Ten Minutes With Francine Segan
A culinary historian and cookbook author
Photo by Scott Barrow
Francine Segan has authored six cookbooks and has appeared on numerous national TV programs and lectures, discussing topics from the history of chocolate to food aphrodisiacs to dining at Downton Abbey. The food historian and her husband, inventor Marc Segan, divide their time between an Upper East Side apartment and a rambling, turn-of-the-century home in Great Barrington. Her latest cookbook, Pasta Modern, details Italy’s trendiest pasta dishes, such as pasta sushi and coffee pasta.
What’s your idea of a perfect Berkshire weekend?
We love to use the house as a magnet to attract the whole family. One of my ideals is to have everybody here for Thanksgiving—my kids, my husband’s siblings. That’s really fun. You make a one-day holiday into a four-day family event. A perfect weekend includes grocery shopping at the farmers markets and Guido’s and then hiking or skiing to build up an appetite. And no weekend is complete without at least one meal at Gypsy Joynt.
Did you study food history in college?
No. My major was psychology as an undergraduate. I loved it and decided to go into the field. I was particularly interested in children and the psychology of play, so I got my graduate degree in school psychology. For the majority of my early years, I was a school psychologist.
How did you get into food writing?
Part of being a child psychologist is always using every moment as a learning experience and, of course, mealtime is a learning experience. I would do dinners for our kids that were themed, so when studying France, I once did a ten-course French cheese tasting complete with a map. Our friend actor Mark Linn-Baker knew about these thematic meals. When he was performing As You Like It at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with Gwyneth Paltrow, he suggested that I do a dinner party for the cast with the theme of Shakespearean food.
At first, I thought, it’s one thing to do French cheeses or Italian something, but quite another to do English food. What was I going to do? Overcook a lamb chop or boil peas? I went to the library to see if there was an English cookbook from the time of As You Like It and, of course, there was. It was so fascinating. Knowing that there would be actors at the dinner, I gave each a reading from the cookbook. I did it up with no lights, just candles and no forks because they didn’t use them then, and I recreated the recipes. Random House got wind of this dinner and proposed the idea of doing a cookbook for people who love Shakespeare and love that time period.
What are some of the weirdest historical dishes you’ve come across?
Four and 20 blackbirds really were baked in a pie. There was a recipe in a 16th-century cookbook that explains that every course should have a surprise for the guests—even non-edible surprises. They suggested a wonderful surprise would be to blind bake a pie crust, put in live birds, and top it with the browned top crust. Then send it to the table with a dull knife, so the guest of honor could cut into it and be surprised when the birds fly out. The last line of the recipe suggests that if you’re having trouble tethering the birds, use garden snakes or frogs. So that whole category of surprises in Elizabethan and Renaissance recipe books was interesting.
Do those ingredients need modern substitutions because they’re unavailable or unappealing to modern palates?
They believed that food could be used as an aphrodisiac in the Renaissance, and one of the recipes that I did put in my Shakespeare’s Kitchen book is right out of that concept. It’s an aphrodisiac pie made of all the things they thought were aphrodisiacs at the time—sweet potato, wine, dates. It’s a great pie, but one of the ingredients was sparrow brains, which are not so easy to get at Guido’s! So I omitted it, but sparrow brains were considered an aphrodisiac because the sparrow was the pet of Aphrodite, and they thought everything to do with her was an aphrodisiac.
How has publishing changed since you started?
I think it was easier in the past to get a cookbook published. The online environment has changed the face of publishing. There are so many recipes online that it’s harder for an author to get a tangible, physical book. There are e-books, though, so in one way it’s actually easier because you can self-publish. There are many self-published cookbooks that have done fabulously.
Do you think you’ll publish another book?
I don’t know. It takes a whole year. Right now, I don’t have a fabulous idea in the back of my mind, but as soon as I do, I’ll dig in for sure.
You do a lot of public speaking. Do you get stage fright?
No. Should I admit that? I love it. In fact, that’s part of the reason why I’m not as excited about writing. Writing is so solitary and food people are so social. I love nothing more than looking at an audience and knowing that they are a bunch of friends. They’re fellow foodies.
Segan will host a Tea & Talk at Ventfort Hall titled “A Toast! To Artful Dining Among the Arias!” at 4 p.m. on August 23, as a run-up to the opening of Berkshire Opera’s performances of Madame Butterfly on August 27.