Posted by Tobias Carroll
Portland’s Casey Dienel makes music as part of White Hinterland, a group whose sound is equally comfortable reflecting fractured rhythms as it is heading into jazz-influenced atmosphere. She also maintains a blog called HungryOyster, with a focus on detailed recipes and thoughts on the food being prepared. (Her recipe for Chorizo Chickpea Stew is presently making my jaw drop.) And it prompted a wide-ranging discussion, from the boundaries between Dienel’s music and food-writing to the aesthetic approach of Francis Lam.
What first inspired you to write about food?
Food preoccupies so much of my thoughts that I figured it might be nice to give my friends a break from listening to me prattle on about it all the time. I’d written a few restaurant reviews before, but I wanted to focus on cooking at home as a day-to-day exercise, and to celebrate that.I got into cooking by traveling, really. I was lucky to go abroad for the first time when I was 18 and it jolted me. I hadn’t realized how much of an adventure eating could be. When I felt homesick, I’d try to recreate something that reminded me of home. When I wanted a fast window into a new place, I’d always start with the plate. I loved how you can’t discuss one aspect of a dish without discussing its background. Why these spices, why braise it this way? In that way, it’s not dissimilar from music.
Are HungryOyster’s readers more people who know you through your music, or people who’ve encountered the blog directly?
I’m not sure who HungryOyster’s readers are. Some of them are my friends, and even then I’m always genuinely surprised to hear someone has read the blog. I do so little in the way of publicizing it, and I’d hate to have it thought of as some hack musician’s vanity sideshow, you know? Often I prefer to keep music + blogging separate. Music is something I do professionally, but the blog is something I do to share what excites me, and hopefully encourage them to cook for themselves too. My favorite thing is when people who do not ordinarily cook tell me they tried making something they saw on HungryOyster.
Who are some of the food writers whose work you admire?
My favorite writers are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nabokov, both are very good at writing about food. I don’t read many food memoirs. I think many of them have the same formula: bland personal narrative followed by recipe. I prefer to read straight-up cookbooks like David Chang’s Momofuku. I’m drawn to M.F.K. Fisher’s writing. I admire how she connects her meals with her memories, until the line between them is almost indistinct. I believe this is what food does for a lot of us, don’t you think? When we recall a dish from our childhood it returns us for that moment to who were were then, where we lived, and what season it was. I especially love Consider The Oyster, the passage where she describes her first oyster is so perfect. Other than that, I’ve been following Salon.com’s Francis Lam since he worked at Gourmet. I like how openly opinionated he is, and his willingness to write about high-low food. By that I mean I can picture him going dutch on a plate of buffalo wings with me.
What have you been reading lately?
I’ve been reading mostly poetry, because whenever it’s spring I feel hungry for new language. I’ve been going through some Frank Bidart, Sawako Nakayuso (Texture Poems is a standout), and my friend Jae Choi. For books I have been reading Anne Carson’s Eros, Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans, and I read cookbooks all the time so they sit on my night table. Lately that means the entirety of the Canal House series. Last but not least I read start-to-finish Tina Fey’s Bossypants last night. It was hilarious.
Since you began HungryOyster, have you found that it’s had any effect on your other forms of writing?
I would hope it has taught me to take my other writing a little less seriously and enjoy myself more in my other writing life. The stakes in each are totally different, but it’s easier when I cook since I sit down at the table immediately after I’m done to take in whatever I’ve made. I do it without pressure and with much pleasure. It’s ok if I drop something on the floor or if the cake didn’t rise the way I hoped. One benefit to cooking is that often you can still eat your mistakes, and that’s how you learn to be a better cook. So sometimes when I feel frustrated with my other writing, I try to remind myself that mistakes are not a failure. It’s not a big deal to screw something up for you can try to do better again next time. In cooking, you must always be gutsy and go for it, finish the dish. Be adventurous! In music, it can be harder for me to remember that at times, but the same rule still applies.