Tamar Haspel coined the term first-hand food. Food that you grow, you cultivate, you forage for, you fish for, or you hunt for so that you get yourself. Tamar writes the James Beard Award-winning Washington Post column “Unearthed,” which covers the intersection of food and science, exploring how what we eat affects us and our planet. She’s also written for Discovery, Slate, Fortune Eater, Edible, Cape Cod, and other magazines and publications.
For this week’s interview on the School for Good Living Podcast, Tamar joins me to talk about her book “To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard.” Join us as we discuss the structure of gardening, chickens, fishing, foraging, turkeys hunting, and many others, including the ethics of eating animals. We get into first-hand food, what it is, why it matters, and why it could matter to you. Relationships are another recurring theme in this interview and I think Tamar’s take on what it takes to create and sustain a lasting and fulfilling relationship is pretty cool, and I hope you like it too.
“You do your best and hope for the best, that’s all you can do.”
This week on the School for Good Living Podcast:
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Brilliant Miller [00:00:12] My guest today coined the term first-hand food. You know, food that you grow, you cultivate, you forage for your fish or you hunt for so that you get yourself. Her name is Tamar Haspel. She writes the James Beard Award-winning Washington Post column Unearthed, which covers the intersection of food and science, exploring how what we eat affects us and our planet. She’s also written for Discovery, Slate, Fortune Eater, Edible, Cape Cod, and other magazines and publications. She’s also the co-host of the podcast Climb, of course, which takes a good, hard, entertaining look at food’s impact on climate and the environment. Her latest book, The One in which I ask her many questions, and this conversation is called To Boldly Grow Finding Joy, Adventure and Dinner in Your Own Backyard. The book is structured in our interview and loosely follows the structure of gardening, chickens, fishing, foraging, and turkey hunting. And we explore these topics and many others, including the ethics of eating animals. Again, we go deeper into firsthand food, what it is, why it matters, and why it could matter to you. And we talk also about relationships. It’s a theme that comes up again and again. And I think tomorrow’s take on what it takes to create and sustain a lasting and fulfilling relationship is actually pretty cool. So you can hear about all that in this interview. You can learn more about Tamar on the web at TamarHaspel.com. You can find her on Twitter. Of course, you can find her column in The Washington Post or listen to her podcast. With that, I hope that this interview gives you some practical ideas and some inspiration to live healthier, happier life. It’s a little closer to nature than maybe it was yesterday. Please enjoy this conversation with my friend Tamar Hospital. Tamar. Welcome to the School for good living.
Tamar Haspel [00:02:24] Thank you for having me. Brilliant.
Brilliant Miller [00:02:26] This is my pleasure. Well, you tell me, please. What is life about?
Tamar Haspel [00:02:32] You know, I think life is what you make of it. I think life’s meaning is that with which we imbue it with our words and deeds. And so everybody’s life is different. And for me, I try and make the contribution that is within my power to make and hope to do it conscientiously and well. And on a good day, maybe I leave the planet better than I found it.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:05] Yeah. It seems to me my view and I don’t know this the first time we’ve talked I’ve read your book, which I love, by the way. We’ll talk about that. But from what it seems to me, you’re doing a pretty good job for a lot of time.
Tamar Haspel [00:03:17] I hope so. But, you know, I don’t know that we ever really know because, you know, we don’t get a representative sample of the feedback. And yeah, I hear some good things from people pretty regularly, but of course, there are lots you don’t hear. And if I make people angry or put them on the wrong path, that may not be something I know. But you do your best and you hope for the best.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:42] That’s right. And even if we do have any kind of confirmation, either way, there’s still the matter of history. And that, you know, I think a lot of that I think it was Steinbeck who died feeling that he was a failure. And I just reflecting on now, depends on how you measure, right?
Tamar Haspel [00:03:58] It always depends on how you measure.
Brilliant Miller [00:04:01] Yeah. So let me start here. Let me ask you about I understand at one point maybe sell you a car. It’s a manual transmission. It got stuck in first gear. So it’s a pretty simple fix once you figured it out. But that’s maybe representative or a good jumping-off point. Will you tell me about that car and what happened?
Tamar Haspel [00:04:23] Yeah, I will. It’s a very ordinary car. It’s a Volkswagen Jetta, and I like a manual transmission. And if we had more than an hour and a half, I would tell you how I ended up with that car rather than the other car, which was the one that my husband kind of wanted to have. And I and one day I get into the car and it’s locked in first gear. I left it in first gear and I couldn’t get it out. And I had no idea what to make of this. And I live in a small community on Cape Cod, and it just so happens that there’s an auto mechanic who we’ve used before called more automotive that is just a mile down the road, a mile and a half, something like that. And if you have a manual transmission car stuck in first gear, you can drive it. And so that’s what I did. And Kevin, my husband followed me, in the truck, which was working perfectly well. And we went to Moore Automotive and I pulled the car in and I went in and I and I said to them and they’re very nice. And I said I’ve got this problem. My car stuck in first gear. And she said, Oh, we’re really busy today, but I think we can we can, you know, at least take a look at it. Thank you very much. So this kid and I can call him a kid because I’m definitely old enough to be his mother, implausibly old enough to be his grandmother. And he comes over and he opens the hood. And I see that there are oyster shells all over the engine of the car. And you would have thought that I would have had the foresight to open the trunk before I took it to more automotive, but I didn’t. So kid opens the trunk and there are all of these oyster shells and we have an oyster shell driveway. But it’s not the kind of oyster shell that you might think of because when you buy an oyster shell, it’s all cleaned and it’s nice and there are no little bits of oyster left in it. But we have an oyster farm and we associate with other people who have oyster farms. And our oyster shells are the ones that are, you know, the throwaways, the dead shell from the actual farm, and it hasn’t been cleaned. And there are like little bits of creatures in it. And, you know, whenever we get a delivery, we have the smelliest driveway in town. And it turned out that the rats were taking these oyster shells that had little bits of things attached to them and enjoying them in the privacy of my car. And they were, of course, not cleaning up after themselves. And, and the more automotive kid reaches his arm he’s got a longer I weigh in and it turned out that there was an oyster shell in the linkage of the gearshift, and that was what was preventing the car from getting out of first gear. He pulled it out. The car worked like a dream and they didn’t even charge me. I will say that I tipped ridiculously for this service, but it turned out to be one of the joys of living in a small community. And, you know, I come from New York City and things were different there. And since I’ve been in this community, I’ve had a lot of experiences like that. And that’s a very long answer to your question.
Brilliant Miller [00:07:46] Now. Thank you for that. It’s just so it’s so random. You know, you had one person in this nation of 330 million people that has that happened, you know, each day? Probably not even one each day.
Tamar Haspel [00:07:57] Probably not.
Brilliant Miller [00:07:59] That seems pretty. I mean, you have much incredible life. Experiences. I only know of a few because you’ve written a book which we can see in the frame behind you. For anyone watching this to boldly grow, you share so many things that I just part of what I loved about the book is I learned a lot. I learned about lobstering, I learned about mushrooms, and I learned about building an earth oven like all these kinds of things, roadkill. A little bit about road kill. Roadkill. But let me ask you why. Obviously, you’ve written at the intersection of food and science for a long time. So you have a large volume of work and incredible life experience. But why? Why this book? Why now and who’s it for and what do you want it to do for, for that reader?
