From books to booze, from Montreal to Toronto, and from A. J. Liebling to The Simpsons

On January 12th, 2018, I spoke with author Jonah Campbell at Restaurant Le Diplomate in Montreal’s Marconi/Alexandra neighbourhood. Campbell’s second book, Eaten Back to Life (Invisible Publishing, 2017) has received praise from both the literary and the food communities. Our topics ranged from books to booze, from Montreal to Toronto, and from A. J. Liebling to The Simpsons.

Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa: One of my favourite essays from Eaten Back to Life is “Aim Low, That the Chariot May Swing to Meet Your Mark” in which you discuss the dilettante. Now that you’ve written  two books on food culture, and you’re studying at McGill, do you still consider yourself a dilettante?

Jonah Campbell: Absolutely. In some ways even more so. Having a second book produces the appearance of credentials or the appearance of a rigour which is totally lacking. My McGill work, content-wise, is completely unrelated to my food writing, so I just get to feel dilettantish in more spheres. I work in wine a bit too. That’s another area I’ve stumbled into with what I would call a … competent enthusiasm.

LKP: At what point do you think someone crosses from the dilettante to the professional or the academic?

JC: It depends on the métier. I don’t consider myself a sommelier. Even though I do the work of sommellier, I have never formally studied. I haven’t “put in the work.” I made a conscious decision not to pursue a career in academia. I didn’t do a dissertation. That is what would have been an obligatory passage point. With food writing, all the things I’m doing are on the side. There isn’t really one thing in the centre. I write, but I don’t have to depend on the writing to live. Other authors I know in Montreal are so diligent and engaged in the craft in a more thorough way.

LKP: Have you heard the saying that Montreal is where twentysomethings go to retire?

JC: I have.

LKP: How do you think that relates to the concept of the dilettante?

JC: I love Montreal and I consider it my home, but in recent years I’ve had to accustom myself to the reality that it means I have to say goodbye to a lot of friends. A lot of my friends come here and work fairly energetically on whatever they’re working on, and then they get to a certain point and move to Toronto to actually get paid to do that thing. But then they are very sad all the time, because they have to live in Toronto. Of course, Montreal has the reputation as the scrappy other sibling. I’m extremely lucky to be able to do the type of work I do in Montreal as somebody who is fundamentally anglophone. I’m bilingual, but I could not do a lot of the work I do in French. I’m one of these dopey, lucky anglophones who has work they can survive on.

LKP: I’ve always felt fortunate for having Montreal, because it gives you the space to try things.

JC: Montreal is a perfect city in that regard. Its size, the cost of living, the creative energy constantly flowing through the city, the perpetual renewal from all the universities creates that space where everyone’s always hustling, but not just to survive.

LKP: Do you cook at home?

JC: I do.

LKP: Do you think the making that you do on your own informs your work?

JC: Yeah, absolutely. It occurs to me that I don’t actually write that much about how I cook at home.

LKP: Have you ever thought about writing about what you cook at home? Have you thought about writing a cookbook?

JC: I haven’t. A couple of times I’ve been invited to submit recipes to other people’s projects, but I find it extremely challenging, because I don’t cook from recipes. I have confidence that I will be able to make something work out well, but it’s perhaps an overconfidence, because I am pathologically incapable of following a recipe to the letter. The way I cook at home is maybe analogous to the way I write. It’s driven by a tension between comfort and curiosity--and experimentation, but not very rigorous experimentation.

LKP: This brings to mind your essay, “Just a Lazy, Skull-Boiling Afternoon,” in which you describe boiling a whole pig head, and serving it to friends.

JC: The title is actually an oblique Simpsons reference. Homer refers to something as a lazy dog-dangling afternoon. That’s where the pig head boiling comes from.

LKP: I’m interested in the way that making something leads to the knowledge of something. In that essay, you talk about taking apart a pig’s head and eating all the parts. You talk about Fergus Henderson and his philosophy of eating, and the generations of philosophy of eating from which he drew. What is the drive to take something apart and eat all of it?

