food and travel for numerous publications including Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, Cooks Illustrated, Every Day with Rachel Ray, Family Fun, Food Arts, and the Los Angeles Times. Her national television credits include playing the role of Cake Historian on Alton Brown’s Peabody Award-winning Food Network program, “Good Eats”; leading a Thai market tour in Los Angeles for Discovery Channel’s “Epicurious” and cooking Thai food in the Dream Kitchen on Better Homes and Gardens’ BHG-TV.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she belongs to the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Les Dames d’Escoffier, and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. She is also active in the North Carolina Triangle Chapter of Slow Food and the Southern Foodways Alliance. Nancie lives with her family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
To find out more about Nancie, we dispatched our top reporter to track her down in her natural habitat. After locating her in the breakfast cereal aisle of the Harris-Teeter supermarket near her Chapel Hill, NC, home, our intrepid reporter sent us this interview.
Are you Nancie McDermott, food writer and cooking teacher?
Why are you here?
We’re out of Banana Nut Crunch. My husband and daughters adore me, but not my sensible taste in breakfast cereal. Also I have to go to the grocery store while they are at work and at school – they won’t come with me because they say I take too long.
Shouldn’t the author of numerous Asian cookbooks be breakfasting on rice porridge with pickled radish or a big steaming bowl of rice noodles in chili-lime broth?
Absolutely, if it’s a Saturday morning or if I’m waking up in Asia where I can eat at the morning market. But on a school day, we’ll be the ones with big bowls of really grainy cereal, preferably avec bananas.
“We” means my husband, our two daughters and me. We have a house with a screened-in porch, a woodsy backyard, and raised beds for growing vegetables and herbs. We have hermit crabs, a hamster, and a large wonderful ever-hungry dog named Gentle Ben.
Where do you live?
In Chapel Hill, a beautiful town in the central Piedmont region of North Carolina. We met in New York City, moved to Southern California where both our children were born, and then back here in 1999 for my husband’s work. I grew up in High Point, NC, and went to college at UNC here in Chapel Hill. We miss California a lot, but we back to visit, and we now love living here in my home state, with my parents and one of my sisters living just an hour away.
Where did you learn how to cook?
From my grandmother. She cooked for her family and the workers on their dairy farm not far from here. She was famous for her blackberry rolls and fresh coconut cake. She let me help her in the kitchen, and in summer we went fishing in the pond, and blackberry picking along the roadsides. At home I used my mother’s cookbooks to make casseroles, meatloaf, muffins, rice pudding and pineapple upside-down cake. Within a few short years I had worked my way to the top: Making the dessert for my parents’ bridge parties. I’ve taken many cooking classes along the way, and I’m still learning from cookbooks, newspaper food sections, food magazines and television to this day.
Where do you get all those recipes you put in your books?
I like to write about classic dishes, food with a story behind it, so I usually start with homework. It’s like planning a little tiny term paper. I usually begin at my overflowing bookshelves and then progress to the public library, gathering a stack of books and articles with information on the dish. I interview people if I can, from chefs and home cooks to fellow cooking teachers and food writers. Then I study what I’ve got, skimming, reading, making notes, looking at as many different versions of the dish as possible.
Then I write out my first draft, triple-spaced so I can write all over it as I work, and head for the kitchen with pen in hand. Usually I cook my way through three to five drafts before I have the recipe right and even then I often cook it another time or two, to focus on variations and substitutions I want to include. A few recipes have worked out on the first trey, and some have taken ten tries before I finally get it right.
Except for the occasional burnt item, draft versions become dinner, and my husband takes his lunch to work. That’s why I like to test a number of recipes in a session and do the revised versions a few days later. This intermission keeps my family from turning on me and refusing to continue serving as my in-house focus group.
What’s for dinner tonight?
Rice or pasta. I get the rice cooker going and then figure out what kind of curry or stir-fry I can make without going back out to the store. Or I might put the stockpot on to boil and pick a pasta from the pantry: Spaghetti? Linguine? Macaroni? Bow-Ties? Rice Noodles? Instant Ramen? Top sauces for us are garlic and oil; butter and cheese; pesto from the freezer; tomato sauce from a jar. I add frozen peas or edamame beans, or chunks of zucchini just before I drain the pasta, and usually put out a big salad whether we have pasta or rice.
Now that reminds me: I need salad greens and frozen tiny peas, and some half-and-half for tomorrow’s coffee. Gotta go for now…!