Tamar Haspel [00:08:45] It’s such a great question because in some ways this book is about some of the things that are the polar opposite of the things that I write about. I write about, as you say, where food meets science. I write about agriculture. I write about nutrition. I kind of have a reputation for being a hard-assed empiricist. I spend all my time on PubMed trying to understand, you know, the science of the things that I report on. And then in my spare time, I get dirty. And when my husband and I left New York City and we came to Cape Cod, you know, we looked around and said, okay, well, what can we do on Cape Cod that we couldn’t do in New York? The answer was all kinds of things because all of a sudden we live in this little house and two acres on the lake. And we have and since I wrote about food, I wanted to do food-related things. And the origin of the book was that I said to Kevin one day, as we’re looking at gardening, thinking about building a chicken coop, learning how to go clamming. I said, Kevin, do you think that we can go a whole year and eat one food a day, that we get first hand, that we grow or raise or hunt or fish or gather? And Kevin, who is wildly supportive of my enterprises and has a never-fail-can-do attitude, goes not have a chance. I’m like, Wait, who are you and what have you done with Kevin? And I did talk him into it, but the reason I ended up writing the book and it started off as a project that I wanted to write about, and it was more than a lark, but not a lot more. But it turned out to be compelling for a lot of visceral reasons, emotional reasons, and personal reasons that are almost the opposite of the things that I write about in my column and in my work. And I wanted to write the book because the whole enterprise took me by surprise, and I thought maybe I could convey that to other people. And it sort of made me wildly enthusiastic about taking a risk in middle age, doing something completely different from what you did before. And yeah, you end up learning a lot about the thing, but you also end up learning a lot about yourself. And, and I feel like I came out the other end different and, and I wanted to write about that.
Brilliant Miller [00:11:23] How do you find that? It seems to me that this is just perfect timing, right? Because you started this project before the pandemic. Oh.
Tamar Haspel [00:11:33] I started the project in 2009. It was a million years ago.
Brilliant Miller [00:11:36] Way before. And one of the things that I see and you probably see this more than me, because I would imagine that the interaction with your readers and the research and so forth is that it seems to be a dream. You know, many people dream of starting a business. Many people dream of writing a screenplay. Many people dream of owning a professional sports franchise or even an airline, which I don’t know why, but there’s it seems to be growing in my estimation, that there’s a dream to have a little homestead to return to the land, to eat the things we grew with our own, you know, our and we watched grow with our own eyes. But how have you seen this? Just as part of. And do you see that, too? That there’s a dream that people have their own chickens and maybe their own pigs and things like that. So it’s even growing more and more.
Tamar Haspel [00:12:19] I think there is that and people do have that dream and I’ve heard that from a lot of people, but it was my dream and that was one of the things that were weird about it when we started it because I started doing this project and you know, I had a little blog about it and people would assume that it was my dream, that this was that we were looking for some kind of lifestyle, that we were looking for self-sufficiency. And often this kind of enterprise goes with some kind of ideology, whether it’s opting out of the industrialized food system or, you know, creating a bulwark against Armageddon. There are a number of reasons that people do this and people ask me why I’m doing it. And I didn’t have a good. It’s there, I would say, well.
Brilliant Miller [00:13:06] Seems like a constructive use of my type.
Tamar Haspel [00:13:09] Keeps me doing different things. It’s interesting and I found that I do not have a good answer for that left me sort of scratching my head, you know, am I missing out on something here? And it was only after I had done it for a good, I don’t know, eight years that I realized it had changed me fundamentally. And so it was it snuck up on me. And because it wasn’t the thing I was aiming for, it wasn’t it was never been a lifestyle for us. We were never in it for self-sufficiency. We are staunch, interdependent. You know, we love the idea that we’re connected to two other people and our community. And this project actually ended up being the opposite of self-sufficiency. It did connect us to our community. And I think that in a time of I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book Bowling Alone, about how we tend to be walled off from our communities, especially when we’re absorbed with our phones, something that gives you tendrils into your community to meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. I think it’s very satisfying and very interesting and kind of good for all of us.
Brilliant Miller [00:14:24] Yeah, I totally agree with that. And this I don’t want to say a theme, but this is the reality that changed you. What are some of the ways that you think it changed you? And in your estimation, are they all for the better?
Tamar Haspel [00:14:41] Yeah, that’s such an interesting question because I think the fundamental thing that it did for me and you know, I described this in the book, I started off as, you know, having a real affinity for my armchair. And it’s not a bad thing for a writer because I was interviewing people, I was researching things, I was writing about stuff, all of which could be done conveniently for my armchair. And, you know, but I married a doer. And because even though I spent a lot of armchair time, I’ve always been curious and engaged in the world around me. And so it didn’t take that much to convince me to go out and try some things, do some things, get my hands dirty. And, you know, along the way, The surprise was that it turned out to be sort of the key to successful self-improvement. There are a few things that I have worked on all my life to get better at, you know, writing diplomacy, which has never been my strong suit pie crust. There are some things that I just chip away at. But that you never get the improvement increment as you do from going from never having done something to have done it for the first time. That’s where the action is. That’s the steep part of the learning curve. And doing this project, trying project after project after project, we, you know, we built the gardens and then we built the raised beds and then we built the chicken coops and then we got turkeys and we had to house them and we had to learn to slaughter them in mid-air on sea salt. We learned about mushrooms and, you know, we learned how to fish and all these other things. And it was so many of them were that increment going from never having done it to the first time. And so I feel like I spent the last decade-plus on that steep part of the learning curve. And it’s been I mean, exciting is maybe a word I couldn’t back up because it’s not like there are some things in the world that are truly exciting and maybe, you know, finding a mushroom, isn’t it? But it is in a way. And and and so that’s been great. As far as things changing, not for the better, I think, you know, you always lose something when you change. And it would be hard for me to put my finger on it, but I couldn’t go back. I don’t think about the way life was before and I probably lose something there, but it’s not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about because I’m so pleased with the changes for the better.
Brilliant Miller [00:17:34] Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. Everyone should be so lucky. But you know, this idea, it’s a term that I hadn’t heard before. If I’d heard it, I wasn’t aware that I’d heard it firsthand food. And you’ve already mentioned it already in our conversation here. But I just want to explore that with you a little bit because I think for people listening just to have a name for something, they have a term for something. And especially as we’re becoming even more aware and concerned about, I think things like climate change, we. Start to realize that how far our food has to travel has a real impact on the carbon footprint of us as an individual on this planet and so forth, that there’s a lot of merit in this idea for a lot of different reasons, many of which you’ve already touched on. But what is firsthand food and why is it something that maybe we should care more about?
Tamar Haspel [00:18:24] So you never heard of it? Because I had to make it up. And I was like sort of mystified that I had to make it up. So let me ask you, do you grow any of your own food?
Brilliant Miller [00:18:35] We have you know, we’ve tried a few things, but we have deer and we’re not really active in keeping them out. So they’ve eaten our strawberries and they don’t eat the jalapenos. I know they have, but not really.
Tamar Haspel [00:18:48] Fishing, foraging, anything like that. So if there were something that you did, here’s the question I would ask you because it’s the question I ask everybody who does anything like that. The question is, does that food feel different to you? The food that you’re invested in, the food that you got dirty in service of? And I have never had anyone tell me. No. And what’s interesting about it, at least to me, is that I can ask, you know, crunchy granola, left-leaning gardener this question, and I can ask a rock-ribbed Republican deer hunter this question, and they have the same answer. This food is different because I am invested in it. This is something I got with my own two hands and I put it on the table for my family and my friends. And, you know, I don’t want to go full-blown Kumbaya on you, but it seems like this is something that unites us. This is something that humans have in common. And it scratches this primordial itch we have to feed ourselves. Yet there was no name for the category of things that you get with your own two hands. So Kevin and I started calling it first-hand food and there you go. And because what’s important about it isn’t whether it’s, excuse me, a mushroom or a tomato or a fish or deer. What’s important about it is its first-handedness, and that’s what makes it different. Yet the category didn’t have a name. And so. I meant it.
Brilliant Miller [00:20:34] Right on. Well, that’s awesome. I’m really happy to know that. So the structure of the book goes gardening, chickens, fishing, foraging, turkeys, and hunting. It seemed to me that that was a pretty linear and logical progression. But did it really that the case? Did you kind of investigate something, begin doing it, and achieve may be some level of mastery? And then I don’t know if you got bored with it, but you went, what else is there? And then you just kept.
