In The Writer’s Garden: Sherrie Flick
Sherrie Flick is one of those people you are automatically drawn to and admire. At one moment she is reading an amazing piece of her writing – maybe from a novel she has written, maybe a short story. Then the next moment she is serving some amazing dish she has cooked from ingredients grown in her own garden and topping it off with a dessert that she baked herself, and yes she probably grew the berries in that pie.
In addition to being a published writer, cook, baker, gardener, she has founded amazing creative community gatherings like the Gist Street Reading Series and Into the Furnace. And just to round it out she also teaches at Chatham University, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. And you thought you were busy?
Sherrie where do I begin? I should ask what you don’t do, astrophysics? Or that too?
Hi Tereneh. Thanks for thinking of me for FarmHouse!
Seriously though from baker, writer, Arts programming founder, garden grower, professor…the list goes on and on. For me you are such a fine example of doing what you love. It can’t be easy how do you do it?
I feel that all the things I do are interconnected in that they involve both the creative process and organization. I layer all of my roles and try not to panic when my life gets busy. I made a decision about 7 years ago to jettison my 9-5:00 schedule and instead embrace something a bit more organic.
I had a background in arts programming (I worked for six years at the Frick Art & Historical Center) and teaching and editing/writing, so I thought I could offer some distinct skills out in the freelance world. Since then I’ve been happy and busy combining my fiction writing, teaching, and freelance editing to make up my work life. Baking, gardening, and fiction writing make up my food/artist life. They overlap with the writing, as you see. I’m also learning how to play the banjolele, which is a ukelele with a little banjo head.
So let’s start with baking (something that scares me to high heaven, I have only baked once in my life, imagine?!) How did you get started in baking and why?
It isn’t as scary as it seems. You should try again! It’s fun. I first started as a counter person at a French bakery in Portsmouth,New Hampshire, Café Brioche, the summer after my sophomore year of college. I had always had a casual interest in home bread baking, and my mom is a big pie baker, so I was drawn to that world when looking for a summer job. I learned a lot there just by observing and helping out with small tasks. Then the next fall I was hired at another bakery in town—Ceres Bakery—and found myself apprenticing with the bread baker. That shift was3am – 7amthree days a week. From there, I became a real bread baker and added a cookie/muffin-making shift and continued to work at Ceres until I moved away from New Hampshire.
Baking is similar to writing. It involves process and organization and improvisation and patience—all combined, working toward a complex end result. I fit right in with the other bakers who mostly also had artistic ambitions—silversmiths and weavers and visual artists and musicians. It was a wonderful experience. Most of the woman were older and took on big sister roles. Feminists. Gardeners. Knitters. Environmentalists. Savvy with fixing a car or outspoken with politics. Curious and progressive. They showed me how to have a well-rounded and interesting life.
How long did you bake, what was your specialty and do you still bake? Will you share a favorite recipe with us?
I was a bread baker in New Hampshire for four years, and then I moved to San Francisco and baked there for two more years. In San Francisco I made everything from brioche to cookies to scones, muffins, and pies. The bakery, Sally’s in Potrero Hill isn’t there anymore, but it was a wonderfully experimental place to bake. We used alternative ingredients like dates and applesauce and teas and brown rice flour. I learned so much about improvisation.
Yes, I still frequently bake—for my husband, friends, my students, and for the reading series. I make bread once a week all winter and tarts, pies, muffins, and scones throughout the year. I also love to cook. Today, once it cools down, I’m going to make a chocolate zucchini cake because my garden is exploding.
Here is the Epicurious recipe for that cake, originally suggested to me by the amazing writer/cook/baker Kathryn Miles. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chocolate-Zucchini-Cake-907
It’s luscious. The zucchini gives the cake a wonderfully silky, smooth texture. I fiddled with the recipe a bit, which is what follows:
Chocolate Zucchini Cake
1 1/4 c. Unbleached white flour
1 c. Wholewheat pastry flour
1/2 c. Unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. Baking soda
1 1/3 c. Sucanat (whole cane sugar)
1/2 c. (1 stick) Unsalted butter
1/2 c. Canola oil
1 Tbls. Honey
2 large Eggs
1 tsp. Vanilla extract
1/2 c. Buttermilk
2 c. grated unpeeled zucchini (about 1-2 medium)
6 ounces (about 1 cup) Semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 c. Roughly chopped walnuts, toasted (in a frying pan over medium heat for about 3-5 minutes.)
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan. Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, and sucanat in a medium bowl.
- Cream butter and oil in stand-up mixer at med-high speed until well blended. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add honey. Beat in vanilla extract.
