In my Talking Food series I’ll be featuring short interviews with authors, chefs, cooks, historians and food writers about their experiences of food, from memories to favourite recipes.
Today I’d like to introduce author and lecturer Tiffani Angus, whose debut speculative historical novel Threading the Labyrinth is published July 13th by Unsung Stories:
“If Robert Macfarlane wrote a ghost story this would be it. Haunting, delicate and multilayered, Angus channels her own humane understanding of our relationship with the quiet places of the world, the places hidden away, neglected, but always eager to blossom with the right kind of attention.”
– Helen Marshall, award-winning author of The Migration and Gifts for the One Who Comes After
An American ex-pat, Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer in Publishing and the course leader for the MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, as well as the General Director of the Anglia Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. A Clarion (2009) graduate, she has published short fiction in several genres in a variety of anthologies. Threading the Labyrinth, in its original form, was part of her PhD dissertation, paired with an analysis of time and space in fantasy gardens. Her research into gardening history and women’s bodies in apocalyptic fiction feed into her fiction. You can follow Tiffani online, on Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.
LM: Threading the Labyrinth takes places across different time periods and focuses on the heart and history of a whole garden, including the kitchen garden. Can you tell us some of the ways the kitchen garden changes across the centuries in the book? (without giving away too much!)
TA: Kitchen gardens are one of my favourite! I have a soft spot for geometric, formal gardens and kitchen gardens have to be tidy and organised, which makes me happy. Plus, they’ve got a constant specific function beyond just being pretty, which makes them different from pleasure gardens that change according to the fashion of the day. After the Civil War, pleasure gardens were considered frivolous and growing fruit and veg the moral choice; there was even an attempt to make growing fruit trees mandatory for all landowners. My kitchen garden is special because the house for the head gardener is built right into the kitchen wall; in Threading the Labyrinth, the walled garden and the kitchen garden both feature, and this house is the setting for several scenes in the novel as a place where some threads of history intersect.
The kitchen garden (as well as the central walled garden) in Threading, which I envisioned as existing in some form for hundreds of years before the beginning of the book (since part of the house was originally an abbey, which would have grown food for the resident nuns), would have changed across the centuries mostly in what it grew; as the empire expanded new foods such as tomatoes, potatoes, and aubergines were brought back and, after some time, became garden staples. Kitchen gardens are also where garden technology advanced, with cold frames and hot frames leading to greenhouses with their own heating systems where plants from other countries — both flowers (especially for carpet bedding) and food, such as pineapples — could be grown in England’s rainy climate. In the eighteenth century, with the rising popularity of the landscape garden in England, anything considered unsightly was often moved—this includes kitchen gardens and even villages! The kitchen garden is under threat of this at one point in Threading but luckily fate intervenes.
LM: Are there any particularly intriguing examples of kitchen or herb gardens you encountered in your research?
TA: I travelled to see gardens all over the country during my research; it was the best part of it. And I always gravitated toward the walled gardens, be they walled pleasure gardens or kitchen gardens. My favourites are Kentwell Hall, Blickling Hall, Audley End, Ickworth, and Glastonbury, where a monk’s herb garden has been recreated. Kentwell Hall is especially wonderful; it has a huge walled kitchen garden complete with gnarled old apple trees, espaliered fruit trees that are hundreds of years old, a potager and herb garden, and a gothic-arch-shaped door; Blickling Hall’s kitchen garden is amazing for its sheer size; Audley End’s kitchen garden is especially charming; and at Ickworth, there is a brick house built into the brick wall, which was a bit of an inspiration for Threading of course. One of the best things about going to some of the historic houses around the country that have extensive kitchen gardens is getting to see the historic kitchens; I get almost as excited about the kitchens as I do the gardens!
LM: You grew up in the desert in the American southwest before coming to the UK to study for a PhD, and have spoken before about a fascination from a young age with English landscapes and gardens. Are there any idealised versions of food that you encountered first in fiction, before trying them in reality? (E.g. when I was a kid, I was always bemused and fascinated by the “shrimp paste” and “chocolate creams” of Enid Blyton books…)
TA: When I was a kid I, like so many other Americans, always wondered what Turkish Delight, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tasted like. I was not impressed when I finally had it! I can’t remember where I first read about clotted cream, but in my head I imagined it was something like cottage cheese (I think the word ‘clotted’ made me think of chunks!). When I finally got to have it HOLY COW where was this all my life? I also remember stories often having children eating toast—which I seem to remember they called toasted bread sometimes, which sounded quaint to my American ears—and marmalade; I mean, marmalade exists in the US but it isn’t something I ever really ate, and toast has always been a food group in my life so I suppose I felt that I at least had something in common with British kids!
LM: Do you have any favourite food-related scenes in fiction?
TA: I love how talks, and battles, often tend to happen over a tea cart in Gail Carriger’s Soulless series; I mean, shouldn’t everything happen over a tea cart full of cakes and scones? Life would be much more enjoyable! And one of my favorite books is Douglas Coupland’s microserfs; when I think of it I often remember the scene were the group are trying to get Michael to eat after he’s locked himself in his office so they slide whatever two-dimensional foods they can under his door, from cheese slices to Pop-tarts. I like reading about people cooking, and one of the ways that food gets used in books I like to read is the creation of magical spells, especially those that use herbs and other plants.
LM: Time for some quickfire questions! First, coffee or tea?
TA: Tea. Well, iced tea (American, sorry!). If I drink hot tea, you know I am getting sick or I’m out having an afternoon or cream tea. Coffee smells amazing (I even have coffee candles!) but tastes like poo.
LM: Ha ha, we will have to agree to disagree, says the coffee addict. Chocolate or cheese?
TA: CHOCOLATE! Although for health/weight reasons I am on a chocolate moratorium right now until July 1. So June is cheese 😊
LM: Breakfast or dinner?
TA: Breakfast. I even love having breakfast for dinner!
LM: Favourite beverage to relax with?
TA: G&T (I love the citrus or fruit flavored ones) or a spicy, bold red wine.
LM: If you cook, what’s your favourite thing to make?
TA: I love to bake—cookies, brownies, etc.
LM: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
TA: I have been working on a novel that I started before I started the PhD, and I am about 75K along on it. It’s about an apocalypse, of all things, which will be a hard sell right now (but it’s not a pandemic, so there’s that). It’s about how women deal with the end of things as they were and the beginning of something new, so I’m excited about that aspect of it. Living through this pandemic and observing how people act has really started to inform some of the novel, and I’ve made a few tweaks to it as a result. In my head I think of it as Little House at the end of the world. After that I am considering a research-heavy novel about Nicholas Culpeper (author of the first herbal for the populace) or, more challenging, his wife about whom little is known.
Thanks so much to Tiffani for joining me. Threading the Labyrinth is out NOW as an ebook, available for pre-order from 23rd June, and officially published on 13th July by Unsung Stories. You can find it at: Hive| Amazon| Waterstones | Goodreads
And if you like speculative fiction, you should definitely check out FIYAH; a quarterly speculative fiction magazine that features stories by and about Black people of the African Diaspora. An annual subscription is just $15.
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