Laughing With My Mouth Full: Tales From A Gulf Islands Kitchen
by Pam Freir
Published by HarperCollins
257 pages, 2005
Her kitchen is phenomenal. Perhaps 20 feet long, commanding more than it's share of window space in a house that is all about the view. The kitchen has a wide island that runs nearly the length of the room. It's a kitchen meant for cooking with friends and loved ones, a space some restaurants would be jealous of and, certainly, most chefs. And not for the high tech appliances, though there are a few of those. What's most significant about this particular kitchen -- aside from the wonderful meals produced here -- is where it's situated: in a west coast contemporary home on a mountainside on Galiano Island, in Canada's Gulf Islands chain off the west coast of mainland British Columbia.
When you look out any one of those windows, you're treated to a living painting that changes with every beat of your heart. Sailboats bob about madly, yachts stream by heading to points unknown. You see the emerald jewel that Salt Spring Island appears to be from this vantage and, beyond Salt Spring, Vancouver Island -- as large as some European countries -- adds its majesty to the perspective and at night it adds its lights to the view. You can see forever, as they say. You can see a world that most people don't want to leave once they've arrived.
That, at least, was how it happened for Pam Freir and her husband, Chris Bayliss. They washed up on the island in the late 1980s when their blended family had grown and flown. They've only ever looked back when pressed.
That move, Freir says now, was life-changing in more ways than she could ever have conceived. Before she arrived on Galiano, Freir says she had "never eaten anything just pulled out of the ground. I'd never brought home a carrot with the dirt still on it. And to go and see my lunch being pulled from the garden and to come home and wash the dirt off and make a salad with it was just fantastic. And it made my food so real and special."
The couple had been advertising executives in Toronto for long and successful careers. Freir, in fact, was once awarded the Bronze Lion Award at Cannes. Looking out at that killer view from her kitchen windows on a sunny autumn day, I tell her that it must feel very far away. She smiles -- it's a small, secret smile -- and nods, then says, "Sometimes it almost doesn't seem far enough."
In Laughing With My Mouth Full: Tales From a Gulf Islands Kitchen readers travel with Freir and discover just how far. If MFK Fisher were to sit down and write about food with Dave Barry, what would emerge, I think, is something very like Laughing With My Mouth Full. A book that touches -- but never sloppily -- and is often funny, without the self-conscious "ha, ha, ha" that often infuses books said to be humor-filled.
There is a humorous sensuality in Freir's writing; a hands-on-hips insouciance as she regales us with stories of traveling Canada's back roads with her husband in their pop top VW camper; of lobsters eaten in Maine while the secret service watch suspiciously; and special dinners cooked at home and shared with friends and loved ones. And there are stories of her island life -- and the foods she's enjoyed there over the years. With wit and warmth and a lovely spare style, she evokes a sense of place with half the words it would require of a lesser writer:
Februarys are steeped in grey. My favourite walks have turned to mush, I've run out of ways to serve squash and even the dog sleeps in.
With 26 carefully chosen words, winter is -- amazingly and seemingly without effort -- brought to life.
Laughing With My Mouth Full is a delight and a surprise, not unlike its author. I spoke with Pam Freir at her island home, a glass of her good homemade wine at my elbow, that ever-changing vista firmly at my back so I could settle down for our chat.
Linda L. Richards: Tell me about Laughing With My Mouth Full.
Pam Freir: The book is about me and food and fun and people and place. It turned out to be a bit of a memoir, as well, although that's not how it started. It became a memoir when my editor thought there should be a beginning a middle and an end. And so by reshaping it, I got more of myself into it than I had intended and so that's fine. But it's about food and fun.
On reading the book, it's apparent that you've brought a great deal of yourself to it. Just to back up a little bit: I think the book started with the food column that you do for the Victoria Times Colonist.
But you reshaped that material?
I added some material to fill in more of me. As well, I included material to fill in a bit of the background. And I had to reshape most of the pieces from the original column material so that there was a continuity and so that one piece segued with some logic into the next. So the basis of the material is certainly the Times Colonist material but it's been reworked quite a bit.
That's interesting to me because you often read books that are collections of columns that don't have a cohesion. They read like a collection of columns. Laughing With My Mouth Full reads like a book. It feels like a complete thing on its own.
That was, I think, the big contribution of the editor I worked with for nearly a year. He thought the book should have shape and that hadn't occurred to me before. I think it's been improved because of it. A lot.
You said you added material as well.
Yes. Marginally here and there, I would flesh something out or fill in information that perhaps was required for the context.
You continue to write that column, don't you?
Yes. I still do the weekly column. I've been doing it for eight years.
You must have enough material for ten books!
