Annie Smithers on ‘Recipe for a Kinder Life’
Chef, cookbook author and writer Annie Smithers’s Recipe for a Kinder Life (Thames & Hudson, August) blends memoir, philosophy and practical tips on sustainability based on the author’s experience running her restaurant du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. Reviewer Julia Taylor says Smithers is an excellent writer who imbues her work with wisdom and good humour; she spoke to the author.
You seem to be in a really good place and your life and achievements would be the envy of many. How much is luck and how much is hard work?
Luck? It’s such a curious word. I would certainly say there have been some fortuitous events in my life, but would I count myself to be lucky? I’m not sure. I am incredibly grateful that I have had the privilege to grow up in the way that I have and to have been given the education I was. I have also been able to access and afford good health care, particularly mental, which perhaps has an element of luck to it given the parlous state of our mental health system.
Professionally, I think that it has come down to a love of what I do and an innate sense of curiosity of the machinations of my immediate world that have taken me to this place. In keeping my world quite small I perform tasks on a daily basis that allow me to have a deep and affectionate understanding of cooking, gardening and living. And I love to work ‘hard’ because I have learnt that with that, achievement can often follow.
Can you describe your book’s editorial process—was there much input from your publisher and editors?
Having written a couple of cookbooks in the past, the editorial process with a narrative nonfiction work came as a bit of a surprise to me. There are SO many editors! Sally Heath has been amazing. She worked closely with me as each chapter was written, nudging and cajoling coherent sentences out of me. Given that the book was written over the tumultuous first and second waves of Covid in Victoria, there were times that she needed to change my tone a little, as the frustration of the situation shone through. I will never forget her words of ‘Show, don’t tell’—a little phrase that has now become a mantra in my everyday life—which accompanied the return of the Water chapter. And a chapter that was rewritten.
Jess Levine bought a different focus, gently and deftly making sure that I was sensitive to all that I had written about, both past and present. Once the manuscript was finished, I loved the joy and the discussions it bought to the production editors who happily gave me their feedback on it. When I read the book now, I can’t remember which are my original words and which are corrected, a seamless exhibition of working with an extraordinary editing team.
What’s the one thing that you would most like people to take away from Recipe for a Kinder Life?
I hope that it makes people think and understand that with small changes they can walk a little more gently on the Earth. We all must own the choices that we make in life, but with the speed and intensity of the digital age we often get trapped into making decisions under pressure that don’t always sit well with us.
Sustainability starts with being self-sustaining, it’s about a balance of work and life, which is a very personal thing. For me, I like to work hard. I understand that that is not for everyone, but I have found my balance in that. It has also been about drawing a circle around my life based on the question of ‘What does it take to run my life?’ Once answered, I don’t aspire to take anymore, as then life will descend into a cycle of greed, which opposes the principles of sustainability.
I also hope that my book encourages people to grow and cook and love their lives.
Given your partner is a vegetarian and you are a massive friend to animals, what would it take to make you go vegetarian or even vegan?
My diet is very highly plant based, particularly at home. I see eating meat as a privilege and a luxury—something to be done with great consideration and in moderation, a special treat when you go out. As someone who has a restaurant and cooks meat and poultry on a regular basis, the most important questions I ask of my farmers is the quality of the animal husbandry practiced on their farms. As a society, I don’t think that we will ever stop eating meat, but if we can minimise how much of it we eat, we can offset some of the ecological problems caused by meat farming and obtain better health outcomes with more plant-based diets. I don’t think I will ever declare myself as a vegan or a vegetarian but as I get older I sense I will eat less and less meat.
Sustainability plays a big part in your thinking, and as you say we are living in a time when environmental catastrophes stalk us all. Are you hopeful for the future?
As I answer this question I have just lived through a once in a century storm that has ripped my small community apart. The trees and the forest that I have described in the book have been flattened and uprooted, making our area of the Wombat Forest look like the logging trucks have gone through. And through this, there is the beacon of hope. I live in a small town that has rallied and come together with a sense of community that can make you weep, particularly when you are emotionally drained by a catastrophe. I am amazed by the human capacity to help and support and to come together for the common good. It does expose our weaknesses though. Without water and power for days, and shambolic and sporadic phone coverage, have we moved too far away from the fundamental basics of existence, shelter, food and warmth? Many in my small community will make changes in the months to come I am sure.
I also believe that the youth of today are far more aware of their responsibility for ‘the future’. I hope that from a political level down the world starts to pull back, live within its means and start to reign in the culture of more.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I am reading and loving my dear friend Sarah Winman’s new book Still Life (Fourth Estate). I love her storytelling and she is taking me as close to Florence as I can get right now.
Read Julia Taylor’s review of Annie Smithers’s Recipe for a Kinder Life (Thames & Hudson, August) here.