Killing, Cooking, Writing: a workshop with Louise Gray
Start as you mean to go on, I say! It cannot be denied that the first Food: Beyond the Plate workshop at Newton Walled Garden, was bold. Having never yet held a formal class in the bohemian surrounds of the 'classroom' (normally a gilding workshop), it was perhaps ambitious to begin with an event that involved a significant amount of gore, several shower curtains and quite a lot of disinfectant.
Environmental journalist, Louise Gray, had recently published a book called "The Ethical Carnivore: my year killing to eat", in which - as the title might suggest - she had only eaten meat which she had killed herself for one year. She drew on this experience to guide our 6 eager students through the experience of skinning a rabbit, all the while encouraging and guiding them to reflect on the process and translate it into writing. Our students were a mix of aspiring writers, food enthusiasts and those curious to try butchery. No-one had skinned a rabbit before, but most could remember a relative doing so in the distant past.
Louise read us poetry and inspiring quotes from the likes of Hemingway, while 6 rabbits lay in wait on the long, sturdy table. The process of butchery was something Louise and I had practiced ourselves earlier in the week (though Louise was already adept at it), guided by the expert advice and alarmingly speedy knife-skills of Phil at George Bowers in Stockbridge. The resultant practice-rabbits had made their way into a delicious creamy rabbit pappardelle, which would be served at lunch.
The workshop was inspired by the fact that increasing numbers of folk find they want to write about food. Food is a wonderful subject to write about as we all have it in common to some extent, and so it offers the immediate opportunity to create a connection between writer and reader. But because it is a commonality, in the hands of an un-practiced writer it can also become mundane and bland. Given the potential for food to teach us about life and death, and many other such vital things - as our patient furry friends were testament to - and also considering the hugely competitive world of food writing, there’s a strong case for being able to convey the more visceral and emotive weight of our food experiences. But as Louise revealed, good writing is not something that necessarily comes naturally, particularly when it focuses on the everyday. Teasing out the extraordinary tales that lie in everything we eat, requires inquisitiveness and a critical awareness we might not normally consider practical to bring to the table.
As we respectfully butchered and prepared our rabbits, Louise also articulated the need for food writers to accept their responsibility as educators. Through little fault of our own, very few of us today can honestly say that we know where all our food comes from, how it's made, who made it, and its impact on the social and environmental world around us. The origin and substance of what we eat has largely been obscured by modern lifestyles, which rarely allow the time to consider, grow, process or cook our food, as well as a vastly sophisticated and impenetrable food system. Even though there may be innumerable bloggers describing the food on their plates, this neglects the more important, shocking, inspiring and beautiful stories that need to be told in order for us to truly understand what we are eating.
Perhaps skinning a rabbit is not something that many people will ever get the chance to do, and I think we could all admit to feeling a little unsure and perhaps a bit squeamish that day, which says a lot in and of itself. The rabbits certainly sparked some sustained discussion about the worth of lost traditions, the value of dealing with our food hands-on, and the ethics of meat consumption. I hope it also inspired some confidence and criticality in our students, enough to put some words on a page someday.