Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner, and this is a bonus episode with Samin Nosrat. She’s the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a best-selling book about food and cooking and about Samin herself. The book was also turned into a four-part Netflix series you may have seen. Samin was featured in our most recent episode, “What’s Wrong With Being a One-Hit-Wonder?” As you probably know, for most of our episodes I speak with a variety of guests; parts of those conversations make it into the finished episode but the rest gets edited out. Once in a while, there’s a full interview that’s so interesting and surprising and we think, “Uh! It’s too bad no one else will ever hear the whole thing.” And that’s how we felt about this conversation — so we decided to go ahead and publish it as a bonus episode. It is a wide-ranging and candid conversation about the upsides and downsides of living a creative life; it’s about growing up in an immigrant family and feeling out of place — and feeling additionally displaced after a family tragedy. If you’ve already listened to “What’s Wrong With Being a One-Hit Wonder?,” there will be a few familiar parts — and Samin also makes a couple references to one of the research papers we discussed in that episode. That study showed that first-time cookbook authors who win an award tend to not publish another book within five years, theoretically because they’re afraid to diminish their newfound creative reputation. As you’ll hear, there are parts of the paper that agrees with — and others, not so much. Anyway, I think you’ll see why we thought this was a conversation worth hearing in full. As always, thanks for listening.

Samin NOSRAT: Hi. My name is Samin Nosrat. I’m a writer and a cook and, uh, a person.

Stephen DUBNER: Well, that answered one of my questions. The person part, I knew. I was curious which order you think of yourself in: writer, cook — so is that the order or is that just the way you happen to describe it today?

NOSRAT: No, I definitely think of myself as writer first.

DUBNER: How do you spend your days at the moment?

NOSRAT: Well, right now I spend most of my days crying.

DUBNER: Oh. I might need you to explain exactly what you’re crying about. Are there a lot of reasons?

NOSRAT: There are multiple reasons. Part of it is my just general malaise, creative malaise. Part of it is just the state of the world. And part of it is I recently went through a big family trauma. My father passed away. And those things, I think in a lot of ways are related. But, you know, in theory, the way I should be spending my time is working on a book. And since that book is a cookbook, it’s sort of partly testing recipes and thinking about food and how I cook it and how people at home might cook it. And then writing about that.

DUBNER: So on your website, it says, “We all know I’m a painfully slow writer, so please do not write to ask me when the book is coming.” So, Samin, on behalf of all your readers and fans, of which I am one — I loved your first book. So on behalf of everyone, I’ll be the obnoxious one. When is the book coming?

NOSRAT: I actually — I don’t really know. It was I think originally supposed to come out this year and then Covid happened. Are we really going to go through the process of what’s happened? 

DUBNER: Absolutely.

NOSRAT: So I wrote a book called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that took me a very long time to write. And I had the idea for that book, probably sometime around 1999 or 2000. And that book came out in 2017.

DUBNER: So just another, like, 17- or 18-year overnight-success story.

NOSRAT: Yeah, totally. And it’s not to say I spent all of those years writing it. The idea — the germination of the idea to the publishing of the book —  that’s how long it took. The act of writing was about three-and-a-half years maybe?

DUBNER: And within that 16, 17, 18 years, were there other projects that almost turned into books?

NOSRAT: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, basically, since I was in 11th grade. First I went to college, and I was an English major. I thought I was going to go to grad school for so many different forms of becoming a writer. And I’m doing air quotes right now. First, I thought it would be getting an M.F.A. in poetry, and then I realized that I would just graduate that with $90,000 of debt and no way to make that back. And so then I ended up detouring my way into a restaurant kitchen.

DUBNER: Now when you say a restaurant kitchen, we should say it was kind of a good restaurant.

NOSRAT: Yes. Like an incredibly important restaurant in American culinary history.

DUBNER: And it rhymes with “shmez manisse”?

