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Alan And Arlene Alda Bonded Over A Fallen Rum Cake «

Dan Pashman: Usually, we just get people’s levels in their voices. You just tell me, Arlene, what have you had to eat so far today?

Arlene Alda: Two boiled eggs, soft.

Dan Pashman: How many minutes?

Arlene Alda: Four.

Dan Pashman: Oh, that’s very soft.

Arlene Alda: Yeah, very good. Runny.

Dan Pashman: Yes. 

Arlene Alda:  Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: On some bread or anything?

Arlene Alda: Yeah, bread next to it. You know, I kind of scooped it out. And when it spilled onto the bread, I ate the bread. [LAUGHS] 

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] So you break the runny egg next to the bread. Don’t you get some yolk loss with that strategy?

Arlene Alda: Okay. Yeah, the yolk actually runs down the shell. Yeah, you get yolk loss. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Arlene Alda:  Definitely get yolk loss. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Arlene Alda:  Yeah, it’s my loss that the yolk is lost.

Dan Pashman: That’s what I’m saying. Why don’t you break the egg right onto the bread? 

Alan Alda: What the hell are you both talking about? 


Dan Pashman: This is Arlene and Alan Alda. Arlene is a writer and photographer. Alan is an actor known for M*A*S*H, The West Wing, and many, many more. They’ve been married for 65 years.

Alan Alda: I’m trying to picture this. What do you … What do you mean, you break the egg near the bread?

Dan Pashman: You know, like when you break a soft egg and the yolk runs out of the egg on to the plate? 

Alan Alda: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Once the yolk is on the plate, it’s hard to stop it up unless you have very soft bread and you’re going to get — some of that yolk is never going to make it to your mouth.

Alan Alda: These are basically not things that I worry about.

Dan Pashman: Really? 

Alan Alda: Yeah. If I don’t get all the yolk, screw it.



Dan Pashman: So when it comes to issues like yolk loss, Alan and Arlene don’t really understand each other. But in most other cases, they do. Because they’ve spent decades communicating, in their marriage and their careers. Alan in particular has made it the focus of much of the last fourteen years of his life. He founded the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to help researchers explain what they do. He also wrote a book about communication called, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?. Today on The Sporkful, for Valentine’s Day, Alan and Arlene Alda talk about using food to communicate, which they’ve been doing in their relationship ever since the night they met. Plus, I’ll ask them for advice on food communication issues in my work and my relationship.

Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. Now, before we get to the show, I have an important update on my two new pasta shapes, vesuvio and quattrotini. I’m pleased to announce that variety packs are on sale now on Sfoglini’s website! You know, for a while, you could only get six of each shape, but now you can get one variety pack that’s 2 boxes of vesuvio, 2 quattrotini, and 2 cascatelli. Now, these variety packs have to be individually packed by hand, which is why they were delayed and why it will take a few weeks after you order it to get it, but just go ahead and place your order and it’ll arrive soon enough. Okay? So get that Sporkful collection variety pack at Sfoglini.com, that’s S-F-O-G-L-I-N-I — dot com.

Dan Pashman: Alan Alda has been in dozens of TV shows, movies, and plays. In The West Wing, he played Senator Arnold Vinick. He’s best known for starring in the seminal TV show M*A*S*H. During those 11 years, he flew back from L.A. every weekend to be with Arlene and their three kids at their home in suburban New Jersey. Arlene was a professional clarinetist. She gave up that career to raise their three daughters, then became a photographer and author. But way before all that happened, they were college students at two different schools in New York City. It was 1956, and they were both invited to a dinner party at a friend’s apartment where the host was planning to serve a rum cake.

Arlene Alda: And because there was no counter space, she put the rum cake on top of this refrigerator, which, when the motor went on, had a visible shake to it.

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] 

Arlene Alda:  And as the shaking started and continued, this rum cake did a waltz across the top of the refrigerator, and when plopped down on the floor. And Alan and I realized that — and we were the only two people at that whole dinner party who went in with our spoons and ate the cake off the floor.


Alan Alda: The thing is, flirting over food is really the best way to flirt. It’s combining two really nice things food and sex. 


Arlene Alda: You’re way ahead of me.


Dan Pashman: And what were other people in the party saying and thinking and doing while the two of you were sitting on the floor eating the cake?

Arlene Alda: Well, we didn’t really sit, as I recall.

Alan Alda: I think we did. 

Arlene Alda: I don’t remem — I actually don’t remember that detail. Nor do I remember what anyone else was doing. It was just Alan and me and that rum cake.


