Elizabeth Gilbert at The Art of Living Well Speaker Series

The Cardinal at North Hills, Thursday, October 3, 2 p.m.

Cardinal residents and invited guests only

Elizabeth Gilbert spent the latter portion of her summer at a beach house she’d rented on Fire Island, New York, hosting a revolving door of friends. There she did most of the cooking, slow roasting anything from ribs to roast chicken to lamb served alongside a pile of fresh vegetables—which she says that, despite being one of the easiest meals to make, still manages to wow a crowd. “I’ve been very fortunate that in the last ten years of my life all my romantic partners were amazing cooks,” she says. “Now that I’m single again, I’m coming back to it in my own way, and am realizing I learned a lot from them.”

The New York Times bestselling author knows how to enjoy her downtime in between writing projects—following her time at the beach, she trekked around the South of France on foot—replenishing the creative reserves that have achieved her global recognition. Known by Oprah as a “rock star author,” the writer behind Eat Pray Love and Big Magic has a new book out, City of Girls, a sensually self-indulgent love story set in the Broadway theater scene in the 1940s.

The INDY recently spoke with Gilbert by phone to learn more about what gets her creative juices flowing, and why food and pleasure are inherently linked.

INDY WEEK: My initial impression of City of Girls was a deeper exploration of some of the first themes of pleasure you had first unearthed in yourself as you ate your way through Italy, all those years ago. I mean, food and sex go hand in hand, right?

GILBERT: Before food and sex had anything to do with culture, they had everything to do with nature and nature is kind of the opposite of culture. Nature is our biological, wild self and culture tries to civilize and make rules and customs around that, which is fascinating. But in both cases, our appetites are not very controllable, because the nature in us is more powerful than the culture which says, ‘you can’t eat that ‘cause you’ll get fat,’ or ‘you can’t be attracted to that person or it’s going to ruin your life’—well, as we’ve all seen in many lives, both of those things can be unmanageable as well as exciting.

If there’s anything that Eat Pray Love showed the world, it’s that you love to eat. Does your approach to food stem from this place of pleasure?

It depends on the day because when I’m alone, and I’m alone a lot when I’m writing, I live, eat, and act like a monk. All of my senses are sublimated into the writing project. When I wrote City of Girls, which is a very sensuous and decadent book, the person writing it was in a very small house in the rural countryside in New Jersey, eating a very tiny amount of food, going to sleep every night at eight, getting up at four-thirty in the morning to work, and sleeping in an empty bed. 

When I get in that headspace it’s all very—and I don’t want to say restrictive—it’s more about trying to set my body to a pace that it can sustain, like training for the Olympics. You don’t go overboard because you need all your energy to go into the work.

However, I also have this other part of me that’s a free-for-all, and I do live in New York City where I can indulge that, and I do love to travel and indulge that. But mostly, I’d say that my eating habits, when they turn toward decadence, are much more social. It’s not something I ever do alone, it’s about feasting and celebrating with people I love. It definitely doesn’t have the same satisfaction by itself.

You recently co-hosted a culinary and creativity retreat in Puglia. How do these two art forms intersect?

Going back to this idea of nature before culture—whether it’s sex, storytelling, or food—it’s part of our human nature in a very essential way. Years ago, a friend of mine was visiting from Rome and I said I was interested in going into one of those sensory deprivation chambers, and he just pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘The senses must not be deprived!’ He was like, ‘why in the world would you want to pay money to have your senses deprived?’

All of these things (food, pleasure, creativity) are about the delight of the senses. My friend Elizabeth Minchilli, whom I met during the Eat Pray Love years, runs these food tours through various parts of Italy. She has a deep, abiding, passionate Italian-based delight in making sure that your senses should be stimulated at all times, whether it’s through music, storytelling, food, or learning a new language. Why bother to have these senses if you’re not going to use them? In America, we still come from a puritanical culture that is very suspicious of the senses, and that they have to be controlled or else they can lead to sin.

The Italians just sort of have a richer, old-world idea about that—that actually the senses can be trusted, nourished, and delighted, and that’s what constitutes a good life.

You’ve spent time gardening, which inspired The Signature of All Things. Did that activate the senses for you?

I had a garden when I was living in rural New Jersey and it was a passion for a while, but it sort of faded out because as any gardener knows, there are two kinds of gardeners: the ones who just started and are incredibly excited and overdo it and burn out, and there’s the lifetime gardener. I fall in the first category. I burnt myself out. I went in hard and passionately, and then I was like oh my god this is all I do now. It’s all fine when you’re planting and harvesting, but when it comes time to weeding it’s not as much fun. But I did find it to be such a gorgeous thing to create.

Moving out to the country, putting my hands in the soil, and literally grounding myself for a couple of years was the best possible thing I could have done for my emotional health and creative life. I think that the best life you can live is one where you are in constant creative response to the world and for me, that has always been book writing. When that fell away for a few years I turned to gardening, but it could have been anything, it doesn’t really matter. Do something that’s creative, do something that engages you with this amazing experience of being a human on this planet. 

Critics of At Home on the Range say you’ve inherited your great grandmother’s love for food. What did the discovery of this volume teach you about her?

That was a great project. My great grandmother, whose name was Margaret Yardley Potter, had been a food critic and a food writer, basically a food blogger, in the 1930s and 40s in the Philadelphia area for the local newspapers. She was a food explorer—I think even more than inheriting a love for food, I inherited her love for travel and adventure because she would get in a Model T go bouncing around rural Pennsylvania and find out what people were eating.

She went into South Philadelphia which, at that time, there was a tiny Italian neighborhood where very few people spoke English. She was pregnant walked into south Philly, and a woman invited her into her house and gave her something called Italian tomato pie, which was pizza. But that was the first time she’d ever had it. She was the Dorothy Parker of food—she had such a strong, vivid, charming voice.

Do you have any connections to the South or any affinity for the region’s food?

I’ve come down there a lot for business, but I haven’t been able to explore it yet for pleasure. My book The Last American Man was set in Western North Carolina in the mountains outside of Boone, and I was living up in the hills with this mountain man guy and getting a taste of Appalachian culture: his neighbors, the communal killing of a pig, the gardens that had the squash they lived on all winter  because they didn’t have much else, the cornbread—all this traditional mountain food. Everything they were eating—long before it was hip and cool and hipstery—they were growing and procuring it for themselves.

But I’m not really up to date on what’s happening in a more modern way in the Triangle, though I do love Southern cuisine, because, you know, pork fat. Or if you’re on the coast, oysters. Pretty much the two best things in the entire world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


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