NOSRAT: Yeah, called Chez Panisse. And I learned how to cook, and I saw this pattern in the kitchen that I thought wasn’t really represented in the stack of cookbooks that I’d been told to read as a young cook. Everything that I was learning on a daily basis in the kitchen could be distilled into understanding how salt, fat, acid, and heat worked. And while I’d been given this list of 30 important books in the history of Chez Panisse to familiarize myself with, and cook from in my free time, these concepts were not ever explicitly explained in those books. Whereas every single day in the kitchen, these were the things that we were orienting ourselves around.

DUBNER: Why do you think that was? I guess one could argue that, well, these are foundational components of how one thinks about food and the preparation of food, and therefore they’re baked into everyone who is cooking already. Or I mean, you could go the totally opposite way and just say that people never really sat down and thought about it that foundationally. Why do you think that pattern hadn’t been recognized the way you did?

NOSRAT: I think it’s a little bit of both. Just because of the history of cooking in America, and how cooking knowledge has been passed down in this country, I think a lot of knowledge has been forgotten. What used to be sort of passed down from generation to generation and what we call “baked in,” quote/unquote doesn’t happen anymore. So then that thing that you would pick up a book by M.F.K. Fisher or a book in the 1800s, and were just basic assumptions that you knew, those things need to be spelled out for people now. Because your grandma is not doing that for you, because probably your grandma was really excited to cook with margarine. Because that was this new thing that was very exciting at that time.  

DUBNER: So you recognize this pattern. You’re cooking, and you were still thinking at that point maybe about graduate school for writing?

NOSRAT: Totally. I actually got accepted to an M.F.A. program and I put it on hold. But I deferred for a year because I also got an invitation from this chef in Italy, Benedetta Vitali, to come be her apprentice. And so I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go to Italy instead.” But I never let go of writing. And I always tried to incorporate some sort of intellectual or literary pursuit into my cooking. And I always had doubts about becoming a 100-percent cook or chef. I never was like, “Oh, I’m going to have a restaurant.” That was never my ambition.

DUBNER: During this long gestation period, which sounds like it was an organic gestation period, were there other books that you really went hard at and what were they? Were they fiction? Was it other nonfiction? 

NOSRAT: Well, it wasn’t so much that I went hard. It was just that I was so desperate to write, quote/unquote, “write a book,” that whenever an opportunity seemed within grasp that I just like desperately reached for it. And so at two different points, there were chances for me to be like a contributor or coauthor to cookbooks. One was in Italy where Benedetta — who had written one beautiful cookbook, and that was actually how I’d met her, was she had come to Chez Panisse on a cookbook tour — and so she wanted to write a second book. And so she said, “Oh, well, you can help me with that.” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? That’s amazing.” But there really wasn’t a structure. She was busy running a restaurant. And also like trying to wrangle any chef to do anything is impossible. And then add to that, like, an Italian person. And I was 20-something, 22. You can’t make anyone do anything. So I tried, and then eventually I didn’t have enough money to stay in Italy. And so it’s kind of a heartbreaking thing, but I had to just come home. I couldn’t do that.  

DUBNER: And what did that feel like in the immediate-ish aftermath, the year or two aftermath?

NOSRAT: Oh, it was a total heartbreak. So that probably was like 2004-ish. And then I think around 2009, a similar thing happened. A friend of mine was, like, a pickle expert. I don’t know if you remember this, but everyone was canning and pickling everything.

DUBNER: Absolutely.

NOSRAT: And so she was approached by an agent to write a pickling book. And whereas she knew more about the pickling, she knew that I was more of the writer. So again, like, we’re both 26-years-old. We know nothing about the publishing world. I’m like, “Yes, this is my opportunity! Like, pickles and jams — this is going to be great.” Is it something I deeply care about? No. But it’s a chance to write a book. And so, again, we try to write a proposal. And then I just remember sitting down with this agent. I just was like, “I get to have a meeting with an agent?” To me, it was like I was going to Hollywood and the red carpet was being rolled out. And so this woman, we met with her, and she was probably in her mid-fifties, mid-sixties; to me, like, an adult you respect, right? And she talked about herself in the third person. I won’t name her name, but let’s say her name was like —

DUBNER: McGillicuddy, we’ll call her.