Tamar Haspel [00:21:05] There was a lot of that. I mean, there was a huge amount of overlap. But yeah, that’s basically where we started. We started with gardening because that was well, that’s the easy thing. That’s sort of the low-hanging fruit and that’s what, you know, the normal thing that everybody does. And so we did that and then we’re like, okay, well, what’s the next thing? What’s up? What’s a slightly harder thing? And, you know, backyard chickens. Okay, we’ve never designed a chicken coop, but people have been keeping chickens for literally thousands of years. How hard can it be? And, you know, so, you know, we don’t have like the past down knowledge that anyone who lived a couple of hundred years ago would have had because everybody kept chickens and any six-year-old would know how to take care of chickens and all. But we didn’t have that. We did have YouTube. And there’s a lot of stuff out there that you can learn about chickens. And so then we did that and from there, we thought about keeping other livestock and to get over the hurdle where you do have to slaughter them. And that was something that was very difficult for me. And and and I know I sound sort of breezy about a lot of the stuff, but we take that very seriously. And I and I hope that comes through in the book as well. So yeah, it did happen basically in that order.
Brilliant Miller [00:22:28] I was a little surprised to see that be sworn in there.
Tamar Haspel [00:22:31] Oh, we did business.
Brilliant Miller [00:22:33] With probably maybe even have it.
Tamar Haspel [00:22:36] On and I think I might have mentioned it once or twice, but yeah, we did bees for probably six or seven years, but it was nothing but heartbreak. And because we lost the colonies every spring, we probably harvested honey twice in that time. And bees are fascinating. And I would love to be able to have been successful, but it just broke my heart every year. And I mean, we took heroic measures. Are you a beekeeper?
Brilliant Miller [00:23:03] No. Although we have some property where we’re planning this year to be.
Tamar Haspel [00:23:07] Oh, you should do bees. Brilliant. There, there. There’s so interesting. And you learn so much. And it’s also another thing where I live and in a lot of places and hopefully, where you live too, there’s a beekeeping community and you can like we took the local bee school and we, we met the people who are sort of the mentors for the people who are learning to keep bees. And it is a wonderful and satisfying thing. But either because of where we are, I don’t think it was because of our mad lack of skills because we tried really hard. And and and this is a common theme on Cape Cod. The people have trouble with bees, and it just didn’t work out for us. It was really sad.
Brilliant Miller [00:23:53] Wow. Well, let me ask you this. Where is the place that you recommend if people you know, people listening to this begin with their own firsthand food? And maybe I think your example was an old oak barrel in Manhattan.
Tamar Haspel [00:24:10] Yeah, it was. And so this is the thing about firsthand food is that there’s something for everybody. So you have to let it meet you where you are and you don’t have to go all in. I mean, we went all in, but, you know, we had enough time and and and in a focus to be able to do that. Our kids are grown. You know, we had the land, we could do some of these things. But when we started it, we lived in Manhattan. We lived in a condo on the Upper West Side, and we started by putting whiskey barrels on our roof. And, you know, for people who live in cities, there are options like those. Have you ever seen those mushroom kits that you buy and the spores in them and then you bought them and then the mushrooms grow out? The sides, they’re crazy, they’re really great. And they get a Chia Pet store with one of those window box hydroponic things on the windowsill and see if it speaks to you. If you live outside the city, there are often mushroom walks with the local mycological society’s planted tomato in a pot. And then if it speaks to you, then go our route and try a chicken coop. There’s. There’s something for every budget, for every schedule. And of course, like, think about food that you like to eat, because that matters, too. That’s where a lot. Out of the joy in food comes from. So yeah, it totally depends on where you are, what your constraints are, and what you like to eat.
Brilliant Miller [00:25:43] And that makes a lot of sense. Let’s see. I’m just looking. I really like this description. First-hand food. So this is something you’ve written in the book? First-hand food is an exercise in selectively reintroducing the hardships of our choosing. Only please call it recreation and it is way more fun when you don’t have to do it.
Tamar Haspel [00:26:04] It is.
Brilliant Miller [00:26:05] But only in some ways. It’s a privilege. Such a privilege.
Tamar Haspel [00:26:08] Privilege. It’s an absolute privilege. And this sort of gets to this idea of what the modern food system has done for us and what it’s cost us. Because I am not in favor of turning back the clock and going back to subsistence agriculture. I am I, Kevin and I have an oyster farm. I’ve done a lot of farm work in my day, and it is backbreaking labor. You know, oysters are one of the least mechanized able foods out there. And farming oysters is like farming rocks. You just have to move heavy stuff from place to place in the water, often in the cold. And I mean, we chose to do it because, I mean, it was a first-world choice. We could do it. And one of the reasons we did it is that it helps keep us fit. But people who have no choices, this is a crappy choice having to raise all your own food. It’s not something that anyone should be forced to do. And our modern industrialized food system has moved most people in the developed world off the land if they choose to go off the land. But of course, it’s had consequences because in doing that, it has really removed us from the source of our food. And I think our very sense of what food is has gravitated away from plants and animals and toward, you know, boxes and bags and, you know, the bright colors and the exciting punctuation and all that stuff. And it’s been to our detriment in a lot of ways. And, you know, in the United States, we have the obesity problem and the diabetes problem, and heart disease that is attendant with having a diet that has moved far away from the plants and animals that are the foods that humans thrive on. And you have all of these people, including me, in the media saying, oh, just eat real food. Okay, well, great. But how do you do that when every day you go out and the boxes and the bags are in your face? 24 seven and they’re cheap and they’re convenient and they’re deliberately engineered to be irresistibly delicious. And how can you possibly fight that? But when you go out and you get dirty, you put your phone down, you roll up your sleeves, you read the garden or you feed the chickens. It connects you to those plants and animals in a visceral way. And again, this is the opposite of science. And I think it’s that visceral thing that has the power to move the needle back the other way and think about food but feel about food differently.
Brilliant Miller [00:28:54] Yeah, I think you’re right. And I think you’re maybe closer. You’re more of a scientist than I think of myself as. But I would add to this, I know it’s maybe not a lot of hard evidence for this, but I would add that I think there’s a lot of our mental health is compromised as well, not only because we’re not nourishing ourselves, but also because we’re disconnected from nature and the source of life, perhaps, and what it takes for us to even eat a meal, you know, and I think that has consequences in some pretty and, you know.
Tamar Haspel [00:29:29] People have done these studies about what happens when you spend time outdoors and it all seems to be good, you know. And so there’s really no downside. And, you know, you can talk about what kind of evidence supports the upside, but there’s no real disadvantage.
Brilliant Miller [00:29:50] Yeah, that’s right. So I want to talk to you a little bit about it. Oh, man. I’ve got a few. I’ve got a few other questions. One with foraging. I thought this was really cool. I almost didn’t believe it was a real thing. And then you go on to explain it. The universal ability test. What is that?
Tamar Haspel [00:30:13] So mushrooms are like. People really bark and I, I really, I get why the upside is a nice soup and the downside is an excruciating death. I get why people shy away from that, and there is such a thing as a universal ability test and it involves eating very, very small amounts, like first just tasting something and, you know, just a tiny bit and waiting to see if anything bad happens and then eating a little bit and waiting to see anything bad happens. And, yeah, it works, but it takes like 17 years, so you kind of need to accelerate the process with mushrooms. So there’s basically, I’d say three categories of things that you foraged for. There are fungi, there are green plants and then vegetables and then there are fruits. And I tackle each of those differences. So mushrooms, there’s a category of mushrooms with that. All the deadly ones are in there, these slender guild mushrooms. And you have to know what you’re doing to eat those. And I just don’t eat any of those. I only go for the there’s groups of mushrooms that don’t have deadly ones in them. And so if you taste a little bit of it, nothing’s going to happen, but you’re going to find out if it tastes good. And so I am not afraid to taste a wild mushroom as long as it’s not this slender guild mushroom. And I think that people can feel a little more comfortable going out in the mushroom world if they have just those few basic guidelines. But so then there are green vegetable things and it’s really unlikely that there is a green vegetable thing that tastes good enough that you’re going to want to eat it and it’s poisonous so it’s going to do you harm because the poisons in green vegetables taste terrible. And so I have nibbled so many leaves I can’t even tell you. And most wild leaves are really no good because they have to fight off their own insects. We have these milquetoast plants in our garden like basil and, you know, they don’t have, like, chemical defenses or these hairy things or woody stems because they don’t we’re there to protect them, but the wild plants have to fend for themselves. And so they all taste terrible. Fruits are a different category. I don’t eat those unless I know what they are.