- Bring speed down to med-low. Mix in dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in 3 additions each.
- By hand, mix in grated zucchini.
- Pour batter into prepared pan.
- Sprinkle chocolate chips and nuts over the top.
Bake cake on middle rack of oven until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Cool cake completely in pan.
Wow that sounds and looks amazing! I may have to get over my baking phobia and try it. Or even better ask Sarah or Ashley to bake it! Okay more food later…
“I am a writer.” How many people would love to say that, but you truly are a writer. Can you tell me how you got started as a writer? How it became a true vocation.
I wrote poetry in high school and had an English teacher who encouraged me and introduced me to some contemporary poets’ work. Charles Simic was one of the writers I read at that time, and he is one of the reasons I went to the University of New Hampshire for my undergraduate degree. Once there, I discovered the work of Raymond Carver and other minimalist writers and turned to fiction—writing very, very short fiction. Also there, I met a great group of writers—people who are still my friends today. We all met up to trade work and talk about writing outside of school. Eventually, a subgroup of us moved to San Francisco and formed a workshop where we all brought writing for review every week. (We met in a series of bakeries, as I recall. Good food has never been too far away in my adult life. This same group of creative people would often get together to make big wonderful meals—homemade gnocchi and pesto and sauce and pies. Big, fun meals made from scratch.)
Writing is like music, you need to practice to get better. You need to read and find your writing peers out in the world. So this was an important time for me. Along the way, I published stories in literary journals, and eventually decided to go to graduate school, which is how I ended up in Lincoln,Nebraska.
Your well-received first novel, Reconsidering Happiness was published in 2009 and it was a semi-finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. That is pretty wonderful. Tell me about the novel.
The novel relied on my experience of Nebraska and my knowledge of and passion for food. In it, there is a bakery, which is based on Ceres Bakery (called Penhallow Bakery in the book). It serves as a connecting point for all the characters. I hadn’t intended to write about food in my novel, but once I started in on drafting, it seemed like the perfect setting to explore desire and longing and what it means to leave or stay in one’s life.
The book is set in New Hampshire, Nebraska and then briefly in California and Iowa. My character Vivette becomes a contemporary pioneer setting off from New Hampshire in order to find a new life and escape a messy old life. As she heads west she stops to visit Margaret, who lives on a farmstead outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. Margaret had also worked at the bakery in NH in her younger years but is now settled in the middle—married with a job. Vivette seeks her out for some life advice, but is a little disappointed when she gets there. The characters end up in one way or another assessing the decisions they’ve made that make up who they are in this world. The book is about nostalgia and memory and food and finding one’s self–with a good amount of whiskey thrown in for good measure.
From Reconsidering Happiness, Chapter 1
Vivette, On the Road
“Vivette knew nothing about Des Moines except for the lovely ease of the letters—the way its name sounded out like a yoga chant, exotic and foreign. Des Moines with those silent “s”s beckoning with a sexy finger, a promise. It whispered to her as she lay in her tousled New Hampshire bedsheets. The wooden shutters on her windows escorting cross-stitched moonlight across the dusty floor. The tugboats, with their deep-throated howls, stretched at their moors, the buoys offering cowbell clangs. Des Moines. Des Moines. Her friends thought she was crazy.
It was that easy: drive west, change a life; drive east, revise—drive, drive, drive.”
I love that beginning to the novel! Again so many people dream of changing their lives, going on an adventure shaking things up, why was this the theme of your first novel?
In some ways, it’s a classic coming of age tale. But instead of a young boy—we have Vivette, a 23-year-old women getting in her car and driving. I’ve been fixated on the idea of women and cars for some time—on the idea of the “geographic solution” as writer Dorothy Allison called it. Ending a relationship by leaving, physically, going to a new place to begin again.
In my own 20s I traveled a lot throughout the U.S. I made cross-country road trips here and there and back again. I was a bit of a vagabond—but through those experiences I learned a lot about the geography and different cultures in our country, and I also learned a lot about perseverance and creativity. This was before email and cell phones. It was the early 90s, and a lot of creative people floated under the mainstream—were underground in a way that seems less possible now since everyone can be instantly connected through devices and social media.
In my novel, Vivette wants to move to Des Moines because she likes the way the words sound. The question I took to answering was, “Why?” And the book is the answer to that question.
THE CREATIVE COMMUNITY MAKER
As you know I used to live in a loft at Gist Street where you founded the Gist Street Reading Series. Tell me about it and how it got started?
Ah yes. It was nice seeing you there on Gist Street from time to time in your high heeled shoes. I think you lived there when James Simon had the rooster, right?