NOSRAT: McGillicuddy. So she’d be like, “McGillicuddy’s Rules.” She had this whole speech where she was like, “McGillicuddy’s rule number one: McGillicuddy’s always right.” And I was like, “Okay, McGillicuddy’s always right. Okay. Okay.” She just had this whole spiel. And I was terrified of her.

DUBNER: But you believed it. I mean, you were willing to believe in it.

NOSRAT: Yeah, totally. And then eventually it kind of just fell apart again. And maybe I wrote a sample, but then I just at some point was like, “Am I going to do this on top of my job?” It was just this thing where I was like, “Is McGillicuddy … ” Like, I don’t know. It didn’t feel that good—  

DUBNER: A little unwholesome somehow?

NOSRAT: Yeah, just. It didn’t feel great. And I have always been a people-pleaser.


NOSRAT: It didn’t feel so good.

DUBNER: In retrospect, which is always a little bit easier, do you look back at — certainly the pickling experience and maybe even the Benedetta experience and say, “Wow, I’m really glad that that didn’t happen, in retrospect?”

NOSRAT: Oh, absolutely. Now knowing what I know, I’m just like, “Oh, making a book — truly the worst thing in the world. It’s the hardest thing in the world.” I think there are probably other people whose relationship to writing is different than mine. I know there are because I have a lot of journalist friends who don’t —

DUBNER: Agonize over it every single moment?

NOSRAT: It’s not agony for them in the same way that it is for me. It’s a job. And God bless them, because if there weren’t people like that, we wouldn’t have newspapers to read.

DUBNER: I think most people have a complicated relationship with writing, but most people don’t write a whole lot, and yet most people still dread it. When you talk about the agony or the difficulty or whatever, the stress, of writing, can you illustrate that for people listening?

NOSRAT: Sure. I had an entire career as a cook before I came to writing. And a day of work as a cook in a restaurant is usually much longer than eight hours. It’s very physical. You almost always create something from beginning to end. It is consumed; the audience consumes it before your very eyes. Or like if not before your very eyes, then, in the next room. And then you like clean up and you go home, and you might even do some stuff for the next day. You are physically exhausted. You are smelly. You are often dirty. Your hands are dirty. There is a feeling in your body of having worked. And the ethic is such, and you are trained by people to believe and feel that if you have not worked this hard to feel this way, you’re doing something wrong.

DUBNER: Right, right.

NOSRAT: So a day of writing looks very, very, very different. A really great day of writing may, quote/unquote, “accomplish” — I don’t even know: one page? Two pages? It may mean I had an idea. One idea that one day will turn into some paragraphs. It may mean that I did some research that added up to something. It may mean that I talked to some people, or hit a wall and took a walk and did some voice notes. It may have meant that I got so frustrated that I had to go swimming so that nobody could text me or anything and my head’s underwater. And so it took me many years. And, honestly, it’s still taking me a lot of time to not be a person who beats myself up because that day of writing, and what, quote/unquote, a “hard day of work,”  is so different than the old hard day of work.

DUBNER: To what would you attribute that massive difference? because one could say, “Well, writing is a creative pursuit.” But chefing, cooking, you know, there are a lot of creative elements of that. What is so fundamentally different about the act of writing that makes it such a multidimensional horror show, potentially?

NOSRAT: Well, it’s mostly in my head, whereas the other one’s mostly in my body. But the fundamental thing that’s the same about them is that there’s practice. My favorite quote about writing is — actually, I’m not sure if it’s actually said by the person—

DUBNER: It’s either Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde, whatever.

