When Alimentary Ideas took place in Chester in last weekend, chefs, food producers, writers and literary-minded food fans congregated at the Chester Playhouse for a series of talks that explored food and words through the experiences of a handful of people who have shaped the things we eat and how we see them, through producing maple syrup or writing personal essays.
It was difficult to know what to expect from Alimentary Ideas: the speakers were disparate and the threads that connected some of the conversations were somewhat tenuous, but a lot of people had a lot of interesting things to say. Mark Singer, famously of The New Yorker, was slightly—and rightly—unwilling to fully take on the mantle of “food writer.” A self-professed generalist, Singer specializes in profiles and characters, and food sometimes overlaps with that. He is a writer that embeds himself in the story without getting in the way of it, a true journalist. While he is still entirely relevant, listening to him spin tales of the work he did in the 1970s, '80s and '90s had the ring of a luxurious echo from the past, a lifestyle that none of the young writers in the room would ever have the opportunity to grasp, and could only imagine. It was basically the opposite of the “in my day you had to walk five miles in the snow, uphill all the way” stories that grandpas tells their kids.
William Allaway from Acadian Maple was a real highlight of the day’s talks. The conversation between Allaway and Scott Norton from Sir Kensington’s ketchup was an interesting look into food businesses that are “too small to be big, and too big to be small,” as Allaway says. While the two business models couldn’t be any different from one another, their conversation gave an interesting peek into small-scale and large-scale growth and distribution. In fact, when the conversation veered into the nuts and bolts of their businesses it started to get very interesting. It perhaps wasn’t the right conversation for a literary festival, but it would have been nice to see it continue.
Seeing Jeremy Charles, one of the most important chefs in Canada, in Nova Scotia for an event was a real joy. It was only unfortunate that he wasn’t cooking. Raymond’s in Saint John, Newfoundland, has become a global culinary destination. It would have been nice to see a discussion that allowed Charles to talk about embracing tradition and focusing on local food and how he has modernized that and to discuss whether or not there is lightning in a bottle in Newfoundland or if Atlantic Canada can expand its culinary domination. Tanya Kelly from Blunt Roll got a bit of a short shrift on this panel as there was no way to build a great conversation that could include her innovative, cool product into a conversation about food tradition. I would have liked to have seen the two on different panels, as I think some great conversations could have taken place. Having Charles on a panel with some other chef/operators and Kelly on a panel with artisans and crafts people who are developing niche markets would have, perhaps, been more interesting and more fertile ground for expansive discussions.
All-in-all it was fun and exciting to see a bunch of intelligent people talk about their passions. As a writer it was great to see Singer crack jokes about Donald Trump and talk about his passion for storytelling and compulsion to write. And as someone who is interested in food culture, it was wonderful to see people who grow food, cook food, write about food, and love food come together to share ideas and passions. I hope to see this festival grow over time. With VegFest and Open Farm Day upon us and Devour on the horizon, it feels like a lucky time to be digesting things in Nova Scotia, whether it’s food or thoughts.