One of the joys of being a media academic is the opportunity to work with people all over the world who love to ask the deeper questions of life. Media academia is like journalism with a bigger dictionary, but the best academics (and journalists) are the ones who prod in a way that leaves the interviewee and the listener with something to chew on. Dr Josh Azriel, once a journalist, now Journalism and Citizen Media Director at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta rose to my challenge of helping me research how food has formed city identity for my book Taste and the TV Chef by grabbing an interview with TV chef, Kevin Gillespie. Here’s his interview and a little background. Take it away, Josh….
In the last decade, Atlanta, Georgia emerged as a culinary destination rivaling other southern American cities such as New Orleans and Charleston. Atlanta is home to several celebrity chefs who appear on American television programs focused on cooking contests. One of the those chefs, Kevin Gillespie, finished in the top three on Season 6 of Top Chef which is broadcast on the BRAVO cable network. He holds the record for winning the most quick fire challenges on the program. Kevin will appear on CNN’s Culinary Journeys this summer. Kevin owns two restaurants in Atlanta, Gunshow and Revival (opens 23 July,2015) and is the author of two cookbooks, Fire in My Belly and Pure Pork Awesomeness.
48 hours in Toronto. It was just too rock’n’roll to miss. I was to present a paper on the ‘Making of Nigella’ a postmodern reading of the creation of gastroporn by the goddess herself at the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies’ academic conference at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto before flying home the very next day. Jetlag? Shmeltlag; I’d got my Melatonin tablets and was ready to face my public. Conference season is a chance to press the flesh within our communities of practice, to engage with researchers in our fields. These were my people in the world of media literacy and cultural studies and I was ready to get excited again about deconstructing the modern world.
But it was also a chance to glimpse a city that I’d never seen, to taste the culture through its fab fooderies and piece together a jigsaw even if I didn’t have time to see the big picture. With the help of my conference colleagues, twenty-something PhD students Stephanie Patrick and Averie MacDonald, I set out to find the heartbeat of the city through its food and found it in Kensington Market and in a chat over a delicious Pad Thai. I asked them how food reflects the culture of a city and even a nation… Have a listen.
There’s something about a birthday these days that has me rummaging through memories for something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whispers of questions, dreamy, hazy smells of something important that I can’t quite remember have been making me itchy for a while, and I’ve had a yearning to go back to Wales, land of my mothers and my fathers, for months now.
I’m Welsh. 100%. I’ve never had a Welsh accent, and apart from a Diolch and a few Gwlads, I’ve never spoken the language. We travelled the world, as Army families do, and a boarding school in Bath was more home than Abergavenny ever was over those interminable, friendless summers of my teens. I couldn’t wait to get out of Wales and continue to travel, and so I did and do, determined never to spend another summer in Wales.
Travelling has made me adventurous about how we live too. I could as easily live in rural Sussex as an ashram in India, a Victorian semi in Brighton or a top floor flat in Sydney overlooking Circular Quay. Home now is where my husband lays any one of his Fedoras and where the kids and dogs come back to after they’ve been wandering. I am a rootless romantic, always up for the next adventure, and I like it that way.
So why was I cruising with my girls through the Gower this week – or Gwyr, as I deliberately chose to spell it on Facebook? Why was I sitting on the beaches of my childhood in Port Eynon and looking down over the cliffs of Rhossilli at a sweeping sandy bay whose limp waves whisper some of those questions I can’t quite hear?
I knew it would be food that I was looking for; it always is. The last time I went chasing a whisp of a memory was after my father died two years ago. We spent his last days rearranging the family photo album of our Malay days in the ’60s, and I promised him I’d spend my 50th there with the family, sniffing our way back to the hawkers’ stalls of my early youth and finding the secret of our Malay curry. As I rediscovered the particular mix of spices that makes Malaysian food Malay, I remembered how important detail had been to my parents who had spent the rest of their lives making and remaking that curry until it was perfect, not for the Malays, but for them. It was, quite rightly, my father’s last supper.
And so as Auntie Eirwen and cousin Claire, four months younger and my playmate in my mother’s hometown of Llanelli sit down to talk food, we are propelled back to the ‘70s and Nana’s Sunday lunch of roast pork, apple sauce and mushy peas and the best gravy I’ve ever tasted. ‘Batchelors’, says Eirwen. Batchelor’s dried peas’. ‘She used to soak them’, chimes Claire. ‘Overnight in the net. And she always added sugar. ‘And butter’ adds Eirwen. ‘Just before serving them, she’d cut the net and add butter. Right at the end’. I am astonished at how much detail they remember.
Uncle John, Auntie Eirwen, Simon and Claire lived five minutes or so up the road from my Nana and Grandad who lived in the house where my mother was born. They still do. Separated by a wall from the Felinfoel brewery, the smells of my childhood were a mix of ale and roast pork, scrambled now as weekday teas blur into Sunday lunches. I remember almost nothing about those days other than those smells. Almost every memory is second hand.
