Photo by Travis Anderson; hair by Wehmann Models
Lynne Rossetto Kasper at St. Anthony Park community garden
I’ve known Lynne Rossetto Kasper—host and co-creator of The Splendid Table, the most important person in food radio, icon, Minnesotan—for a decade. But I never knew that the fork in the road that led a young Kasper to food radio was the day she hit Shelley Winters with a broom.
I learn this during the first of two nice, long lunches Kasper and I had on the patio at St. Paul’s W.A. Frost. Kasper has the ivory skin and honey-hazel-brown eyes of a northern Italian Renaissance noblewoman, and in the world of food, she’s a bit like Johnny Carson: bigger than life, universally known, but not actually known. Where did she really come from? She can seem like Athena, having stepped fully formed from the head of Zeus, born knowing everything in the world about pappardelle and finger limes. This is partly because she is intensely interested in everything. Simple questions can elicit very long, thoughtful, and interesting responses, and the net effect is that rare is the interview with her that goes beyond skin deep. Until now!
I decided to take the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her St. Paul-based, American Public Media–produced show, currently on more than 400 radio stations around the country, to find out where this local treasure, and powerhouse, really came from. The answer took two bottles of wine, and I was awfully surprised when Ava Gardner came into it.
You see, Gardner was one of several women sometimes sleeping with Shelley Winters’s then-husband Tony Franciosa. Winters was in rehearsals for a play being staged in a brand-new theater in New Jersey at which young Kasper had gotten her first job. “And [Winters] was on a phone near the stage, just whining and whining,” recalls Kasper. “She was always on the phone whining. ‘She’s not as pretty as I am.’ That sort of thing. I’m just an embarrassed kid, with my first job in a real theater. I’m sweeping. Trying to keep my head down. I swept right into her! That was the end for me. The owner of the theater called me into his office. He said, ‘I’m very sorry. She’s demanded you be let go.’ It was the end of the world to me.” So Kasper, in her ballet flats and black culottes and turtleneck, which she recalls as her uniform in her Broadway-aspiring adolescent days, was out on her ear.
Did Shelley Winters know her diva fit would change the course of American food radio? Of course not. But to any historian of American food it’s a very interesting fork in the road; Kasper is to radio what Julia Child was to television, the pioneer of her generation, the first to make the medium modern and take it away from the happy-homemaker pattern that dominated a generation before.
For me personally, Kasper has always been a reassuring, eternal lantern on a high, but not too far, mountain: If she could climb it, I could too. She’s had that same aspirational effect on millions of Americans listening as they planned the night’s dinner. If she could make a stump-the-cook dinner from spaghetti and a lemon, why couldn’t anyone? If she was interested in everything from the pepper grinder to cottage cheese, surely getting dinner on the table was not drudgery, but a grand adventure!
That spirit of adventure was obvious in Kasper at the youngest age. She grew up in Paramus, New Jersey, the only child of Italian parents (a Venetian father, a Lecchese mother). Kasper’s father worked various aeronautics jobs, and doted on her while teaching her the ways of the world. For much of her childhood he worked on a vast home-construction project, building retaining walls to prevent the family’s house from sliding off its hilltop. He deputized his little girl as assistant mason. She helped stack bricks, mix mortar, and haul rubble for infill for four years. “We called it, ‘The Walls of China and the Ruins of Pompeii.’ I thought he could fix anything; we could do anything.”
Soon Kasper took her general feelings of strength off the hill and down to the pastures below, where the horses roamed. She’d creep under fences to ride unattended steeds bareback. “That was what everyone knew me for. I could ride any horse I could get to. . . . Those were my Black Stallion years.”
Her father taught her more: to surf-cast for sea trout and bluefish in the tides along the Jersey shore, to swim in the ocean, and how to float on her back if she got tired. She must have been 6 or 7, she remembers, when she put two and two together: “I didn’t know a lot about Europe, but it sounded very interesting. And I knew if I got tired I could just float. So I started paddling. Just paddling due east for Europe. The story goes, the lifeguard was just getting into the water when he saw the fin. Then, I seem to remember the semi-rough skin of porpoises. They were tossing me up and tossing me. They swim up and down the coast, they always have. The next thing I remember I was on the beach and everyone was terrifically upset.”
Her first European journey stymied, Kasper turned her sense of adventure to the theater. Paramus High School was brand-new at the time, built to educate the baby boom in the new suburbs. It boasted a staff of well-connected young theater actors and a full stage to funnel kids into the flourishing world of Broadway just across the river. Kasper was one of the stars of the school. She saw Anne Bancroft on Broadway and then retreated to Bancroft’s dressing room with a group of fellow students to learn about acting.