Brilliant Miller [00:32:50] Yeah. There’s something about this that for me and I. I don’t want this to Sunrun, but part of what I love about this is how childlike it is.
Tamar Haspel [00:33:00] Really is.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:01] There’s a willingness to experiment. And this is when you say, like, you’ve never had so many of these plots. I think in the book you say that over the years you’ve really only found two that did not mushroom, but that green plants that you thought were even worth trying. But that seems like a pretty low ratio.
Tamar Haspel [00:33:18] It’s a terribly low ratio. And, and I, I don’t forage much for the green stuff. It’s just not worth it. And yeah, there are dandelion greens in the spring and there’s, we have a lot of daylilies in this part of the world and daylilies shoots are actually good. But also I don’t the one thing I’ll say the exception to that is, is the allium family is onions. So chives and wild onions, those are awesome. And you can find some very of them all the time. But you’re so right about the childlike thing. And this is one of the things that happened when when I first started doing the chickens and, you know, you get these little chicks and they’re really cute.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:59] And you put pictures.
Tamar Haspel [00:34:01] On your social media feed. And I was in my mid-forties or something when we started this. And look how many things give you this sort of childlike sense of wonder once you’re at this age. I mean, it has to be something you haven’t encountered before. It has to be something that’s relatively simple. I mean, you don’t get it from WARDLE And and so this is a great vehicle to sort of reliving that, really. Childlike sense of wonder at things in the world. And, and I, I think that’s a good thing.
Brilliant Miller [00:34:41] Yeah, I agree. And even then, beyond what comes from that, again, the gratitude that these things even exist and you know the interrelatedness of. And everything that happened in the universe. Again, I can get pretty philosophical pretty quick, but it’s amazing they’re here on this planet with this temperature, with this water content. And, you know, it’s pretty remarkable. Let me ask you a few questions about the cabin. You’ve mentioned your husband a few times. He’s a prominent character in this book. His and in particular, I want to ask you about something that you say. You talk about a term I love this term, non-overlapping, magisterial, and you say one of it’s one of the bedrock principles of a successful marriage. Will you tell us what that is and why you say that?
Tamar Haspel [00:35:31] So, yeah. So the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay many years ago about reconciling science and religion, and he basically made the case that science and religion don’t have to be reconciled because they rule completely different spheres. Non-overlapping, Magisterium and I. And I think that that can apply in a marriage. I think that you know, there are lots of problems that benefit from having the best input of both Kevin and me. But sometimes it’s better if you just butt out and let the other person do their thing their way. And Kevin and I happen to have wildly different ideas about how things are being done. If there are ten ways to do something, and you ask Kevin his top five and me my top five, there will be no overlap. So we’re constantly approaching things from are just our brains are wired in completely different ways, which can be fascinating and can also result in some very creative solutions. But it can also be irritating. And so, as I said, there are things that are his department and it’s not like we have a formal agreement about this. And but there are things that are my department and I do my things my way and he does his things his way. And then we collaborate on some other things. And, and I think everybody needs some autonomy now and then and so it really works for us.
Brilliant Miller [00:37:08] Yeah, that’s awesome. With that, I think you told a story that was illustrative of this had to do with the mailbox. Oh, good. Yeah.
Tamar Haspel [00:37:19] So this so I, I’ve already mentioned how different Kevin and my temperaments are and the way we approach things. And the story that I used to illustrate this in the book was, that it’s actually not about me. It’s about my mother who’s a lot like me. And or I guess I should say I’m a lot like her. And we grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, in a just, you know, ordinary suburban raised ranch on a third of an acre. We had a driveway and a mailbox. And for reasons that I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around, we were considered the neighborhood weirdos. And I didn’t think that weird, but other people did. And so we were the targets of occasional sort of low-level neighborhood vandalism. And the top part of our mailbox got loose and you could take it right off the stake, and occasionally it would disappear. And, you know, we’d find it when my mother was walking the dog or something, and then the whole thing, you could just pick the stake in the mailbox out of its hole. And one day the whole mailbox disappeared and it reappeared a day later. But my mom was getting sick and tired of this.
Brilliant Miller [00:38:35] Excuse me.
Tamar Haspel [00:38:36] And so if Kevin had been on the scene, we would have poured a concrete anchorage. We would have put the mailbox in such a way that, you know, come Armageddon, it’s the last mailbox standing. But Kevin wasn’t there. And my mother’s solution was to take the mailbox in with the mail. So every morning we would put the mailbox out. And then after the mailman came, we would take the mail in with the mailbox. We put the mailbox in the garage, we’d bring the mail upstairs. And that. Did the system actually work pretty well? Except, you know, every now and then we’d be late and the mailman would be coming, and we’d have to run down to the garage, grab the mailbox and run out and hold it out to the mailman. So we put the mail in there and eventually we did get a mailbox. But this is my temperament. I am makeshift to the core, whereas Kevin wants to solve problems. For all time. And so when we decided to build a chicken coop. You know, I think we literally had a refrigerator box in the garage. I’m like, Hey, that could be chicken soup. And Kevin’s like, you know, thinking of still framing, you know? And so and so we invoked the principle of the non-overlapping magisterium because I knew that Kevin was more qualified to do this because he had actually built things before. And also, you know, a chicken coop has to protect chickens. And his temperament was probably the better one to go for that. And so we did actually end up doing mostly Kevin. And so Non-overlapping Magisterium is about butting out and I’m not always the best butter out outer I didn’t violate his magisterium a couple of times and I did trespass, but it was okay. And we worked through it and we have a beautiful chicken coop still standing out there.
Brilliant Miller [00:40:34] Wow. That’s awesome. And I would imagine this works even better when a couple does what it seems you do, which is also to give each other space. I mean, sometimes we’ll kind of like you said, you know, maybe but in somewhere that’s somebody else’s thing. But when we make space and that just reminds me a teacher of mine once suggested that love is granting another the space to be all the ways they are and all the ways they are not. And it seems like maybe that’s what they’re maybe that’s part of making this work.
Tamar Haspel [00:41:07] I do think so. And I have been profoundly grateful for my husband because he understands exactly what my strengths and weaknesses are. And he loves me not so much in spite of my weaknesses, but in some ways because of them. And we both understand that I think a good 80% of making a marriage work is a kindness and ordinary courtesy. And we try and invoke those at all times.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:42] I think you’re right. Let me ask you about your podcast. So I know you’ve launched a podcast.
Tamar Haspel [00:41:50] Yes. And it’s almost sort of the opposite of to boldly grow because it is this wonky podcast about the climate impact that our food has. And I’m co-hosting with another wonky journalist named Mike Grunwald. And he comes at it from the sort of the the the climate and the policy. And I come at it from the food and we agree about some things and we disagree about other things. And we’ve just started recording. So we’re going to have a few episodes out when we launch on June 21st. And I hope it’s going to be interesting and I hope it’s going to be entertaining. And I hope people tune in and ask us questions and we’ll see. This is my first foray into podcasting. What’s it like having a podcast, Brilliant?