NOSRAT: Yeah, yeah. It’s one of those ones because I haven’t been able to like find the thing. But I think Flaubert said it. But that “Prose is like hair. It shines with combing.” And so it’s just like you have to write it and then you can go back and edit it and edit it and edit it and do it over and over again. And I write about food in general and I’m trying to think about the people that I’m writing for and how this thing will translate for them in their lives. And food is about the senses. And I’m trying to wake up your senses. And I have to remember how I felt when I was either cooking something or when I was eating something or when I encountered something for the first time. And that means that I have to make myself, in my body, very, very quiet. And get as close as I can to that memory so that then I can find the right words to attach to that memory and that feeling so that I can convey that thing as clearly as possible to you. Like, this is truly bananas but the way that that happens is me laying down on the floor in my office. I can’t do it when I’m sitting down. I have to lay down and go back in my memory, on my back. And I’m just closing my eyes and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, where was I? When was it?”

DUBNER: Wow. Wow.

NOSRAT: It’s my version of a meditation. It’s a somatic practice. And so that takes energy and time.

DUBNER: So this whole practice that you’re describing, I think to people listening to it — some might say, “Oh my gosh, that is so much more immersive in every way, physically, cognitively, emotionally, intellectually — da, da, da, da — and therefore that is wonderful.” And I could imagine others saying, “Oh, that is so immersive in every way. And it’s just — just sounds horrible. Like, why would you choose to do that for your life?” So why do you do this? Why is it who you are?

NOSRAT: Well, I can’t not. I don’t want to, but I can’t not. I also am very glad that I still have the physical part of my day. I’m glad that I have that cooking part of my day. And on days when it’s not cooking, sometimes it’s going in the garden and pulling weeds.

DUBNER: But it’s good you’re writing about food and cooking because you actually need to do those things. Whereas if you were just writing about intellectual history, it would just be reading and thinking and writing.

NOSRAT: Yeah. And then I would have to be a person who builds walks and swims in because I would then lose my mind in that way. I just happened to build a life that has part-physical, part- somatic, mental, emotional.  

DUBNER: Well, you say you “just happened to.” Like, what would a therapist say? Therapist would say, “Ooh, yeah, that was a fantastic long-term coping mechanism to give yourself a way to not drive yourself crazy while doing the thing that you love slash hate.” 

NOSRAT: Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know why I choose to do it, but I do know that, like, I just can’t not. Doing my work is about connecting with the world in a larger, more important way. And as difficult and horrible as the writing is — the writing, the way that it shows up, whether it’s on the page or it’s in a podcast or it ends up on a screen, for me, that’s a way to connect with people. My sort of medium right now happens to be food. Like, I just happened to fall into food. It was so, so serendipitous. But I think whatever I would have fallen into, I could have and would have used as my tool. And I may not always be a person who writes about food. And whatever stories I tell, whatever happens to me in my life, I find it necessary to use it as a way to connect with people. Because I’ve also always felt alone in the world, and this makes me feel less lonely in the world. And that’s maybe at the heart of it. 

Coming up after the break: Samin Nosrat digs up a journal entry from when she was 15: 

NOSRAT: It’s so deeply embarrassing and also it explains everything.

I’m Stephen Dubner, this is a bonus episode of Freakonomics Radio, we’ll be right back.

*      *      *

DUBNER: There are, I think, a lot of reasons why someone like you or anyone could become a writer. You said, “connect with people.” Another way to say it would be to become noticed or become recognized. Some people want to write to become famous. And then there’s this paradox because if it works — which it almost never does, but for you it did — then there is this paradox of like, “Whoa, what have I done?” So that’s what I want to hear from you.

NOSRAT: Okay. I really never thought in a million years that I would be sharing this thing with you. I found this journal entry from when I was 15.


NOSRAT: It doesn’t exactly answer your question. But if you really want to delve into my psychology? Who boy.


NOSRAT: It’s so deeply embarrassing and also it explains everything. At the top, it says, “Ideas for the future.”

DUBNER: And you’re 15.

