Simon Thibault is a Halifax-based journalist, author, and producer. His first cookbook, Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Discovering Acadian Food, was published by Nimbus in 2017. In the following post, he talks to us about getting started as a writer, where he likes to write (hint: it involves a vintage table), new trends in food writing, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and food writing in particular?
I’ve been writing professionally about food since the early 2000s, but I’ve been writing about all sorts of things since the late 1990s. I really started to focus on food with greater intent around 2010, after I graduated from the journalism program of University of King’s College. I actually went there so that I could really focus on it, and be able to ask the right questions, and hopefully tell stories that may not have been heard before, or at least, told in a manner that I could bring.
Having said that, I think it’s important to know when one can insert oneself in a story, and when not to. I wrote for The Coast for three years, barely putting an “I” in a story. I believed—and still do—that it’s too easy to place oneself in a story. It’s harder—and often better—to remove oneself at first. Afterwards, when editing, there may be room to place yourself in a piece, if it merits it. You’re asking an audience to go somewhere with you, and sometimes you just have to get out of the way and let them see things for themselves.
Are there any new trends in food writing that you’ve noticed?
Reading work by people who present stories in unexpected contexts. People like Mayukh Sen, who is queer and South Asian and wrote about his love for Tammy Wynette’s cookbook in Gravy (The Southern Foodways Alliance). It’s an unexpected juxtaposition that speaks in ways one wouldn’t imagine. This is where a first person narrative really works.
Food writing is most often about reflection: this can be wonderful and can speak to people in all sorts of ways—we see ourselves as the author experiences comfort or shame, bliss or revulsion. It’s a relatively easy way for readers to experience empathy and openness to/for/by people whom we normally would not have access to.
I recently taught a workshop on food writing at the WFNS, and I spoke on the subject of nostalgia. Nostalgia is often the fuel for the fire of food writing for a lot of people, and that’s fine, but it can’t be the only fuel in your fire. It smoulders and flames rather than giving out steady heat, and can smoke up the room, leaving you wondering if you’re actually seeing things clearly. Your mom’s chocolate chip cookies and the memories linked to them may be a source of great pleasure to you, but it’s relatively uninteresting on its own. However, the process she went through in making them, the perspective of you looking up at her from the counter, the scene in which the cooking/making/baking happens is interesting. What does the foodstuff mean or represent? Don’t give me your cookie. Give me the recipe, and tell me how it got made.
Do you find that your two creative pursuits (cooking and writing) inform each other?
They do, because it’s about getting better at both: how to write a better recipe so that someone can understand the process of making a dish. I find myself taking notes more than I ever did when I was just cooking for myself, because you never know how comfortable someone is in a kitchen. You may have to hold their hand, or you may want to set them free.
In food writing in and of itself, it’s about using a medium, and using it to its best ability—who is the audience, how much do I need to explain, and how much can I just show, rather than tell
What’s the biggest misconception about being a food writer?
That we’re all critics. That we’re all bloggers. That we all have refined palates. Nope. There is nothing wrong with possessing any of those qualifiers, but it’s limiting. Personally, I’d rather not be limited in what I do. I tell stories, and food is the medium for that story to be told.
What was it like to publish your first book?
To be honest, I didn’t think anyone would care. I wrote a book about a small segment of the population—Acadians—and ended up talking to people across the continent. I talked to people on NPR in California about salted onions, and fricot on television in Toronto. I had conversations about the importance of culinary heritage with a Korean-born editor at a Canadian magazine. Everyone saw something about themselves, and the value of their own culinary heritage in ways they hadn’t thought about before. And to be honest, in writing the book, I looked at my own culinary heritage in a way I never would’ve experienced if I hadn’t written this book.
Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you like to move around?
I mostly work from home, at a vintage mid-century Formica table I bought at a junk shop outside of Weymouth. It was forty dollars. It’s often stained with coffee rings, and crumbs from whatever I am baking/eating. There is a stack of books that I should be reading on the left hand side, and a to-do list on the right.
In your opinion, what makes a great cookbook?
People—whether they are your average reader of your toughest editor—will often say that a good cookbook is one that makes you want to cook from it. But I would argue that a great cookbook is one that goes beyond that. It’s one that gives you a sense of agency and inspiration all at once—I can cook from this, and I never realized how special such a dish can be. Nigel Slater does this in spades with his two volume Tender series. I rarely get excited about something as humble as an apple, but Slater’s words make me want to pay attention to every detail, from the russeting of its skin to the texture of the flesh as it hits my teeth.
What are you working on right now?
I have two projects in the pipeline right now, one of which—if you look at my social media feeds—you can probably guess. I’m also working on reading as many of the books on food that I’ve bought over the past year or so. Let’s just say that I am now on a first name basis with a few booksellers, and it’s not because of my own book.