Ugh, yes right! I was not a fan of that rooster, don’t tell James! And walking on those un-even wooden floors in my crazy shoes, not easy. So yes the Gist Street Reading Series?
The Gist Street Reading Series started in March 2001. I moved to Pittsburgh from Nebraska in 1998. The first two years here were tough for me. I couldn’t find my people. My husband and I considered moving, and then my (then) new friend, the sculptor James Simon (who had also recently moved to the city) suggested I start a reading series in his space. He had been living in Brazil before he came back to help take care of his ill father, and in Sao Paulo people were in and out of his studio all the time. I had helped run a series in Nebraska called the No Name series that sort of took the traditional academic literary reading series up a notch and more into the community. So, my friend, the poet Nancy Krygowski agreed to help and we co-founded the Gist Street Reading Series.
Our program hit the city at a good time. There were a bunch of transplants, like us, looking for something interesting to do, and through the series I made many of the good friends I have today. We featured emerging writers from across the nation with first or second books—prose and poetry each month. From the start, the readings, held on first Fridays, encouraged people to bring potluck food and BYOB drinks. We wanted a festive event—something welcoming and friendly and unpretentious. The series ran for ten years with sell-out crowds and lines around the building the last 5 years. We ended our run in December 2010. It was wonderful.
So what are you doing now that fulfills that desire for a creative community, arts, writing and food?
I’m now working with some folks on a new project called Into the Furnace, which is a writing residency in Braddock,Pa. Along with the residency, we’ll organize a yearly October event called “Wood-Fired Words” that will highlight the chosen writer and combine a literary reading with music, art, and homemade pizzas (using Braddock’s wood-fired community oven). Gist Street has hosted two previous “Wood-Fired Words” events and this new program will evolve from those “away games” as we called them. The project will begin mid-September.
What are some of the special recipes created for these events? I noticed a mention of an amazing sounding Lavender and Chive Flower Potato Soup? Any other favorites?
I often made pecan pie. And every month James’ neighbor Antoine dropped off homemade ice cream. James liked to make hams and big chunks of meat, and then I would offset that with a vegan/vegetarian soup or stew or salad. I used Gist Street to try out new recipes. I know people were fond of my chocolate ginger snaps and oatmeal cookies with crystallized ginger.
A good friend of mine says artists; well sculptors anyway should be able to cook. From your ten year experience at Gist Street can you tell me who are the best cooks? Painters, sculptures, mixed media, performance artists, writers? Maybe you should have a cook-off? I offer myself as a judge, though I am biased.
That’s an interesting question. In my life, I have known many amazing artist cooks, yes. I would say, however, that Math/Science people were the best food-bringers at Gist.
Something I need to consider in my dating life, I will be on the look out for Math/Science dudes who can cook!…hmmm good insight, thanks Sherrie!
THE FOOD (AND WORD) BLOGGER
I love your blog Sentences and Food, but it always makes me so hungry. A recent example from your blog:
As I tucked my finger into the room temperature cheese and took a small taste, the creamy texture accented by a tiny ting of lemon, I realized I had been—for years—eating an unimaginative imitation. The ricotta I’d spooned out of a tub and layered into my lasagna was just the idea of ricotta, a rough estimate. Here before me rested the real deal. This ricotta sang a little tune, as it shimmered in its authenticity.
See now I am hungry, so how did you get started as a blogger?
My website designer Cindy Closkey suggested the blog idea to me. I didn’t want a huge obligation while marketing and touring with my new novel, and I wanted to write about something outside of the literary world, so I figured I could focus on food. For the first two years, the blog was tiny—just photos of the food I made and of my garden. And then this summer after I was asked to teach a graduate-level Food Writing class at Chatham University, I decided to amp it up.
I love writing about food, and along with incorporating food into my fiction, I had briefly written a restaurant review column while in Lincoln. Sentences and Food seemed like a natural next step.
Again the connection between food and writing? Or is food connected to everything? Writing connected to everything?
Food is connected to everything. Making food can connect a writer to the idea of creative process—the ideas of organizing and yet creating at the same time. This is very much what fiction is about at its core.
Tell me about your gardening? When did you get started and why?
When I met my husband all of the plants in my apartment were dead. He likes to tell that story. When we bought our first house in Pittsburgh it had a cute little backyard, all grass. When I looked at it, I suddenly wanted to put in a garden. A huge nesting impulse, I think. And I did that. I gardened the heck out of that little space. I read books about composting and urban gardening. I made many mistakes. Now, we have a bigger yard, and I’ve been gardening for 13 years. I feel simultaneously like I know a thing or two and like I have no idea what I’m doing. In this way, gardening is like writing as well.
