Cooking Up Stories

By Hedgebrook Staff

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Categories: Alum Experiences, Kitchen,

Food_Writing_webWe asked Betsy Andrews, food writer, poet, Executive Editor of Saveur Magazine, and Hedgebrook alumna, to answer five questions. Here’s what she had to say about herself, her work and her upcoming Master Class:

 

1) What is the most memorable meal you’ve experienced?

There’s not one! There are so many. And, of course, when we talk about food, we are not just talking about the aroma, the taste, the texture of the edible stuff you put in your mouth and chew and swallow. We are talking about a meal—a social and cultural and emotional event. Eating is very personal. It’s just about the most primal thing we do, and so it is, for a writer, a vehicle for the evocation of experience, of feeling and knowing oneself and the world. It is metaphor, and it is fact. Every story we tell about food is also a story about something, or many things, else. Given all that, here’s a brief memories piece about one recurrent meal of my childhood, which I wrote about for, and copied here from, Saveur:

In summer in Philadelphia, trucks would park along certain streets, baskets in their beds shivering with live blue crabs. Sunday nights saw a crab pot boiling on my parents’ yellow enamel stove. My father and I sat wordlessly, dozens of crustaceans between us. No one else in the family joined us; they eschewed the burden of my father’s lousy temper and his drinking, and the mallets and picks it took to eat his favorite meal. The room smelled of Michelob and Old Bay seasoning. The crabs’ shells were spicy and sharp. Cracking, sucking, sometimes drawing blood, I’d work my way to the moist, sweet meat. To this day, I crave a crab boil in summer, with all of its pleasures and its pain. —Betsy Andrews

Visit Saveur for the accompanying recipe for steamed blue crabs!

 

2) Your newest collection of poetry was recently released. Do you find that you compartmentalize writing about food and writing poetry? How do the two different kinds of writing feed each other?

The_Bottom_by_Betsy_AndrewsFood enters my poems as both metaphor and fact, in as much as every metaphor in my poems is also fact. And it enters as a vehicle for social commentary. My new book of poetry, The Bottom, is about humans’ troubled relationship to the ocean. It is a worrying, a complaint, a plea, a love letter, and a sea shanty, with mermaids. In such, it looks critically, but also empathetically, at, among other things, the fishing industry. So food is used ironically, politically, critically in The Bottom.

And my poetry informs my food writing. While I was doing final edits for the book, I was also putting together the April issue of Saveur. It was the seafood issue, cover to cover. And my years of research for The Bottom very much informed my approach to that April issue. More than any issue we’ve ever published of Saveur, it engaged the idea of sustainability. In my editor’s letter, I quoted the science writer Erik Vance: “…if everyone who cared about the oceans stopped eating fish, the only people eating fish would be people who don’t care about the oceans.” I found myself in this quote, and I started there, encouraging our readers to learn about shopping for and cooking sustainable seafood. I put that issue together with the belief that if we work toward a deeper knowledge of our food, if get our hands on it and select it and cook it and not just go out and eat it, as most of us do with seafood, we will care for its sources—the animals, plants, environments—more than we do. We will live more fully in the world; we will be better citizens of it.

I do not think the relationship between my poetry and my food writing is seamless, but it is fluid. There are tensions and contradictions and, sometimes, there is heartache in that. But as a human, i.e. a complex being, I strive for honesty amid those tensions. So does my food writing inform my poetry? Absolutely. I wouldn’t be writing such a questioning book as The Bottom without the need to grapple with my position as a journalist.

 

3) What is your favorite dish to make or eat?

There is so much delicious food in the world, so many meals to share with family and friends. I cook all the time, and the joy is in feeding whoever I’m serving the flavors I know they will love. So the answer is, essentially, every dish. But because you asked, I will describe one exceedingly modest thing: In the mornings, I toast a slice of good country bread. I cut a ripe tomato, or even better yet, shave long curls of a raw zucchini, and lay the vegetable atop the toast. I drizzle on olive oil and finish it with coarse-ground black pepper. Then I eat it slowly on the wide, wooden back steps just outside my kitchen door, with my dog by my side, and the cat sprawled out there yawning, too. Looking out at the yard with its tangles of morning glories and its spindly Japanese maples bending toward each other, forming bower, eating my breakfast, I give myself a little bit of peace and meditative quiet before the frenzy of the editorial day begins.

 

4) What is your favorite kind of food to write about?

The best foods to write about are ones that resonate—that vibrant, even—with relationship. This could be the relationship between you and another being, you and a culture, you and yourself.

For me, those foods are ones from my earlier life, as a kid and a teenager: the hamantaschen my maternal grandmother, Sylvia Kohn, baked; like her, they were small and seemingly so fragile. She mixed cream cheese into the dough like a good Jewish grandma would, and she filled the centers of those delicate triangles with her own apricot-pineapple jam. The dough was slightly salty, and the jam was achingly sweet. Grandma Syl’s apartment building, full of Jewish grandmothers, always smelled like schmaltz and onions, and her boxy little two-bedroom high above Philadelphia’s City Line Avenue was a refuge for me as a child. Those cookies linked me to a part of myself—the Jewish part— that I knew not from Hebrew school or synagogue, but from eating.

It’s also my paternal grandmother, Margaret Andrews’ halusky: simple boiled potato dumplings that are the Slovakian national food. My father was always threatening to teach me how to make them, and a few years ago, before he had a stroke, and then another, and then another, he finally succeeded, their nearly green potato flavor melding with fried onions and cottage cheese on my plate.

And it’s the catfish that a couple of drifters taught me how to pan-fry at state park in Texas when I was 17 and fleeing across the country with my boyfriend in a Cadillac station wagon converted from a hearse. We dropped lines into the muddy river that ran through the park and wrestled those fish away from the snapping turtles that lurked there. We filleted the fish and fried them up in loads of butter in a battered cast-iron skillet over an open fire. At night, one of those drifters, an former truck driver who told me he had rode his rig through 48 states, would scream bloody murder at his ex-wife in his sleep.

If there’s a human story to tell through the food, that’s the food I want to write about.

 

5) What can writers look forward to in your Master Class? 

We’re going to have fun, which is one thing that food should provide, if it’s shared, no matter how it’s shared, on the plate or the page. We will also work hard, looking critically at each others’ writing and providing each other with useful feedback. Food memoir from writers ranging from Maya Angelou to Gabrielle Hamilton will inform us. So will food poetry from poets like Carolyn Forché and Joy Harjo. We will write a lot, and we’ll use exercises from poetry and elsewhere to inspire us. Since this is Hedgebrook, we’ll also eat together, of course, and we’ll get into the kitchen ourselves a little bit, and out there on a farm or two, too, to think about food from the earth to the plate, to consider the ways we describe the raising, cooking, and devouring of it. It will be delicious.

 

Betsy’s upcoming Master Class, “Food Memoir and Food Poetry: The Hunger for Self and the World” is December 8-15, 2014.

>>Learn more and apply today!

 

Betsy-Andrews_web_sm

Betsy Andrews’ first book of poetry, New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), won the 2007 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Her new book, The Bottom (42 Miles Press, 2014), received the 42 Miles Press Poetry Prize. Andrews is also executive editor of the award-winning food magazine, Saveur. She is a former critic for the Dining Section of The New York Times, and in 2005, she created Food & Wine magazine’s first-ever blog, “On the Line in New Orleans,” an inside look at the rebuilding of New Orleans’ restaurant industry after Hurricane Katrina. As an editor at Zagat Survey, she compiled restaurant guides for destinations around the world. She has also written about dining and drink for Chow, Arrive, and other publications.

 

 


 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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