‘Milk-fed pork’, says Eirwen. ‘She bought it in the butcher’s at Felinfoel.’ Hang on a minute; my dumpy, pinny-clad nana who fed the family while never leaving the kitchen, Margretta Williams who answered to ‘Get’ and called me ‘bach’, was buying milk fed pork like someone out of a Hugh Fernley Whittingstall series? I think I may have missed something. ‘She was a very slow cook but and you had to wait,’ explains Eirwen. ‘But what you had was excellent. She wasn’t one of these who would cook for you in ten minutes.’ Claire reminds me of her chips, crinkle cut, washed, dried, deep fried and then dried and deep fried again. ‘They were superb’.
Eirwen and Claire chat about Nana’s pikelets, served straight from the bakestone and crunchy with sugar and butter, one after the other for what seemed hours as we sat around the table playing cards. We never helped her. It was what Nana did, not us.
Audio: Eirwen makes pikelets, just like Nana did, for me and the girls. it’s the first time they’ve ever tasted them, and for me, it’s the taste I was looking for, that took me home to Wales.
I wonder about this woman who took such pride in detail I never noticed. I remember stories my mother had told me about her mother and her mother. And her mother. All from Llanelli, born and bred. Nana was brought up by her grandmother while her own very young mother, widowed when Nana was only four, went out to work. Nana would have been taught to cook by her grandmother, to buy well and to work with very little to go a long way. My mother had told me of the fish she would buy during the war from the fishwives who came door to door. She would stuff it with a single tomato and flavour it with herbs from the garden. ‘It was superb’, my mother would tell me.
Eirwen tells me more about the Penclawdd cockle sellers who came to the door with their wicker baskets draped with white cloths. ‘That was our Saturday dinner;’ she says in that lovely Lanelli lilt. ‘Bacon, egg and cockles’. Now almost 80, Eirwen is the keeper of the stories and tells me about Lanelli in the 1950s and the Italian ice creams and coffee of the Italian coal miners who brought the smells from home. ‘I’d have a knickerbocker glory’ she remembers. But only once a year because it was half a crown. It was so dear’.
As she makes me her own pikelets the next day, crunchy with sugar and butter, and shows me the family history Uncle John had been working on just before he died two years ago, I realise that no-one from this side of the family has ever moved. We look back through census record dating back to 1830, each family Llanelli born and bred.
The grass which has always been greener somewhere else for my family has always been home for my mother’s family and has drawn me back to find roots I never thought I’d need. Those hazy whispers of memories, a scrambled mix of Nana’s roast, Felinfoel ales and pikelets are like something out of the Bisto ad, luring me back to my family’s home of almost 300 years.
As the girls and I head back to Sussex where the Fedoras hang, we listen to Cerys Matthews sing songs from my past.
Sosban Fach, yn berwi ar y tân,
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi scrapo Joni bach
I sing along, hazy words fading in and out of memory, like the smells of pikelets and Felinfoel ale understanding nothing. And every word.
Audio: A whimsical adventure in sound as I came home again to Wales
Audio:Tania Swistun from one of the oldest cockles and laverbread stalls in the country tells how she has been at the family stall in Swansea Market since she was baby – in a box under the counter.
It’s a weird old world, the media world. Everything is so rushed, everyone’s working to a deadline and the rules of common decency are crushed in the race to get that front page laid out. Phone a newsroom in a newspaper office or a radio station and you’ll generally get some junior newshound answering the phone with an urgent “News!” as if your call is jeopardising world security. In another world, that kind of tone would be met with a swift reprimand and sent to bed without supper. And what happens to that news he or she (the women are often worse) is putting to bed while you’re trying to sell your story or get an email address? It’s used to light your fire or clean up the puppy’s latest mistake.
Yet it’s time, I realise at the grand old age of 44, that makes the greatest stories. I’m updating my book on Jamie Oliver at the moment for a second edition and while once, not so long ago, the idea of my writing a blog/morning pages/having another coffee instead of stressing about meeting my deadline, would have sent me into headspin, I realise now that the less time I write and the more I let the ideas simmer, the better they are.
The book, when it came out, was sold by the publishers as “the unauthorised biography”, intimating, while not exactly promising, a tittle tattle of a tale. Most of the people I wrote it for would have dismissed it without even reading it; ‘if Jamie didn’t authorise it, we won’t read it because he’s our best cover star/he writes recipes for us/we’re his fans’. And the many who did would have been looking through for the dirt on Jools, and found a melting pot of foodie superstars telling a very different kind of story.
Two years on, I get the chance to add another couple of chapters, bringing Jamie’s role in our food revolution up to date and folding in my own messages, the authorial voice that I was too scared to raise back then. Time will make this book a better read.
But it’s not the content of the book I need to rework. Two years on, I know more of the pitfalls of publishing. I know that I have to sell this book, that if I can get sales and marketing, rights and editorial talking to each other and to me at this stage in the game, we’ve got a chance of a single message emerging from the project. And would the world end if I didn’t get it in bang on next Friday’s deadline in order to make that meeting happen?
I’m 45 on April 7th, and it’s such a relief. Time is teaching me to breathe a little more often, to slow down and consider what’s really important. I’ve learnt that there’s no point in tugging on the shoots in Spring, that once the soil is dug, the compost mixed in, the seeds sown, the only course is to water them reguarly, and to sit back and watch them grow.