Mo Rocca is a consummate storyteller. The CBS Sunday Morning correspondent has a wonderful ability to color unique profiles of everything from actresses to presidential pets. As a frequent panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! Rocca also displays his intense curiosity and knowledge for Americana. Those two skills comes together in his Cooking Channel program, My Grandmother’s Ravioli, now in its third season, in which he exalts humble home cooking to tell stories of history, culture and family.
Rocca filmed three upcoming episodes of Ravioli in Minnesota, the first of which premieres this evening (episode capsules and air dates at the end of the interview). He recently took a few minutes to chat with Heavy Table about aebleskiver technique, rotten shark, and the art of the tater tot hot dish.
HEAVY TABLE: Before My Grandmother’s Ravioli, you had previously hosted Food(ography) as well as stints judging on Iron Chef America. When did you become interested in analyses of food?
MO ROCCA: I ended up on Iron Chef because a friend from the network asked me to. It sounded like fun and I thought “Well, I eat, so I can give my opinion.” It was many years later that Food(ography) came up, and I wanted to make sure it was a show that didn’t position me as an expert in something I’m obviously not. But it was about history and culture and science. I don’t know that I ever said I’m interested specifically in food, but I’m interested in all those things that food touches. While I love to eat, what I love about My Grandmother’s Ravioli is hearing the stories in the kitchen. And when people cook, they seem to open up. I like to think that the stomach is the portal to a whole lot more.
HEAVY TABLE: Did you have any preconceptions of Minnesota food going into filming? Did they change as a result?
ROCCA: I certainly had preconceptions about Minnesota! Anyone with a friend from Minnesota will know they’re from Minnesota and hear about it over, and over, and over again. Minnesotans are so fanatical about their state. I feel like that’s where all the separatists are — Minnesota could be its own country. I have a good friend from Minnesota, and so I know way too much about it. I shouldn’t know that the longest uninterrupted stretch of Victorian housing is on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I should not know that Minneapolis has the second most theater seats per capita.
But I love the Twin Cities. I’ve been canoeing in the Boundary Waters. It’s so clean you can just stick your hand in the water and eat whatever you pull out. I knew that we’d find good characters in Minnesota that would work for the show. And I love things like hot dishes, and I don’t know nearly enough about them. But as soon as I heard “tater tot hot dish” I knew I had to get there.
HEAVY TABLE: How did you get hooked up with Andrew Zimmern’s mother-in-law (above, left)?
ROCCA: I asked Andrew for suggestions of people in the Twin Cities. We didn’t set out to do an Andrew Zimmern episode, but it turned out to be a very happy coincidence that Andrew lead us to his mother-in-law, and that he had time to be in the episode. It was a terrific experience. And she’s wonderful, and he knows it, which is why he suggested her. He said, “I can find somebody for you, but I’m close to someone that would be perfect for the show.”
HEAVY TABLE: The episode capsule says that Joenie introduces you to the “art” of the hot dish. Did you come away with any koans of casserole wisdom?
ROCCA: Do not confuse a hot dish with a casserole! How dare you? You mix a casserole, you layer a hot dish. In Minnesota, we layer our hot dishes.
HEAVY TABLE: Be honest, did you like jello salad?
ROCCA: I did! Look, maybe I’m still not recovered from Three Mile Island, but some of the colors of jello salad make me think of The China Syndrome. But, hey, we could all use a little more color in our lives.
HEAVY TABLE: Was it difficult to take tater tot hot dish and jello salad seriously as foods? Was there any sense of irony?
ROCCA: No! Tater tot hot dish is like lunch-lady food porn! I love it. If I didn’t know how to locate my pleasure center before, I found it after eating that tater tot hot dish. You know, that spot inside you that just says, “home.” It’s the ultimate in comfort food. If I ever need comfort, I know where to go now. I just need to start layering.
HEAVY TABLE: During your time here, in another episode, you learned how to make aebleskiver?
ROCCA: This woman, Grethe Petersen is serious, she knows what she’s doing in the kitchen. She’ll beg off the compliment, but from what I understand she’s known as the Danish Julia Child. She’s funny, charming, and sexy, and I love the fact that she thought being on TV was fun, but that she didn’t need it at all. She’s her own person — all of these grandparents are — but Grethe seems to epitomize that. I’m really happy we’ve been able to bring people on the show that are by no means the cookie-cutter reality TV people.
HEAVY TABLE: Did you master the poke-with-the-skewer method?
ROCCA: Yeah, the poking, and I guess you’d call it the rotating technique. I could see how for a kid it would be tough but a really fun challenge. And they’re great. I’m all about pancake balls. Pancake balls are the new doughnut holes.
HEAVY TABLE: And then in Hastings you chased pickled shark with Brennivin [Icelandic schnapps]?
ROCCA: Well, I think it’s actually called fermented shark, but it’s really rotten shark. There’s no way around it, literally, rotten shark. I was warned, and it was good that I was warned. It is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. In other words, not for sane people. But these Icelanders, these people are tough. There’s a reason all the strong men are in Iceland. If I’m worried for my safety I want them on my side. But I really needed that Brennivin. I want to give everyone fair warning, though, if you’re Norwegian, you might not want to watch the Danish cooking episode.
HEAVY TABLE: Was there some Norwegian smack talk going on?
ROCCA: Yes. A lot. I’m not trying to stir the pot, but there’s some real Norwegian smack talk that goes on. Let’s just say in Season 4, I’ll do my penance and do a celebration of all things Norwegian.
HEAVY TABLE: At which point you won’t be able to avoid lutefisk.
ROCCA: Forget egg on my face, I will have lutefisk in my throat.
MINNESOTA EPISODES OF MY GRANDMOTHER’S RAVIOLI
“Dane Cook” — Premiering Wednesday, October 15 at 7pm CT.
Grethe Petersen, 73, of Bloomington, Minnesota has been called the Julia Child of Danish cooking. Grandma Grethe, Mo and her family are hosting a delightful, multi-course luncheon at the Danish Center with traditional dishes of chicken soup with dumplings, different varieties of herring with curry and cream sauces, and for dessert aebleskiver — delicious pancake balls covered with sugar and dipped in strawberry sauce. Mo’s newly learned aebleskiver skills will be pitted against Grethe’s grandkids in a sweet showdown.
“Tater Tot Hot Dish by the Lake” — Premiering Wednesday, October 22 at 7pm CT
Joenie Haas is an energetic, amiable grandmother who cooks delicious and comforting dishes straight from her log cabin on Lake Milles Lacs in Minnesota. The food she makes is quite different from some of the things her son-in-law, Andrew Zimmern, is used to eating on his Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods. When coming home after one of his crazy culinary adventures, Andrew likes nothing more than to sit down with a plate of Joenie’s tater tot hot dish. Joenie will introduce Mo to the art of the “hot dish” as well as to a delicious Jello salad and her traditional Christmas Jesus cake.
“Ice Ice Granny” — Premiering Wednesday, October 29 at 7pm CT
Aslaug Warmboe, 86, of Hastings, Minnesota is originally from Iceland, and on a recent trip to her homeland, she brought back some culinary specialties for Mo to taste. Mo samples traditional smoked lamb called hangikjot, and some pickled shark with a chaser of the national liquor, Brennivin. Aslaug also teaches Mo how to make creamed potatoes, and a brown bread that in Iceland is traditionally baked for over two days with the heat of a natural spring. His visit culminates with a lovely family dinner complete with some traditional Icelandic outfits.