Terri Brandmueller is Room’s former poetry submissions co-ordinator, and a great lover of food. A skilled baker, Terri has written about food for Women's Day, Fresh Ideas Magazine, and Eating Well. Her family is equally passionate about all things culinary—her father is a baker and chef, and her kids work in the restaurant industry. To celebrate the launch of Room 40.1 Food, Terri spoke to Room's Alissa McArthur about her life in food and writing. You can read the first part of the interview with Terri in 40.1.
AM: What is your earliest food memory?
TB: I was about four years old and I remember walking into my dad’s bakery and being overwhelmed by the most incredible smell. I didn’t have the words for it then—it was sense memory in its purest form, and because of that, to this day, this memory is vivid and alive. Whenever I smell bread baking—that sweet, earthy, yeasty aroma—I am back in Rudy’s Bakery on Main Street in Vancouver, wandering around the display cases, which were all eye-level to a four year old, marvelling at the too-beautiful-to-eat pastries and the floury bins of bread and rolls.
My dad taught me to separate eggs then, and I would sit with a bowl for the whites, a bowl for the yolks and a bowl for the shells, and I remember feeling stupidly proud of myself. My dad tells me now that I would get everything mixed up and there were shells in all the bowls, but at the time I felt total mastery of my task, and weirdly, I still have that confidence when I bake—which is really half the battle of most baking. So it’s the smell of bread, but it’s also about pride, confidence, feeling safe, and, of course, my father’s love and patience.
AM: How did you get started in food writing?
TB: An ex and I travelled around Southeast Asia for a year researching a book about street food. It was going to be called Street Eats and it was about food cart culture in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. It was never published but I knew then that I wanted to write about food. I had been working as a newspaper journalist and in public relations, but started magazine freelancing when my kids were small and we were living in the States. It made sense to segue into food journalism at that point, and I started writing short cookbook reviews, and then landed a cookbook review column called “Word of Mouth” in Eating Well magazine, which led to assignments in other magazines.
AM: What was it like living in a food capital like New York?
TB: NYC is an embarrassment of riches both at the high and the low end of the culinary scale, and though I loved eating out at all the fancy, trendy places, and shopping at gourmet markets like Zabar’s and Dean & DeLuca, what I miss most is the proliferation of neighbourhood restaurants, where you can go every week, sit at the same table, get to know your serving staff, see your friends and eat good, simple food without a lot of pretension.
I loved the idea of being a “regular” and having “the regular.” The experience was about belonging, and in a city of eight million people that sense of belonging can be elusive, and for me I found it in those neighbourhood places. I always imagined that it was a little like pub culture in the U.K., where you have this extension of your living room that becomes a spontaneous, multigenerational, multicultural meeting place.
Because most people don’t drive in New York, food delivery is also part of the everyday culinary DNA of the city. You can get absolutely everything delivered, usually within the hour, to your door. There are services like Blue Apron that deliver the ingredients and recipes for complete meals, along with wine pairings. I did most of my grocery shopping online and that was an amazing timesaver. And, virtually every restaurant delivers so if you are home late and there’s nothing in the fridge, dinner was a phone call away. I knew people there who never cooked and only ate out or ordered in, and people really do eat out of those little Chinese restaurant containers.
AM: What is your favourite food to make and your favourite food to eat?
TB: My favourite thing to make is bread. It is simply magical to me that three or four inexpensive ingredients can come together to create such a beautiful, delicious thing. Even though I’ve been making it for over forty years, it still gives me an immense sense of accomplishment when I pull a loaf out of the oven. And then, of course, there’s the smell.
It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite food because I’m one of those people who believes that anything edible can be delicious if prepared properly. I love bright, fresh Mediterranean flavours; simple foods and spicy foods; all the noodles; green beans off the vine; raw, sweet corn off the cob; cake and pie; eggs—poached, coddled, shirred, and scrambled; specialties from all the regions of Italy; Masakan Padang from Sumatra; Nasi Lemak from Malaysia; Cheese Mochi Maki from the masterminds at Zakkushi in Vancouver; smoked salmon; pickled herring; grilled lamb; roasted peppers; fried onions; thin pancakes with lemon and sugar; plum dumplings; and oatmeal with Greek yogurt for breakfast every morning with my coffee. All that is a roundabout way of saying my favourite thing to eat is whatever my next meal is.
AM: Do you bring food into your creative writing?
TB: I’ve written quite a lot of poetry about food, and have been published in Alimentum, The Literature of Food. I’ve noticed that the subject does tend to creep into whatever I’m writing. There’s a scene in the book I’m currently working on that takes place in the first class dining room of a 1920s luxury steamship.
AM: What, for you, makes good food writing?
TB: To me, good food writing transports you beyond the plate. If it’s fiction or memoir, I want an emotional pay-off. One of the reasons I love M.F.K. Fisher’s work so much is because the idea of food and hunger is integrated into her personal experience, and although she was extremely knowledgeable about food, sometimes you don’t even notice it in her work—what you notice is her joie de vivre.
If it’s food journalism, I want the writer to be knowledgeable but not patronizing, with a fresh and personal point of view. I stop reading if I see a lot of food-writing clichés like mouthfeel or addictive or meltingly or unctuous—unctuous is the worse—I really just think greasy when I see that word.
AM: Can you share with us your favourite food-related writing?
TB: It’s the scene in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, when thirteen-year-old Tom, who’s been away at school, comes home to find that his little sister Maggie has forgotten to feed his rabbits and they’ve all died. Maggie adores Tom and begs him to forgive her but he self-righteously tells her he doesn’t love her because of her naughtiness. Heartbroken, Maggie retreats to the attic sobbing and misses Tom’s coming home party. When their father notices Maggie’s absence, he sends Tom up to fetch Maggie, and although Tom’s resolved to continue punishing her, when he sees his little sister’s swollen eyes and dishevelled hair, he softens and offers her a piece of his plum cake:
“Maggie’s sobs began to subside, and she put out her mouth for the cake and bit a piece; and then Tom bit a piece, just for company, and they ate together and rubbed each other’s cheeks and brows and noses together, while they ate, with a humiliating resemblance to two friendly ponies.”
Everything about sibling relationships and how sharing food has the power to heal is said in that one sweet and funny sentence.
AM: Do you have any advice for writers who want to focus on food?
TB: Read a wide variety of literature about food—cookbooks, travel writing, personal essays, culinary history, science and social science. I think it is important to learn about foodways—the intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history—before trying to write about food, especially if you are writing from a place of privilege. A good place to start is a critical studies journal like Gastronomica or Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.
My best advice, though, is to just eat and really notice what it is about food that makes you want to write about it.