JC: I feel like curiosity is too pat an answer to that. Definitely when I stopped being vegan, I had a bit of that classic post-vegan attitude of “if I’m going to eat meat, I’ve got to engage with it all the way through.” While I still feel that way personally, I don’t necessarily think of it as an imperative. The pig head or other kinds of butchery are interesting, because they provide a lot of capacity for surprise, unexpected connections, and resonances. I grew up eating meat as a kid, but it was like ground beef. I remember the first time I handled lamb. I’d never tasted lamb. I’d never seen lamb. At the time I was a vegetarian, but I remember being very conscious of how not-horrifying, how fascinating and pleasurable was the feeling of the knife moving through flesh. Not to sound too morbid, but working with animal carcasses makes me think of human carcasses. Some of my training is in the history of biology, and opening up animal bodies inevitably gets me thinking about opening up human bodies, the history of anatomy, and all that. We take for granted that the way our parts all fit together into an organic unity is sort of self-evident, but the history isn’t so straightforward. I always forget who said this (I think it was Donna Haraway), but the idea that “a body analyzed for humours contains humours; a body analyzed for organs contains organs” is kind of a good way of looking at the history of attempts to scientifically understand what a human body was made of, and I guess what human life is. I’ve always wanted to write something about the relationship between butchery and early anatomical traditions, but as is probably clear, I’m pretty lazy.

LKP: You write pretty extensively about wine, and particularly natural wine. I’m first wondering, what is your definition of natural wine?

JC: I don’t really have one. I use natural wine as a convenient catch-all. It’s an imperfect and controversial referent, but one many people can understand to a certain extent. All the definitions are imperfect for me, and I’m comfortable with that. Some say minimal intervention. But how do you think about minimalism in an activity which is based on thousands of years of selective breeding? “Minimal intervention” is an ever-receding horizon. The notion of a wine that speaks about where it’s from is something that has a lot of traction, but how do I know? A lot of our understanding of that place, or the taste of that place is derived from our experiences with the wine, so it’s circular in that way.

LKP: Can you give me an example of a place that you understand by wine?

JC: It’s almost even more of a closed loop than that. Take “minerality,” because minerality is a big controversial word. There are some that say that it’s bullshit that in any real chemical way something inherent to the taste of minerals is transmitted through the soil to the vines, and to the eventual wine. People will use this kind of language - chalky, flinty, whatever- but what do we mean when we say our wine is chalky? Our associations with Chablis and chalk are so intertwined. Our notion of wine tasting chalky comes from the wine not from the chalk.

LKP: How often do you eat chalk?

JC: Exactly, right? And some people say they’ve licked the rocks from the vineyard and they get this connection. Sure. Maybe. I still use those words, but I guess I’m less interested in a wine language which is literally referential in that way, and more in one that is meaningful, that gives some texture and order to our experience. What do you think?

LKP: What do I think natural wine is?

JC: Sure.

LKP: I always fall back on “nothing added, nothing taken away.” I also think there’s a footiness to natural wine.

JC: I use “foot” as well!

LKP: In “On Natural Wine, Punk Rock, and Too-Easy Analogies,” you mention the popular analogy that natural wine is the punk rock of the wine world. And then you list a bunch of ways that perhaps this analogy works. One being that natural wine is raging against the idea of what “good wine” is in the way that punk rock once raged against the idea of what a “good band” is. I think that’s actually a very effective analogy. So, my question is what’s your issue with natural wine being like punk rock?

JC: My issue is more when the punk rock analogy is used as a way of dismissing natural wine. The analogy is based on an underdeveloped understanding of what punk is. It’s based on the notion that punk either ended in the early - 80s or turned into a sleek, accessible, a-political pop-punk, but in fact what really happened is Riot Grrl happened, hardcore happened, the Bay Area in the 90s and into the 2000s - a hot bed of radical political strains of punk- happened. Punk didn’t die. It just stayed underground, and it remained something very meaningful to a large number of people. A better understanding of the history of punk rock can turn punk rock into a better analogy for natural wine-making. How the popularity of natural wine changes the wine world, changes the wine industry, whether it does or not, or even if the fad passes - that doesn’t mean the phenomenon passes. It may stay meaningful to people’s lives. It’s just not going to be the subject of Guardian think pieces anymore. There’s a tendency to associate natural wine making with wildness and roughness and wonkiness. Those are all things that have a freer reign in the natural wine world, but they don’t define natural wine making. People can do extremely careful, meticulous, clean wine-making adding nothing and taking nothing away. 

