I first met Tod Davies at an Orca Books event for Snotty Saves the Day, the first novel in her History of Arcadia fairy tale series. It was one of the liveliest events we’ve had at Orca, and she didn’t just stick to the book. She also talked about being the editorial director of Oregon-based independent Exterminating Angel Press and publishing books that (she says) “question dominant cultural stories.” On June 28, Tod will visit us again to discuss Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered, the second volume in her Jam Today cooking/memoir series. Naturally, I found in interviewing her that we kept getting away from the subject of food, and spilling out onto politics and feminism and our shared belief that books are the backbone of culture, regardless of subject matter. — Sarah Keliher, Orca Books, Olympia, WA
SK: The website for Exterminating Angel Press says that its focus is on “making a living, not a killing. Reorganizing our lives on a human scale. Dreaming how we want our lives and our world to be”. How does Jam Today Too fit in with that larger vision?
TD: Gosh, I think the whole cookbook is about exactly that, don’t you? I mean, that’s why I love cooking, love food . . . sourcing it, preparing it, sharing it. Those activities are about living my life on a human scale, about being anchored in the now instead of wasting time with regrets about yesterday or too many dreams about tomorrow. I do hate wasting anything, food or time. And I do like enjoying myself. Preferably with loved ones, sharing something good to eat. Preferably something VERY good to eat. With a glass of wine, of course.
SK: For those of us who haven’t read the first Jam Today (yet), how is the follow-up different? Does it expand on the first book, or tackle a new set of questions?
TD: For me it’s always the same question: how can I make my life more joyful, more fulfilled, more whole? If I want to make the world a better place, I have to start with myself. It’s no lie that you have to be the change you want to see in the world. I like starting with what I have in my own cupboards, as it were. What ingredients do I have to make my day a more joyful one? After all (and I can’t stress this enough), THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE CATERED. Certainly mine won’t be.
SK: You tackle the issue of feminism in food writing pretty head-on, and your approach is a departure from what I’ve seen in this debate: that we as a culture need to take another look at traditionally feminine pursuits, like cooking or homemaking, and recognize them as valuable. It seems like a touchy subject for a lot of food writers.
TD: The idea that we need to take seriously, to value, traditionally “feminine” pursuits in our culture is one I’m absolutely committed to.
It drives me mad that as we become more “sophisticated,” we scorn activities that are not just basic to our own well-being and joy, but actually basic to our survival. Like cooking. Homemaking. Just who exactly is watching the store if everyone is out fighting to get straight to the top? And how much fun is that?
We always need to remember that our deepest, happiest moments come from sharing everyday activities with loved ones, family and friends. Men are sometimes forbidden to think this—they’re supposed to be out there enjoying battling in the jungle, while my experience is they’d much rather be home making a Yorkshire pudding or a big salad for the family. And now women are being expected to enjoy the same battle that men have to pretend they enjoy. It’s diabolical.
SK: Why do you think food and food writing lend themselves so well to exploring larger social issues as well as self-discovery?
TD: For just the reason that food is about as real a topic for a human being as you could hope to find. A concrete topic. Food. Wine. Our real needs. How is it possible to look at something “larger” without seeing the “small” seed it came from? How can anything be fixed without understanding where it came from? And how can we do ANYTHING without eating?
Of course it’s true that one can do lots of things without eating well. But one cannot, I contend, do them with any joy. And if we don’t have joy ourselves, we’re sure as hell not going to give it to anyone else. Let alone the culture.
SK: I’m also curious about your idea of autonomy: that by finding out who we are, and by focusing on the work in front of us, we can collectively change the world.
TD: It’s the only way we CAN change the world. It’s the road in front of us. No use waiting for someone else to start—I figure I better start with myself. Who am I really? What am I bringing to the party? What do I really want? Not what someone tells me to want. Not what the media, my parents, my peer group, seems to be telling me to want. What do I really want? I’m convinced if we were more in touch with our bodies, and then past that, with the spirits that animate those bodies, all we would want is growth, health, harmony . . . and not just for ourselves, but for our families and friends, and then after that, inevitably, for everyone—because everyone is connected.
Exploring who I am, and what I have to work with, and then using that as a base to connect, is my most important task. I’m especially grateful to my fellow readers, and the librarians and indie booksellers, for being a community where I can find that out and find out who other people are, and what they have to work with, too.
In one of the first online reader reviews for Jam Today Too, a woman said that after reading the book, she looked at her refrigerator and thought, “What can I make with this?” instead of “I don’t have anything to cook with.” That made me burst with pride. The system works!
SK: I feel like solo dining for women in restaurants is really tied up with feminism as well. How we are in public, as images, versus what we want for ourselves. What do you think?
