David Leite is a memoirist, author, and publisher of Leite’s Culinaria – the first website to win a James Beard Award. Between writing his memoir, blogging and radio appearances we found time for a short conversation about food, grandmothers, Proust, Freud and cooking naked.
Gary Komarin: When did you first start taking food “seriously” and why?
David Leite: When my maternal grandmother died in 1992, all the foods of my heritage–the foods I grew up with–were gone. My mother had her versions, but they were just that: versions. So I set out to recreate as many as I could as a way of staying connected to her. The unexpected result was I fell in love with Portuguese foods and culture—something I’d been running from since I was a kid. All my life I had wanted to be blond and blue-eyed and eat bologna on white bread. Not kale soup or octopus stew or sardines. That changed in 1992. And that was the impetus for my cookbook, The Portuguese Table. The book is dedicated to my grandmother.
Gary Komarin: Where do you see your talent residing? Does it lean toward the analytical, the creative or some combination?
David Leite: If I could answer that, I could start my own foundation and become rich as hell. I have no idea where my talent resides. It’s just there. It’s an impulse, sometimes clouded, other times fully formed. But I don’t set out to “create something.” If anything, I follow prompts, whispers, nudges from within. When I act on those prompts, I find myself bumping around in the dark a lot, like when we played Blind Man’s Bluff as kids. And if that impulse or idea is insistent enough, and I keep bumping into it again and again, I hang out for a while and see where it goes. If I push, I’m dead in the water. My writing is overwrought, my cooking is over the top, and I miss the opportunity. I try, as much as possible, to let the ideas tell me what they want. Once I understand that, then, yes, the analytical comes into play, as a way to shape, hone, and make manifest.
Gary Komarin: Do you ever think of eating as a far more complicated endeavor than most people realize? That it can mean very different things to different people?
David Leite: Food has become so over-fetishized that, honestly, I’m left cold. It’s being dissected in a clinical manner these days and used as a sledgehammer of one-upmanship. And the Cult of Dining, this ever-constant need to rush to the newest, best, latest restaurant? Not for me. Dining has become a competitive—almost contact—sport. Having said that, yes, I do think the act of eating is a very complicated and personal experience. It’s impossible to disconnect food from memory—recent and distant—and that’s the area I like to inhabit. Just recalling the smells of their mother or grandmother’s kitchen is enough to volley people into the past, into nostalgia, into their hearts. Look at what a madeleine supposedly did for Proust? To make memories around a table is, to me, the most important thing about cooking. Food is the catalyst, not the subject. It’s taken me more than 20 years to untangle that knot.
Gary Komarin: Do you ever write about food that you have not personally prepared?
David Leite: If I’m writing about a meal at a restaurant, absolutely. But restaurant writing is something I rarely do. My métier is the home kitchen. It’s where I feel happiest and most content.
Gary Komarin: Do you dream about food in your sleep?
David Leite: Sometimes. It’s never about eating, though. It’s usually an anxiety dream in which a bunch of guests are arriving and nothing is prepared. Sometimes I dream I’m cooking naked. Freudians, I’m sure, would have a field day with that one: fear of being found out, fear of being a fraud, fear of castration. But the real fear always is: Fear of getting grease on my clothes, which I’m wont to do.
Gary Komarin: Is there such a thing as a ‘perfect dish’…and if so, what is it?
David Leite: Never. It’s too subjective. If I may butcher a Grace Jones’ lyric, it may not be perfect, but it’s perfect for you.
Though you may know David best by the witticisms and wisdom he shares online, he’s also shared his perspective on pretty much everything—from Champagne to Welsh cuisine, from his complaints about growing up with Momma Leite to the trials and tribulations of being a super taster— in print, radio, and television. His first book, The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe’s Western Coast, explored the food of his heritage and won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. He’s also shared his opinion in publications including the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Men’s Health, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post, Charlotte Observer, and more.
David has written a memoir, Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, to be published by Dey Street Books.