“My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food”- I talk to MsMarmiteLover

msmarmite-portraits-0304.jpg
Photo courtesy of Kerstin Rodgers

 

Β Stand in front of a map, don a blindfold and point, and the chances are that you’ll choose a country that food writer Kerstin Rodgers, aka MsMarmiteLover has either visited or plans to do so very shortly. For those of us who lack the budget of an oligarch but still aspire to eat well and see the world, Kerstin is your go-to woman, having travelled widely on a realistic budget as sole parent, often with her child in tow, and packing little more than a curious mind, an appetite and a guidebook. And now Kerstin ventures forth to Bury St Edmunds to stage a show at the Theatre Royal with wine expert Nick Adams which promises to marry memoir, menu suggestions and travelogue with food and wine pairings, compared by BBC Suffolk presenter, Lesley Dolphin. It is a night that promises to be interactive and informal and offers something a little different for audiences in this Georgian jewel of a venue.

Check out Kerstin’s blog and her four books and you will see that she isn’t the kind of woman to draw the footbridge up behind her either. Her latest book is packed with advice and guidance for would be food writers with a dream of making a living in one of the most competitive industries of all and her blog is jam packed with seriously useful advice designed to make you feel that you can do it. There’s recipes of course, but also a fresh and at times irreverent take on the High Church of Careers in Food and the Art of Travel Discourse with stories about her exploits in places such as a state fair in Alaska where she could have paid ten dollars to enter a raffle to win her own gun or meeting anarchic French wine producers (and correctly and helpfully defining what anarchy actually means).

She writes about staging an exquisitely researched secret 18th century tea party at Dennis Severs’ ghostly Georgian house in Spitalfields, Christmas spent with her daughter at an abandoned mining town La Vieille Valette near AlΓ¨s and Kimchi cooked Gangnam style which was inspired by her first Korean meal, served bizarrely in Ecuador and not, um, Seoul or Pusan. This is set against a back story which involves her starting out as a teenage photographer at New Musical Express, becoming the subject of the Madness single ‘My Girl’s Mad at Me’ and launching the supper club/pop up/underground restaurant movement in the UK in 2009 via the inception of her supper club The Underground Restaurant.

At a time when the dominant narrative around single parenthood can lean towards little money, limited horizons and a serious lack of agency, Kerstin is a refreshing change and I would have loved such a role model back in the day when I (briefly) found myself alone with a child. You also might not know that Kerstin is a facilitator and, as she describes herself, a passionate believer in the punk philosophy of a DIY philosophy as applied to food, meaning that she acts as friend and mentor to many small food producers across the UK. Kerstin helps them to establish themselves in a crowded market and sell their wares whilst sharing mutual expertise and advice. I am hoping that she will find Suffolk a new and fertile stamping grounds for her ideas and initative and that we might benefit as a county from her gastro-expertise which has been hard won over time.

Another of Kerstin's books
Another of Kerstin’s books

Over the course of a near three hour interview (a lot of which featured delicious food world gossip and off the record laughs) I asked Kerstin about her life and career and about what we might expect when she comes to the Theatre Royal. As someone who adores food writing myself, I am keen to hear her opinions on the genre and what direction it might take in the future. “I’m desperately hoping that food blogging won’t die out” Kerstin says, straight off the bat when I ask her this. “My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food but I do worry that people don’t actually want food writing and content anymore. They want lifestyle.”

Yet Kerstin’s blog is remarkably broad in its remit without being unfocused, going from elaborately staged supper clubs to relatable suggestions for creating a similar ambience in your own cooking and home. From embroidering her own tea towels to writing posts about niche ingredients that we all buy then wonder what the hell to do with (bottarga anyone?), there is a spirit of can do realism in Kerstin’s work. You encourage people to enjoy their nests, I remark.

“I’ve always been a bit of a nester. I love doing that. I think we are still in recession and a few lucky people aren’t and people haven’t got a lot of money. I’m very careful with money. I’ve just been careful. There was an urge to go with that when I started the supper club. That, in a way, was the ultimate nesting thing, you are having a whole night out in my own house.”

