Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 18, 2012

Review: Kitchen Party by Sheryl Kirby

I first met Sheryl Kirby in Parkdale as a wide-eyed, totally hysterical and completely raw 17-year-old in the late 90s. At that time I was so overwhelmed by Toronto and living alone for the first time that I gravitated towards Sheryl, who was, in my eyes, a stylish, savvy and competent urban citizen; the perfect role model and tour guide for someone in completely over her head. I don’t know that I was a very good student of this school of urban chic, but I certainly did learn a thing or two on the subject of Toronto and its food. It was with Sheryl that I had my first roti, my first pad thai, and my first Ethiopian meal. Reading Kitchen Party, Sheryl’s first collection of essays, I realized how deep and intrinsic to Toronto life those experiences Sheryl offered were.

When talking about culture, food is a divisive subject. Culture is more than food, and the various attempts to celebrate “multiculturalism” through food pavilions are generally reviled. But at the same time, food rituals are deeply, deeply ingrained in all cultures, Toronto being no exception. Part of Toronto’s cultural identity can be best experienced through its culinary offerings in a way that is unique to our city. Kirby, who along with her husband wrote, edited and maintained the popular food and drink website TasteTO for 5 years, has been deeply involved in Toronto’s food culture for decades. She has arrived at a place where she can now describe Toronto to us through a variety of food-related experiences and anybody who has lived in this city will recognize its soul through her essays.

The collection is divided into three sections: essays which bring us back to her childhood in Halifax, essays relating to her experiences in Toronto, and what she calls “food writing” which is supposed to transcend the Toronto-centric quality of the previous section, but which I found to be a more focused extension of the same. Kirby is at her best when she lets it all hang out, so to speak: her strong voice and opinions are what really makes a piece leap off the page, and when she doesn’t restrain herself the results are poignant  insightful and hilarious. Sheryl is the best character in any of her essays, whether she is pushing fruitcake, deriding Alexander Keith’s, stealing quinces from Toronto parks or screaming in horror as a roommate deals with a cockroach infestation with a pair of chopsticks – on LSD. Kirby confides to us that she is not much of a world traveller, but in place of foreign adventures she seems to have experienced Toronto all the more intensely.

Kirby as a savvy adult Torontonian visits those early essays about simple Nova Scotia childhood as well, with mixed results. The early essays have a more restrained tone than what comes later, and though this helps to show the differences between the 1970s and now, or between Halifax and Toronto, I found the work less engaging. Kirby has a chance to show us a softer side of her writing here. She offers some poetic gems and nostalgic insights, but the energy of the later essays is missing. My favourite essay of the first section is a history of the Alexander Keith’s brewery in Halifax and it is a bit of a polemic, but it is the unrestrained sharp tongue of modern-day Sheryl that gives the essay its kick, not the softer, more sentimental writing.

The “food writing” of the third section will be irresistible to anyone with an interest in food justice issues. With a joint focus on food culture and Toronto-specific phenomena Kirby analyzes the political side of eating with a sharp and savvy pen. Her observation that the “local food” bandwagon might actually be what defines the Toronto culinary scene resonated with me and could be the basis of much more analysis and debate. So-called “foodies” (and Kirby hates this term – “who doesn’t like food? Who among us isn’t a “foodie”?”) will find a lot of think about here. As a simple eater and Toronto citizen I appreciated instead how Kirby contextualizes the Toronto food experience and helps us understand how the “scene” is more than a hobby for the rich and privileged  Her history of Harlem soul food, personal experiences with an array of Haggis and discussion of Oaxacan mole all dissect how local food can be, even when it claims to offer “authentic” experiences of elsewhere. There are few essays where the word “privilege” doesn’t appear, but her writing brings out the element of the eating experience that is common to any reader.

One final note in case you’re now considering Kitchen Party as a Christmas gift – the book is illustrated by Toronto artist Katherine Verhoeven to great effect. Verhoeven’s stark ink badges bring out the comic and the kitch in Kirby’s essays, but are also lovely little Toronto set pieces in and of themselves. The resultant book is lovely in a lot of ways – I can not speak to how the look translates to the ebook, but the physical copy is quite nice.

Kitchen Party is available through the usual channels, but if you’re local I recommend sticking with the spirit of Toronto and grabbing it from The Cookbook Store! It’s where we live, doncha know.

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