I have some perennial flowers and wildflowers, but mainly focus on vegetables and herbs. We try to eat as exclusively as we can from the garden while it’s in season.
What is growing in there right now? I noticed a picture of some amazing blackberries you posted on Facebook.
Yes, the blackberries are just coming in as well as the raspberries. I just picked the first tomatillos today! I have carrots, broccoli rabe, broccoli itself, cucumbers, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, potatoes, beets, zucchini, green beans, a variety of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, fennel, Brussels sprouts, one celery plant, corn, pattypan squash, one butternut squash, and a wide variety of herbs.
I harvested the peas and the garlic earlier in the summer, which were fabulous this season. I harvest them, and then replant that ground (after adding compost) with something new.
What are you looking forward to for the end of summer harvest? And what is coming for fall?
I love waiting on the Brussels sprouts. They take all summer to grow and are at their best once the frost sets in. I also look forward to planting the garlic each fall. It signals to me that things have finally wound down in the garden and it’s time to turn to the inside of the house for a change.
What do you enjoy the most about gardening?
My garden doesn’t have straight rows, and the flowers and vegetables are planted together. It’s a big creative experiment for me. It’s also an ongoing education. I’m always learning and asking questions of fellow gardeners. It’s a fun, supportive community in my experience.
Any advice for a novice gardener? From getting started to keeping it going?
It’s okay to mess up. It isn’t as hard as the fussy magazines make it out to be. Grow what you like to eat and then you will root for the seedlings. Compost. Make sure your soil is healthy—healthy plants come from healthy soil. Rain barrels are helpful too. Gardening makes you understand the seasons in a whole new light, which is an interesting way of keeping time. Gardening also helps you understand sustainability, and it can give you an excellent sense of accomplishment.
You have an urban garden? What advice specific to urban gardeners?
Yes, we’re right smack in the middle of the city in a neighborhood called the South Side Slopes because it’s very hilly. We have a great view.
My advice would be: You can fit way more into a patch of land than is recommended on the back of the seed packets. Critters exist—even in the city.
Canning, freezing, etc? Thoughts? Advice? Do you do it?
I canned for the first time last summer. I made blackberry jam. Really fun. My neighbor Mike did it too (with his raspberries) and then we traded jars. It also isn’t as hard as some would make it out to be. I also make refrigerator pickles, and I freeze some tomato sauce each year. Not a lot though—maybe 2 four-cup containers of sauce? We really do eat most everything I grow, so I don’t have much leftover to freeze or can.
What recipes are you working on? What are you favorite things to cook in the summer?
Right now I’m looking for zucchini recipes for obvious reasons. I also love pattypan squash so I’ve been sautéing/roasting them with various herbs (basil some days, other days cumin) to see what works well. I’ll make salsa verde with the tomatillos.
Every summer our household goes into pesto obsession. It’s impossible to make enough. I posted my pesto recipe on my blog a few weeks back. It’s vegan, and it is delicious.
We eat pretty simply in the summer because the vegetables are so fresh and good. I let them lead the way in the dish and just follow along. One thing we love to do is grill pizza. We put the pizza stone on our charcoal grill followed by the dough and fixings. My latest favorite topping is thinly sliced potato with radish, sautéed kale, and pesto—with a sprinkling of fresh Parmesan over it all. I will have that recipe posted on my blog by the beginning of August. Still working out the pizza dough recipe kinks.
Anything I left out? What are you working on now, another novel?
Last fall I focused on writing some new flash fiction. I tried to write 750 words a day. It was a great exercise. I spent the spring revising some of those stories and forming them into a new chapbook manuscript, which I’ve been sending out to contests this summer. It’s called Good Dog.
This summer, since I’m teaching a literature class in Food Writing for Chatham University, I’ve focused on my food writing. Just yesterday, I received the great news that I’ll have a food essay published in the first contemporary Midwestern food writing anthology. The anthology is called Maytag Blue, edited by Peggy Wolff. Published by University of Nebraska Press, it will include work by some wonderful people, including Stuart Dybeck and Molly O’Neill. I’m honored to be in it.
Congratulations! That is wonderful news. We’ll have to look out for it.
So Sherrie, FarmHouse Mag is ultimately about creating and sharing your own authentic experiences, how have you done so for yourself? What do you say to someone like you character Vivette who is trying to decide to go back East or head West?
I say: get in your car and drive.
Thanks so much Sherrie!