Jennifer Cockrall-King’s Food Artisans of the Okanagan will make you salivate and then want to hop on a plane, train, car or bike and set out to sample as much of this bounty as your pants will allow. This new guide to the best of what’s grown, fished, foraged, made, baked, brewed or cooked in the Okanagan and Similkameen is the result of a year of Jennifer’s curation, interviewing and storytelling of more than 125 artisans. A food culture writer and urban agriculture expert for more than 20 years, she spent an afternoon talking to me about the the behind-the-scenes process of writing the guide book, the momentum of the Okanagan’s culinary scene and the people and passion behind it, life as a food writer and her next big project. Highlights of our discussion follow.
“The toughest thing about the project comes after all the writing, editing and lay-out work is done and it’s too late to change anything,” she says. I’m always scared that there will be something I want to change or I’ve gotten something wrong.”
Food Artisans of the Okanagan is attractively and thoughtfully designed and well laid out. The guide is organized geographically and then by category such as fish and seafood, cheese, spirits, beer cider and mead, fruits and vegetables and chefs… Each section (North, Central, South Okanagan and The Similkameen) includes a clear map to help you plan your foodie route. It’s also fun just to flip through the guide stopping to admire the great photos and reading through the stories of the artisans that catch your interest.
“I’m pleased with the book,” says Jennifer. “The publisher (Touchwood) spent money in the right places. The cover stock is perfect and the illustrations great. We went through a lot of different ideas for the cover and then chose between six different colour schemes.” The guide’s Tuscan yellow and blue scheme is perfect for the Okanagan.”A good cover design makes a world of difference as does a good spine design. There are so many things you don’t think about such as the trim size. The book feels good in your hand and it’s a standard guide book size which helps you see immediately how the book is designed to be used. There is nothing worse than picking up a nice looking book and it’s all floppy in your hands.”
After Jennifer was approached by the publisher to write the book, she pushed back on the timeline to allow her the breathing room to do the great job she wanted to do. That meant the time to visit each of the artisans in person in a 20,000-square-kilometre area. “For that entire year you have no income from the project. You are working on perspective and just hope people will buy it.” (Sales are great so far…) Not to mention all the driving…
Her criteria for choosing the artisans to feature is illustrated by a recent encounter at The Bench Market (featured in the guide). “I ran into a German tourist who bought a copy of my book which I signed for him. “I thought to myself if this guy buys my book and decides to drive to Osoyoos to seek out some of the artisans that captured his interest am I going to feel confident that he will be happy he did? This was my gut check. Can I feel confident that someone randomly opening a page and deciding to go somewhere will be glad they did.”
Jennifer writes about who the artisans are, how they got into their business and what makes their offering unique. “Part of the fun of writing the book was making new discoveries myself. I didn’t know the North Okanagan at all. One really surprising discovery was Fieldstone Organics in Armstrong. I’m a Prairie girl and just didn’t picture grains being grown in the Okanagan.” Fieldstone Organics works with 25 other local organic farmers and now has a line of dozens of organic, non-GMO whole grain and whole seed products like rye, flax, spelt and Emmer wheat along with organic lentils, dried peas and buckwheat.
She also had fun discovering unlikely success stories like Doug’s Homestead Meat Shop which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere in Hedley. With a cult following Brent and Linette McClelland sell over 300 pounds of beef jerky alone every day through their front door.
Jennifer also made a point of giving a shout-out to the amazing chefs of the Okanagan that are doing some very cool things attracting international attention with all the lovely meat, fish, produce, grains, fruit…that our bountiful valley produces.
“My hope for the success of the book is largely for the people I profiled. I want readers to make an emotional connection and to understand what goes on in the production of their food. These people put their heart, soul, sweat and backs into this physically demanding work.”
Jennifer’s engaging writing gets right to the heart and stomachs of the people who buy her book. “Good food writing is not as much about the writing as it is about communicating. It’s not about flowery quill pen activity but more about being approachable, open, curious and well-informed.”
Job done or job jobbed as they say in England.
Her next project is about seed banks around the world and we got onto the topic of her visit to the Norway Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen. Future blog post I hope…