[00:42:44] I love it. And it’s I’ve it’s been four years for me now, and I thought about it for a long time. My first episode was released on May 8th of 2018. Wow. And I actually got into podcasting because I started a coaching company, you know, to help people live healthier, happier lives. And then I realized I didn’t have what I didn’t have a very effective way to market it. And then I realized that I don’t really like marketing. So I thought, what can I do that will kind of check the box off me personally continuing to learn and grow, enjoy myself, and make new friends? And then perhaps I could take that and chop it up in some ways. Maybe it would be blog posts, maybe it would be tweeting, you know, maybe it would be YouTube videos. And then that could be a form of marketing. And that was the idea. So then I came up with the structure and I basically have continued on because I love to read and I love people and I hope to contribute to others. And then I set aside the marketing almost entirely. And now, almost four years later, I’ve interviewed almost 200 authors. Wow. I’m in a lot of ways, I feel like I am having a second childhood, and this is part of it. It’s great. I love it.
Tamar Haspel [00:43:57] And, you know, one of the best parts of my job as a journalist is that I get to call people up and ask them to tell me about their work. And it’s fascinating. And I feel like I’m really lucky to be in that position. So I definitely share your sense that talking to different people about different stuff all the time is a really interesting way to live your life.
Brilliant Miller [00:44:21] Yeah, I mean, one of the things that I love is someone can spend I mean, people do three, four or five decades and learning something. And I can buy their book for 15 bucks and read it in 8 hours. And then especially if they’re willing to talk with me, it’s just such a privilege to read and I’ll make notes, you know, in my Kindle, a Kindle. I want to know more about that and then be able to share that. And I used to have a book club and I actually abandoned the book club because my reading is now focused on my guests’ books. Mm-hmm. And then I divide it by reading into deceased. And so I’ve only recently I’ve committed to reading ten pages each day of someone. It’s either not going to be a guest or is deceased to try to capture all that. But I love it. I hope you enjoy your podcasting experience half as much as I enjoy mine four times as much. It’s. I think it’s wonderful.
Tamar Haspel [00:45:17] Good. That’s good to hear because so far we’ve really enjoyed it. And, you know, it’s been a lot of preparation. We’re working with a production company that is wonderful and helping us sort of get our bearings in this. And we’ll see. It’s it’s exciting.
Brilliant Miller [00:45:33] Yeah, that’s awesome. Okay. So we’ve covered a lot. We didn’t talk about animals too many people are uncomfortable with. And I know you said you could clean a squid in 20 seconds.
Tamar Haspel [00:45:49] Yes. At the peak of my prowess, I can clean squid in 20 seconds. It’s funny because we just did squid season and I couldn’t get it down that I only did as well as 30. But when you start with squid, it’s a how do I do this again? And then eventually, oh, yeah, this is how it goes. And then you, you just get better at it. But that’s how skills work. That’s how physical skills work.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:15] So something I was really curious to ask you more about is you talk about the difference between self-sufficiency. I think it’s self-sufficiency and self-reliance.
Tamar Haspel [00:46:24] Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:25] I always thought of those as basically the same thing, but I don’t think you see it that way. How do you see it?
Tamar Haspel [00:46:29] I think I kind of did, too. And then I started thinking about it harder and it made sense to me that they were different because I do think that self-sufficiency is in part, it does sort of imply walling yourself off to some extent from your fellow man. And you are going to to to complete to support yourself in this way. That is sufficient. Whereas being self-reliant is able to solve problems that come up. And, and to me, it has a slightly different feel. And, you know, I’m sure their other people would disagree with that. And it means different things to different people. And I guess I sort of used those two words to try and describe how I felt about what I had learned that I, you know, I, I wasn’t trying to wall us off from society and, you know, build that bulwark against Armageddon or anything like that. I just wanted to learn to rely on myself to solve problems, to do things that maybe I thought I couldn’t do. They kill animals.
Brilliant Miller [00:47:36] The so.
Tamar Haspel [00:47:38] Yeah. And are you a vegan Brilliant?
Brilliant Miller [00:47:41] I’m not vegan and vegetarian and I have been for more than ten years. I do eat eggs and I do eat dairy, but I don’t eat the way I said I don’t eat anything with the face. Mm-hmm.
Tamar Haspel [00:47:53] No, I understand that. And I am respectful of a principled position. And I obviously do eat meat. And it’s actually been interesting because one of the things that surprised me when we did go into that, you know, livestock and and and slaughtering our turkeys, there were people who were vegetarian or even vegan who wanted to participate because one of the reasons that vegans become vegans is because they do want to opt-out of an industrialized food system that does not treat animals well. But they were willing to consider eating an animal that had been well raised and slaughtered as humanely as we can do it. And so it was actually interesting doing that and having those conversations.
Brilliant Miller [00:48:48] I can imagine.
Tamar Haspel [00:48:50] I can just see that this makes you very uncomfortable.
Brilliant Miller [00:48:54] It does. I woke up on Wednesday and I got on the elliptical and I started reading. And I got to the part where you were. You had just raised turkeys. I think you’d had them. They grow so much in, like four or five months.
Tamar Haspel [00:49:06] Five months? Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:49:07] And then. And then you. And then you slaughter them. And as you just you discuss your, you know, your thoughts, your feelings about it, which I appreciate, but just the description. And I think if I had to do that, I’d have a new like a new appreciation or new sensitivity I get as humans on this planet. For a long time we’ve been eating meat and so forth. But yeah, and I brothers who are hunters. And when I read what you wrote about hunting, I actually really appreciated your sense about if you have to. I think you said something like, if you have to kill an animal to have a successful hunt, you’re not a hunter. You’re a killer. Right.
Tamar Haspel [00:49:49] People say that all the time. And but yes. And for me, I’m not really much of a hunter. I’m more of a harvester. So I have been able to take deer because I have a friend who lives in a place that’s overrun with deer. And you don’t have to be skilled in any way. And the reason I do it is that I think if you’re going to eat meat, taking an overpopulated ruminant that’s doing damage to an ecosystem is the most responsible way to do it. And but I know hunters who are much more attuned to the woods and who get satisfaction from those other parts of hunting that don’t really speak to me so much.
Brilliant Miller [00:50:37] Yeah. So I think the last, the last question I have for now and I’m sure I think of three more as we transition. But so two last questions. One was about ACORN. And this was another thing I love about the book is how I can imagine that you know, embarking on this first-hand food journey really does have the potential to change the way you see the entire world.
Tamar Haspel [00:50:59] And everything is food.
Brilliant Miller [00:51:00] Yeah, everything’s food. And now you can’t look at an acorn without thinking something should eat that or someone or something should eat that. What? Tell me about your experience with ACORN. So.
Tamar Haspel [00:51:11] You know, I know that ACORN is nuts and I know that nuts are food, but it took me a long time to connect the dots that acorns could be food. And of course, acorns have been food for indigenous people here since there were indigenous people. There is a very nutritious, high-calorie source of food, but they’re very tannic and bitter. And in order to be palatable, they have to be rinsed and rinsed and rinsed and rinsed. And once you sort of leech the tannins and those bitter compounds out of them, and at first that was pretty daunting to me because it seemed like a lot of work for something that people really weren’t that enthusiastic about as food. And this is true of a lot of foraged food that it’s not that tasty. And, you know, there’s a reason, you know, we eat almonds and not acorns. But then I figured out, okay, well, if you have to, like, just soak them in water and keep changing the water. We all have an appliance in our house that does that for us. And so I put them in a mesh bag and I put them in the toilet tank because every time you flush the toilet, the water changes, and everybody’s like, Tamara, you can’t do that. You can’t do that. I’m like, Of course, I can’t. Because, like, all the icky stuff in toilets happens downstream of the toilet tank. The water that comes into your toilet tank is the same water that you shower with. And so so they’re the acorns where they stayed there for like a week or so. And they came out and they were extremely leached of their bitter components, but they still weren’t all that great. We made these flatbreads out of them and they were okay. And if I needed to feed myself and my family, you bet I would do it. But I do have the luxury of being able to get bigger. And so, you know, acorns are out of the loop.
