A ‘Gastronomic’ Literary Experience with Jenny Morris, Kathryn White and Karina Szczurek at The Book Lounge (OBF 2015; 09/09/15)

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It goes almost without saying that I am a lover of both good writing and good food (well, actually, just food in general. Disclaimer: Don’t be deceived by my so-called diminutive size… My appetite is far from small) so when my colleagues/friends and I sat down two weeks or so ago to discuss which events we would be covering at this year’s Open Book Festival 2015* – the fifth and hopefully, the biggest edition to date 😉 – it didn’t take me very long to exclaim most vehemently (and a little desperately, it must be said): “I’d like to cover that one, please!”

* (The OBF will be running from the 9th to the 13th of September, with most events being held at the iconic and in my mind, charming Fugard Theatre, though some will take place at the cosy Book Lounge (where this particular event was held), Central- and Rondebosch Library respectively and finally, HCC Workshop/Kidzone.)

Saying that I’d “like” to cover yesterday’s ‘Food and Fiction’ event (R45 p/p), featuring talented Cape Times reviewer and my favourite curator of OBF 2014, Karina Szczurek, in conversation with S.A. author and food-and-wine reviewer, Kathryn White (her previously published works include: debut novel, Emily Green and Me and Things I Thought I Knew, whilst her latest-to-date and the novel under discussion is Anna Peters’ Year of Cooking Dangerously, which, from what I could gather, incorporates some elements of her own life experiences and challenges, as far as cooking and food are concerned) and finally, my favourite S.A. chef and food personality, the world-renowned Jenny Morris, also known as the ‘Giggling Gourmet’.

I suppose at this point I have to confess that… I am a total groupie where Jenny Morris is concerned. It began last year when I heard her radio interview on 94.5 Kfm, in which she discussed her involvement with local TV show, Chopped South Africa, but it became a very real and serious thing during this year’s July holidays when I’d eagerly wait to catch her food/travel show, Jenny Morris Cooks Morocco (which I would then happily watch either on my own or with my mum, on the popular FoodNetwork Channel) and then spread to my buying her excellent pasta range from my local Fruit & Veg. store. (Yes, I really did that… And as a massive pasta fan, I can safely say it was great!)

So it was that I arrived at the Book Lounge around 11:45 a.m., having collected my OBF staff pass and virtually claimed a front-row seat. The event was scheduled to start at 12:00 a.m. and I was mildly perturbed when, after a few minutes had elapsed, I still couldn’t see the unmistakably warm Jenny Morris anywhere in sight, though I had spotted Kathryn White (whom I recognised from an online photo or two) and Karina Szczurek (she was in fact sitting directly behind me for a time, as she chatted to a female audience member) but I relaxed slightly when it was announced we’d be starting a bit later, as Jenny was still on her way.

Anticipation was ripe in the air as the snug and usually quiet ‘basement’ level of the Book Lounge came to life, as media personnel and audience members alike took their seats or chatted to those next to them. (It was a nice mix of old and young people, though I was probably the youngest and most ‘inexperienced’ one present all the same, not that I minded a bit, as I felt unusually relaxed and suitably excited, despite knowing I’d have to live-tweet the event and still take my usual notes.)

A short time later, at around 12:11 a.m., things got underway once Jenny entered the room (I am convinced she winked at me as she sat down and yes, I had another groupie moment then too…) and the three lovely ladies claimed their seats around two, small round tables, as Karina, donning a pretty, red-and-white cooking apron, calmly welcomed both the audience and the food writers, if I can call them that, to the event.

(Though it is fairly dimly-lit downstairs at the Book Lounge, I was able to get some good photos – especially right at the beginning during the introductions, which further whetted my ‘appetite’ – and the audio (even with ever-tricky microphones) was of a good standard, something I, along with the rest of those gathered, I’m sure, was glad about.)

I had to do a good job of listening to the speakers in my personal capacity (though it was an effortless task, as they were all charming, funny and good to listen to, both as individuals and as a collective group) and covering the event, as I tried to seize upon moments that I thought would best describe or capture the speakers and their humourous or insightful tales, many of which were quite personal.