LKP: In “On Bad Melons, Bullshit, and Emergent Qualities of Wine,” you talk about these “orthodoxies of taste” as a vocabulary that has been required to have learned in the past. If someone wanted to know, how do I get into wine? Where do you suggest they start?

JC: On one hand you have to be lucky and privileged enough to be able to spend more than ten dollars on wine. The thing I always says is, “when you discover wine that you really like, or that is confusing, or interesting, you should (a) take a picture of it, and (b) ask the sommelier “What is this and why do I like it?” Finding ways to answer that question is one of the most important things a sommelier can do. If you say, “There’s a footy quality,” the sommelier can say, “Okay, we can talk about that.” People are so afraid of using the wrong language to talk about wine. They’re afraid of being embarrassed. There’s an entire history of wine being esoteric. I think that asking that question “Why do I like it?” shifts the discursive terrain by asserting that you like something about it, you don’t know exactly the language to communicate that, but in that dialogue that language can emerge. You can potentially learn the “wine words” to describe what you like, or you can become confident enough in that engagement to use your own words and have them be translated by a sommelier. That answer presupposes, however, that you are somebody who’s going to be drinking wine places where there is a sommelier.

LKP: We’re dancing around the fact that wine has a certain amount of barriers to people. You can find wines for fifteen dollars, but you really have to be looking. We’re in Quebec where in order to access some wines they need to be imported by a private importer, and then the private importer has to import it through the SAQ who is then going to put another charge on top of the price. Do you have any solutions? How do we get wine to the people who want to drink wine?

JC: I don’t know enough about global economics to really answer that question. There are a small handful of natural producers who make bag-in-box wines. Packaging is a huge part of the cost of wine. Shipping things made of glass filled with fluid across oceans is a huge part of that cost. Some people make the argument that it’s actually ideal - well, not for aging wines, obviously - but the great thing about a bag-in-box wine is you’re re-sealing the bag every time you pour, re-protecting the wine. It would be great to see more of that.

LKP: Who are your favourite food writers?

JC: MFK Fisher, but maybe that’s cliché. Joseph Mitchell’s food writing, which isn’t really food writing, but is indirectly about food. When A. J. Liebling writes about food, not in his food writing, it’s really, really good. Liebling was a contemporary of Joseph Mitchell at The New Yorker, writing about the “low life”: every day people, boxers, low-level politicians. He was a huge, big, fat gastronome of the day, but he was more of a reporter in a Studs Terkel tradition (in fact Liebling is one of Terkel’s predecessors – Terkel was awarded the A. J. Liebling Award for journalism in 1975!). He has this book called Between Meals about when he studied at the Sorbonne in the twenties, but it was actually an excuse to just live in Paris and eat. I honestly find that book kind of meh, but throughout the rest of his writing, the way he writes about food feels very thoughtful and energetic. He was The New Yorker’s war correspondent in World War II, and spent most of his time far behind the lines and in Paris. There are these dispatches and diaries of living in Paris as the front is getting closer and closer, and the attitude and atmosphere in the cafés as fewer and fewer people are left in the city; as people were like, “Maybe this war is not yet won as soon as we think it is.” The French use of gastronomy as an anchor of identity, mingled with the increasing feeling of “we may literally be overtaken by Germany in a couple of weeks,” was really interesting. It could be seen as a kind of denial, like “fiddling while Rome burns,” but there’s also a kind of spiteful pride that I appreciate. Liebling talked about how, from the officer class down to troops on patrol, there was this discernable sense that eating well was a form of national self-defence. Obviously, the officers were eating well, because they were, well, officers. They would have their cellars in their bases of operations. But even the soldiers, when they went out on patrol, would set snares for rabbits, so that they would be able to supplement their meager food. That notion of food as a spiritual defence has stuck in my head for a long time. I always wanted to make à nos défenses catch on as a cheers, but no luck so far. So, I guess my favourite food writers, MFK Fisher excepted, are not food writers.