Brilliant Miller [00:53:13] And I understand they make pretty good feed for pigs.
Tamar Haspel [00:53:16] So the pigs love them. And there’s not a lot about the pigs in the book because I think that of our firsthand food ventures, pigs are probably the ones that people are least likely to embark on. But backyard pigs are awesome. Pigs are smart and charismatic and interesting. And then, of course, everybody is upset because you do kill them. That’s the reason. The only reason we have pigs is that we eat pigs. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be anything resembling a domestic pig. And yeah, and I do talk about that in the book and, and how seriously I take that job off, of killing animals and under what circumstances I will eat an animal and, and what circumstances I want. And, you know, I think human existence is inherently an animal-killing proposition. We kill them when we take their habitat to build our homes. We kill them with our cars. We kill them with our chemicals, we kill them with our machinery. And if we’re going to say it’s immoral to kill animals for human survival, then humans don’t survive. And so the question we have to ask ourselves, I think, and the question I ask myself is how can I minimize animal suffering and that can include livestock? It depends, I think, on how you raise it and how you kill it.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:50] Yeah.
Tamar Haspel [00:54:50] I know. I keep coming back to that. And you hate it every time I stop. That’s the last thing I’ll say about killing animals.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:57] Oh, I forgot that. The point you made in the book about you’re right that even, you know, vegetarian agriculture still has that, you know, whether you insects and pesticides and loss of habitat and these kinds of things that there’s. But to me and I know, you know, you can get pretty, pretty granular with some of this, but I think there is an at least some times in life, it’s good to think about those and what our responsibility is and what our values are and, you know, those kinds of things. So as much as it can be challenging, I think it’s actually a pretty, pretty healthy inquiry.
Tamar Haspel [00:55:32] And it’s funny because if you do these things if you spend time with plants and animals, it becomes very difficult to eat something without thinking about where it came from and what its impact might have been.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:45] Yeah, for sure. Let me ask you this. What do we’ve talked about a lot? What haven’t we talked about either that’s in the book or related to the book or.
Tamar Haspel [00:55:58] Oh, you don’t want to ask me that, because I could just go on and on and on. And so I want to I want you to ask your questions because actually one of the best things about talking to other people and going on somebody else’s podcast is that it’s framed by your interests and you see it differently from the way I see it. So I’m way more interested in answering your questions than pontificating about the things in the book that I think everybody should read.
Brilliant Miller [00:56:25] Okay. I appreciate that. Well, then with that, I’m going to go ahead and transition us to the Enlightening lightning round. Okay. So this is a series of questions on a variety of topics, somewhat random. Okay. It’s about nine questions. My aim for the most part is to ask questions. Stand aside. I might tug on an answer here or there, but to keep us moving. Okay. The first question, please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a box of.
Tamar Haspel [00:56:59] Chocolate. Oh, no, wait. I can’t. I don’t know anything that life is like because it’s so different from everything else. And, you know, we started this conversation off by talking about what life is. And I think life is, as I said, the thing that you make it and it’s really the only thing we have that’s like that.
Brilliant Miller [00:57:33] Yeah. It reminds me I forget who the comedian was, but he talked about if we had a life-sized map. That’s really funny. But then the second question is, what is something about which you have changed your mind in recent years?
Tamar Haspel [00:57:49] Oh, I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. In fact, I give a whole talk about changing your mind because I think that mind changing. Instead of being, you know, leading to accusations of flip-flopping and inconsistency, I think that mind-changing is the metric of, you know, really considering your own attitudes in and really approaching things openly. And it’s very hard for humans to do. We are wired to make decisions with our gut and our guts don’t change very much. But over the years, I have changed my mind. First of all, basically about the link between diet and nutrition. Way back in the nineties, I wrote a book about low-fat eating. And then I have since decided that that is not the way to eat, it’s a way to eat. And it can work for some people, but it is not superior to other ways. And I have a completely different take on nutrition now. I have changed my mind about wonky stuff, like whether I think the FDA should oversee dietary supplements, and I used to think that they should have a much tighter rein on those things. And now I don’t think that that’s the best use of limited resources because the harms are mostly to the pocketbooks of affluent people. And I would rather have the FDA protecting the least among us. I have changed my mind about programs that double snap coupons for the poor, because I was thinking of it as a health intervention, and I was looking for data that showed that it worked. And then I went out with some people who did it. And it obviously is good for the people who participate and screw those metrics. I think this is a wonderful thing and I have other lists of things. I, I go out in the world actively trying to find occasions to change my mind. And even when you do that, it’s hard. And I have given talks in front of hundreds or occasionally thousands of people. And I will ask them. When was the last time you changed your mind? Think about the last year. The issue of substance, you know, not, you know, chicken or fish or something. You took a stand on. You talk to your family about it. Raise your hand if you can tell me an issue in the last year that you change your mind about. And in a room of hundreds or possibly thousands of people, I will get this smattering of hands. Only a few. And there is no epidemic mind change going on yet. We all go out in the world anticipating that we can change other people’s minds.
Brilliant Miller [01:00:36] Wow. Wow. That is by far the most artful response I’ve had to hear you share. Makes me think of something. I once read that Gandhi said, I don’t know. He really said it. But he said, my commitment is to truth, not to consistency.
Tamar Haspel [01:00:56] That’s a pretty good answer there. Pretty good way of living.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:01] And then, Allen, what’s when Allen was said, you were under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago. I love that. So thank you for that. Okay. Question number three, if you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a T-shirt with a phrase on it or a saying or a quote or a quip, what would the shirt say kind?
Tamar Haspel [01:01:24] I think it’s the single most important thing to be.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:27] Yeah. Question number four, what work other than one of your own? Have you gifted or recommended most often?
Tamar Haspel [01:01:36] Jonathan Hite, The Righteous Mind. He wrote it in 2012 maybe. And it is the basis for how I think about how humans make decisions. And it has been seminal in how I think about my work because I read that book and before I read it, I thought of me as a pretty good evidence-based decision maker. And after I read it, I realized that humans suck at making evidence-based decisions. And if I was going to try and be a decent decision maker, I was going to have to work really, really hard at it and try and set my own biases aside. And I have come up with a list of strategies that I use to try and make sure that I don’t go down my own rabbit hole. And I think that it sheds light on human decision-making in a way that can change the way we view ourselves.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:36] Wow. What’s an example of one of those strategies?
Tamar Haspel [01:02:40] So that I am a journalist, but I’m a columnist. So I’m paid to have an opinion, basically. So I’m not like a beat reporter. And I’ve been writing about food for 20-plus years. So I have opinions about all of these things. And when I sit down to write a column, one of the first things I do is to try and find the smartest person who disagrees with me and listen. And I and so once I do that, then I try and build the best case I can for the position I don’t hold. Because if I’m wrong, I want to be able to talk myself out of it. And it is the way I’ve changed my mind on a few things. And it’s funny because I my father, who died about three years ago, my father was notorious for being willing to take any side of any issue just for the pleasure of hashing it out. He loved thinking about these things and arguing about things and talking about things. And, you know, politics and things were the stuff of dinner table conversations in my childhood and is and it was the most annoying thing because you this is not an endearing human characteristic and I and it used to bother me but I two things. Number one, I sort of internalized the idea that almost every issue has two or maybe more reasonable sides. And but second, there’s nothing like the humiliation of losing an argument to somebody who doesn’t even believe in the argument he’s making. And it makes you really think hard about how and why you believe the things you do.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:28] This sounds like a book that I’ll definitely check out because I remember when the trolley problem was.
Tamar Haspel [01:04:35] Yeah. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:36] And people couldn’t tell you why. Well, I don’t know. It just feels wrong or whatever. But we often, I’m convinced, don’t even know what we truly believe or why we do what we do.