NOSRAT: This is around 14, 15, maybe 16. And then underneath this, it says, “I want to be famous.” “Not because I’m a doctor.” Iranian kids all supposed to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. So, “I want to be famous not because I’m a doctor, but because I’m me. If I have my own sitcom, so be it. It’s just that I see so many famous people with my sense of humor.”


NOSRAT: “I would really like to have a quote, ‘fun job.’ If I have to make my doctor job fun, so be it.” “It’s not that I don’t want to be a doctor. I want to be famous, too.” “I want people to say, ‘Samin went to La Jolla High School,’ and everyone to gasp.” So when I found this like two years ago, I was like, “Oh, my. This is horrible.” Because I actually don’t remember having an obsession with fame. But what I do remember is being obsessed with people who are really good at what they do. Like the best at what they do. And I’m an Iranian girl with a big nose and curly hair who grew up in blond, white, wealthy San Diego in a family that actually — like, stereotypically, Persians have a lot of money. But our family didn’t. And there was just a lot of struggle and trauma in our family unit too. It was a complicated background. And I think I was unseen in my own family. I felt very unseen in the community at large. And so I just had this desire to be seen, right? That’s I think what the famous thing was.

But I also have this thing where actually, the minute somebody starts to see me, I’m like, “Don’t see me. Don’t look, don’t look.” I’m like, “Why are you looking at me? Please, don’t. Stop looking at me.” And so then, of course, what happens? I go, and I put my head down and I work as hard as I possibly can for the next 20 years. And I survey the landscape of publishing, of cooking. I understand uniquely that this thing doesn’t exist and I’m going to make this thing. I’m so patient. I understand that I’m going to make an illustrated cookbook where illustrated cookbooks are not a thing, right? And I make an argument that my illustrated cookbook can be a thing because I’m going to work with this brilliant illustrator and we’re going to make a funny, beautiful thing that is needed. And we’re going to break all the rules and it’s going to work.

And even though I’m a nobody; even though nobody’s ever heard of me and I’m a brown person and brown people don’t write general cookbooks — the only general cookbooks that exist are The Joy of Cooking, by a white lady. I somehow do it, right? I win the James Beard Award. My book’s on The New York Times bestseller list for 50 weeks. I get the column in The New York Times Magazine. I do all the things. And then everyone’s like looking at me and I’m like, “Can you please not look at me?” And then I find this thing and I’m like, “Oh my God.” What does it say? It says, “I want to be famous just for being me.” And I’m so sad for the young me when I see that because I know what it means. Nobody accepted me for who I was. And I still feel that. Because in a way, I made this book as a gift to the world because I wanted to be your friend in the kitchen who could give you this thing that I felt like people don’t have. And I wanted to be a voice you could trust. And I feel like people really do see that, and they see that part of me. But now they feel like they know me, and they feel like they have a relationship to me and they sometimes overstep and feel like they own me. And I’m like, “No, I’m just like a depressed, grumpy person. Leave me alone.”

DUBNER: So, if I’m on Team Samin, I want to protect you from the bad parts of this fame, but I also want you to get all the benefits that you want from the good parts of it.

NOSRAT: It’s complicated.

DUBNER: So what’s the best way to do that? Like, is writing another book the right answer? Because I know that’s what you’re doing.

NOSRAT: Yeah, and I do want to make another book. It’s just that’s a big part of why I said, “Please don’t ask me how long.” And that’s a big part of why it’s taken a while. And it’s part of why the book has changed a few times in the course of the making. It’s taken a little while, but it’s coming. So my father passed away recently and — actually I think it was the day he passed away, I was talking to a family member who I don’t know super-well. And so I was telling her some things about my childhood, and she was like, “Oh, I didn’t really know all of that. I didn’t really know all of that pressure that you felt as a kid.” And part of what I was explaining to her was that I had an older sister who was one-and-a-half when I was born. And when my mom was pregnant with me, she was diagnosed with cancer — my sister was diagnosed with cancer, a terminal brain tumor. And when she was three, she died. So basically, my entire infancy was spent — my parents, like, losing their minds, trying to figure out how do we save this baby. Which is totally understandable.

