064 – Sheri Castle, Rhubarb


Writing Work. Rhubarb Love. And Hustle. Welcome to the first in a series of FOUR podcasts celebrating the Virginia Festival of the Book! In the next four days you will hear from the country’s best and brightest when it comes to food writing. Today’s episode? Food writer Sheri Castle, whose newest creation, Rhubarb, presents this misunderstood vegetable in a way it’s never been discussed before. Sheri will be appearing at two events as part of the festival, including a talk I’m moderating, “Save Room! Cookbooks With a Sweet Tooth!” Event details are listed below.

Sheri wrote her first original recipe at the tender age of four, mailing it off to a television show. But never once did she consider food as a job. Her goal was similar to that of most writers: get a PhD in English, write stories, become a professor. Instead she headed into the corporate world. But her bosses always had her writing. Then suggesting she bring in her delicious food for potlucks. So when she was offered a severance package she headed to culinary school, intending to become a teacher. Writing was something she left behind. It wasn’t until a woman approached her during class with a food column offer that she reconsidered. It didn’t pay much, but here she was writing again. The rest is chocolate gravy!  As she says, “In hindsight everything was inevitable, but naivete got me a lot farther than the ambition. If I had known how hard this was going to be, I never would have attempted it…I’m a writer. And my cooking is in support of that.”

It’s a story I’ve heard many times. Food writers who wear several different hats, doing two to five jobs in order to make a living. Food writers who fall into the profession backwards from other careers. Hustling to succeed.

“In hindsight everything was inevitable, but naivete got me a lot farther than the ambition. If I had known how hard this was going to be, I never would have attempted it…I’m a writer. And my cooking is in support of that.”

Do you need culinary training to be a good food writer? Not necessarily, according to Sheri. Just as a doctor doesn’t need to know every disease, a writer doesn’t have to be a chef. By the same token, there is a clear difference between a food writer and a food typist, someone with only an interest and a blog. You’ve got to have a clear, profound STORY, not just an anecdote. Rhubarb, part of the ever-popular Short Stack series, is definitely that, a compendium of recipes and stories. Lots of stories about her connection, and ours, to this tart and tangy item. Each Short Stack volume is a love letter to an ingredient. Rhubarb is no exception and Sheri was thrilled to be asked to write about this misjudged vegetable which isn’t just for pies! It has the same flavor profile as citrus, is very high in vitamin C, and works incredibly well in savory dishes.

“An anecdote or a memoir helps a writer understand what they think about a topic. Good food writing helps the reader understand what they think about a topic.”

In Rhubarb she shares all of this, as well as its long history going back to the Victorian era. We discuss how to grow it, tips for storage, the differences between fresh and frozen, its medicinal properties, and her fond memories of dipping fresh-cut stalks into Tang as a snack. Yes, Tang! Did you know you can purchase hothouse rhubarb year-round? That’s what Sheri did while doing research for this book. At one point she guesstimates she had 90 pounds of the stuff in her fridge. Lordy be! Nigella Lawson, yes THAT Nigella, counts herself as a fan of this book and talks about it often on her website. It was during Rhubarb’s launch party that a Short Stack editor showed Sheri a text. From Nigella. Praising the book. So, there’s that. True Rhubarb Love from across the pond!

“Stories happen only to those who can tell them.”

Food writing is a rich style of narrative that informs and entertains. Hemingway, Dickens, and Proust all wrote about food although it wasn’t sold as such. As Sheri says, “The vehicle of a food memory was the most effective vehicle to convey a thought.” We are both such champions for the genre which covers politics, history, culture, memoir, comedy, fiction, philosophy, health, and many many stories. It’s never just cookbooks. How do you make recipes into stories? Sheri knows and talks at great length about her process. Folks seem to be catching on, with many recent award-winning cookbooks adding narrative to their recipes. Backstory which gives the reader context, heft, and authority to the food they are making. Way better than just Googling a recipe for brownies.

“Food writing is good writing. The topic just happens to be about food.”

Sheri also talks about her lengthy process for recipe testing. Often cookbook recipes never turn out at home. Why is that? Sheri explains, and she should know, having tested ones for Bill Smith’s Seasoned in the South as well as Vivian Howard’s award-winning cookbook, Deep Run Roots among many many others. Sheri has also appeared on Vivian’s show, A Chef’s Life, talking about her love of casseroles. As I’ve said, she wears many hats. Her favorite topper? To get up in front of a group of people and tell food stories. Which is why you should definitely get your butt down to ALL of her events. After you listen to this episode of course. Cheers!

“I’m interested more in how the field peas got on the plate, rather than what the field peas taste like on the plate.”

Save Room! Cookbooks with a Sweet Tooth
Wed. March 22, 4:00 PM – 5:30 PM
Barnes & Noble, Barracks Road Shopping Center, Charlottesville, Virginia
Cookbook authors Sheri Castle (Rhubarb) and Ronni Lundy (Sorghum’s Savor) will discuss their work.

Cooking Demos
Thu. March 23, 12:00 PM – 3:00 PM
The Charlottesville Cooking School, Meadowbrook Shopping Center, Charlottesville, Virginia
Join Sheri Castle (Rhubarb), Shane Mitchell (Far Afield), and Ronni Lundy (Victuals), as they each give a cooking demonstration of recipes from their cookbooks.

SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:

  • Rally for Ally – help out one of our own, a chef who recently suffered a debilitating accident.
  • Help Polina Recover – help out one of our own, a baker, who recently suffered a debilitating accident.
  • Help Scotty Recover – my best friend has Stage 3B Colorectal cancer. Bills are piling up. He can’t work. Can you help?
  • Virginia Festival of the Book – Head out to the food writing events among tons of others. Yes, I’m biased.
  • Will Write for Food – Dianne Jacobs wrote the seminal work on how to be a food writer. My bible.
  • Nigella Lawson – She’s a fan of Sheri’s book, Rhubarb! And her website is pretty great too.
  • Stir – The best piece of food writing I read last year. It should’ve won a James Beard award.
  • Subscribe to This Podcast. Stay Edacious! – Come on, after this episode? You know you want to 😉
  • Subscribe to Edacious News – Never miss a food event in our area! Learn about regional and national food stories so you can stay edacious!

This episode is sponsored by Teej.fm and listeners like you who donated their support at Patreon, who wants every creator in the world to achieve sustainable income. Thank you.

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