Tamar Haspel [01:04:47] So did you buy any tips? Reading economists book thinking fast and slow. Okay. So that’s it’s the same basic idea. So, you know, Kahneman has system one is your gut, and system two is your head hates metaphor is the elephant in the Ryder system. One is the elephant in the system. Two is the rider. And your elephant knows exactly what he thinks about every controversial issue. And you would hope that your Ryder system, too, would be in a position to correct your elephant. But it turns out that your Ryder’s job is just to justify the direction the elephant is taking, and confirmation bias just rules the human psyche. And I think that understanding those things has made me go out in the world a lot less certain about a lot more things.
Brilliant Miller [01:05:38] Yeah, no doubt. And the history of science, the history of humanity, I believe, is the history of being wrong. You know.
Tamar Haspel [01:05:46] It sure and I mean, just go ahead. So what you’re going to say?
Brilliant Miller [01:05:51] I was going to say that I was like as an example, I just learned that until the twenties, we believed that the Milky Way galaxy was the edge of the universe. And, you know, now we believe something different. It makes the spectacle of something different in another hundred years.
Tamar Haspel [01:06:04] Think about, you know, 200 or 300 years ago, we think, oh, those poor schlubs, they thought, you know, cholera came through the air and, you know, they did bloodletting for everything. And, uh, but 200 years from now, we are the schlubs. You know what you. Are you going to die on?
Brilliant Miller [01:06:22] That’s right. That can help with hopefully.
Tamar Haspel [01:06:26] History’s a bitch. Brilliant. Yeah, for sure. For sure. Okay. Question number five. This has to do with travel. I imagine you’ve traveled a lot in your career.
Tamar Haspel [01:06:38] That much? Actually.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:40] You just got those two acres in Cape Cod. Do you just.
Tamar Haspel [01:06:43] No, I didn’t. Okay. Let’s go to the question and then maybe I’ll put it in context.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:48] Okay. So this is when you do travel, however infrequent it might be, was something you do or something you take with you to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable.
Tamar Haspel [01:07:01] I take lots of books on audiobooks and I listen to them in the downtime on planes and things like that. So audiobooks and comfortable shoes, I think those are the two things that grease the skids of travel.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:19] Oh, that makes a big difference. Question number six was something you started or stopped doing in order to live or age well.
Tamar Haspel [01:07:31] All my life I’ve been exercising. And it’s because I want to continue. I want my body to continue to function as I age. And it’s been hard because I have a heart problem. I had to stop running and that was tough for me. But I, I think that you have to focus on the things as you age the things that you can do. And you can’t be mourning the things that you can’t do anymore because aging is inevitable and we all basically have to stop running at some point. Unfortunately, my point came earlier than I wanted, and yeah, so I definitely try and take care of my body in the hopes that it will serve me well as a daughter into antiquity.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:20] Awesome question number seven. What’s something about us? Every American knew.
Tamar Haspel [01:08:27] That what you eat doesn’t matter very much as long as it’s a relatively whole food.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:33] Hmm. Okay. Question number eight. What’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about making relationships work?
Tamar Haspel [01:08:42] Yeah, I think I’ll go back to what I said before, which is that. 80% is kindness and courtesy, and it’s kindness and courtesy when it’s hard when you’re angry when you’re tempted to say the thing that would hurt, and saying a thing that hurts can undo years of kindness and courtesy because you can’t unsay it. So it’s really important to not say those things in the first place. And I think I try to never say anything mean ever.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:24] What are some of the other 20%?
Tamar Haspel [01:09:29] Oh, I think a lot of its luck.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:31] You know.
Tamar Haspel [01:09:33] Do the things that you happen to do irritate your partner? You know, Kevin hates it when, like, things impinge on, like, hallways because he’s bigger than I am, and he feels like he doesn’t have enough space to maneuver. And I, I, I had to learn not to do that. But most of the things our foibles just don’t drive each other nuts. And I do think that that’s mostly a matter of luck. And if you treat your spouse or your partner invariably with kindness and courtesy and respect. That’s most of the thing. But the thing is, if you choose a spouse you admire, that’s easy to do. And I got really lucky. I, I have a spouse I admire who is kind and courteous, and respectful. And we have a wonderful life together.
Brilliant Miller [01:10:34] Uniform and not by accident. I know there’s been a lot of hard work and thoughtfulness. Okay. Question number nine. Aside from compound interest, what is the most important or useful thing you ever learned about money?
Tamar Haspel [01:10:53] It’s arithmetic. And people make it so complicated. But it’s addition and subtraction. And we all learned it in second grade. And in some ways, it’s a lot like nutrition. There are a lot of people who are heavily invested in complicating it, but it’s really very straightforward. And, you know, that’s not investing. And, you know, full disclosure, my husband’s a professional trader and he takes care of me. Oh, I have to do it just use the card and it works. And it seems sort of silly to talk about this when I am fortunate enough to have enough financial resources to not worry about money. And so I wouldn’t design to give advice to people who are struggling. But it does come down to making sure, if you can, to only spend what comes in.
Brilliant Miller [01:11:54] Yeah.
Tamar Haspel [01:11:55] I know. That sounds really stupid, doesn’t it?
Brilliant Miller [01:11:59] I think there is a deep wisdom there, and I’m reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin, where they were talking. I don’t know that it was even how to be rich, but it was spending less than you earn. Like, I don’t believe we have to spend less than we earn. I know that’s. I know. I know. It is so funny.
Tamar Haspel [01:12:18] And it does sound really stupid. But there are people out there who are trying to bamboozle people with, you know, crazy car loans and things like that. And those people really make me angry because you’re just deliberately trying to trick somebody.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:34] Yeah. Now, money’s not my field.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:36] Yeah. Well, there are many forms of wealth. I know that’s true. So. Okay. Well, speaking of money, one of the things and I do have a few more questions about writing creativity, but before we go there, one of the things that I have done in an effort to express my gratitude to you for sharing of your time and your wisdom with me and everyone listening as I have done on the microlending site Cuba dot org. And I have made a $100 microloan to a woman named Inma in Honduras. She’s 25 years old. She lives in a place called Yoro, and she has a small food store, and she will use this to buy supplies for her business and in that way improve her quality of life.
Tamar Haspel [01:13:18] I am delighted by that. It is a wonderful thing and I’m sure this is something that you do regularly with your guests. You find a way to pass on the gratitude to somebody who needs it. And I think that is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Brilliant Miller [01:13:36] Thank you. Is my pleasure. And part of what I love about this is that it’s not charity. It is a law and there is interest and the entrepreneur does repay it. I don’t see any of that. Instead, it goes to fund the operations of the field partner, the person who does administer it. But in that way, I hope that this does create more self-reliance and even a virtual virtuous cycle. I hope so. Yeah. Okay. Well, with that, we’re coming down the stretch, run the last part of the interview. And as I mentioned, this has to do with writing and maybe creativity, maybe even marketing and promotions or telling the world about the work that we do. Let me start by asking you, when did you first know you were a writer?
Tamar Haspel [01:14:23] I’m not a writer by the way, you know, you’re like an extrovert or a Pisces, you know? But for me. It is a job that I do that I think I’m better suited to do than most other jobs. And I didn’t call myself a writer until I made my living writing because, for me, it’s a profession. It’s not some inherent quality. And it’s I think it’s possible that I could have been something else. In fact, if I had to do it all over again. I think I’d like to be a cognitive neuroscientist. But but. But writing suits me. And I hope that on a good day, I have at least some talent for it. And it lets me express the things that I think are important and talk about the things that I’m thinking about. And I’m very grateful to be able to do it.
Brilliant Miller [01:15:32] Who has been influential in your development as a writer and what have you learned from them?