And this is a big part of what I’ve been unpacking in the last couple years. I had sort of repressed it. I don’t think I really even understood this because in our culture and definitely in my family, nobody talks about anything. I didn’t really feel like that loss was even mine to grieve. And it didn’t even strike me because until a little while ago —  I live kind of in this little courtyard of homes, and in 2021, my friend who lives across the way had a one-and-a-half-year-old. So every morning this one-and-a-half-year-old would come over and say, “Hi,” and want to play with my puppy. And he was just so alive and vibrant and he’s so in love with his older sister. And a little while later, I was like, “Wait a minute. He’s one-and-a-half.” I was under the impression that when I was one-and-a-half, I was just a lifeless blob. But actually, you see this baby who’s like, if his older sister just disappeared and nobody ever talks about it again, he would been devastated.

DUBNER: So you started to appreciate how much suffering you absorbed as a child?

NOSRAT: Totally. I went and read studies about what happens to families when they lose an infant and what happens to the remaining sibling. And there’s just a lot of psychological stuff that happens. Especially in our culture, there’s not a lot of trust in therapy and psychology, and so we didn’t get a lot of help. So that led to a lot of pain and sadness. And how that showed up for me is I internalized this idea that I had to be two-kids’-worth of something. And I basically tried my whole life to be worth me and my sister for my parents.

DUBNER: Oh, that’s how you get doctor and starring on a sitcom, for instance.

NOSRAT: Exactly.

DUBNER: So be it.

NOSRAT: So be it. So I have basically just spent my life trying to do the very best and the very most; and make the best book and make the best everything. Like, I did it, and I’m proud. And also, after it all happened, I was still sad. I had gone to enough therapy to know it wasn’t all going to magically make me happy. But there was just this way where I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. I could win the Nobel Peace Prize and it wouldn’t make my parents happy.” Like, there’s nothing I can do that’s going to fix this thing for them, because it’s in them. It’s not in me. And so I’m telling this to this relative who I’m talking to on the day my dad died. And she just said to me — this thing was one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever said — she said, “I know you’re working on this book, and I don’t know what it’s about. I know you worked really hard on your first book.” And she was like, “Well, if your first book was the Sammar,” which was my sister’s name, “may your second book be the Samin.” Which is, if it was that you were trying to be good enough to be your sister on the first book, know that just being yourself is enough. Make something where just being you is enough. And as I have basically gone through two different waves of figuring out what I’m making in this book, they’ve essentially just been simplifying, like de-ambitious-ing. And realizing, A, I can’t make another Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat; I already did that. And B, I don’t have to. Like, I’m enough. And what I have to say is enough, and that’s okay. It’s just a thing from me to the world. And it’s like a gift. You can take it, or you don’t. And that’s all. It’s an offering.

DUBNER: Can you talk for a moment about, just in the years since the first book was published, talk about the practical distractions and other components of success that might conspire to slow you down a little bit on your second book?

NOSRAT: So before the book was published, I was already working on the TV series. Then a year after the book was published, the show came out. I basically spent a year-and-a-half promoting the show. And somewhere in there I wrote the proposal for and sold the second book. And then the producer who was my Netflix executive, he’s like, “Now’s the time to strike, while the iron’s hot. We need to develop and try to sell another show now.” So then I basically went down this rabbit hole of trying to develop and sell another show, which, that’s a major distraction that took a lot of time and energy; and for a complicated host of reasons, that didn’t happen. 

DUBNER: And in retrospect, do you regret that effort? Do you think it was a bad use of your brain and time?

