'Cooked Up' at the London Short Story Festival
'Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World' at the London Short Story Festival 2015 Waterstones Piccadilly, Saturday, 20 June
This evening event at the London Short Story Festival attracted a crowd of intrigued fiction readers and writers looking for a taste of 'flash fiction' writing and a cross-cultural reading experience.
Food fiction is an emerging genre which New Internationalist's 'Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World' aptly fits into. In his collection of short stories inspired by food, 16 authors from 'around the world' showcase stories about meals and experiences from Cambodia to an Indian kitchen in the US, from Russia to war-torn Croatia.
One story, written by one of the evening's panelists, Krys Lee, is titled 'Fat' and tells of a young man who attempts to avoid military service by over-eating. Elaine Chiew, editor and also contributor acted as the evening's chair and kicked off the event by asking the panel to talk about their favourite dishes. Elaine began with hers: noodles. 'Noodles of any kind! And chocolate is my secret passion.'
Ben Okri, contributed to Cooked Up with his 'stoku' – 'The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us' – and exclaimed that he has 'a love for all kinds of food' and referred to it as being 'one of the most beautiful parts of life…'
Nigerian pepper soup however, is definitely his ultimate dish. 'It opens up the tastebuds, makes you sweat and makes you really hungry.' Pepper soup is 'full of many different types of herbs' and can vary between Delta pepper soup to Aruba pepper soup. Richly flavoured – these spices are used to marinate the choice of meat or fish or vegetables. And that's just what he enjoys as a starter. 'For mains, joloff rice with plantain and black-eyed beans'.
For Krys Lee, who is of South Korean descent and lives in between the US, South Korea and Italy, her favourite food 'is always going to be home food. Food is such a pleasure and a nostalgia. I love dahls and different foods inspired by India and the time I spent there. I also have fond memories of making kimchi with my mother.'
Charles Lambert, who wrote 'The Noise, and After the Noise, the Calm' in Cooked Up based on his childhood spent on an egg farm in the Midlands, also spoke of a distinctively favourite meal or two:
'My private pleasure is definitely aubergine parmigiana (Charles lives in Rome with his partner) or slow cooked porky belly.' Long, slow cooking of food is a must for him because 'you can carry on talking and drinking before you sit down and eat.'
Charles also thinks of English cooking as comfort food or a symbol 'mother's affection' such as baked eggs with maybe a bit of salad cream and his best food memory is of 'sitting around a table in the Italian countryside.'
Elaine, who's earliest food memory was actually recounted to her by her mother, is of sardines. At first finding the salty snack a bit alarming, she then opened her mouth for more proving she had quite an adventurous palette even at a young age.
Ben's earliest food memory takes him back home to Lagos where he and his family are sat around the fireside and their mother is telling stories. 'The whole process of cooking comes with punctuating a story with the food.' He also remembers being 'summoned back from playing' by the aroma of his mother's stew.
'It was as if she was calling you with the fragrance of food.' A similar tactic he says relates to Indian restaurants cooking fried onions to entice passers-by. 'Fragrance is a tremendous promise and you can be easily seduced.'
'It's as if you have the 'taste first' and then 'the appreciation comes from the initial expectation and how descriptions can often affect reading.'
'I always had pasta and kimchi growing up, there was this sharing and mixing of culture,' added Krys, who also remembered being slightly embarrassed when her friends would come over to her house. Their first question would be 'what is that smell?'
At the end of the evening, the panel was asked if they eat while they write and if they do, what is their food of choice.
Ben was the first to reply who explained that he 'used to...especially when I used my typewriter. There's definitely a rhythm between writing and chewing on something. Like Ritz for example. I wrote one book largely on them.' (He then made a joke about that first chapter being quite dry which the audience appreciated.)
'Now,' Ben added, 'I handwrite and I don't eat or drink. But there is definitely an analogous relationship between writing and food. Writing can often be a process of slow cooking. A mixture of herbs say… an alchemy.'
'Or you can do it very quickly and it's perfect (like calamari) or too long and it's overdone,' Charles added further.
'I tend to eat while I write,' said Krys, ' my laptop is often covered with traces of my last snacks. I have notebooks smeared with chocolate. I am often at leisure with writing… Part of the pleasure of the body is combining the two together. Chewing also wakes you up, too.'
'And the act of writing is really so difficult,' said Ben, before the authors headed off to sign copies of the book. 'Feeding is a source of energy. There's a ritual quality of food...the consumption of cultures.'