Kerstin provides a much needed alternative to the dominant media image of lone parents- the idea that they all live poverty-struck, grim and unimaginative lives of subsistence, eating TV dinners in front of a giant flat screen. This narrative can be a dangerously narrow one where aspirational and hard-working single parents are not accurately represented in the media. It’s important to be a different role model, I tell her, whether you intended this to be the case or not.

“I’ve been a single mother for twenty years. I KNOW what it can be like. I was on benefits too and the one thing I didn’t do was starve. In fact what I could afford to do was eat. That was the one thing I could do. I was one parent with one child taking on all the responsibility and it’s an intimate situation. I don’t hide things,” she said.

“It’s not what you say, it is also what you do. Kids aren’t watching us cook anymore. It’s a really important life skill.

“It is tough [single parenting] and as single parents, we are very scary. We’re often single women and we are managing! I’m a bit like Elizabeth the First; without a man I am more efficient… Stronger, I get stuff done and a man can be a distraction. It can take away from yourself to look after them although I’d quite like one, sometimes….” she laughs.

Kerstin self identifies as feminist, telling me that “to learn to drive, it’s the most important thing to do, as a vehicle gives is freedom. It’s a feminist thing,” and we talked at length about the ‘official’ food world and the narrow tropes that tend to dominate it.

“99.9% of the worlds cooking tends to be done by women yet there is an inverse proportion of men doing the high profile restaurant reviewing, food writing and cheffing. It’s narrow and it is wrong and its all wealthy white men.”

Kerstin is well documented as the creator of the now widespread idea of eating out in other peoples homes, known as supper clubs. Despite the profound effect her idea has had upon the culinary zeitgeist she claims, “If I were a man, having created a new style of eating, I would not be in this position I am in. It can be really difficult to earn money and one of my battles is trying to earning enough money to carry on.This is my living, people pay money for my food.

“Tim Hayward (a food writer and owner of Cambridge bakery and cafe Fitzbillies) always says you need to be rich to be a food writer. Many people who work in food are well off to start with,” she adds.

What do you call yourself, I ask. What job description describes you best in this career of yours which weaves together so many different creative and practical strands?

“I call myself a reporter” she replies. ” I feel that is what I am doing. With my blog I only write about what I have done, seen and the people I talk to. Basically I go to places, like when I met the anarchic punks who make wine. I go to them, I interview them and spend the day with them. I learn about what they do and photograph it and then report back.

“And that is the sort of stuff thar really interests me.”

Kerstin’s background as a rock photographer stands her in good stead in an industry where visual aesthetics are beginning to take precedence over the ability to construct a sentence and write knowledgeably about the culture of food. Her ability to let a photograph tell the story is clear (and if you check out this blog post, you’ll see what I mean) but she is generous with her skills and keen to pass them on to a new generation of bloggers- if they are willing to listen and learn.

Her latest book, Get started in food writing: Teach Yourself (Hodder Staughton) is packed with handy tips from how to construct a recipe to building brands and securing TV appearances. “It’s the first non cookery book I have done and although it was pretty badly paid for a lot of effort, in the end I enjoyed doing it,” she says, wryly.

“It is a bit of a dry format but I tried to make it as juicy as possible. I enjoyed doing the interviews, from the horses mouth of talking to people so to speak, and that really interests me”, she added.

This is a word heavy book, and she is unfairly comparing it to her previous cookbooks which are visually very rich, packed with lovely images, memories and recipes with context. However ‘Food Writing’ solicits the expertise of some very well known food industry bods including the aforementioned Tim Hayward and is a really useful resource with cautionary tales about what the business can be like and hints on avoiding these pitfalls. Kerstin’s work has been plagiarised in the past and has had to use the resources available to her in order to seek redress through social media and her own blog posts about the experience. “I sometimes think that sometimes with certain celeb chefs, my feed is basically their pinterest board,” she confided.

I ask her about the recent backlash against the ‘clean food brigade’ those deliciously glossy and long boned young women (because they do tend to be female) who are all over the weekend food supplements, plying us with recipes for avocado slices dropped into cucumber (Yes, this was actually offered as a ‘recipe’, recently) and other digestively moral advice.

“There are all these skinny 22 yr olds talking about food. I went to Istanbul with one of them recently” she confides, “It’s the shadow side of the food industry. Its basically, a complicated relationship with food. It’s rock n roll, it’s glamour and we have incredible guilt about what we eat,” Kerstin says emphatically.