Dan Pashman: For Alan, who says he was shy, that cake on the floor was the perfect icebreaker. Later that night, when he escorted Arlene home, she used a different food to communicate something to him.

Arlene Alda: And we went on the subway from where we were, which was an hour long trip and then I invited him in. My mother was actually — I live with my parents. So she greeted him and we sat in the kitchen and we talked and whatever. And when he left, he went back on the subway. It was a long evening and he — did you fall asleep on the train? What happened?

Alan Alda: I did. I woke up in Brooklyn.

Arlene Alda: In Brooklyn. Okay.

Dan Pashman: Which, I mean — which, you know, is the opposite end of the universe. 

Arlene Alda:  Yes. I mean …

Alan Alda: Yes. 

Dan Pashman: In the world we’re talking about.

Arlene Alda: Absolutely.

Alan Alda: So then I got the train back again to Manhattan, and by the time I got home, it was at dawn. 

Alan Alda: And I reached in my pocket and there was a piece of rye bread that Arlene had given me for the subway ride.

Arlene Alda: [LAUGHING] 

Dan Pashman: That is a meaningful gesture, I feel like.

Alan Alda: Right. More food.

Dan Pashman: Right? But what did you think in that moment?

Alan Alda: Well, I was real attracted to her, even without the rye bread. That was the icing on the cake. But the night that this rum cake happened was actually the second time I saw her. I sort of met her a few weeks earlier when she was playing chamber music in this mutual friend’s apartment. She was playing clarinet in the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, and it was beautiful music. She was clearly a pro at the clarinet. And I got the courage to go over to her and compliment her. And I said something like, “Uh, you were good.” 


Dan Pashman: Smooth. 

Alan Alda: Yeah. Yeah. I made a real impression. Did you ever remember who I was even?

Arlene Alda: No.

Alan Alda: Yeah. 


Alan Alda: So now, after the rum cake, I’m really drawn to her. But I got to think in my mind, I feel that I have to come up with a very special date to invite her on. It can’t just be pedestrian. And those were the days where the woman had to wait for the man to call.

Arlene Alda: Yeah. I would never have called him, because that’s not what we did in those days.

Dan Pashman: Right.

Alan Alda: Three weeks went by because it took me that long to come up with what I thought was the perfect date, which was to go to the opera by Gertrude Stein, called “12 Saints and three Acts”, which is an impenetrable opera. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Alan Alda: And we sat up in the last row in the balcony, and neither of us could figure out what it was about. Once we saw Gertrude Stein, then I really think we were …  

Alan and Arlene Alda: Inseparable.


Dan Pashman: Mutual boredom at the opera was not the only thing Alan and Arlene found they had in common. They also both love food. Sure, Alan may not analyzes egg yolks the way Arlene does, but he’ll eat them with just as much gusto. Thing is, at first they weren’t into the same foods because they come from very different food backgrounds. Alan’s family is Irish and Italian. Alan Alda is actually a stage name. His real name is Alfonso D’abruzzo. Arlene’s family is Jewish. Her parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in the Bronx.

Arlene Alda: Our building was 100 percent Jewish, so the cooking smells that were in the hallway were very familiar to me because my mother could do the same thing. And the thing that still gets my mouth watering, honestly, is the smell of onions simmering in oil. It’s the most wonderful smell. There would be pot roast, boiled chicken in chicken soup. Potatoes, a lot of potatoes. I remember peeling potatoes a lot, but I didn’t have one sense of what the Italians ate. Not one scintilla of a smell of what they ate, because the shopping street was mostly catering to the Jewish clientele. However, in high school, there was a pizza parlor and the band director, as a treat, took the kids in the band out to the pizza parlor. And I was maybe 14 or 15, the first time I ever ate pizza. And I came back to report it to my mother. It looked like this. It tasted like that. It smelled like this. 

Alan Alda: [LAUGHING] 

Dan Pashman: And how did it look and smell and taste?

Arlene Alda: It was a stronger flavor than I imagined because the cheese melted on the red sauce was not a flavor that I was familiar with or a smell … But I really liked it.

Dan Pashman: Of course, Alan grew up with those strong flavors in his father’s Italian cooking.

Alan Alda: I’m really interested in a variety of food, any kind of food that’s Italian.


Dan Pashman: The whole range of Italian foods. 

Alan Alda: Whole range. No, but I spent a lot of time just trying to make a tomato sauce that I really would enjoy. And then I found out that Lidia puts it in a jar and it tastes just as good.


Dan Pashman: Is that Lidia Bastianich, you’re referring to?

Alan Alda: Yes. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. And when you were — so you were working on your — is this like a Sunday gravy? Was that what you were going for?

