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Interview With Jonah Campbell

Interview With Jonah Campbell

The author of Food & Trembling on his affinity for linguistic play, the genius of Scotch Club and why Montreal is not a great food city.

Jonah Campbell, logophile and eater, writes in a shifting register that bridges whatever gap there is between the OED and Doritos All Nighter Cheeseburger Chips. Campbell claims that the appeal of his writing lies in "the fumbling charm of the amateur"—but the wit of his recent book Food & Trembling (Invisible Publishing) isn't so reduced. The essay collection isn't cautious or awestruck, like the trembling might suggest. Campbell treats food with straightforward appreciation—whether for spaghetti fried in curry paste or Scotch—before diving into the etymological roots and associations of, say, trompettes de la mort. There's a joy to it all.

Based in Montreal, Campbell brings a strong sense of place to his pieces, many of which were drawn from his blog, Still Crapulent After All These Years. (The title denotes a state beyond satiety, of being "oppressed with surfeit" rather than simply, nicely full.) He writes of the solitary winter trek to the dep to buy chocolate bars, and of a delightful meal in P.E.I. whose lowbrowness defies the fact that it is "delicious": "Fuck the academy, fix me up with some mayo 'n' fish 'n' cheese."

Diana Kole: You write, of stewing a pig's head to make pozole, that you were "able to approach the whole affair with alacrity, a sense of curiosity and irreverent humour"—which seems like an apt way to explain your relation to food in general. How do humour and irreverence play out in your writing?

Jonah Campbell: I think that "having a sense of humour about things" is very important in my life, in part because it always allows one the potential to derive at least an aesthetic satisfaction from what is going on around (or inside) oneself, and in my writing I think it's very essential, because with the combination of my language and the occasional philosophical ramblings, there is the potential for it to come across as very portentous and self-serious, and I think the humour undercuts that. It doesn't do to take oneself too seriously, but I'm also a firm believer that just because one is intellectualizing something, it doesn't mean it can't that can't at the same time be a fun, or funny, endeavour. I don't set out to be funny, however. Rather, I try not to set out to be funny.

A couple of years ago, after I put out On Food & Fooding, which was a zine compiling a lot of the early blog writing, people kept coming up to me and telling me how hilarious it was; up to that point it had never really occurred to me that what I was writing was funny, and so then I had this realization, where I was like "Oh my God, am I a food humourist? Is that what I am? Is that something that exists?" At the time I was reading a lot about the early years of the New Yorker, its roots as a humour magazine, and getting into people like Dorothy Parker, so the prospect of being a humour writer didn't seem so bizarre. I wouldn't say, though, that that best describes what I do.

DK: In reading Food & Trembling, I get the impression that your subject isn't so much food as language (like your explanation of the term "killcrop" as "interloping hobgoblin. Anyway, love that word"). It's not so much the literary references—Dante, Nabokov, Woolf, Kierkegaard—and frequent etymological investigations as your clear enjoyment of the way language works. Is this the way you tend to think and write regardless of subject?

JC: A friend of mine said that to him, the book seems to be about approaching food as text, and engaging in these hermeneutic readings of foods, almost like food writing as literary criticism (or vice versa?). But of course, they are neither close nor closed readings, because it's always wildly associative. I think what appeals to me is the analysis itself. I find looking at language really fascinating and fun, so yeah, maybe I would write that way regardless of the subject? It's hard to say.

Pretty much all of my, shall we say, "recreational" writing has been about food; it has been food that inspired me to write publicly at all. Otherwise, all of my writing has been academic, where there is already such a tendency toward jargon and obfuscation that one is behooved to write as clearly as possible otherwise. And for all that it interests me, I actually have no background in it at all—in terms of linguistics or linguistic history, or for that matter, even literature. I've taken one literature course ever in my life and I think it was English Lit 101.

DK: You recently wrote about Scotch Club, an invention that allows the poorer among us to try and share very good booze. can you tell us about how this club works, for those who might want to start their own?