I probably have enough material for another book, but I don't think there should be one. Not of this column material. It would feel like a repeat, like an unnecessary encore.
It seems to me it would be a difficult book to place, say in bookstores or when people are writing about it. Because it is about food and yet it is, as you say, quite like a memoir. And there is actually food instruction. A dear friend of mine made your osso bucco.
And did she like it?
She did. She loved it.
But you're right: it is difficult. I find it frustrating when I go in to see where my book is and it's usually with the cookbooks or in a small section on food writing, which is quite appropriate. But I also think it should be in humor. So I think more imagination is needed in how it's placed.
The author whose name comes to mind when I read your work is that of [late American writer] M.F.K. Fisher.
That's a huge compliment.
She's the best as far as I'm concerned.
And yet your work is similar, in a way. I mean, her work is sadder, I think. Yours is happier.
It is happier, but she's very reflective, yet she has a gentle way with humor. She's not working at it at all. She's amused by things. I just think she's a beautiful writer. A fabulous writer. She's my hero, so thank you for that comparison.
Do people say that? Do you hear it a lot?
Some people have.
People who have read her.
Yeah and you know, it's surprising, but a lot people have never heard of her.
It is surprising, because I think she almost defined this sub-genre -- if that's what it is -- of food writing as not just filling your larder, but of filling your soul, in a way. Does that make sense?
It does. You're saying it's almost philosophical. Food as experience.
What food are you most excited about right now?
Parsnips! Because I met someone who had never had a parsnip. We had them for dinner. And he said: What are these? I told him: Parsnips. He said: I've never eaten a parsnip. And I couldn't believe someone had never eaten a parsnip. So I thought: OK, that's a column.
Chris said: How are you going to get 700 words out of parsnips? And I know I can. Which brings the human thing into it. Because it's never really just about food.
I just wrote a column on hops. I was picking blackberries with my friend on her property. I noticed she was pulling down what looked like a rope out of the trees. It took all her weight to pull this down. It turned out it was not a rope, it was a vine. And she finally freed it from the alder trees and she asked me to help her harvest it. On it were these little yellow flower-like cones. And it was hops, because her husband makes beer.
As we harvested, she was getting a little smiley-dreamy. And I noticed I was getting a little smiley-dreamy, as well. [It turns out that hops are] related to cannabis and related to stinging nettle, which has tonic properties. So the aroma from the blossoms made us just gently, gently high the tiniest bit. Just a floaty, floaty sweet feeling. So there was another column.
But I think material comes to you if you're curious. Material comes to you if you're aware and if you listen and you're interested because, if you told me you'd never eaten a parsnip, I would really perk up. I'd want to know why and gosh. There are stories everywhere. And I've written about the turnip. I decided we should have national turnip day, just because nobody respects the turnip. There really are foods that people turn up their noses at.
How long has your kitchen been in the Gulf Islands?
[Laughs] About as long as I have. This house was built 20 years ago, in the mid-1980s. And we moved here in the late 1980s. So I've been in this kitchen for 16 years.
Tell me about your background.
I've always been a writer. From the time I was a child, I wrote. And I think I always was a foodie, well before the word was invented, because I always loved my grub. So I guess it was those two passions: the twain had to meet some time, the food and the writing. And it did. And it did at the Times Colonist.
I've earned my living writing. I was in the advertising business in Toronto. There's not many ways you can earn a living as a writer and advertising is certainly one of them. I spent over 20 years as a copywriter in an advertising agency. That [type of writing] was a discipline that has just been hugely important in my life. The discipline of having to write tight, clear copy. My very first job was writing catalog copy where you had to describe a chair in, like, 18 characters or two lines or something. Then came television commercials where you had to tell the story in 30 seconds. And a certain amount of space for a print ad. So I just learned how to write economically.
How to boil things down to their essence.
Yeah! And, you know, that is very good. But, you see, that's what really helped me write. I never write extra. I always write the least I can and that's just habit.
I know you won a Bronze Lion at Cannes. That's pretty impressive.
I did. I should show it to you. I was really proud of that. It was for a television commercial for Q-Tips. That also has influenced me, it's like a parsnip. What are you going to say about a Q-Tip? And, so, the process was you come up with a strategy, you come up with a benefit that people will find persuasive and then you communicate it in a way they'll find memorable. Our idea was to clean a rose -- a dusty, dusty rose -- and a Q-Tip was just gently, gently cleaning it. The actual fact was that they built this huge rose and they had a little vacuum in this huge Q-Tip and it was all tight, tight, tight. So, it was a terrific idea...
And it was yours.