Tamar Haspel [01:15:39] I think writers, most of us do a lot of reading. And one of the best things that happen when you read is that inevitably you read people who have way more talent than you. And so, you know, I think I’m having a good day, a turn in a good column, and then I’ll go read, you know, Robert Graves or something. And I’m like, Yeah, I should be bagging groceries. And it’s the thing that I learn is, is what I can do and what I can’t do. And it has taught me to stay focused on the things that I’m good at. And as a writer, there are few things that I think I probably am good at. I think I’m good at making science accessible. I think I can tell a funny story. But if you’re looking for lyricism and you’ve got to go elsewhere. And so reading other writers makes me really appreciate people who can do things I can’t do and help me focus on doing the things I can do.
Brilliant Miller [01:16:54] What writerly habits and routines are a part of your life that are related to writing?
Tamar Haspel [01:17:01] It totally varies. It completely depends on what I’m working on. And so like a wife. Quite a while ago, I wrote a couple of romance novels under a pseudonym, and and I had a habit I would get up in the morning and I would I’d have coffee and I would not move on to anything else until I had a thousand words done. And then I would put that away and I would move on to other things. And if I have projects like that, I will still have that kind of discipline. Like when I was working on the book, I was trying to write however many thousands of words a week. You know, I knew I had a deadline and a certain day divided by the number of weeks you got and you make sure that you stay on track. I know it’s a very pedestrian thing, but that’s the kind of thing that deadlines work for me. And it’s so prosaic.
Brilliant Miller [01:17:56] Yeah. Now that’s, that’s one of the things that really fascinates me about writing is that in some ways there is the artistic and the creative and the muse. There’s like all of this and then this other side that’s very pragmatic. It’s just the way you can calculate it and deadlines help. And whenever I think of that, I think of that Duke Ellington quote about I don’t need more time. I need a deadline.
Tamar Haspel [01:18:19] Right. And that’s exactly it. You know, muse schmooze. I got a deadline and and and, you know, I learned to write on deadline. That was always what it was about. And, you know, I, I hope that I’m a good craftsman, but yeah, I, I write to order and I write on deadline.
Brilliant Miller [01:18:43] In your view, what are the qualities of a good what are the qualities of a great sentence? And how can we write more of them?
Tamar Haspel [01:18:50] It totally depends, because a great sentence for me is going to be different from a great sentence from somebody who’s actually good at lyricism. And but I think that the thing that I’m in tune with when I’m writing is rhythm. And I and to my ear, look for a certain kind of rhythm to a paragraph and how sentences fit together. And, and that’s really important to me and, and I appreciate it in other people’s work. And I find that it’s sort of the foundation of my work.
Brilliant Miller [01:19:35] Mm-hmm. Tell me about it. I realize there’s a columnist that you’ll have an editor or other people in the process, at least to some degree. And sometimes one of the roles those other people have is to give the piece a title. But I also know that can be collaborative. Or you can offer a title. Yes. What’s your approach like? What are your thoughts and what’s your approach to like titles?
Tamar Haspel [01:19:58] So it’s different from what it used to be because the main purpose of titles now in journalism is to make sure that you are you’re optimized for the search engines. And so titles are different from what they used to be. And I don’t have a lot of expertise in that particular field. And so I tend to leave it to other people. And, you know, some of us dinosaur journalists are like, yeah, I remember the day when we could put puns in titles and, and, and you can’t really do much of that anymore, but it’s a different skill now. It’s not really a writing skill. It is a writing skill, but it’s also somebody who really understands the ways of the Internet in ways that I don’t.
Brilliant Miller [01:20:46] So. Yeah, well, in writing what you’re saying here, I remember the first time I heard someone who’s a successful blogger talk about he would go look at what the Google search terms were and then go write an article based on that search. I was like, That seems so backward. I get it.
Tamar Haspel [01:21:03] And people. Yes, and I understand it too. And, you know, when I was blogging, that’s exactly what people were doing. And I balked at it, which is one reason I kind of sucked at it. And I am grateful now to have the platform, The Washington Post, and being able to write what I want to say and have other people worry about getting the headline.
Brilliant Miller [01:21:28] I mean, about your relationship with your reader in the act of writing. Like how present do they seem?
Tamar Haspel [01:21:34] Very present. Totally very present. I’m always cognizant that I am writing for someone and I think that that is a writer’s obligation. I, I, you know, there’s all kinds of stuff that I think I could write about, but I, I feel. Obligation to my reader to engage their interest to be entertaining. And that doesn’t mean, you know, soft shoe. Ha ha. It can be just interesting in some way. I very strongly feel that I write for someone and if I don’t engage their interest, I’m not doing my job.
Brilliant Miller [01:22:15] Hmm. Do you have in mind a composite kind of reader, or do you choose specific people? Sometimes. Now.
Tamar Haspel [01:22:24] Because I hear from readers and I know that they run the gamut. And so I’m pretty ecumenical when it comes to, you know, who do I want to appeal to? I want to appeal to anyone who’s interested in the thing that I’m writing about. I don’t want to put people off by, you know, being esoteric. I don’t want to talk down to people who know a lot about these things. I want to have a bona fide organic feeling conversation, which is weird because of course, I’m only responsible for one side of it. But yeah, no, I don’t have anybody specific. I want people to enjoy what I write.
Brilliant Miller [01:23:11] What? What do you think is the best money you’ve ever spent as a writer?
Tamar Haspel [01:23:16] I don’t know that I’ve spent a lot of money as a writer. I mean, the whole point of being a writer is to make money.
Brilliant Miller [01:23:23] Yeah. A lot of people will answer that, by the way. A lot of people just say, Oh, all the books I bought that informed my writing books.
Tamar Haspel [01:23:30] Yeah, I guess you can say that, but. Yeah, I would have bought those anyway, so I don’t know if I can say that. No, no, I don’t. And, you know, I’ve never. Sorry. Sorry.
Brilliant Miller [01:23:42] You know, I.
Tamar Haspel [01:23:42] Live with now very.
Brilliant Miller [01:23:43] Little. I was just going to share, too, that there’s a surprise to me, a surprising number of people who will say, oh, it was this one workshop I went to this one book proposal workshop or something.
Tamar Haspel [01:23:53] And I get that. And I, I know people who have really benefited from those kinds of things. And I definitely benefit from having writer friends and we send things back and forth and talk about each other’s work. But I’ve never done anything like that. I no journalism school, no nothing. I just, I, I read a lot and I try and write to the best of my capability.
Brilliant Miller [01:24:19] And it seems to be working out. Oh, cool. My last I think my last question here is just what advice or encouragement would you leave anyone listening with who is either in the middle of their own creative project? They’re struggling or it’s a dream they’ve harbored for a long time, for whatever reason, they haven’t begun. What do you say to those people to help them get their own books done and out into the world?
Tamar Haspel [01:24:43] If you’re if you want to be a writer and you knew my all-purpose piece of advice is to write about something you’re not personally invested in. Because if you’re new at this, it’s really hard to separate if you’re writing about something that’s close to you and everybody says, write what you know and you should write what you know. But it’s difficult to write about things that you have strong emotions about because it’s hard to figure out whether those things are compelling because they’re yours, or is there some universal that you can tap into that would be compelling to other people? And I think the way to learn to write, it’s not the only way, but I think one way to learn to write is to write about things that aren’t so close to you because then you can focus more easily on the craft of writing. And, you know, I learned to write by cranking out stuff for women’s magazines and, you know, making it fit whatever they needed and being edited by people who had different ideas and having to have different tones and different voices. And it exercises the muscle. And in the end, I think it made me a better writer.
Brilliant Miller [01:26:13] Well, Tamara, I have really enjoyed this conversation. I love your book. I’m really grateful that we had the chance to talk. And I’m grateful for you spending so much time talking with me today.
Tamar Haspel [01:26:23] Brilliant. You’re a pleasure to talk with. And you’ve asked me questions that nobody has ever asked me. And I appreciate that very much. So thank you so much.
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