TD: Well, that’s right, isn’t it? It’s about finding out who you really are, and accepting that, and then acting from that solid position. And it’s not just for women, that path. It’s for all of us. Except that women have a different feeling about dining alone in public. For a man, it’s not so strange; after all they’ve been going to the agora and the coffee house and the bar by themselves for a few thousand years. But it means something different culturally for women, even now when we think we’re past all of that. And yet, why should it? Everybody has a choice: you can stay home and be someone you’re not. Or you can get out there and grab the world by the hand and have a twirl or two. Then sit down and dine. And order what you want, too! That was one of the watershed moments of my life, when I stopped looking at what was the least expensive thing on the menu and just went for whatever I felt like eating (which by the way, to my surprise, was often the least expensive thing on the menu). I still remember that Trout Cleopatra with capers and lemons, and the glass of white wine, all by myself in a restaurant in London. Yum.
SK: Another thing that struck me about Jam Today Too was your emphasis on wise use of resources: that we can be sustainable, even on a limited budget. Lots of “artisanal” food writers seems to focus on expensive and rarified ingredients, whereas you highlight the joys of rummaging in your fridge, of finding innovative ways to use up what you have. Want to comment on that?
TD: It’s a funny idea that you have to have a big budget to be sustainable! Usually, it’s the other way around. It’s all this scrambling around for new, prestigious, competitive ways of cooking that uses up a lot more resources to less effect than just a hungry individual quietly having a look at what’s in the pantry and the garden, and then making a meal for themselves. And it’s a lot more trouble, too.
For example, lunch for me and the Beloved Vegetarian Husband today: Caldo Verde. That sounds exotic, but it’s Potato and Kale soup, Portugal’s national dish. You take your potato, you take your onion, you cut them up and throw them in some water. You add olive oil, a good strong glug. Salt and pepper. You boil them till they turn into a puree all on their own. And then you add the thinnest shreds of kale or cabbage you can manage to make, and cook about five minutes until the greens are barely done. Delicious. We had ours with shredded cheddar cheese, to add at will. Sometimes, if I’m on my own, I add sautéed chorizo, but that’s really gilding the lily.
SK: Which also brings up the idea of community: pooled resources bring a greater number of choices. Like your story of getting eight pounds of oxtail from a neighbor. How can community support sustainability?
TD: It’s the best way to support it. The best way to support yourself and your world is to join up with others of like mind, or even of like neighborhood, and work together. I’m really lucky. I live in two great neighborhoods, one rural (in Oregon) and one urban (in Colorado), and it’s a constant lesson to see how the people in both interact to make a stronger whole.
The oxtail came from my neighbor in Oregon. I really don’t know what my rural neighbors see in me; just about all of them have real skills. Although I can cook, so it’s not so embarrassing when one of my friends can fix my electrical wiring, and I can’t return the favor. Instead, I can make them a vat of my split pea soup. That’s always welcome.
SK: You talk about the 19th century Potato Famine in Ireland in the book. It’s not entirely true that the Irish didn’t eat fish then because it didn’t seem like real food to them. And they did eat seaweed. It’s a good example of how cultural conditioning causes us to overlook obvious alternatives, though. Feel like expanding on this?
TD: I don’t imagine it was entirely true. There must have been people who used the bounty of the ocean to feed their families when the potatoes failed. But it wasn’t a well-known solution; there’s no mention of it in the novels of the time, and reports from travelers, that I’ve read. But I’d love to read other stories about this. You see, this is why we need our librarians and independent booksellers! They can recommend all the books that we, the readers, would love to find out about.
Really though, the point I was trying to make was that I . . . me . . . the person I think knows so much about flexibility and what to do in the kitchen (supposedly), still gets caught up in a story that there’s only one way to do things, and so totally misses creative solutions to what look like intractable problems. Like kale, for example. The only way I could think of to make kale was cooked, where of course it makes a wonderful marinated salad. A friend had to hit me over the head with that one. And of course that made me think: what are the other ways, in other places in life, that I’m only seeing a wall instead of an open door? It made me wonder about the possibility of solutions if you just relax and step back. Which is, admittedly, sometimes very difficult, if not impossible, to do. In the kitchen, as elsewhere.
SK: You seem to have a recipe for just about any occasion. Do you have one for “When You’re Being Interviewed” that you’d like to recommend?
TD: Oh, definitely some blue cheese smooshed with a little sour cream and yogurt, spread on celery sticks, a little bowl of nuts roasted with some curry powder and olive oil, and a bottle of red wine.
Speaking of which, may I top up your glass there, Sarah? Now tell me about what you like to eat . . .
Tod Davies is the author of Snotty Saves the Day and Lily the Silent, both from The History of Arcadia series, and the cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered. Unsurprisingly, her attitude toward literature is the same as her attitude toward cooking—it’s all about working with what you have to find new ways of looking and new ways of being, and in doing so, to rediscover the best of our humanity. Davies lives with her husband and their two dogs, in the alpine valley of Colestin, Oregon, and at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, in Boulder, Colorado.