Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Michele Genest

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The Lucky Seven Interview, with Michele Genest

Attention hungry Canadians! If you are looking for a homegrown way to fill your stomach, you won't want to miss The Boreal Feast: A Culinary Journey through the North (Harbour Publishing) by Michele Genest. Featuring traditional northern meals and foods — from bannock to birch syrup — The Boreal Feast explores the potential of northern ingredients. Michele also travels to countries including Norway, Finland and Sweden discover how other cultures have utilised the same wild ingredients. Both non-fiction narrative and cookbook, The Boreal Feast fills a unique niche.

Michele speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today Michele tells us about some of the book's most exciting foods (including bison marrow and Arctic char pâté), playing with the word "feast" and her advice to "just chop the carrots".

You can also see Michele in person signing and reading from The Boreal Feast on Thursday, September 4, 2014 at the Toronto Public Library's Bloor/Gladstone Branch (1101 Bloor Street West) from 6:30pm to 8:00pm. For more information, check out Harbour Publishing's website.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Michele Genest:

The Boreal Feast is a cookbook; a collection of stories and recipes that celebrate the northern boreal forest. The feasts are seasonal and the stories are too, some of them based on travels in Scandinavia in 2012, when my husband and I went on a research trip to discover what other northern folks did with the same wild foods that live and grow in the Canadian boreal forest. So, for example, there’s a tiny, simple midnight feast for early winter that’s inspired by a 23-course meal at Fäviken in Jämtland, Sweden, in an old farmhouse where 12 diners per night are treated to chef Magnus Nilsson’s uncompromising notion of what food is and how it should taste. A 23-course, highly refined menu by a master chef is a lot for a home cook to take on, so I lifted a few elements from that meal and translated them into something more achievable. But there are some fun and arcane things in the book, too, for those who like to experiment — Labrador Tea shortbreads, elk, moose or bison gravad, bison marrow on spruce tip focaccia, or Arctic Char Liver Pâté. The stories that accompany provide glimpses of daily life in the Yukon in 2014, and a taste of food culture in parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

MG:

The question I asked myself throughout the process was, does this story or this recipe have its origin, however obliquely, in the boreal forest? In many cases the connection is clear, but there are some instances where an exacting cook or reader might raise an eyebrow. Modernist Celery and Olives? That one derives from early paddle wheeler menus, when those grand old steamboats puffed up and down Yukon lakes and rivers. Mocha Mousse? I know, I know, but in Whitehorse we have not one but two coffee roasters, both of which distribute their wares throughout the territory and Canada. Toasted pine nuts on the dandelion bruschetta? Well, experimental horticulturalist John Lenart is growing a Siberian pine on his property on the Klondike River, and he expects it to fruit within the next few years. That boreal link is admittedly a bit more anticipatory.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

MG:

I wrote the introduction first, and from that moment determined that “feast” would be a flexible term. Many of the stories derived from columns I wrote for Yukon, North of Ordinary Magazine, the challenge was how to rewrite them for the new context. The template for the magazine is usually story, photo (by the excellent Cathie Archbould), and one or two recipes, but in this case I was putting together whole feast menus that had to hold together in a coherent way, and relate clearly to the story being told. Once I figured that part out, and decided it was okay to feature three different pancake recipes in the same feast, for example, the Yukon stories fell into place. I stitched together the Scandinavian stories with the help of notebooks (can’t stress enough the importance of good notes), photographs and long, nostalgic conversations with my husband, who has a great eye for detail and a wilderness guide’s memory for topography. The book took four years to write, but a lot of the work, especially the Scandinavian stories, happened between January 15 and February 28, 2014. My editor sent emergency chocolate. That six-week period is dream-like now. I don’t remember much about it.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

MG:

I need free reign in the kitchen. In that intense winter of 2014 I told my husband, okay the kitchen is now my office from nine to five. He needed permission to make lunch. Tyranny! Though I have a real office at home, I write at the kitchen counter with a Lee Valley equivalents calculator and a digital scale beside me, or at the library, and sometimes, if desperate, at the local café. Desperate in the sense that I need to trick myself into working. Lately I’ve been using the Pomodoro method, which my niece taught me; essentially, timed longer periods of writing punctuated by timed short breaks. I love it. I have no special food needs except fruit, coffee, fat and salt. I’m allowed one glass of white wine at 5 pm, but all bets are off once I’ve quit working for the day.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

MG:

I call my sister. She’s a musician and a songwriter and suffers the usual awful crises of confidence and deep and sudden convictions that the work just completed is dreadful. We read each other’s stuff and offer suggestions; we commiserate and buck each other up. Our motto on bad days is “just chop the carrots.” This derives from the mid-'90s when we worked together in the kitchen of The Chocolate Claim in Whitehorse. No matter what else was going on in the kitchen, we always needed chopped carrots. So, when floundering or in a panic: chop the carrots. Do whatever simple task it takes — editing a recipe, replaying a chord sequence, free writing for ten minutes — to get you back into the work. And, when in doubt, go for a bike ride (her) or a run (me).

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

MG:

Like so many in the age of digital technology, I suffer from a busy mind, it’s distracted and jumpy and won’t settle down. So a great book is one that allows me to forget everything and lose myself in the story. As you can imagine, this definition of a great book casts a wide net. When I can’t sleep I return to children’s books — The Secret Garden or Mary Poppins, or anything by Rumer Godden. When I was on tour in June, the books that saved me were Robert Rotenberg’s Stranglehold and Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl. These are very different books but share, with the children’s books, what makes a book great: a created world that’s true to itself and the characters who live there and teaches me something about being human.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MG:

A memoir, or long, fiction/ non-fiction narrative, about the period I lived in Greece in the early '80s. I’ve wanted to write that story ever since I left, 30 years ago. I’m not sure how to approach it yet; I’m not even sure what the story is anymore. But I have 50,000 words written in 2008 during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and a few earlier drafts of short stories, so I’m going in.


Michele Genest has written about food and culture for the past 25 years, and cooked ever since she can remember. Her past experience includes a four-year stint as dining editor of enRoute Magazine, and another as chief dishwasher and fish-cleaner in a waterfront restaurant on a small Greek island. She was co-editor of two anthologies of Yukon writing, Urban Coyote and Urban Coyote, New Territory, and has written several plays, including Fasting Girl, Gulf and Magic Box, all produced by Nakai Theatre. She writes a regular cooking column for Yukon, North of Ordinary Magazine, and her print credits include the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette, enRoute, Flare and Geist. Her first cookbook, The Boreal Gourmet, is a national bestseller and won a Canadian Culinary Books award in 2011.

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