“There’s all these diseases from overeating such as diabetes but these girls are unrealistic. We all looked like that when we were 22, or most of us did. It’s easy to be thin and moral when you are 22 with beautiful youthful hormones, dancing all night in clubs,” she added.

“I’m not a fan: it’s another fad and in a years time we’ll all be going, do you remember that time when we were all mad about…? It’s another form of dieting, these women are diet bloggers. It’s this lifestyle thing, focused upon what you look like and these girls photograph well. Can any of them cook? I don’t know.”

So at its worst is it a form of eating disorder?

“Yes.”

Look at the men in food, I add. Not glam are most of them?

“We treat food like fashion and it is all about being in your twenties- there’s ageism going on too,” she agrees.

V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin's books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.
V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin’s books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.

Kerstin writes about vegetarian and vegan food a lot and one of her books is an incredibly useful and realistic cookbook for vegans (V is for Vegan). Despite her concerns about some aspects of the food industry, she is aware that the zeitgeist is quite sensibly focusing upon eating less animal fat and finding ways of enjoying food without contributing towards the environmental burden upon the planet.

“*I don’t have meat in my house and it is an ethical choice. The book (V is for Vegan) is my way of paying respect to the vegan community and I would have loved more space as its quite a short book. I fought to get the pages I got.”

Going back to economic constraints on food budgets she points out that “the first thing we give up on when money is short is meat. I think eating animal protein should be a rare treat if you are going to do it and a lot of it is not good for your health., I don’t think it is something for 3 times a day.

“Meat used to be for Sunday best. Stir fries etc, tiny bits of meat making it go a long way for the rest of the week. We never used to eat the amount of meat that people eat today.

“I honestly believe that cutting down on eating animal protein is good for your health.”

The advantage of travelling so much means that Kerstin is able to see these trends (if indeed this issue should be called a trend) and her travels to the USA in particular have informed her recipe development and menu creation although she is exasperated at times by the way we respond over here.

“The decision to become vegetarian or vegan is more respected in the States and [it is] very well written about over there. Lots of very well respected chefs are doing fantastic things with food but here, yet again, we’ve turned it into a fashion item. The British always seem to need to turn everything into a gimmick, like we do with street food” she said although she acknowledged the benefits of veganism becoming “fashionable again” for newly vegan people desperately searching for inspiration.

The Theatre Royal will be a good fit for Kerstin in my opinion with its intimate Georgian atmosphere. The show’s format is a new thing for her and she is keen to explore new ways of working in food and collaborations with people who possess expertise and longevity..

You’ll be well placed on that stage, I tell her. People in East Anglia are happy to travel miles to see a show. We’re kind of like the British version of Midwesterners living on the great plains, I laugh, and whilst it might be something a little different to the usual theatre programme, I think that those attending will enjoy the format.

“I’m working with Nick Adams who is a most respected master of wine” she said.

“I know him. He isn’t showy, you talk to people in the know and they say ‘yup’. He is very knowledgeable and quite acerbic about wine which is refreshing. I’m keen to see what he will do.”

We’ll be like the Muppets audience, jabbering away and completely slaughtered in the stalls and little theatre boxes if he passes the wine around, I comment, which we laugh about.

“It’s hard, talking about wine,” she explains.

“I’ve just done an article for the Wine Trust. I basically finished it at 2am last night and I’m not a wine buff. I hate writing wine descriptions. Some people do it really well but its very difficult to describe HOW something tastes and I always try to avoid it. I tend to concentrate upon stories about the wine, the winemakers- that I can do something with.”

So, the show will be something different for those of you going along and by all accounts, a new way of working for Kerstin Rogers. She told me that “this mania about food will move on. We’ve kind of jumped the shark about it and I’m wondering what the zeitgeist is going to be next.”

I agree that the mania needs to move on but I am hoping it will leave room for a more considered debate about food and the kind of enjoyable essays about food and the people who produce it that Kerstin and other good food writers publish. Kerstin has always been aware that they are the real stars of the show. The rest of the food world will eventually, and hopefully, catch on.

This feature was previously published on Bury Spy and publicised an event held at The Theatre Royal

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s