From my experience of Karina’s curatorship last year, I have found that she has a wonderful way of making her guests and fellow panellists, so to speak, feel extremely at home with her soft-spoken words and gentle manner and I love how she reveals her own experiences/thoughts, something that both Kathryn and certainly Jenny did as well.

I personally feel that puts everyone at ease and what’s more, it adds a certain playful, light-heartedness or humour to what are, in and of themselves, already very interesting and fascinating books (from what I could hear at least… and I don’t think it will be too long before I have eagerly ‘gobbled up’ Jenny Morris’ latest novel, Taste the World (with Jenny Morris) – or even the next up-and-coming one that she’s busy writing on her BlackBerry – as well as Kathryn’s latest novel (as aforementioned), which sounds both touching and awkwardly funny.).

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Karina discussed aspects of each guest author’s newest books (I remember that she began with Kathryn, asking her for her opinion on why her protagonist, Anna Peters, has been compared to Bridget Jones) separately, as well as posing more generalised, yet still ‘personal’ questions for them both to answer.

It was interesting to learn that, although most of the recipes in Kathryn’s Anna Peters’ Year of Cooking Dangerously book are “standard recipes… that anyone can find,” one or two are her own as such… especially the ‘Chicken Thighbone Pie’ (I hope I’ve gotten that right), which has a very sweet and funny story behind it – though I will not be offering up spoilers! 😛

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Whilst, if her own self-depreciating comments about her cooking skills are to be taken as the brutal truth, Kathryn isn’t a chef by any stretch of the imagination, she appears to hail from a very food-loving family and it sounds as though extensive research and her food-and-wine reviewer background have given her the necessary food knowledge and vocabulary.

Strongly in contrast perhaps, from Jenny’s side, cooking experience and culinary expertise is certainly not lacking (she is, after all, a masterful culinary teacher and food guide) but, having said that, both Kathryn and Jenny truly complemented each other – and it was nice to see that often they shared similar viewpoints too.

Jenny Morris reminds me a little of my dad… I grew up in a household where my mum couldn’t really get around to cooking too often… Not because she can’t (for in actual fact, she is a good cook and happens to make – hands-down – the world’s best gravy) but rather because, simply put, the kitchen was my dad’s zone. (You could go in there at the wrong time and virtually be expelled from the room unless you wanted to: learn how to cook, had come to offer assistance or to ask the golden question of “What are you making for supper tonight?”)

So, I sort of know from experience that, when someone loves cooking that much, it becomes an artful process, more truly a passion, rather than a necessary chore, where time is irrelevant as rather, it’s about those tempting aromas that send invisible tendrils drifting throughout the house, it’s about the sizzle of a pan or rhythmic chopping and above all, about the flavours that combine to produce the final product and its mouth-watering tastes.

Yet for Jenny, like all truly great chefs, to me it seems like something more entirely… it’s a way of life (something she said really struck with me: “I have dreams about food… The minute I see something, I can taste it. I dream those flavours,” – now that is passion for you!) because it is about life’s celebrations. As she added, we eat to celebrate new life and when someone passes away, we come together to eat in memory of them and to celebrate the life that was because food unites us. It brings people together and as Karina and Jenny divulged, even if there’s so-called ‘bad’ wine, as long as the company is good… what does it really matter?

I firmly believe that you cannot truly know someone unless you have broken your fast or at least, sipped a ‘cuppa’ with them… You won’t know that they hate people watching them eat or that they think it’s stupid how we turn our fork upside down to scoop food up in a ‘polite’ manner.

Or, as Kathryn said, that they like tripe but only when it’s hot. You won’t know that, for them, strong, percolated coffee and decadent, I-can’t-breathe-after-eating-that chocolate cake are not gastronomic ‘luxuries’, they are instead, from time to time, just one of life’s bare necessities (and yeah, I’m totally one of those people, as my closest friends and loved ones can no doubt attest to, especially as most of them have shared said slice of cake with me… I’m also that annoying person who gets full and persuasively makes you finish my left-overs for me. :P).

