Sara Bir dropped out of Ohio State University in 1995 and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1999. She has worked at Martha Stewart Living Magazine and Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker and has written for the North Bay Bohemian, The Oregonian, Saveur, Mix, and Section M. After stints in California and Oregon, Sara moved back to her home state of Ohio, where she cooks, writes, and works at a library. As a small indulgence to her ego, Sara is writing this in the third person so it sounds like a bio on a book jacket flap.

Recipe Testing, Developing, and Editing

Sara does all of the above things. She happily teaches cooking classes as well.

Extra Credit

So Sara, what makes you qualified to do this stuff?

My past foodservice jobs run the gamut: donut shop counter girl, microbrewery fry cook, sausage cart vendor, wine country banquet server, magazine recipe tester, chocolate factory tour guide…and probably a few others I forgot. Though oftentimes far from glamorous, such jobs give you the best stories, as well as a thick skin (literally and metaphorically).

If you’re a food writer, you must review restaurants. How cool!

Well, no, I don’t review restaurants. Some food writers do, but most of us focus on other areas, like recipes, essays and profiles of interesting folks. Recipes are especially fun, because they are like poems: structured yet impressionistic, with a painstaking economy of words. All of those leftover words I vomit out in essays, which are also fun, but in a different way.

I did, however, spend some time as a restaurant critic for the North Bay Bohemian in Santa Rosa, California. I was able to dine at amazing establishments throughout Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties and have the paper pick up the tab. Any sane person would have loved it! But, driving home halfway buzzed with a belly full of beurre blanc and seared tuna, I’d feel like a disgusting poseur gourmand, and sometimes the food at these places was disappointing, and I’d think to myself, “That meal was a lost meal, those calories wasted calories.”

I really do get the most satisfaction from cooking at home and sitting down to a simple meal with family and friends, or even by myself, with NPR and an issue of Saveur to keep me company. So I felt it was only fair to all parties involved to leave the restaurant reviewing to those with a genuine passion for dining out.

You don’t like to eat out? That’s impossible!

I do; I just don’t eat out often. My husband and I stick to taquerias, pizza parlors and BBQ joints, but breakfast is our favorite time to eat out. Portlanders have breakfast fever, and are thoroughly delighted to queue up for hours in the cold, gray drizzle to wait for a table at the local buzzworthy destination on a Saturday or Sunday morning. The best way to avoid the crowds is to rise early.

What do you cook at home, then? Do you have a specialty?

Pie my favorite thing to make. I wish I made pie and ate pie every day, but until I become a farmhand I don’t think I burn enough calories for this to be a good idea.

I am from Southeast Ohio, a place that does not resonate with culinary cachet. I used to lovingly trash-talk the foods of my youth and my home state, but no longer! Ohioans are very serious about good sweet corn, for instance—folks in other places I’ve lived have never understand that corn is a special treat, and that the nasty, tough cobs of indeterminate age you get at the supermarket in March are heresy. My Dad will drive an hour out of his way if he gets a tip on a good farm market stand that sells summer corn picked that day. I admire this.

Ohio tomatoes are bar none. Beefsteaks rule the roost there, with the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness, of succulence and meatiness. So I cherish the matter-of-fact approach to locally grown produce that abounds in my homeland; it’s not trend-driven or self-conscious, but deeply felt and unassuming. That same approach I try to extend to all of the things I cook, making food with vibrant, robust flavors that’s not show-offy and unnecessarily complicated.

But yes, I do harbor a fondness for casseroles.

What led you to attend cooking school?

After dropping out of Ohio State University, I floundered around for a while before moving back in with my parents in Marietta, Ohio, where I grew up. Marietta is a charming little historic town at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers; it was the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory, and is speckled with structures older than our country. Plus there’s that whole thing about the sweet corn and tomatoes I went into previously.

But while Marietta is awesome, it offered little in the way of social activities for a disgruntled 20-year-old punk rock aficionado, and I grew restless.

I read a lot. My mom would have magazines around the house that she got for free from the proprietress of the wine shop downtown, and I began reading them: Cook’s Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living, Food and Wine, and especially Saveur. To fill my empty hours at home, hours when I was not holed up in the basement typing out false starts to doomed short stories, I embarked upon the sort of project-driven, hobbyist cooking that affluent geeks and retirees excel at: breads made from sourdough starter, homemade jams and marmalade, hand-rolled pasta. Some of these things didn’t turn out so well, but it was fulfilling and worthwhile. I’d always loved to eat, but I realized I also loved how food shapes and defines who we are. And I wanted to write about it.

Wow! Writing about the time, I thought I’d made it up; I’d never heard of food writing. It was my calling. But since my aborted attempt at attending university was so disastrous, I opted to enter food writing from the back door—the kitchen door, as it were.