NOSRAT: No, I am of the belief that all of these things add up into the next thing. But that was certainly like time that I wasn’t working on the book. Oh, I also got invited to work with Mrs. Obama on her kids’ cooking show. And then I spent a ton of time and energy promoting that show. And then it was Covid. So then my friend Rishi wanted to make a podcast. So then we’re spending all this time and energy making a podcast. And then everyone’s like, “Well,   do you want to be in these meetings about these other shows? Do you want to executive produce?” And that’s a whole learning curve, right? So that’s just time. Time, time, time, time, time. 

DUBNER: And also, it’s getting your brain out of the gear in which —

NOSRAT: Yeah. I was still writing my monthly column. For four years, I wrote my monthly column at The Times. I would say one thing that I think contradicts their pragmatic argument is financial, which, clearly, as academics, they don’t understand the finances of the book world. When you have a book, your book itself doesn’t necessarily make you a lot of money. And when you have these other things, they don’t necessarily make you a lot of money. But what they do is they give you a platform to sell the thing that you’re selling, which is your book. Like what happened for me was my Netflix series essentially became a 24/7 commercial for my book. I didn’t get paid a gajillion dollars to make my show and I didn’t get paid one gazillion dollars to write my book. But because my series was essentially this wonderful advertisement in 220 countries for my book that was ongoing, over a million copies of my book got sold.

DUBNER: Also that gives you an opportunity to —

NOSRAT: Sell a second book. So why would you stop after one book? Like, you want to sell a second book and write a second book and make more stuff if you have a big success. Of course, I’m a generator. I’m a generative person. I’m a creative person. I want to make stuff and share it with the world. It was so funny, I really was like, “I am never, ever going to write a regular cookbook with recipes.” I was just like, “Uhh.” And at some point — I have an American agent and a British agent. And my British agent had suggested to my American agent, “You know, Samin makes things really hard for herself. Her recipes are so simple and so good. Why doesn’t she just write a collection of the recipes?” And so then when my American agent told me this, that like my British agent had suggested this, I lost my I was like, “Are you kidding me? Has she ever met me before? I would never do that. That’s the worst idea in the world.” One week later — one week later! I’m making this cabbage slaw that I’m always making. It was just this go-to thing where I was basically trying to reverse-engineer this thing from this fancy prepared-foods shop near my house. It’s just like a miso-sesame cabbage slaw. And you can use one cabbage. It takes not that long, and it lasts five days in your fridge. It’s so simple and so good. And I literally think to myself, “Oh, man. If only I had a way to share this with people.” And then I was like, “Dammit! Dammit, Felicity.” Like, she was right.

DUBNER: I mean, are you using that in the next book?

NOSRAT: That was like the base recipe for the new proposal. But I know myself. I was like, I have to sit with this quietly for a while because my thing is normally: I have the idea, and I need to make 400 phone calls and tell everybody and, “Is this a good idea? What do you think?” And I was like, “Okay, what if I don’t do that this time?” That’s why I also, right now, I don’t want to tell you too much — you know what I mean, like… 

DUBNER: No, no, no.

NOSRAT: ‘Cause normally, I would tell you everything in the whole world, but that’s why I was like, “What if I just sit with this for a couple of months?”

DUBNER: Wow. Where do you think that instinct or ability came from?

NOSRAT: Therapy. I think I can try to learn to trust myself a little bit. The, like, let me call everybody and see — “Do you like this idea? Do you like this idea?” That’s the part of me that maybe the study is talking to. So when the responder is saying, like, “Oh, I’m too afraid, so I probably shouldn’t write a book.”   They’re talking to that part of me, right? But then the part of me that can say, “Oh, you know what? Let’s be quiet for a little while and sit with this and see what we feel, like, what I feel deep inside and what’s useful for myself to make” — that’s my real self, as my therapist would say.

DUBNER: That’s your real long-term self or that’s your real self of recent vintage?  

NOSRAT: No, that’s my real long-term self.

DUBNER: Has always been?

NOSRAT: Yes, has always been; will always be. That’s my real creative self. That’s my real voice. 

DUBNER: How does that real self get scared off or, I don’t mean to make it such a negative image, but what are the factors that make that real self less secure or kind of disappear?

