I didn’t set out to write a book in which food figures so heavily. But I love talking about food. Food, to me, can be magic, and good cooks elevate the merely necessary into the extraordinary.
I can tell you in five seconds flat where I love to eat in my city. As a diner who gets legitimately upset when my local bakery is sold out of the particular pastry I’ve been craving, and as a cook who routinely doubles the recommended quantity of the “good stuff” (shrimp, pesto, spices, and oils, oh my!), food was bound to worm its way in.
So, when I, to my great surprise, discovered that I was writing a book set in the South (as a longtime resident of chilly Canada), food was an easy way to evoke that atmosphere.
My husband and I went down to Louisiana, and (over)ate ourselves silly. It’s my opinion that you can’t return from the South without talking about the food. Personally, I do so in tones that are reverential and cowed. I loved it, but it also weighed me down. It made me groggy and sluggish—and so, so happy. There were po’boys, and etouffee. There was cornbread and grits. There were fried oysters, and fried alligator, and donuts. There was chicory coffee and absinthe sipped in the company of a black cat. There were dive bar nachos, and white napkins in a romantic courtyard on New Year’s Eve. Much of what made me fall in love with the South is deeply connected to the food I ate there.
But almost without my noticing, food also became a narrative tool in Cauchemar: a way of contrasting between the familiar and the unnatural. Mae, Hannah’s adoptive mother, rules in the kitchen, and she’s immediately established as a healer. By contrast, Christobelle (Hannah’s birth mother) is extremely thin, and doesn’t seem to eat—at least, not in the human sense. She’s almost a succubus or vampire, feeding on the grief of the living and the spirits of the dead.
Finally, Hannah falls somewhere in the middle. Over the course of the book, she oscillates between the two extremes, which is an echo of her internal struggle, as well as the struggle between the worlds of the living and the dead.
The book opens with food—Hannah arriving too late to save Mae because she was eating a piece of pastry. In her grief after Mae’s death, she fails to eat properly, and turns to other people’s casseroles. In the blush of first love, she begins to experiment. She over-spices to echo her own overstimulation, and as a result her dishes are out of balance.
Then, as things start to get frightening and the stakes are raised, Hannah tries to find Mae’s recipes, hoping for some semblance of familiarity. Hannah searches her memory, too, and finds comfort in recalling Mae’s advice, so often spoken in the kitchen. There’s a long stretch in the book where both Callum and Hannah lose their appetite (and Hannah ends up eating something decidedly unappetizing), and this mirrors the blurring of the lines between this world and the next.
One very real way for Hannah to choose life, to embrace memory, and to honour Mae is through cooking. Some of the dishes mentioned in the book are ones I’ve made in my own kitchen, but more importantly, ones I’ve improvised on—in essence, letting Mae guide my own hands. I blackened some catfish for my husband one night, channeling Hannah and Mae in the book, and yes, I did fill the kitchen with billows of spiced smoke. I listened to the fish crackle and exhale, and I, too, squeezed lemon juice over it, and thought of it as a balm for that poor, overworked fish filet. I imagined someone older and wiser instructing me as I did so, but I was also aware of trying to impress someone I loved. I put myself in Hannah’s skin through cooking what Hannah might cook.
Eating engages multiple senses, and is a powerful grounding tool. Hannah uses food and cooking as a way to center herself. For me, food summons memories. It harkens back to my own Maes—my grandmothers. Food and cooking recalls my grandmother’s cabbage rolls, her flaky mushroom pastries, and her chocolate cake. When I think of sour vegetable preserves, I think of red peppers in jars on her balcony. I think of her smile, her voice, and I remember taking the photo that now sits by my bedside. In this way, food resurrects her. Food, as the privilege of the living, brings life.
I remember watching my grandmothers in their respective kitchens and being, on some level, aware that I was being initiated into a tradition. Now, that memory is coloured by the knowledge that one day, if I’m lucky, I too might be watched by a curious munchkin as I measure out ingredients.
Finally, cooking is love. It is familial love: me sitting in the sunlit attic of my childhood home as one of my grandmothers prepared a pot of soup. It is romantic love: my husband and I working in tandem over a new recipe, or the memory of baking my first-ever batch of cookies with him. It is the joy of cooking something for someone, and what a pleasure and honor that is.
Cauchemar is, to me, a book about many things. Family, love, danger, death—and hopefully they all coexist on the page. It took me a while to get to a place where I’m comfortable cooking by smell and taste alone. It is a coming into oneself, and also, a homecoming.
Alexandra Grigorescu has a Master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Toronto, where she attended writing workshops led by George Elliott Clark and Jeff Parker and wrote her thesis under the guidance of Camilla Gibb. She works as a freelance writer and lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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Paperback: 316 pages
Publisher: ECW Press (March 17, 2015)
Gripping, fast-paced, gorgeously written, and with unforgettable characters, Cauchemar tells the story of 20-year-old Hannah, who finds herself living alone on the edge of a Louisianan swamp after her adopted mother and protector dies. Hannah falls in love with Callum, an easy-going boat captain and part-time musician, but after her mysterious birth mother, outcast as a witch and rumoured to commune with the dead, comes back into Hannah’s life, she must confront what she’s been hiding from — the deadly spirits that haunt the swamp, the dark secrets of her past, and the nascent gift she possesses. Like the nightmares that plague Hannah,
Cauchemar lingers and haunts.
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MARCH 1: Review and giveaway at The Book Binder’s Daughter
MARCH 2: Review and guest post at Bibliotica (That’s ME!)
MARCH 3: Review and excerpt at Bella’s Bookshelves
MARCH 4: Guest post at Write All the Words! for their International Women’s Week feature
MARCH 5: Interview and excerpt at Editorial Eyes
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