Because I love literature and I love food, when I read about food I want more than a recipe list, more than a restaurant critique, more than a description of exotic cuisines sampled in faraway places. I know that food has a personal presence in our lives—it’s not just a matter of taste and culture. Food also simmers in our hearts—like music, nature, and dreams.
So begins Paulette Licitra in her publisher’s preface to Alimentum, the small literary review that’s all about food. The biannual journal brings food writing into the literary arts circle, mingling fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction from such writers as Mark Kurlansky, Clifford Wright and Oliver Sacks, with witty illustrations and insightful interviews. Now in its third year, Alimentum was cooked up by Licitra at the table in her snug Bronx apartment kitchen.
Modest by any standard—the narrow, 5-foot-by-10-foot galley culminates at a single window with a nearly priceless view of the Henry Hudson Memorial Bridge—and trees!—at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. Below, the Spuyten Duyvil connects the Harlem River and the Hudson.
There was no rehab or redesign of this kitchen—the appliances that were there when she and her husband moved in 10 years ago are still humming away. (“They’re still here because they work,” Licitra says.) The colorful walls serve as a rotating gallery of her husband’s playful paintings (also showcased on each Alimentum cover), and the subjects of his painting can be spotted throughout the room—the table, chairs, and a vibrant red polkadot apron hanging on a bright blue door. Aside from the tiles on the floor and a Hoosier cabinet unearthed in Massachusetts that now serves as a baking center, the kitchen is much as they found it.
Licitra’s home is her kitchen. Little is hidden in the original cabinets or in the vintage Hoosier. Almost everything is in plain view: tiles from travels in Italy, an old spice rack from a yard sale (“Just like the one I grew up with”), a collection of colored glass measuring cups (“I love to cook with old things”), two tagines (Moroccan pots she gained appreciation for while studying with Hamid Idrizzi at the restaurant Tagine), and on the counter, a cup of little spoons. “I love having little spoons for tasting, or for stirring coffee. Sometimes I feel like eating with a little fork,” she admits.
Indeed, “little” seems to be the operative word here. At 5-foot-1, Licitra herself is petite (“Okay, short,” she concedes in a recent editorial). She neatly aligns herself with the “height-challenged cooks” of the world. “I always wanted to write a story called ‘Too Short for the Kitchen.’ Tall people have no clue that the kitchen is made for them,” she writes. Alimentum, too, is a small journal. It measures a petite 6 inches by 7.5 inches, and as Florence Fabricant pointed out in her New York Times column, it’s “small enough to carry with you for mental and aesthetic nourishment breaks.”
But the small space of the kitchen has not constricted the imagination or creativity behind the dishes that emerge on a regular basis. “We tend to host dinner parties larger than our place should probably consider entertaining,” says Licitra, whose dinner parties often take on a theme and life of their own: Spanish tapas with three kinds of tortilla espagnola; sunny-side up quail eggs on toast with serrano ham; and tagine parties featuring lamb, dates and olive tagines, and chicken and preserved lemon tagines.
In her life before the magazine, the kitchen table doubled as office space where Licitra wrote audio tours for museums. Her husband, Peter Selgin, is an artist and fiction writer. (Until she finished culinary school, the kitchen was his domain; now she reluctantly relinquishes the stove to him only occasionally.) But after 9/11, her clients disappeared.
Almost on a whim, Licitra decided to go to culinary school and complete her studies at the Institute of Culinary Education. Externing at Lupa restaurant, she learned she didn’t want to work in a restaurant. (“That’s for the 25-year-olds.”) She now teaches cooking and conducts cooking parties at Micol Negrin’s Rustico Cooking studio on West 39th Street ( www.rusticocooking.com ).
Working for a caterer from home, she learned to creatively bundle food in small packages. Orders for 100 mini-crab cakes, 200 turkey sandwiches on cheddar biscuits with cranberry chutney, 300 Thai chicken skewers with peanut sauce, or 6 dozen assorted tea sandwiches left her unfazed.
With a life immersed in food—she wrote a food column, “Riverdale Eats,” for two years for the Riverdale Press, was the food editor for the webzine Urban Desires ( www.desires.com ), attended culinary school, cheffed for a catering business—the step into magazine publishing was not such a stretch. “My husband is a fiction writer—it hit like a lightening bolt—a literary magazine, all food, all the time,” she exclaims. “I’m publishing what I’d most like to read.”
Looking out at a rare, almost historic view of the northern tip of Manhattan and sipping coffee from a cup that doubles as art, Licitra is comfortable with what’s happening inside and outside of the tiny kitchen. “Nothing feels intimidating,” she says. “The most tangible thing I took away from culinary school [is that] I don’t ever feel limited—I go with what I need to do. I feel I can do anything.”