Young Kasper began spending her Saturdays in the city. If she had enough pocket money for a round-trip bus ticket, a knish for lunch, and a student rush ticket, her life was complete. She saw My Fair Lady two weeks after it opened. She saw Skyscraper starring Barbara Harris. Then, the tragedy that defined her young life: Her beloved father died of cancer when she was 15.
Things went poorly for a while after that. She got a job to help with her grief—and then the Shelley Winters incident happened. All the adventure she used to have drained out of her. When she didn’t make the final cut for the theater program she wanted to attend, she ended up at a small, conservative college instead, but left the school soon after.
Her mother eventually enrolled Kasper in secretarial school, where she was required to wear white gloves. Secretarial certificate in hand, Kasper embarked on a series of early 1960s New York secretarial-skill-adjacent jobs, including a stint as assistant to a wealthy artist and collector of surrealist art. The art collector’s wife was skilled at Chinese cooking and hosted dinner parties for the city’s elite. Before long, she asked the young secretary to help out at the soirées (Kasper thinks she probably sorted chrysanthemum leaves for Jackie O at one such party).
Kasper started to get her groove back during those Chinese feasts. She found friends who would go with her to eat all over the city. She remembers heading into Harlem after the 1964 riots to eat at an Indian restaurant with a bunch of girlfriends (a group of concerned cops saw them walking to the restaurant and promptly gave them a police escort home).
One of her girlfriends introduced her to her future husband, Frank Kasper. He gave her a present of Time Life books about world cuisines. She carried the Chinese volume into Chinatown, seeking ingredients and guidance. Soon she got another book, then a whole shelfful. This evolved into her teaching in-home classes about Chinese cooking. She called her business “Have Wok Will Travel.”
“I’d take three or four shopping bags and schlep them through the subway,” she recalls. Word spread through the city, and she was approached by the department store A&S, which housed New York City’s leading demonstration kitchen, to teach her cooking classes there and to lead their cooking program. That’s where she met everyone who was anyone in American food in the 1960s and 1970s: Julia Child, James Beard (she remembers him as Jim), Jacques Pépin, and many more.
She also finalized her views on marriage: “After you have done it all, after you have explored and had your adventures, find someone who wants to continue exploring and have further adventures with you. That’s when you get married.” So she did. She and Frank were married in their Park Slope apartment, which they filled with pails of daisies from the Flower District bargain bins. Kasper cooked the wedding feast herself.
Frank, who worked for Honeywell, was transferred to Denver, then Europe, and Kasper went along for the adventures. In Europe she had a eureka moment, fueled from years of seeing cookbook author after cookbook author come through her A&S kitchen. She realized that everything in food had a reason for being what it was, and that Italian food could use the sort of book that Julia Child had given French food. What followed was years of exploring the region of Emilia-Romagna, making friends, being handed on from cheese producer to butcher to winemaker (not to mention historians, anthropologists, and scientists)—all of whom trusted this Italian girl from a distant Italian outpost in Paramus with their secrets.
In 1985, Frank was transferred yet again, this time to Minnesota. Kasper went along, reluctantly, but found the sudden isolation helpful for writing. And so it was she produced one of the 20th century’s greatest cookbooks: The Splendid Table. It won a career-making amount of awards in 1993, the year after it came out, and prompted Julia Child to invite Kasper to stay with her in California, where she cooked her mentee dinner. Kasper recalls sitting at the table and Child leaning in to her and saying, “Lynne, you know you’ve written a seminal book, don’t you?” Kasper sat there dumbstruck, and Child said, “Lynne, you do know what seminal means, don’t you?”
It was soon after that a young producer in public radio named Sally Swift approached Kasper and asked her whether she’d like to try her hand, or rather, her voice, at a radio show. They’d use the same name as her important book and approach food through her spirit of adventure and inquiry.
And the rest is the rest: biggest food radio show since Betty Crocker ruled the AM airwaves in the 1920s. Plenty more cookbooks. Plenty more adventures. And plenty more to come. Kasper has begun stepping away from the show now and then. She does fewer promotional appearances, and other voices introduce segments more often. She’s spending less time there to spend more time with her husband. “Three years ago I sat up in bed and I said to Frank, ‘You know what? People die at this age! Holy cow! There are so many things I am intensely curious about. We need to explore them.’”
As a longtime fan of one of the biggest luminaries of American food, it makes me happy to know Kasper’s explorations are off in fresh directions—because after talking to her for two days, I realize who’s really behind all that food knowledge: a spirit who is happiest swimming for Europe or sneaking under fences in pursuit of stallions. And this time not even Shelley Winters can stop her.