Mine and the art director I worked with. And it was beautifully executed by the cameraman and the director. But I have one huge regret about that ad: there was too much copy. There shouldn't have been any copy. You didn't need to say anything. It was all shown to you. But it won this international award and it was huge.
What agency were you attached to?
Ogilvy & Mather and Saatchi & Saatchi and various smaller agencies before that. I was creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi.
How long did you live in Toronto?
Twenty years or more.
Chris is an important part of the book, as well. In the book, you mention his contributions to your development as a foodie.
Being in Toronto was an important influence. And being on an expense account. [Laughs] But Chris simply did not fit in the pattern of the people I knew. He certainly didn't eat what other people ate. He tried new things and he took me along. It was really interesting. I ate stuff with him that I had never eaten before. It was great.
You say in the book that he helped bring you to a wider world of food and that he took you outside of the food that had been your experience.
Yes, he totally opened my eyes and my mouth. [Laughs] There's one chapter about eating alone. And it was interesting, after I'd written it I must have picked up my M.F.K. Fisher and I noticed that she also wrote about what people ate when they're alone. That's very interesting to me because that means that you have to be interested in people as well as food. So you talk to people and ask them what they eat when they're alone. I think it's very, very revealing. Because I eat really, really well when I'm alone. I really treat myself. I will try something new. I cook for myself. That to me is very, very telling. There's also a bit in there about reading corn cobs.
I was going to mention that. I loved that part!
To me, that demonstrates more than an interest in food. You can't have come up with that unless you've been really, really involved in the people around the table and read them and understood how they ticked. But the point of that [story in the book] was that you can actually read corn cobs.
So not so much you are what you eat, but you are how you eat.
That is so true.
I enjoyed that story. You were at kind of a party and you were reading the corn cobs of the other people there. Almost like reading tarot cards.
And someone who was eating their corn in a miserly fashion would have that in their spirit as well. When I read that, it really resonated with me because I once knew someone just like that. And he really was, miserly of spirit, I mean.
You can extend that beyond the corn cob, of course. Basically, how people embrace their food. To me, that just says so much. Like people who sit down fearful. Or eat their peas and then very orderly move over to their potatoes. There's a certain mental orderliness to all of this that I find really interesting. My mother used to harp on about table manners, but she would always eat with a knife and fork, and she'd pile the mash and she'd put on the peas and then she'd put on this and then she'd put on this and then she'd bring this laden fork to her mouth and she'd chew with her mouth closed, but there was so much on her fork it was all together.
So how people eat, how they come to the table and if they enjoy being at the table reveals everything. It reveals so much to me. I find that the most interesting thing about food.
How has your view of food been influenced by life on Galiano Island?
Before moving here I actually had never eaten anything just pulled out of the ground. I'd never brought home a carrot with the dirt still on it. And to go and see my lunch being pulled from the garden and then come home and wash the dirt off of it and make a salad with it, was just fantastic. It made my food so real and special. Now when I go in a supermarket and I see salad fixings, you know, pre-washed and pre-dressed as far as I know, I say: Oh my gosh! Because it's so far away from the earth it came from. And so I really I think that's where my love of food deepened in a way that I never anticipated. Just seeing it growing and picking mushrooms and finding wild food. Going looking for fiddleheads, that makes food more than it ever was to me in my life.
Like stinging nettles. They're kind of a miracle of nature. And this comes from being curious. and from actually picking things and eating them and then reading about them. But stinging nettles actually are filled with serotonin and they are the first green to come up after a long, gray winter. And so we've been deprived of sun all winter, and here, in the very early, early leg of spring comes the stinging nettle, just filled with everything you need. And to me this is just such a gift. To be able to go out and come home and make your nettle soup and you've got this infusion of serotonin that your body so desperately needs.
The other little miracle that goes right along with it, is that right beside the stinging nettle grows the dock weed. Nature has arranged that the dock weed -- which is a is long-leafed weed -- comes up at the same time. So that if you get stung [by the stinging nettle], you just grab a dock weed and rub it on the sting and it's soothed.
Everything is prepared for you out there, by nature. Both the vitamins you need and the remedy, should you get stung. To me it's just a brilliant, wonderful thing to know about food. Most people don't think about that. I never did until I came here.
Your attitudes towards natural foods changed when you moved here. Did your attitudes towards processed foods change at the same time?
Yes they did. I just didn't want to touch [processed foods] once I understood where foods came from and the value of food I didn't want to touch anything that had been interfered with. But that was a learned response.
What do you hope people will take away from Laughing With My Mouth Full?
I hope people just laugh and enjoy themselves. When people come up to me and say: I go to bed reading this and I'm laughing. It's the best thing in the world. To make people laugh? That's just fabulous. That's all. Just take away laughter. | November 2005
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.