There were a few moments in which the discussion got a bit saucy (mostly thanks to the hilariously ‘naughty’ Giggling Gourmet, whom I now adore even more after that, I must say) but it was good fun and, though there were a few red faces around, one thing the event was not short of was: laughter!

Karina then explained to the audience how, when reading either of these authors’ works, the reader literally craves the food they are describing – even if it’s Irish lettuce! This, in turn, highlighted the genuine power of words and later prompted one of the audience to ask the panel if they have a “food memory from a book.”

For Kathryn, I believe it was beloved children’s author, Enid Blyton’s treacle tart description, though the audience’s description of this very English treat seemed to faintly disappoint her. For Jenny, it was Hansel and Gretel (think: the witch’s delicious, edible house), though she admitted, to a chorus of nervous laughter, that what she really wanted to know was how said witch planned to season the children in order to make them truly appetising.

The panel’s general consensus was that food is so powerful that it can actually make someone fall in love with you; Jenny said of this: “You can seduce people with food… You can make someone fall in love with you again (with food).” It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, there’s no denying food is the surest way to a (- ahem – woman’s) heart…

I think that most of us can agree that special food, lovingly prepared or thoughtfully given, does indeed make a person more dear to us and help to generate those warm, fuzzy feelings… though whether they’re genuine feelings or just your tummy talking, I can’t say. 😛

Even if it can’t cure the world of unrequited or purely one-sided love, there’s no denying that food is something we associate with our earliest or fondest memories spent with friends, loved ones or even pets. What’s more, to each of us, certain foods mean something unique.

For me personally, Sundays will always be meant for recovering from big, traditional Sunday lunches – consisting of roast chicken, tasty veggies and ‘the works’ – and homemade baked goods will always remind me of fun moments spent giggling, mixing ingredients and generally making a right but damn tasty mess in the kitchen with my mum.

Just as sharing a sweet treat at some charming, little coffee shop with someone I love will always remind me of how my oldest brother and I always seem to order individual desserts and end up jointly sharing them for a two-for-one deal, as, out of sheer love (and partly because we’re both just too stuffed to eat anymore…), we inevitably try to sneak the other the large piece.

After that, we received a few more insights pertaining to the authors’ likes, as the audience posed questions and perhaps most importantly (especially for an aspiring writer like me), Jenny Morris told us that she personally feels food reviews can be both good and bad.

She warned us of how one can literally make or break someone’s career when you write a bad review online or post a negative comment/caption on social media and, like my Feature & Review lecturer, she, too, is always willing to give a restaurant/cafe a second chance… It’s only after that that she slaps them apparently. 🙂

She believes and – although I have perhaps rather naively, yet carefully wormed my way into food/restaurant reviews and gave a guilty giggle when she asked if there were any bloggers present, I quite agree – that the review must be done “in a fair, constructive way.”

With much food for thought (as well as a free lovely, pink-and-yellow fridge magnet courtesy of Kathryn White’s team) and the invitation to get books signed by the authors or to chat whilst enjoying some of festival sponsor Leopard’s Leap fine, proffered wine (available throughout the festival), the event wound to a nice end and overall, I believe we all left feeling cheered and eager for a bite to eat… so, with that thought in mind, I went home and cooked lunch.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to pluck up the courage to approach any of the guest speakers but I am certain that if I had, they would all have been most approachable and great to converse with… That was the prevailing sense I took away from both Jenny (who, despite being a celebrity and someone who has certainly cooked for many others – including: Al Gore, Charlize Theron and Prince Charles) and Kathryn – and as ever, from Karina too.

For all these reasons and so many more, my ‘Food and Fiction’ experience with Kathryn White, Jenny Morris and Karina Szczurek was a truly scrumptious affair! 🙂

Many thanks to the Book Lounge, the Open Book Festival organisers (and their site: http://openbookfestival.co.za for all additional author info.), and the sponsors, as well as curator Karina Szczurek and guest speakers, Jenny Morris and Kathryn White.

For more info. on the 2015 festival and its featured authors/speakers, please see Open Book Festival or follow them on Twitter: @OpenBookFest/#OBF2015. Alternatively, please contact Frankie on: + 27 (082) 958 7332 or frankie@openbookfestival.co.za.

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