JC: Really you can run a Scotch Club any way that works for you, but the way we've organized ours is that a group of four of us each meeting collectively buys two new bottles; we try a round from each bottle, and then a second with a dash of water to see how that affects it, then we also do a round from the two bottles that we drank at the previous meeting, for purposes of comparison, and then we each have a drink of whatever we most enjoyed.

Without getting into quibbling details, we find this works out really well because we all get to drink and talk about what we're tasting, and we get to explore all these different bottles that would be way too expensive to just buy out of curiosity on one's own. There are lots of totally decent, interesting scotches in the 60$ range, so you can use this collective buying scheme to taste a ton of those, or roll a little deeper and go in on more expensive bottles. We still haven't tasted anything above around 110$, which is still sort of mid-range in the wider scheme of scotches, but we've got grand dreams, believe you me.

DK: What you call the "sad central metaphor" of your book, the mistaking of flower petals for potato chips strewn on a metro-station floor, touches on the idea of what is probably the best-known food writing passage in literature, Proust's madeleine. How do you relate food to memory or association?

JC: The food-memory nexus is a central trope in the book, and a lot of that is a reaction against the romanticizing of food and memory that is such a generic convention in food writing. I'm very distrustful of memory, and consequently of the idea that a taste will be able to recall perfectly a time or place, or that a taste will itself ever be perfectly recalled.

Whether that is merely sour grapes because I myself have such a shoddy memory, I don't know, but I think there is an inherent flaw in treating taste as a sort of stable anchor for memory—any event or trigger weathers with time, with recollection, with retelling, so why should food prove any more resistant a kernel? Tastes transforms memory, memory transforms the tasted. At the same time, a lot of my memories are organized around food, and that's why food pops up so often as a narrative device in my writing. Elements of memoir in the book only enter chaperoned by food. It's kind of perverse, I suppose. The food isn't just an excuse to talk about something that happened; it is the reason a story gets told at all.

DK: Your writing seems to be rooted in a sense of place, and your references to living and eating in Montreal are particularly interesting and specific. (I would really like to try "WAKING UP WITH A HALF-CHEWED MOUTHFUL OF POUTINE" Doritos.) What are your feelings about food culture in Montreal compared to other places you've lived?

JC: I haven't lived a lot of places, so I don't think I'm in much of a position to say. Being vegan as a teenager in P.E.I. meant I existed in a total culinary wasteland, and only now am I coming to terms with what an amazing opportunity I missed not eating seafood when I lived there. I'm often pretty down on Montreal as a food city, and I think that that's only half-merited, but if you take a city like San Francisco or New York, or even to a lesser extent Toronto, you can't walk down the street without tripping over a half-dozen places that look worth eating at, and I don't experience that same level of...curiosity saturation here.

I think there's a lot of good stuff going on in Montreal, food-wise, and I appreciate the character of the city—for me Montreal is a very Middle Eastern-inflected food landscape, and that's something you don't see as often, but it also sometimes just means that there's a lot of pretty mediocre falafel to be had. A lot of the food Montreal's reputation is built on (besides smoked meat and poutine) is really expensive, and I don't feel comfortable calling somewhere a good Food City if it's not seeing a lot of innovation on every level, from street food to fine dining.

I think that is changing, though; as food becomes the In Thing for this generation, there's a lot more room and support for restaurateurs to experiment, to do more intensely local, idiosyncratic cuisine (Sichuan or Henan instead of "pan-Asian" Chinese, for example), and to pursue things with a greater clarity of vision.

DK: I wish I could end every piece of writing with "Excuse me as I go eat an entire pizza," as you do one chapter. What would you like to excuse yourself to go and eat an entire unit of?

JC: For Christmas a friend gave me one of those obscene half-pound Reese Peanut Butter Cups, and I feel like it's my duty to eat it alone, in one sitting, despite the fact that it's going to totally wreck me. I think I just need to embrace that experience. (Although I suppose by the time this is published, that will already have happened, so you can tune in to the blog to see how that went...)

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Related on

—Maisy's Best Books of 2011
—Eating Well
—Montreal Comfort Food: Poutine

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