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Q&A: Susan Musgrave on her new cookbook


Susan MusgraveIn 2010, poet Susan Musgrave took over the Copper Beech bed and breakfast on Haida Gwaii. A longtime resident of the B.C. island, Musgrave’s latest book, A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World (Whitecap Books), celebrates through words, photos, and recipes both the cuisine and the community that has become her home.

How did this book come to be? Whitecap publisher Nick Rundall had come to the Copper Beech House with my old friend, author Katherine Govier, when I first opened. Nick asked if I had ever thought about writing a cookbook. I actually had thought about writing about local food and people, because there are so many interesting cooks and people doing things such as German fusion with Haida. That will be a future book.

I also like writing things where I’m learning. I started reading books about all the ingredients. When I was researching olive oil, I ended up spending days, weeks on it.

Your cookbook has a rare emphasis on storytelling. Was this intentional? As a poet and a novelist, I’m most interested in storytelling. If you know how to read a recipe, you can find good ones anywhere.

It’s the stories I care about – it doesn’t really matter if you can make the recipes.

Is humour an important part of the storytelling? It’s strange that there’s a tradition of high seriousness in cooking and that most cookbooks are really serious. There is laughter in cooking, especially in your mistakes. In fact, I have a line: your mistakes are where the good stories are. Like my mom, the time when the ballbearings accidentally came out of her rolling pin and we were getting all sorts of them in our steak and kidney pie. We thought it was shot. She’s never lived that down, but we’ll always remember that pie.

What is your approach to cooking? You don’t have to be a perfectionist. The line that drives me is my father saying when I was 11: “You’re so useless you can’t even boil an egg.” Whenever I make any meal, that goes through my head – this is going to be a flop – but it never has been. Although, so what? No one cares anyway. They’re having a good time because you cooked for them. The human element is what’s important, and it’s what’s important on Haida Gwaii, too. We have lots of potlucks and bonfires and everyone makes food.

Was writing the mechanics of the recipes an intuitive process? No, not at all – I measure in baking – but nothing else. The precision of a cookbook was very difficult – I couldn’t always just say “a pinch;” my editor preferred I say “an eighth of a teaspoon.” So intuition meets science. That was annoying because it felt like doing math rather than writing short stories in English class. (I was never great in math at school, but I’m sure Whitecap had people checking it.)

For a lot of the recipes I could come up with exact amounts, but sometimes you’re dealing with wild food. You’re not going to the store to say, ‘I’d like a three-pound deer leg.’ You don’t know how big the deer is when you shoot it.