“That was a long time ago.” is what one man—an old family friend—had to say about The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning (ABCC). True enough, 1996 was a while ago, but I’m not sure how to take the comment given it was apparently his only remark when presented our book. Was it a simple statement of fact or a nuanced dismissal as if to say “the best before date on your story has passed?”
Let me back up. Just over two months ago, perfectly timed (not really) to fall on the eve of a crippling ice storm, Carol and I released our book in Toronto. In the storm’s aftermath and since then, many of you have written to report what good company The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning has been in this winter’s spate of polar weather.
We love getting your take on our Antarctic mosaic. One of my favourite letters ends:
“It’s far more than Cooking and Cleaning. I guess the way that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not just about Zen and motorcycles…”
Some of you have graciously asked why we didn’t write it sooner, as if to suggest ours was a much-anticipated release. We’ve been happy to answer those few queries. But this recent one leg summary, “That was a long time ago,” left me feeling simultaneously flat and feisty. I’ve witnessed kneejerk naysaying derail far too many worthwhile initiatives, so my survival instinct kicks in even when I’m well out of the danger zone.
Fortunately I find spirit guides elsewhere. A flip through notes I made over the course of our bookmaking journey remind me of timely insights gained at the movies—specifically in documentaries screened at ReFrame Film Festival (Peterborough’s International Film Festival) each January. My current top four films for inspiration and pep talks include:
Stories We Tell —Sarah Polley’s stirring exploration of family secrets and identity.
“How many fascinating stories there are in your own life without having to look for them.” — Sarah Polley
Chasing Ice—The award-wining documentary about nature photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, the rate of glacial retreat in Greenland and Alaska and how it relates to climate change.
“How far are you willing to take an idea.”
“All that obsession means nothing if tech fails.” —James Balog
Spring & Arnaud— A love story about acclaimed Canadian artists Spring Hurlbut and Arnaud Maggs where both artists muse about artistic process.
“Ideas come slowly, accumulate and then she produces.” —Arnaud Maggs
What is Art? —A masterful work in progress survey of artists, art and methodology by Peterborough filmmaker Lester Alfonso.
“I’m not sure how it informs my work, but I know I can’t make this work without these two aspects. This other work is what allows this work to emerge…Somehow those experiences are so ingrained that they just appear.” —Dorothy Caldwell
I think of the countless ways to approach any idea and what can be gleaned when a project is given the time it needs. For the benefit of those of you wondering why we didn’t write our book sooner here are a few of the decidedly non-linear steps involved in this venture.
To clarify, It hasn’t taken us 18 years to complete The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, although Carol and I did start talking about it very soon after we got home. This was really only three-year project, but it’s safe to say all our life experience since 1996 is in the book one way or another.
For starters, in the late 90s, independent of any early aspirations to make our book, I segued from catering to food styling for film and television. Along the way, immersed in the unique food prep for camera world, I picked up recipe development and testing skills.
Meanwhile, Carol nurtured a passion for Antarctic scholarship at the same time as building an impressive project management portfolio in humanitarian initiatives around the world. How do you bring together such broad elements? You’ll find the tip of the iceberg of Carol’s research in our book, tempered and tied together by her commitment to caring for others and determination to find a way to make a difference.
But there is more. Let me back up again.
Early in our book I mention that the impetus to collect recipes in Antarctica was rooted in my art practice, specifically a mixed media work I’d started long before Antarctica was on my radar. Dancing in a Northern Kitchen was inspired by many seasons spent cooking for tree-planters in remote areas of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. The idea to add recipes from another remote cooking experience seemed like a natural progression, at least until it sunk in I’d have to change the title to be more geographically inclusive. I abandoned that tack, but not the voyage.
Dancing in a Northern Kitchen—Detail
To paraphrase Dorothy Caldwell, this other work —in my case Dancing in a Northern Kitchen (2003) and two related short films (2008)— is in part what allowed our book to emerge. How you ask? In those pieces the accordion bookwork form served as a way to examine connections between cooking, art and dance. I also wanted to honour the layers of experience that are folded into the pages of a cookbook to suggest that time, place and people are as integral to recipes and good cooking as ingredients.
Dancing in a Northern Kitchen & Another Kind of Dance, One —Installation View
The end result? One mixed media installation, two films and by the time I started to develop recipes for the ABCC the core principles of my recipe writing were already established. That is to say I knew I wanted my recipes to be less staccato and formulaic—more fluid, lyrical and encouraging. I wanted them to move people to enjoy the dance of making food again. And of course I wanted them to be delicious. At the same time I hoped that telling the stories behind my recipes would inspire new ones. What can be rekindled by a smell, a taste or by the simple act of making?
Another Kind of Dance, One & Two—Clip
So you see, my own process doesn’t allow for quick turn around. Even so I’m not concerned about the shelf life of our story or even my recipes.
This week is the 18th anniversary of my departure from King George Island. To mark the occasion I’m mounting a popup exhibition of works that played a part in the making of our in book at Circus, one of three Peterborough shops that carry the ABCC. Chris, the owner, is going to install a suite of Dancing in a Northern Kitchen chapters from floor to ceiling— a way I always hoped they’d be seen. There is also room for a handful of encaustic on slate pieces from Antarctic Chronicles.
Words you never hear artists say: I wish my work wasn’t relevant anymore!
Antarctic Chronicles—Installation View
Antarctic Chronicles (1998) was my first attempt to distil the experience of having lived in Antarctica. Comprised of landscapes and portraits inscribed with excerpts from my journals it’s clear how this body of work fed into the creation of the ABCC. Like our book, the installation is also an ode to Antarctica and a lament for all wild places in jeopardy.
I think of our first excursion to the wild side of King George Island. We visited an international glaciology field camp where the scientists where measuring glacial mass. Yes, in 1996 the glacier was receding and the island was abuzz with the news. In those early days I don’t think anyone had extrapolated the data or could have predicted how quickly glacial recession rates would accelerate globally.
Antarctic Chronicles —Drake Side
That was a long time ago, but the passing of time and melting ice have made any initiative that brings wild places and global cooperation into collective consciousness potently relevant. Perhaps it’s ambitious to think The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning might raise awareness or have some other effect. We think it’s worth the effort and not a moment too late.
Antarctic Chronicles—White Infinity