NOSRAT: Instagram. Like, comparing myself to what everyone else in the world is doing. Trying to figure out how do I make the thing that makes everyone happy when I know there’s actually nothing that’s going to make everyone happy. And so actually the only thing I can do is make the thing that I need to make from the inside of my heart.

DUBNER: A success like yours, which is really large, does create this almost impossibly elevated expectation for what’s next. So not only was your first book very, very successful, but you personally are just beloved. I’ve never read or heard anyone say anything other than wonderful — people love you. So if we know anything from history, very few people go their entire lives being only beloved, unfortunately.

NOSRAT: Totally.

DUBNER: And with a success like yours, you know, matching or exceeding or even getting in the neighborhood is not necessarily so easy. I don’t mean to jinx, or put a negative component on this, but— 

NOSRAT: No. Trust me, you’re not saying anything hasn’t already crossed my mind.

DUBNER: But I don’t sense that your creative identity is so fragile that you won’t produce another book. I have no doubt that you will. But I could imagine that one can think oneself into that sort of trouble, yeah?

NOSRAT: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s entirely a thing that happens. I think one thing that you were sort of heading toward with what you were just saying about me is something I think about and sort of lament privately to myself all the time, is that, like, I am the product. And I think that increasingly when you’re an author and certainly a cookbook author of any kind, you become the product. Like, in a way that I think wasn’t true 20, 30, 60, 80, 200 years ago. 

DUBNER: Because of the nature of how media and exposure work, you mean?

NOSRAT: Yeah. And when you go to the store right now, there are so many cookbooks where the person’s face is on the cover.  

DUBNER: Yours is not!

NOSRAT: I ensured that. And you know how I ensured that? By having an illustrated cookbook. There’s that parasocial relationship. I totally understand that I am the subject of people’s parasocial relationship.

DUBNER: You’re saying you understand that because you’ve felt that way about people before?

NOSRAT: Because I have that with other people on TV and the internet, too. Like, who I adore and love, even though I’ve never met them. So I totally understand what it is to feel that way about somebody you’ve never met. And I don’t fault people or blame them or anything. And, also, it’s really hard to be that person. It takes an emotional drain and it’s a complicated thing. It’s just another part of the psychological challenge of making. It’s just another variable added to the creative process that probably wasn’t 20 years ago. And also probably isn’t for my friends who are novelists or write science books or something.

DUBNER: Because they’re not the product. 

NOSRAT: Exactly. It’s a weird world that’s developing before our very eyes, and it’s a complicated and weird thing, because it’s this new time. 

DUBNER: It would have been so much easier just to be on a sitcom or a doctor, in retrospect —

NOSRAT: It would have been. So be it!

DUBNER: So be it. Can I just say, I am so grateful and honestly in awe of your generosity and candor, and just having a real conversation like a real human. 

NOSRAT: Oh, thank you so much. 

DUBNER: So even though you listed human as number three, I would put it like 2b, maybe. I’m very, very happy for all your success. And I know that you will navigate this next bit well, because you’ve plainly thought it through. I’ll just be cheering on. 

NOSRAT: Thank you, nice to talk to you too. Thank you. 

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. The Freakonomics Radio Network’s executive team is Neal CarruthGabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.

*      *      *

NOSRAT: Sure. Salt is a mineral that makes food —  Oh my God. Do I even remember what these things do? Salt enhances the flavor of food. Fat is fat, fat, fat, fat. Oh, my God. I don’t even remember what they do. I haven’t done this spiel in so long. Fat, uh — Oh, my God. Oh, my God. This is — I can’t believe you’re ask — I’m stump — you’re stumping myself on my own. Oh my God.   Oh, my God. Fat’s a medium in which we cook food. And it also, like depending on which fat you choose, fat affects how the food tastes. Acid enhances the — blah. Oh, my God, this is so embarrassing. This is funny tape that you should probably use, honestly.

Read full Transcript




Episode Video