6 Questions with Lisa Donovan

How has your family background shaped your cooking?

My mother’s family is of Indigenous and Mexican descent, and a lot of my early writing was about rediscovering and honoring the women in my family. I think back on the simplicity of the kitchen I grew up in—always these pots of beans and very simple tortillas that my grandmother would make on the skillet. My father’s family is from Appalachia, and there are a lot of very special traditions in Appalachia that are different from quintessential Southern cookery. Professionally, I’ve learned a lot of French techniques and shaped it around American baking and Southern baking.

What’s your approach to cooking?

The way I cook at home is very much something I learned from the women in my family: use what you have and think very creatively. You can make a beautiful and generous meal with dried pinto beans and a little bit of corn meal. You just need some pickled peppers and a good hot sauce on the table; even in that simplification, there’s flavor. And finally, plenty of people around the table to share it with. That has definitely affected my style of hospitality, and it’s what cooking really, truly means to me.

What does travel mean to you?

I travel so much that it’s become the place I feel most comfortable. It appeals to the Army brat in me. I feel most comfortable when I’m in a space where I’m being challenged, learning something different and new, meeting people who have very different backgrounds and experiences than I do. Sometimes travel means solitude; sometimes it means showing people things that I’ve discovered; sometimes it means being shown things that I don’t know. Travel makes me better, more understanding, more compassionate, more empathetic. It certainly inspires my work in food, and my writing.

If you could have a baking competition with any chef, living or dead, who would it be?

It would be really fun to have a baking competition with Dorie Greenspan. We’ve been online friends for a long time and I’d like to finally meet her. Her recipes are remarkable, and she’s masterful at flavor. And by baking competition, I mean just hanging out in the kitchen with her and cooking. I’d also love to cook with Edna Lewis.

You’re big on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Is there anything that you’re really specifically looking forward to cooking in Oaxaca?

I’m so excited for people to taste the great difference in the corn, and in the nixtamalized masa. Getting to see that firsthand is going to be incredibly important. For Americans, corn has become such a commodified crop, such a bastardized crop. Getting to have that exploration and reintroduction to corn is one of the most important things you can give yourself, if you care about food. It’s relearning what food can be. Corn in Oaxaca is such a revolutionary education. I’m so excited to show people the real warmth of the place, the generosity of the people, and how easily being in a space like that can reconnect you to the true fundamentals of food and generosity.

If Oaxaca was a color, a pastry, a feeling, it would be…

Blue, Oaxacan blue! A beautiful concha. Warm and kind.