Alan Alda: Oh, my —  yeah, my father used to make his Sunday gravy. And that’s what — there’s a whole branch of Italian-Americans who call tomato sauce gravy.

Dan Pashman: Right.

Alan Alda: And he would be flipping hunks of meat into it, and it would cook literally for 3 hours.

Dan Pashman: And when you were working, refining your Sunday gravy recipe, were you trying to replicate your father’s?

Alan Alda: No, that’s the thing. First of all, it was too hard. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 


Alan Alda: And secondly, I didn’t like all that meat in there. I just wanted the fresh taste of tomatoes. I’ll tell you about a dish that really makes me crazy. I love it.

Dan Pashman: Go on. 

Alan Alda: And it’s so easy to do. I learned it from Giuliano Bugialli. Do you know him?

Dan Pashman: No. 

Alan Alda: The Italian chef and cooking teacher? And it’s called pasta in the style of Naples 1842. You take rigatoni or penne, something short like that.

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Alan Alda: Short cut pasta. You never boil it. You put it in a big bowl and you put in — Giuliano calls for a cup of good olive oil. I find the half a cup of olive oil is fine.

Dan Pashman: Mm-hmm.

Alan Alda: Stir it up and let it sit for 15 or 20 minutes. And then you pour in a nice large can of tomatoes, salt and pepper, no garlic, no oregano, nothing like that.

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Arlene Alda: No Cheese.

Alan Alda: No cheese. Put it in the oven in a Pyrex dish for 40 minutes. It’s unbelievably good. It’s so fresh. You’re tasting the the olive oil has soaked into the pasta. The tomatoes have soaked into the pasta. And it’s not al dente, it’s gummy. 

Dan Pashman: Hmm. 

Alan Alda: And you think that’s not going to be good, but it’s fantastic.

Arlene Alda: Yeah, it’s really delicious.

Dan Pashman: Really? 

Arlene Alda: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: We have a little bit of a debate, though. In my household, perhaps you two as a couple who’ve been married for as long as you have and who know so much about communication can help me, because my wife likes her pasta soft, mushy. What I would — I would describe it as mushy. She would just sort of probably say she was — 

Arlene Alda: Soft.

Dan Pashman: Right. I like it al dente. I want to be able to really sink my teeth into it.

Alan Alda: Yeah, I do, too, most of the time. 

Dan Pashman: And I find that this pasta texture debate plays out …

Arlene Alda: With the kids.

Dan Pashman: We fight it out through our kids because she’ll make the pasta for the kids and they’ll eat it and she’ll say, “See the kids like mushy pasta.”

Arlene Alda: [LAUGHS] 

Alan Alda: Can I make a just a humble suggestion?

Dan Pashman: Please. 

Alan Alda: Why don’t you get a strainer and pull out pasta while it’s still al dente? You eat that and let them cook the other stuff until it dies and let them eat that. What would be wrong with that?

Dan Pashman: Well, I want my kids to know what good pasta is.

Alan Alda: Yeah, that’s never going to work.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Arlene Alda: But wait a minute. You know, kids always like what they can’t have. 

Alan Alda: Yeah. 

Arlene Alda: This is my dish. 

Alan Alda: Good. 

Arlene Alda: You can’t have it there. There, then you’ll get them. 

Alan Alda: Reverse psychology.

Dan Pashman: Got it. Yes. So I’m not going to let them have the good pasta.

Arlene Alda: No. 

Alan Alda: No, that’s for dad. 

Dan Pashman: Yes. 

Arlene Alda: That’s for dad. Then as a special treat for dessert, they can have the al dente..

Alan Alda: One piece of rigatoni.

Dan Pashman: Right. 


Arlene Alda: See how that flies in your household.

Dan Pashman: Yes. 

Alan Alda: Yeah. Get in touch with us if you get divorced.


Dan Pashman: Can I come live with you?

Alan Alda: No.



Dan Pashman: Coming up, I asked Alan for more advice, this time on how to communicate food science information here on The Sporkful. Plus, Alan and Arlene share the secret of hosting a good dinner party. Stick around.




Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week on the show we celebrate the life of Jean-Robert de Cavel, one of the most famous French chefs in one of America’s best known cities for French cuisine. Not New York, not L.A. …I’m talking about Cincinnati. I talk with food writer Keith Pandolfi about how one chef can change how a city sees itself.

CLIP (KEITH PANDOLFI): Cincinnati is one of these cities that like, you know, you grew up here and then you’re like, I’m getting out of this damn town as soon as I can. And then like me, I went away for 20 years and I came back. And I think part of the reason I came back was I thought well Jean-Robert is there, so how bad could it be? He loves it. But I think he did make this whole city — he reminded us of the things we should be proud of.

