Close-up of strawberries

Table Settings: Alchemy in Conversation with Jane MacDonald

August 18, 2021
Close-up of strawberries

In our last post, we explored how the 2021 Creatives in Residence, artist collective Alchemy, brings artists and cooks together in community settings. They believe the sharing of art and food makes a difference on two fronts: in the community itself, and in the creative practices of the artists and makers they collaborate with. In this blog, Alchemy takes you behind the scenes to visit one of their collaborators—writer Jane Macdonald.

What does being a writer in residence look like? Jane says, “It looks like some sitting, some walks through town and in the woods, and lots of looking.”

Jane Macdonald is currently at work on a short manuscript of forty poems, the final requirement of a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto (U of T). In 2020, Jane was awarded the Janice Colbert prize for poetry, an award for which she was first named as runner-up in 2019.

Woman working on laptop
Jane Macdonald, writing Credit: Kirstyn Mayers

She says, “My writing is saturated by the inhabitants and habits of a place marked by disappearance and loss. For a thousand years, people have lived and died here. Responding to the rhythms of season, the original peoples planted and harvested, and stored up what the water and land yielded to them. You can see these rhythms in the remnants of the seasonal eel fishery on Pleasant Bay, in old settlement above Lake Consecon, and in the numerous granaries and burial mounds located across the county.

Hundreds of years later, more people arrived. Drawn here by fisheries, fertile land, and settled by British government fiat, the Loyalist cemeteries are everywhere. Newer arrivals laid down the railway—now the Millennium Trail—to connect canneries to fields and orchards, and beyond to larger markets. Very old ladies recall hopping onto the train in the mornings, and getting off at the school near Hillier.

The Hall itself at Hillier dates to 1867 and its service since then as the people’s houses can be seen in the photos and plaques on its thick limestone walls.

The tens of thousands of birds who make landfall every spring on this near-southernmost shore of the great Lake Ontario show us that life persists even as many individuals do not make it. Their journey is not really that different from our own. In this year of record heat and wildfire, extreme drought and flooding, we see the dire stakes of heedlessness. And so I look and write, sometimes in celebration, sometimes in grief.”

Jane is using her time as a guest artist in the production of her manuscript, revising existing poems and creating new ones. She offers, “I am not so concerned about the poems’ subjects—mostly I am eager to try new ways of writing by copying certain craft techniques and to try out others’ poetics. I will look at the poems of Seamus Heaney, and Elizabeth Bishop, and the poems and essays of Anne Carson and Jane Hirshfield.” Also an avid baker, Jane has contributed her delicious culinary skills to the Table Settings kitchen.

Women in kitchen battering fish, women posing for photo
Jane Macdonald and Claire Tallarico in the kitchen, Credit: Kirstyn Mayers

We asked Jane to share her kitchen observations with us.

During my stint in the kitchen for ‘Table Settings,’ I’ve loved the chance to once again work with food in large quantities.

These great lashings of lentils and bundles of rhubarb—they demand your proper care. I love how cooking for forty people plunges you momentarily outside time, until you emerge, meal prepared, hopefully tasty, hopefully on time. I love the surrender.

Time and attention are at the heart of art-making. As a writer, as with all artists, I think a big part of our job is to take care of our attention. And I mean all the time—in front of the page and away from it, there’s no difference, it’s one life. We pay attention because everything we notice as we move through our day, is what goes into our art. And so I enjoy standing before and considering a flat of strawberries.

I start by easing them from their quart baskets into the big colander. Then it’s showering them under the tap to remove the dandelion fluffs, gently tumbling them onto my work surface, being careful not to crush their fragrant flesh.

And though there are hundreds of berries to process in a flat, I pick up each one and address it with paring in mind. I remove each green cap. Then it’s—how many cuts? Five? One? Is that only a bruise, or is it too far gone and will I pare it off, to produce a shape and size that will be easy for eating, in time? Each trimmed piece goes into the big stainless steel bowl where I lightly sugar them to draw out their ruby juice.

And then they are lifted out of the gigantic bowl and portioned. Forty clear plastic packages range down one of the harvest tables in Closson Chase’s kitchen—many, single servings for every, one person. Berry by berry, the flat moves through my hands and into the hands and the mouth of the one I am cooking for, the one returned for the day from the vineyard, hungry. Intimate attention, transitory.”

You can check out our full list of 2021 Creatives in Residence here.