After touring various East Coast cooking schools, I applied to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and was chomping at the bit to go. The school admitted me conditionally, as I’d never worked in a professional kitchen: I’d have to spend a year working in the industry before I could be enrolled at the CIA. The bastards!   

Chastened, I went into the kitchen of the fanciest restaurant in Marietta (read: not very fancy) and asked for a job. I worked as a prep cook there for a summer.

I learned more from working at the Levee House Café than from any other kitchen job I’ve had. I learned a lot about what was not very good to do, actually, but I was young and cocky and hopefully being thrown into a teeny-tiny kitchen with people from very different backgrounds than mine taught me a thing or two about being a team player.

Finally, I was able to begin my schooling at the CIA and it was awesome and engrossing and very hard.

What is Martha Stewart like?

When I did my externship in the test kitchens at Martha Stewart Living in 1998, she was not nice 100% of the time. I didn’t interact with her but for a few memorable instances. I can tell you that I was a nincompoop back then and was, in all likelihood, a terrible extern. It appears that both Martha and I have since mellowed.

Who are some of your favorite cookbook writers?

Alice Medrich, M.F.K. Fischer, Paula Wolfert, Maida Heatter, and anything involving Betty Crocker and Good Housekeeping in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

I still have a fondness for the aesthetic of Martha Stewart’s whole enterprise; she’s a massively competent chef with a gift for hiring other massively competent chefs and cooks and editors to carry out and extend her vision.

Nancy Silverton’s book The Breads of La Brea Bakery was like my Beatles. I raised sourdough starters and baked my way through the whole thing. I had Breadmania. Silverton’s willingness to break down and re-build even the most simple preparations taught me that you should never assume anything; the only way to know something for sure is to try it yourself, and who knows how dazzling the results can be.

What are your favorite foods?

Beets, goat cheese, chocolate, cacao nibs, asparagus, kale, shrimp and blue crab caught off the waters of Edisto Island in South Carolina…but generally, it’s easier to say what I don’t like. I don’t like frozen lima beans or tarragon very much. I don’t think chicken belongs on pizza. That’s a pet peeve of mine.

What was it like working at a chocolate factory?

As awesome as you’d figure. As a tour guide at Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in Berkeley, California, I ate chocolate every day, and I had pounds and pounds of chocolate at home. And not just workaday chocolate, but Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker chocolate. It spoiled me.

Chocolate is one of the most complex and rewarding foods in the world—food, not candy. Real chocolate has integrity. I learned new things every day, and while I know more about chocolate than the average person, there is so much more I don’t know. At Scharffen Berger, I was fortunate enough to encounter the generous minds of Robert Steinberg, John Scharffenberger, and Brad Kintzer; were I a smarter person, I would have asked them a lot more questions.

A chocolate factory smells intoxicatingly rich, but when I came home at the end of the day, I stunk like old gym socks. This is because when cacao beans (especially well-fermented ones) are crushed, they release an acidic aroma. In the context of the factory it was an ambient smell, but it worked its way into clothing fibers and, outside of the factory, reeked like hell. I had special sweaters I wore only at work just for that reason.

What’s your favorite thing about living in Portland?

A few blocks away from my house there’s a yard with two quince trees, and in the fall I raid it and get quinces, which I forgot to put on my list of favorite foods. I like that there’s always good coffee around, and I like The Oregonian and most of the Portland Mercury. Newspapers and coffee: two of the best things in the world.

Your chef coats are so cute.

Thank you! I made them myself.

Can you make me one?

Probably not. I was able to complete my chef coats through a combination of determined seam ripping and dumb luck.

Didn’t you used to write for Section M?

Indeed I did. You must have been one of the several hundred readers of Section M, the inimitable magazine of the North Bay music scene. The paper was around from 1998-2003, and I began writing for it shortly after arriving in Sonoma County in 2000. Section M had the most emotionally invested readership in the world—despite, or perhaps because of, covering bands barely anyone had ever heard of.

For a few years, I lived for Section M. It made me a writer and allowed me to be a writer, and was an entrée to the scuffy world of indie rock bands. Understandably, my food writing was on the back burner at the time: who needs to rhapsodize about foie gras when there are rock bands around! It was heady, but also very unbalanced for me. I burned brightly and burned out quickly, but it was worth it.

What’s a sausagetarian?

For a while, I only ate meat in the form of sausage. Though my diet of animal flesh is a bit more inclusive these days, I still try to keep meat-eating to a minimum. But I love hot dogs, and there is no acceptable vegetarian substitute. In honor of my passion for the most noble of all charcuterie forms, I named my blog The Sausagetarian.