Book Review of Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food
Edited and with a Foreword by Rachel Rose
Published by Anvil Press
978-1-77214-101-6 $25 large trade paperback
Let me begin by putting on my bookseller’s hat and asking the key question: who will reach for this book?
Gardeners who sigh happily over the new batch of seed catalogues arriving in late January, cooks who read cookbooks like other people immerse themselves in books of short stories, amateur and professional chefs, readers and writers of compressed, powerful poetry and prose, those who appreciate photography and will discover Derek Fu’s gorgeous work…and that’s just for starters.
There are 151 tidbits to savour from writers who live in Vancouver, where Poet Laureate Rachel Rose envisioned this highly collaborative book, and from elsewhere around the world. There are contributions from nationally renowned poets like Lorna Crozier, John Pass and Susan Musgrave, nearly-anonymous librarians who write like angels, celebrated chefs like Karen Barnaby, Meeru Dhalwala, Vikram Vij and Frank Pabst, thoughtful children and wise elders, some speaking Arabic and Cree. There are farmers, beekeepers, fishers and backyard gardeners, First Nations, Metis, refugees and members of their welcome committees.
As Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver from 2014-2017, Rachel Rose wanted a community project which offered another world view than the muttering and braying about walls to keep out the Other, meaning Muslims, Mexicans, and desperate refugees the world over. Rose had already spent years volunteering with Burmese families in Surrey, shopping for food, shampooing hair, attending graduations, weddings and funerals. Her genuine Canadian hospitality imbues this book project too because the money raised by sales, as well as every single writer’s honorarium, is donated to the BC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Coupon Program so that low-income families will have access to fresh, locally-grown food.
So as well as bringing so many wonderful writers together at the ‘table’ of Sustenance, the book itself is a gift that keeps on giving, the Poet Laureate’s inspired “love letter to the city.”
The selected writings, as you’d expect from an editor and writer of her stature with award-winning work published internationally and an abiding focus on human rights, is unfailingly eloquent. This is not a book written by or for people scampering off to find the trending mustard de jour. As well as thoughtful, we have hilarious (Jane Silcott’s ‘Cooking Class & Marriage Lessons’ and Karen Barnaby’s ‘Blackberry Fever’), heart-breaking (Sophia Karasouli-Milobar’s ‘Fava Bean Stew’ and Elizabeth Ross’ ‘Milky Way’), sensual (Jeff Steudel’s ‘Recipe’), life-affirming (Brian Brett’s ‘I Want to Serve Food to Strangers’) and carnivorous, although I would also cross-file it under hilarious (kjmunro’s ‘hungry in Tofino’).
The voices are as diverse as the forms— interviews, memoirs, recipes, both literal and figurative, prose and poems of all kinds, some as paeans to moose meat, bees, bread, beer, tomatoes, rice, beloved grandmothers, salmon, maple syrup, elk heart and fresh berries. The writers tackle subjects as difficult as anorexia, obesity, starvation, sugar, animal deaths, and allergies, real and possibly, imposed (see the delightful, plaintive essay, ‘Check the Ingredients!’ by Charles Dickens Grade 6 student, Ayla Maxwell).
What makes this book important and substantial to me begins with the obvious, universal fact: we all must eat to survive. Secondly, food is served on a platter of emotional connections to people, place and experience, the things that really matter to each of us therefore, the writing packs a visceral wallop. To sum up, food, sustenance, is intensely personal as well as political (read Billeh Nickerson’s smart, incisive poem ‘A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Vancouver Food (In)Securities’).
The final words, amid the cornucopia of offerings at this banquet for humanity, goes to ten year old collaborators, Bodhi Cutler and Gus Jackson, who both attend Charles Dickens Elementary School in Vancouver. ‘Every Dish is Unique’ is their short, sweet and perfectly apt essay which sums up Sustenance.
‘Every dish is unique because every Vancouverite makes it a tiny bit different. We all have our styles and our ingredients, our suppliers and our equipment. There are restaurants who will probably make great pasta with the best calamari. Your mom can make a great homemade meal she invented herself. No two meals taste the same because they are like humans, unique and great.’