A Cultural Odyssey
By Lois Siegel

©Photo by Paul Jean

Lois Siegel

Plays fiddle and teaches Video Production at
the University of Ottawa
Her documentary films include “Baseball Girls”
 (women who play softball and baseball)
 “Lip Gloss” (female impersonators)
 “Strangers in Town” (albinism)
 and “Stunt People”
 (The Fournier Family performing stunts for films)

You’ve seen many cookbooks.  Do you know how they are put together?  How many recipes go into a cookbook? What is involved if the cookbook features recipes from countries around the world? How are these recipes gathered?  How do cookbook writers combine family life with writing cookbooks?

“The Recipe Diaries,” a documentary film by Jacques Menard, answers these questions.  The film focuses on the work of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, who live in Toronto with their two kids.  We see how they juggle their lives, travelling to exotic areas of the world in order to collect recipes, information and luscious photographs for their cookbooks – books with wonderful accounts of their adventures. Essentially, they are food and culture explorers.

Their cookbook titles are enticing:  “Seductions of Rice,”  “Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia,”  “Flat Breads and Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas,”  “Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition around the World.”  And the recipes are divine: Shrimp in Hot Lime Leaf Broth, Lao Yellow Rice and Duck, and Hui Beef Stew with Chick Peas and Anise.

Rice and Lentil Crepe
 Native to Sri Lanka and South India

The film follows Jeffrey and Naomi as they work on their next cookbook: “Mangoes and Curry Leaves,” a book that we learn requires 200 recipes and will take them to the Indian Subcontinent, half-way around the world.  They don’t always travel together because they have school-aged kids. They divvy up the work: one travels to one part of a country at one time, the other to another part at another time. Someone has to stay home with the kids, but sometimes they travel as a family. 

              Jeffrey in Sri Lankan Village                                                              Naomi in Ahmedabad, India

The film follows Jeffrey in Kandy, Sri Lanka where he visits an illegal market.  The market is raided every day. The people run, but they come back the next day to continue selling their wares.

Jeffrey says, “The more you make yourself vulnerable, the more good things happen.”

Food becomes an element of transaction and social life. The cookbooks are the witnesses of these people’s lives.  The books are impressionistic views of other worlds through food, stories and photographs. The recipes themselves are a different kind of challenge.  They reflect where they have originated.

Southeast of Kandy, Sri Lanka

There is no such thing as going to cookbook school.  You learn as you go.

Jeffrey and Naomi gather recipes on their travels and then finish their work at home.  They test each recipe: 95% of the cooking is done at home. The recipes they choose have to be user-friendly. Their job is to translate the ingredients and details of the recipe to others. They make adjustments after a trial and error period with each dish. There are always recipes that don’t turn out.

Then they have to decide the order in which the recipes will appear in the book and what stories about their travels to include.

And finally they worry, will their publisher at Random House Canada like the book.

The photography in the film is sensitive to the people we see, and you will discover a fascinating journey about these talented writers who create award-winning cookbooks as a two-person team on a food and culture odyssey around the world.

Food Fiends

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