Jessa Crispin was probably the only 14-year-old in the ranching community around Lincoln, Kansas, who subscribed to Gourmet magazine. She did it out of self-preservation, she says: “I was trying to teach myself to cook because my mother is a terrible cook.” Crispin, now 26 and best known for her bibliophile Web zine, Bookslut, reaches for literary references when talking about meals in the Crispin family home, which typically included Jell-O salad and casseroles made with Campbell’s soup. “There’s this moment in The Corrections where Jonathan Franzen mentions this pea salad with mayonnaise and cheese cubes, and, man, does that bring back my mother’s cooking,” she says. Gourmet was less a reflection of precociously sophisticated tastes and more “the only cooking magazine I’d heard of before.”
Crispin’s early culinary attempts didn’t turn out well. “I made a garlic soup that was a disaster–it tasted like water,” she says. “My family made very polite sounds, and then my dad went and made a sandwich.” But with practice, she says, she “stopped sucking”–especially after she learned to read a recipe all the way through before starting it.
About six months ago, Crispin began mulling over the idea of an online food zine that would combine her literary and culinary interests. Saucy (saucymag.com), a compendium of food-related essays, advice, and news, as well as the occasional recipe, launched in March. Crispin says it’s the kind of site she wanted to read and couldn’t find anywhere on the Web–one that’s independent of print media (unlike Epicurious, which is affiliated with Gourmet and Bon Appetit) and that covers a multitude of perspectives. While she enjoys some food blogs, such as Molly Wizenberg’s Orangette (orangette.blogspot.com), she’s not a big fan of blogs in general. “That one-person voice doesn’t do much for me,” she says. “I love magazines. I like someone being in charge of quality control.” Saucy has about 20 volunteer contributors, some of whom write for Bookslut, others who are friends of Crispin’s or who blog about food elsewhere on the Web (including Wizenberg and Chan Stroman of Bookish Gardener, who writes Saucy’s urban gardening column).
Like Bookslut, Saucy has a casual but informative tone. It’s often funny, always opinionated. Depending on the writer, it can be snarky (on Saveur’s April 2005 issue: “The official theme might be ‘Spring,’ but it could be renamed ‘When in Doubt, Wrap Shit in Bacon'”) or self-effacing (“I’ve never been what you might call a ‘great cook,’ or a ‘good cook,’ or ‘someone who knows how to work an oven'”). Regular features include a food-show review column called TV Dinners, the budget-cooking column Practically Cooking, and Crispin’s Cookbook Test Kitchen. Unlike the cookbook reviews in Bookslut’s column Cookslut, Cookbook Test Kitchen evaluates a cookbook based on the experience of trying out several recipes from it. Crispin was recently disappointed by Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain, about which she wrote, “It said the tart would be ‘fairly firm to the touch.’ What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
One of Saucy’s most entertaining columns–Cook and Tell–features the intertwined romantic and culinary adventures of Wizenberg. “The way to a Frenchman’s heart is through his tarte Tatin,” she wrote recently, recalling a fling during her days as an exchange student in Paris. “A classic among classic French desserts, tarte Tatin is a sexed-up apple pie, a housewife in stilettos.” In another installment, she rhapsodized over an ex-boyfriend’s sausage-making skills (“And so it was that Nicho came into my life and filled it with meat”). “I think she might run out of boyfriends or eventually settle down,” says Crispin. “We’ll have to rethink the structure of her column.”
Saucy’s personal, occasionally brash approach shows the influence of Crispin’s favorite food writers, who tend to be down-to-earth types like Anthony Bourdain and Calvin Trillin. “I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Steingarten, who’s just kind of bumbling: ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, but we like to eat, so we’ll figure it out along the way,'” Crispin says. These days, the more sophisticated Gourmet is “really just porn for me. I would never do that, but it’s nice to look at.”
In a letter from the editor on Saucy, Crispin warns that the site’s not for picky eaters: “But if you love all kinds of food like we do, Saucy is here to entertain and enlighten.” She dislikes “this phenomenon that I’ve seen in friends and family where they will arbitrarily decide to reject an entire class of food. ‘I don’t like potatoes.’ ‘I don’t like tomatoes.’ ‘I don’t like cheese.’ I rather take the Anthony Bourdain approach to these kinds of eaters: they must be terrible in bed. Being selective, on the other hand, is just being aware of all the issues.”
The site reflects Crispin’s dedication to conscious eating–food chosen with the awareness that lamb chops don’t fall shrink-wrapped from the sky. For Crispin, that means choosing locally raised, humanely produced organic food whenever possible. While she’s motivated by health concerns about hormone and antibiotic use in farm animals, she says that the price of organic food is too high for anyone to keep buying it for reasons other than quality. Mass-produced food “just doesn’t taste as good,” she says. “That’s why I spend $80 on a grass-fed, hormone-free leg of lamb.” She gets weekly deliveries of organic produce, eggs, and milk from Timber Creek Farms in Yorkville, out near Oswego. “I’ll never go back to factory-farmed eggs,” she says. “It’s a much deeper flavor–much, uh, eggier.”
Crispin runs Bookslut and Saucy full-time out of her West Town apartment with the help of her boyfriend, Kenan Hebert, who’s the webmaster for both sites. “I couldn’t imagine having a job now,” says Crispin, who dropped out of Baker University in 1999 and lived in Dallas and Austin before moving to Chicago in 2003. About half her income comes from Bookslut’s advertising revenue; the site (which was named one of Time Online’s “50 Best Websites” in 2003 and has won a Bloggie award for best topical blog three years running) gets between 6,500 and 8,000 visitors a day. Crispin receives a cut of the profits from books readers buy from Amazon via a link on the site as well. The rest of her income comes from freelance book reviews for the Washington Post, the Reader, and other print publications.
Once Saucy gets on its feet, Crispin says, it will begin accepting advertising. In the meantime, she’s scrambling to keep the content flowing (Saucy offers new material Monday through Thursday; Bookslut, once a month) and enjoying the challenges of a new genre. “I feel sort of awkward, but it’s getting better,” she says. “You’re trying to put visceral reactions into words, trying to make somebody understand what you’re tasting. Writing about books became easier after a while. Food writing is starting all over again.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.