A Pinch of Coriander
Author Q & A
with Loretta Gatto-White
What inspired you to write in the Food Fiction genre for your first novel?
It just came naturally, as I began my writing career as a food columnist, food features writer and later freelance food and travel journalist for magazines. So for me, food, place and the culture of cuisine are at the heart of story...the story of our families, celebrations etc. and the story of our world, from the geo-political to the agricultural and even historical.”
How is food central to the story of your family’s life?
My paternal grandfather emigrated in the 1890’s from Calabria, first landing in New York, going north to Canada then settling in Toronto, where he opened a very successful bakery. He then branched-out into a fine food emporium, importing the best from all over the world.
In what way did this background influence your food practices? Are you a good cook?
I love to cook, and yes I am a good and I think, creative cook. That’s not to say that I’ve never had some disasters, but that happens when you are exploring unfamiliar ingredients and methods, or sometimes, just taking your eye off the ball.
How and why did you make the leap from food journalist to fiction writer?
I’m not sure that I consciously made that leap or that the circumstances of my life just pushed me towards it. I know that’s cryptic, but I can explain it like this; in 2008 my husband, Jim, became critically ill with metastatic prostate cancer, an illness that would take his life in 2011. In 2010, both my parents died and my newspaper ceased publication. My world was in turmoil and I knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending to this part of my life story.
So, between editing the anthology, taking care of my wheelchair-bound husband, every night cranking-up Carly Simon’s ‘I Believe in Love’ loud enough that Jim couldn’t hear me crying into the sink while making dinner, I decided I needed a safe place to be.
And I created that place in my imagination, starting with character sketches that would later become the backbone of A Pinch of Coriander, which in the aftermath of Jim’s death, really saved my sanity.
In what way is food central to historic narrative?
Well, just think of how many foods the Americas gave to Europe that really diversified their cuisines and improved their diets. For example, all the nightshades, that is potatoes, peppers and tomatoes-can you imagine the cuisines of Italy and Southern France without tomatoes or Ireland without potatoes? Or Valentine’s Day and Easter without chocolate? Or really any day of the week without chocolate!
How did he manage going from baker to importer, was this a family enterprise?
This was not a surprising move as he was a customs officer back in Italy, so he knew about the import business. So, my father and his seven siblings all worked in some capacity in the store, even as kids, and were used to eating only the best food at home. So food was quite literally their ‘bread and butter’.
And for you personally? How is food central your life?
For me food, specifically cooking, is first a creative expression and second about building relationships with people. I don’t really feel ‘simpatico’ with someone, until I’ve shared a meal with them, there’s one exception though, and that is my very good friend and co-editor Delia DeSantis...we worked together on my first book, Italian Canadians at Table, a Narrative Feast in Five Courses, which is an anthology of Italian-Canadian writers on our contributions to Canadian cuisine. We worked very well together, she from Bright’s Grove Ontario and me from Chester, Nova Scotia. So we never met, or ate together, until after the book was finished. But back to your question. Personally, extending hospitality and cooking good food for people is a way of forging bonds, not of obligation, but of understanding and mutual entertainment and yes, reciprocity. One treats one’s friends as one would like to be treated. Also, I never really feel at home in a place until I’ve cooked a meal there. So when I’m visiting friends for say a weekend, I always participate in the cooking.
Can you explain how writing A Pinch of Coriander was a kind of catharsis for you?
Well, I don’t think catharsis is really the right word for it, more like a ‘reverse catharsis’ in that instead of intense and difficult feelings emerging from my grief, it was more that I regained my personal empowerment, the power that we have to shape our reality is lost when illness and death are steering life’s destination. I really wanted to grab that steering wheel back and say, “Well fate, you pulled me off the highway, onto the shoulder, so I’m taking back control...take that illness, take that death!”
After my husband died, being able to escape to my imagination creating a world, in A Pinch of Coriander, where there is understanding, love and friendship, despite one’s flaws, was healing. I needed that kind of affirmative spirit, that safe place to be. And even though life and the story ultimately take tragic turns, there is hope, I think in the strength of the characters to go on and persevere.