Dan Pashman: Keith and I also come up with a new football food craze to celebrate Jean-Robert’s beloved Cincinnati Bengals. Listen to that episode to find out what it is.

Dan Pashman: Now back to today’s show. As I said, Alan Alda has devoted a lot of his life to teaching people to communicate better. As host of the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, he helped scientists share their research with the rest of us. In 2018, he launched his own podcast called Clear and Vivid. It features conversations about connecting and communicating. As you know, we sometimes get into food science here on The Sporkful, so I wanted to ask Alan how he could do it better. 

Dan Pashman: A few years ago we did a show about MSG, Monosodium glutamate, and all about the history of so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome. And we delved into the science of it and showed that it’s really it’s been debunked. 

Alan Alda: It has?

Dan Pashman: To be clear, because I don’t want to get more letters …

Alan Alda: Yes. [LAUGH] 

Dan Pashman: There may be some percentage of people out there who do have a legitimate sensitivity to MSG, just like some people can’t eat onions or garlic. But first of all, there’s never been a definitive scientific study that shown that people have a reaction to MSG when they don’t know that they’re eating it. 

Alan Alda: Ah. 

Dan Pashman: And most people who think they have a reaction, an issue with MSG don’t in fact have one. And so we did this story and I got a lot of people who got very upset with me over the episode and some people who loved it. But what I’m curious to get your take on — one of the things I learned from doing that episode was that, you know, there are many areas in which conservatives are anti-science. But I came to realize that I think that with food, it’s more often liberals who are anti-science.

Alan Alda: [LAUGHS] Well, what you mean? Well, you like what they like and they don’t want to be told it’s bad. Is that what you mean?

Dan Pashman: No. There’s a perception that everything artificial or manmade or made by any big company …. 

Alan Alda: Ah, yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Must be bad and dangerous and bad for you, and all in equal measure, Like every single thing that was ever created in a lab should all be completely removed, every speck of it from your diet. Because after this episode came out, I found myself in social media discussions with people who, when I looked at their social media timeline, I could tell that they’re, you know, a week ago they were sharing articles about how conservatives are so stupid because they don’t believe in global warming.

Alan Alda: Yeah, that’s interesting.

Dan Pashman: And now they’re going to turn around and say to me, my doctor told me not to have MSG, therefore it must be dangerous. And I’m like, that’s not the scientific method. That’s not how science works. And yet, they didn’t didn’t want to hear it. So how do you communicate with a person who doesn’t want to see or consider evidence because it runs counter to their preexisting opinions about MSG or GMOs or whatever it may be?

Alan Alda: You know, a lot of the work I’ve done in trying to help people communicate better, the effort has been not to browbeat people into thinking that we know something that they don’t know. The person who doesn’t know something isn’t suffering from a deficit. What we work on is relating in a way that’s generous, open, respectful, most of all. And what I think I’ve found works when you’re talking to somebody who really doesn’t agree with anything you have to say is to first find common ground. What experiences have you had in your life that are like theirs? And you realize there’s a common humanity and you’re willing a little bit more on both sides to listen to the other person. And what what thrills me that I just found out last night that George Mitchell, the former senator George Mitchell, is going to be on my podcast, who specializes in exactly what I just said. He was in Ireland and help stop the fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants …

Dan Pashman: Right.

Alan Alda: By doing this amazing thing. They could talk business and yell at each other during the day at the conference table, but at night they had dinner together and nobody was allowed to talk business. They could only talk about their childhood experiences and things like that that helped them understand that they shared a common humanity. That’s a powerful thing to bring us back to one another through sharing who we really are.

Dan Pashman: And sharing food.

Alan Alda: And food. You know, I was kidding before about flirting over food, which is how Arlene and I got together. It’s even better than flirting. You can flirt with the existence of the other person. You can let them into your consciousness. You can say to them, just through sharing a meal with them, you’re worth sitting down with.

Dan Pashman: So food can help bridge some of the biggest divides in the world, but it’s also part of bringing people together at an ordinary dinner party, even one when a rum cake doesn’t end up on the floor. Arlene and Alan like to host people at their home. I was curious about the role food plays in those situations. 

Dan Pashman: One thing that I worry about sometimes, because I’m sure you guys have have seen or heard that there’s more and more people are choosing to put themselves on all different kinds of specialized diets: vegan, gluten-free, raw vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian. And look … 

Alan Alda: [LAUGHS] 

Dan Pashman: That’s a thing too.