LKP: How do you feel about being defined as a food writer?

JC: Fine. Somebody once called me a “food humourist,” which I appreciated. After the first book, people would ask me if I was going to write another book, and I’d be like, “I dunno. Do we really need more people talking about food? Is this something the world needs? Is there any point to contributing to the maelstrom of chatter about food?” I felt like there wasn’t, but then I wrote another book.

LKP: Aside from your books, you also write a blog, Still Crapulent After All These Years. What has blogging done for you?

JC: It’s given me two books. Both of my books and all of my freelance writing have come out of blogging.

LKP: So, what is a blog?

JC: This is going to date me even further, but I used to have a LiveJournal. I started it when I took a year off university, and I still felt like I needed some kind of venue or medium for thinking, effectively. I knew that I didn’t have the diligence to diary, to write totally for myself about what I was reading, what I was thinking. LiveJournal was just formalized enough that it felt worth doing. I realized that writing online, process-wise, was thinking through a computer, through a keyboard. Almost none of my books were written on paper. With LiveJournal and with blogging it felt just ephemeral enough that you don’t stress about it as much as if you were writing a short story. Well, I’ve never tried to write a short story, so I don’t know. But when you’re intentionally writing something for posterity, or academically, there’s an almost self-defeating pressure. The notion of it being totally insignificant is what actually formed my writing style, because I was never trying to do anything. It was really just casting one’s voice into the abyss. It didn’t matter if anybody read it. The irony is it didn’t feel like it mattered, but then ultimately, after producing a bunch in that medium, the idea that that was all going to go away, that it was totally ephemeral, that there was potentially no record of it, felt sad. A good chunk of the second book is stuff that started in blog form. After the first book, I was like, “Maybe I’m not a food writer anymore. Maybe I don’t have any ideas.” But I looked back at what I’d written since the first book, and that was more “me.” The first book felt very ill-formed, transitional. I didn’t want that to be my only contribution to the world of letters. I was fond and proud of a lot of what I’d written since. I thought, “Maybe I’m not a food writer anymore, but if that’s the case I don’t want to lose all this stuff.”

LKP: I have one last question. You seem to delight in words. There are multi-page definitions. And I would like to give you one of my favourites, and ask you to elaborate upon it. Ontological Hangover?

JC: The ontological hangover is a concept that comes out of (a) my interest in natural wine, and (b) my interest in the human and non-human microbiome. It comes from what is, for me, the very exciting idea that humans are not actually this really permanent, bounded, entity. The organism as a monad is coming apart at the seams very quickly. Human bodies are actually collectivities. Gut flora plays an essential role in everything from digestion to cognition. Increasingly, we are developing an understanding that we are clouds of micro-organisms. If you take a human being by sheer genetic weight, we are more microbe DNA than we are human. There’s less of us as a human body than there are the various things that live on us and in us. We already have some sense that cells as some of the unitary building blocks of life, may have emerged from a piece of virus getting stuck in another tiny microscopic organism. How do you fit something so old-fashioned as the human “soul” into that picture? The ontological hangover is a playful riff on the idea that drinking natural wine and wild fermented beer gives you a hangover that isn’t just about “ugh, I drank to much,” but maybe that the microbial makeup of “Jonah” has been tipped by the microbial makeup of these ten bottles of wine. I’m a new me.

LKP: That’s refreshing.

JC: It can be a little frightening sometimes.

© 2018, Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa

Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa is the general manager of Confabulation Montreal, an organization dedicated to the growth of the storytelling community in Canada. She is the founder of The Confab Story Lab and has produced live events for CBC Books' All Told and Off-JFL. She has told stories for Tales from the Black, Yarn, Vanier College, Confabulation, and Phi Centre’s ongoing exhibit Lucid Realities.





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