Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Love and Hunger: an interview with Charlotte Wood

Sydney author Charlotte Wood's novels have garnered many awards, with her latest, Animal People (2011) longlisted for the Miles Franklin, and her 2007 novel The Children shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Association’s literary fiction book of the year. Her earlier novel, The Submerged Cathedral, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in its region in 2005, while her first book, Pieces of a Girl, was also shortlisted for several prizes. Praised as stylish, acute, intelligent and compassionate, her books have been popular with critics and readers alike. Charlotte is also the editor of the short fiction collection Brothers & Sisters (2009) which featured 12 of Australia's finest writers exploring sibling relationships.
Today I'm speaking with Charlotte about her forthcoming book, which is quite different to the others. Love and Hunger, released on April 30, is a non-fiction meditation on food and cooking and its emotional and symbolical resonances. It also includes some great recipes, one of which Charlotte is kindly sharing with readers of A la mode frangourou.
 Charlotte's author website is at 
There is also a separate website for Love and Hunger,
I'm publishing this interview in two parts, with the recipe to follow in a separate post. Enjoy!

SM: This is a very different kind of book about food, isn't it? How did it come about? 

CW: I had been writing a cooking blog for a few years (I started when our house was being renovated and all the disruption meant I couldn't work for concentrated periods on my novel) and found that I loved writing short, conversational pieces about what cooking means to me. The pieces often began with some little conundrum I'd had in the kitchen, or a fear of some technique or recipe or other (like making pastry – I had always been terrified of it), but also quite often broadened out into observations on more philosophical, abstract ideas about cooking and how it connects me to society and my place in the world. And I wanted to share recipes and have others share with me, naturally! When I finished my last novel Animal People I had an idea for a book that was purely practical - about how and what to cook for a friend in physical or emotional distress - but the publisher suggested something broader and more personal, which was a much better idea. And so we've ended up with a very personal book of pieces about how I learned to cook, why I love it, how it enriches my life, its connections to my literary work and the people in my life and so on. I am so glad I've written it. It's my first - and possibly only - book of non-fiction, but oddly for something so personal I found a great freedom in exploring and articulating what it is about cooking that I find so enriching.

 SM: From the Commonsense Cookery book to the proliferation of cookbooks we now see in the shops in Australia, it's been quite a jump. Why do you think cooking--writing about it, showing it on TV, talking about it -- has become such a big thing in this country? Do you think the public face of cooking undermines its private sphere or enriches it?

CW: Such a good question. I have a bit in the book, funnily enough, about how I hated the Commonsense Cookery Book and my school 'home economics' classes. It seemed to all be about deprivation and blandness and a correctly ironed apron than anything at all to do with pleasure or creativity, which of course is now what I am so in love with about cooking.  In terms of the proliferation of cooking shows and books and whatnot, who knows why it’s become so big. My first instinct is to say it’s a sign of greater affluence, but I don’t know if that’s right. I hope our growing concern about the damage we’ve done to the planet has something to do with it. Food production has such a serious effect on the environment, from the way it’s grown to the way food waste is disposed of, that it’s crucial we pay attention to it – hence the rise of organic and free range food and farmer’s markets and so on. Then there’s the competitive element of MasterChef and Iron Chef and so on, which is hugely entertaining.  I think anything that connects us more to where our food comes from and makes it easier and more pleasurable and fun to cook good food is to be welcomed. And anything that frames cooking as competitive, stressful, elite or expensive or difficult should be thoroughly challenged. I am as addicted to MasterChef as the next person - but I don't think it represents what home cooking is about. It is great entertainment, which as we fiction writers know requires drama and conflict and pressure. That's not what cooking at home has to involve. I love the entertainment, but I don't think performance anxiety is a good way to inspire anyone to cook. And I do worry about home cooking being elevated to a level of complexity and technical skill that used only to be found in restaurants, because I think it can set people up to fail.  On the other hand, people like Maggie Beer and Jamie Oliver, who have a kind of egalitarian, friendly-teacher ethos and infectious enthusiasm for making cooking easy and pleasurable - I bow down to them. I love them.  I guess my guiding ethos about cooking is that it should be easy and pleasurable.  Some people – like me - find that a perfectly boiled egg gives them that feeling of accomplishment and ease and others like to make chocolate soil or confit-gold-leaf blahdyblah, and good luck to them. It only bothers me when I see people trying too hard to impress, getting stressed out and resentful and feeling like a failure for not being able to reproduce a three-hatted restaurant dish in a domestic kitchen on a Friday night. That way madness lies.
SM: Coming from a French background, I've always been immersed in an atmosphere where food and cooking meals are traditionally an important part of culture itself, and it seems like that's certainly beginning to happen in Australia. But how deep do you think it's gone here? And in what way do you think it will develop? For example, will we start to see regional cooking styles, do you think?

CW:I doubt we will ever catch up to the French! What I love about France and Italy and China and other countries with such strong food cultures is that cooking seems so natural, to everyone from every class of society - food is, as you say, so deeply embedded in the culture that it has nothing to do with privilege or education in a formal sense. It's in the soil and the blood and the sap of the country and the people, whereas we are just starting to develop a naturalness with food now, I think.  I also can't see us developing regional cuisines comparable to those of the French or Italians, but I think this is a sign of our openness as a culture, and I like that. An Italian friend of mine once told me she had never eaten pesto (she was about 30) because "it's not from my region" - I nearly keeled over with horror. I can appreciate and absolutely respect the fact that regional cooking in Europe has maintained itself through a strict adherence to singular cultural traditions, and obviously that's why it's so strong. But we are too magpie-like here to do that - the history of Australia is all about absorption of new cultures into existing ones, blending and melding - and of course we're also too modern, have too much access to travel and so on to maintain any strict regional delineations about food.  That said, the vastness of the country and the different climates and seasons do obviously create their own physical regions. And I think now we're starting to respect an earthier natural relationship between us and our food - to do with seasons, and local produce and so on - so personally I hope that will continue to guide a regional relationship to food that comes from the earth.   

SM: Many of us get our interest in food from family--was that your case?

CW: Not really - I discuss quite a lot in the book how my mum was not a great lover of cooking. She was incredibly selfless and diligent and very proficient at feeding seven people every single day with food she made herself - we never ate much processed or packaged food, so she was really committed to nutritious and healthy, often home-grown food. But her love was the garden - the kitchen was duty, and she did it with great good humour, but it was love of her family rather than love of cooking that drove her. My older sister taught herself to cook quite early and did teach me a great deal about cooking – but it wasn’t until I went to university in my twenties, had time on my hands and people around me who cooked, that I began to fall in love with it. These days my brother and sisters and I and all their families spend lots of time around dinner tables together, and the food is always good.  We're all greedy and love to eat - that helps provoke good cooking!

SM:  How would you characterise your own style of cooking?

CW: Casual, fresh, simple, big-plates-in-the-middle-of-the-table, Mediterraneanish with the odd Asian flirtation, noisy, messy, confident and - I hope - generous. 

SM: You've blogged about food for the last 3 years at What's your experience there been like?

 CW: I love it. Love it. I have made real friends from my blog friends, I have learned a huge amount from my readers. I have a loyal following of funny, astute, delightful home cooks who are as clever with words as they are generous with their knowledge. They have taught me more than they've ever learned from my blog, I assure you. I love the enormous freedom of blogging - that I can talk about complex philosophical questions one day and then just brag about my husband's poached eggs the next, or ask a question about something that's bothered me, or just share a brilliant scene from a novel that uses food to show so much more about what's going on between people than they understand. I love the democracy and the freedom of the internet for this kind of writing.

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