Alan Alda: Flexitarian, I haven’t heard that one.

Dan Pashman: Yeah. I know that some people do it for — sometimes it’s for religious reasons, sometimes it’s for well-founded ethical reasons, you know?

Alan Alda: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: I’m not judging the reasons, but I do worry that it it’s a nowadays when you want to get together with people for a meal, the first question you have to ask is, you know, what can or can’t .. 

Alan Alda: What kind of variant are you?

Dan Pashman: Right. Right. And it does mean that you often end up in situations where you sit down at a meal with a group of people and you’re not really — even though you’re eating at the same table, you’re not really able to have everyone at the table share food. What do you think of that, Arlene?

Arlene Alda: That never bothered me. 


Arlene Alda: I think of sharing food as a way of getting us together, and the food in many ways is secondary in my — it’s not secondary in quality or in presentation or — I’m very proud of fussing when we have friends over. I mean, if someone said, “I only eat lettuce …”, hey, eat your lettuce.

Alan Alda: Here’s a head of lettuce. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Arlene Alda: We’re gonna eat the, you know —  we’re having this and that fine and we’re sitting and talking.

Alan Alda: But I notice when we have six or eight people over, and I think that six or eight people is the top limit for having one conversation around the table, one of the pleasures of eating together is not forking food into your mouth. That’s not a special — you don’t need anybody else around to do that. 

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]

Alan Alda: But one of the great pleasures is everybody focusing on the same thought process. Oh, I see what you mean, but my experience is like this. This thing happened to me when I was a kid. No kidding. What an amazing story. You know, all of the things that we can do together, and Arlene and I, I think, really enjoy helping that happen around the table.

Dan Pashman: What are the keys to facilitating a good dinner party conversation?

Alan Alda: Picking up on one thing is picking up on what somebody says and asking questions about it. But we do. We do do things like to get an involvement. For instance, Arlene puts out on the table a half a bag of peanuts, she spreads out all across the table.

Dan Pashman: What’s the thought process there?

Arlene Alda: You can nibble in between courses. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Alan Alda: But it’s something unusual. You see a peanut, they think I’ll try a peanut now, you know? Or Hershey Kisses or something like that. 

Dan Pashman: Just on the tablecloth? 

Arlene Alda: Yeah, on the the tablecloth. 

Alan Alda: Yeah, in the — all the way down the middle of the table. 

Arlene Alda: Like this.

Alan Alda: Just thrown out. 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Alan Alda: And it — it’s different.

Dan Pashman: And when you guys are hosting people, what’s the division of labor in the kitchen?

Alan Alda: I do what she tells me to do.


Arlene Alda: I’m usually the cook. I don’t have any strict rules about anything. And I’ve gotten very, very kind of mellow as I’ve gotten older and I like that.

Dan Pashman: So back before you got mellow … 


Arlene Alda: Oh, you wouldn’t have want to be in the car before I was mellow.

Dan Pashman: But I’m sure because I know it certainly it happens in my house too, sometimes cooking for other people, cooking together can be stressful. Tell me about what were some of the times that you guys maybe weren’t working so well together in the kitchen?

Arlene Alda: You know what I say about a long marriage? 

Dan Pashman: What? 

Arlene Alda: Short memory. 

Dan Pashman: Hm. 

Arlene Alda: [LAUGHS] I don’t even remember what the stresses were. I mean, today’s a happy day, so … 

Alan Alda: Yeah. Yeah. Ever since Arlene lost her memory, we’ve been having a happy marriage. 



Dan Pashman: That’s Arlene and Alan Alda. A few years back, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a rum cake, but they didn’t eat it off the floor. Arlene Alda’s latest book is called Just Kids from the Bronx. It’s an oral history featuring interviews with Al Pacino, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and many, many others. 

Dan Pashman: And yes, it’s true. Alan Alda has a podcast, called Clear and Vivid. Recent guests include actors Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, as well as the astronomer Sara Seager and the ethnobotanist Dr. Cassandra Quave. While you’re checking out Clear and Vivid, make sure you’re subscribed to our podcast. Whether it’s the subscribe button, follow, like, favorite, whatever it is in your popdcast app, please do it. Thanks. 

Dan Pashman: Remember to order your variety pack of pasta shapes, all three of my shapes in one package, you get two of each, on sale now at Sfoglini.com. That’s S-F-O-G-L-I-N-I .com

Dan Pashman: We’ll be taking a break, back in two weeks. But in the meantime, make sure you check out last week’s show, about the unlikely love affair between the french chef Jean-Robert de Cavel and the city of Cincinnati.


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