Let the record reflect that on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at about 7 p.m., Shari Werb, the Library’s director of the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement, came on stage during the National Book Festival in the Jefferson Building and said the following.
“This is the first event in our historic Coolidge Auditorium in over a year and a half.”
It was a statement so welcome and so long in coming that the crowd — most of them sitting a few seats apart around the auditorium — burst into applause. She had to wait for it to die down before adding: “And it feels really good to be back home.”
The comeback event was an on-stage, socially-distanced conversation with crossword puzzle gurus Will Shortz and Adrienne Raphel. The last event before COVID-19 shut down all live events and no small number of other Library operations? March 2, 2020. Garth Brooks, Gershwin Prize winner, chatting on the very same stage with his wife and fellow country music star Trisha Yearwood, with Librarian Carla Hayden asking the questions.
This time around, there was an even more festive atmosphere. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday and moderator of the event, joked when she came onstage, “I even put on my pre-pandemic jeans for the occasion.”
And then, like slipping into an comfortable pair of old shoes, the evening fell into the familiar pattern of Library events that once seemed a given: A smart, well- informed talk about an interesting subject, polite questions from a curious audience and a few laughs along the way.
As the festival wound down its 10-day schedule, with more than 100 authors appearing in a variety of platforms, Hayden was thrilled with the way the second virtual NBF had turned out.
“This year, the National Book Festival showed there is a huge appetite from booklovers across the nation to connect and engage more than ever with their favorite author,” she said. “Users were able to curate their own festival experience whether it was watching a live author conversation, listening to podcasts, streaming on-demand videos or watching the PBS special.”
The festival’s final days continued to showcase writers across the literary spectrum. There was a symposium on comic book history, “With Great Responsibility: The Spider-Man Origin Story in Art and Comic Books,” featuring the Library’s copy of the comic in which the superhero first appeared, “Amazing Fantasy” #15, from 1962. Peter Godfrey-Smith, the Australian philosopher of science, discussed how animal life developed a “sense of experience,” or consciousness, from his book “Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind.” Novelists George Saunders (“Lincoln in the Bardo”) and Alice McDermott (“Charming Billy”) talked about their craft with Washington Post book critic Ron Charles.
And, of course, there was the perennial favorite: Cookbooks and the entertaining chefs and authors behind them.
The common refrain here is that food is never just about food. It’s about everything: family, culture, humor, shared traditions and new experiences. The blends of American cooking, which incorporates cultures and ingredients from all over the world, results in an ever-changing but always compelling menu – and conversation.
“American food wouldn’t be the same, it would be very dull without the black experience,” said Marcus Samuelsson, author of “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.”
Samuelsson is head chef of the Red Rooster Harlem. He was in conversation with Hawa Hassan, the Somali-born entrepreneur who has just written, “In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Counties that Touch the Indian Ocean.”
East African cooking isn’t widely known in the U.S., so the pair dropped into a conversation about how and where to buy the ingredients needed – specialty stores? Chain grocers? It wasn’t, they agreed, a decision just about where to find turmeric.
Hassan counseled practicality.
“If you’re starting out, I hate to endorse these bigger grocery chains, but you’re going to find cumin there, you’re going to find cardamom there,” she said. “Then, as you get more familiar with these cuisines, start going to the specialty stores to support them.”
Samuelsson agreed that would do if you were in a hurry, but there was more to the dish than just the spices.
”When you go to one of our stores, one of our markets, it’s a vibe,” he said. “It’s such a pleasure to go to an African market…it’s never is about just about buying the thing. If you’re doing that, you’re missing out. It’s about arguing about the price, it’s going back and forth, and they’re always gonna win. You know you’re going to lose, but you’re going to have a great time.”
Southern chefs brought more of a down-home flavor. The recipes and methods of cooking in the Deep South have been shaped across the generations by small-towns, home-grown vegetables, and no small amount of poverty; it’s a place where fancy ingredients aren’t on the shelves and far-flung dishes aren’t what’s on for supper.
Rodney Scott grew up in Hemingway, South Carolina, population 400, where “the biggest thing in town was your imagination.” Yearwood, the country music star, grew up in a Monticello, Georgia, population 2,000, where “our exotic spices were salt and pepper and sometimes garlic powder if we were really getting crazy.”
They both cook professionally now, though. Scott is co-founder of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, operating in both Charleston, South Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. He was the 2018 recipient of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef Southeast and is author of “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ: Every Day Is a Good Day.” Yearwood, author of four cookbooks (the latest is “Trisha’s Kitchen: Easy Comfort Food for Friends and Family”) hosts her own cooking show on the Food Network.
Scott cooked his first “whole hog” over an open pit at age 11; Yearwood grew up in a house where her mother cooked by ear, saying things about frying chicken like, “you cook it till it sounds right.”
Like Hassan and Samuelsson, they said that ingredients alone aren’t what makes food taste great; it’s also the life lived around its preparation.
“Food,” Scott said, “is one of the universal languages.”