When writer Sherrie Flick coordinated events at the immensely popular Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh, one thing was certain, beyond the high caliber of the visiting writers and the fact the space would be packed: there would be fabulous food. Crusty bread, gooey cheese, in-season vegetables, jugs of wine and—Sherrie’s specialty—plenty of pie.
Sherrie’s flash fiction often incorporates food as a driving metaphor too, and her novel, Reconsidering Happiness, primarily takes place in a bakery. But in recent years, Sherrie’s culinary ventures have moved out of the kitchen and off the page—she teaches food writing at Chatham University, and she is a food columnist, an urban gardener, and the series editor for At Table, an evolving book list at University of Nebraska Press that seeks to “expand and enrich the ever-changing discussion of food politics, nutrition, the cultural and sociological significance of eating, sustainability, agriculture, and the business of food.”
As Sherrie Flick’s blend of food and writing continues to expand, I wanted to discover how this focus on food has evolved in her writing and her life.
KF: You just published a wonderful essay on bread baking and the creative process in Necessary Fiction, where you explain that for you the two skills evolved almost hand-in-hand. Have you also discovered a creative connection with urban gardening?
SF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m writing another essay for the Necessary Fiction series that links my gardening to learning how to play the ukulele. That’s a more complicated connection than my garden’s connection to my creative process though.
For me, some days—most days, really—the garden is a physical manifestation of my creative process. I look at it all crazed and wandering and beautiful and weird in my yard and I think: yes, my friend, that is what the inside of your head looks like.
As fiction writers we rarely get to SEE a physical manifestation of our work. Words on the page become images in a reader’s mind. Gardening helps me see the way I organize—or more correctly—disorganize structure.
KF: How and why did your writing evolve beyond fiction and into the realm of food writing?
SF: I’ve always been drawn to making food. For the longest time I didn’t think of writing about food, though, even as I read and loved writers like MFK Fisher—who of course doesn’t just write about food in her essays but also about love and war and passion.
When Reconsidering Happiness was published, I started a little blog on my website called Sentences and Food—just photos of food I made and grew, no big deal. That evolved into little essays about my garden, and through the recommendation of readers of my blog I was solicited to write a regular food column for Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine and to write some essays for other publications, like the recently published anthology Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food and Superstition Review.
I guess that I learned I had something to say about food, and I also learned that people were interested in how, even though I live in the middle of the city, I grow a lot of my own food and bake and can and cook. They were interested in how food is connected to emotion—and so am I.
As far as my fiction is concerned, I’ve found that writing about food has helped me tremendously in rendering setting. Because taste is so hard to describe, food writers often have to evoke context in order to relay a sense of an eating experience. This has made me pay attention to setting in a new way. Sounds, smells, and detail help create the world in which we eat. It’s a way to take a reader into an experience. This easily translates into all experience in fiction.
KF: What authors do you teach in your food writing class?
SF: Every year I teach the new edition of Best Food Writing edited by Holly Hughes. I think she does a good job of pinpointing trends and new ideas in contemporary American food culture through the essays she publishes. On the other side of that, I use Molly O’Neill’s American Food Writing, which has a great survey of historic writing as well as recipes through time.
I try to find food books that combine literary intention with insight into food culture. Two books I love for very different reasons are Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.
I think Hamilton falls under the category of joy and beauty and the connection of food to family, and Foer is articulate with food culture and politics through a captivating narrative.
KF: From books to blogs to Facebook posts, we live in a culture increasingly preoccupied with food: its preparation, its sources, its evils, its beauty. Why do you think this is?
SF: I think as social media and technology hype up our world, we need to spend time trying to find essential things—beauty, taste, comfort, love—that keep us sane and rooted.
Getting back to a source—any source—is helpful in understanding the world. Growing a carrot. Kneading dough for bread. Pushing a pie into the oven. When we do these things we connect to a slower ticking of the clock. We let our senses touch and feel and smell. There is something to sticking your hands in some dirt.
At the same time, I think America is coming into its own in the food world. Looking at my little corner of the planet—Pittsburgh—there is a wonderful small farm–to–table thing happening bewteen local farms and new, inventive restaurants. Relationships are forming via food, and it’s connecting people who might not have known each other otherwise. Food in my city is becoming very interesting, and I find that pretty exciting.
On the other side of this we have Monsanto creating a state of unsustainability with its amplified agri-business. We need to learn about food and health and its interconnection with culture—we need to form these important relationships before it’s too late.
KF: As a writer and editor, what’s your mission for what you want readers and other writers to discover in the world of food writing?
SF: I don’t think I have big political goals with my food writing. Maybe teeny tiny political goals, in that I’d like to serve as an example. It isn’t that hard to garden, and it isn’t that hard to cook or bake or eat healthy food. I like to show it instead of telling it—like any good fiction writer turned to non-fiction writing.
I think it’s the same for the At Table series. We’re looking for book manuscripts that have a great narrative, but are also examining social trends. Not memoirs about food, but narratives connected to practice and history.
KF: Finally, just curious—are there certain foods you eat while you write or read? Foods you find particularly inspiring?
SF: I am fairly obsessed with kale. I eat savory porridges with sautéed kale (and pickles and egg and sriracha) for breakfast in the fall and winter, and drink kale smoothies in the spring and summer. I add it to everything, including my mac ‘n’ cheese. I grow the Tuscano kind—some call it dinosaur kale. I think it’s so tasty, and it makes me feel like I can lift a house after I eat it. So if I need to get amped up for a big writing session: kale. I know that’s a little anti-climactic and not very self-destructive. I also drink coffee, but only one (very good) cup a day. And Manhattans. We are very good at making and drinking Manhattans in my house.
(Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Sherrie Flick)Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?