Symposiasts at Work: Naomi Duguid

Fiona Sinclair and Andrew Dalby introduce Symposiast Naomi Duguid

Naomi Duguid.

Naomi Duguid.

Image credit: Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir

A new book from Naomi Duguid is a reason to celebrate,” said David Tanis in the New York Times, setting the tone for a seductive review of Naomi’s Taste of Persia (published in September 2016). She is now author or part-author of eight books. Naomi has recently become a Trustee of the Oxford Food Symposium: and so, for the Symposium blog, Fiona asked her when she first heard of the Symposium and why it attracted her.

“I’d been hearing about the Symposium for a long time, I guess since early in the 1990s. And I’d seen Petits Propos Culinaires. But at that time the Symposium was nearly always in early September, just when my kids were starting back to school each year, and so I didn’t come. I was also concerned about the cost. Finally I made it, in 2012, and I’ve come regularly since. But I’ve never submitted a paper. I come to be enriched not just by the papers but even more by the discussions with all the others who come. I look forward to those discussions eagerly, every year.”

Naomi grew up in Ottawa, went to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and began to work as a lawyer. But the real story seems to be that Naomi grew up in a house full of maps. “There was always a sense that the world is larger than you are,” she once explained. “You saved your money for the essentials: travel and books.” And so, even while practising labour law in Toronto, Naomi was spending her leave travelling the world, and especially south and southeast Asia.

How did you become a food writer? Fiona asked.

“My food writing began as an outgrowth of travel, since I found that being curious about local food culture was the best and most interesting way to engage with wherever I found myself …” On one of those escapes from Toronto – on a bicycle tour of Tibet in 1985 – Naomi met her future husband, now ex-husband, Jeffrey Alford. They met again and married in Kathmandu, and plotted to write food books while cycling down the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan.

The first book, of the six they eventually wrote together, was Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas (1995) “The process of writing that book shaped the way I now write about and think about food and food culture,” says Naomi. “I’m interested in food as a way of understanding place and culture, as a window into place and culture. And I’m interested in context: geography, climate, politics, and of course also history.

“Food is my way of engaging with local stories. Food is a fascinating mirror. In a place where people have very little food choice, or where they are constrained by shortages of fuel or a difficult climate (for example in many of the flatbread cultures), food is a creative work-around. It’s not glamorous fine dining (which interests me not at all). Instead it’s a direct expression of history and culture and human creativity.”

But what drew Naomi to the cultures of southern Asia? What is it in the food of that region that fascinates her?

“The local culture – and the geo-politics – are the start-point wherever I focus my attention. I don’t begin by asking myself ‘where is the food most delicious?’ It doesn’t start with a choice of cuisine. So, for example, southeast Asia is deeply interesting, with its diversity of cultures, complicated history, and its links to other parts of the world.”

The book before last, Burma: Rivers of Flavor (2012), was the first after she and Alford parted, and therefore her first as sole author.

“I wanted to do Burma because Burma had been turned into a kind of black hole in our imaginations, ruled by an iron-fisted military dictatorship. I wanted to delve at the level of the everyday, beneath the damning headlines. How better to do that than with food? In addition, because it has borders and historic connections with the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China, Burma is a very special location geo-politically.

“Similarly with my most recent book,Taste of Persia. I wanted to retrieve Persian culinary culture from behind the caricature we now have of Iran because of the headlines and the legacy of the Islamic revolution. As well, I wanted to connect it to the neighbouring cuisines (of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan), because the Persian culinary legacy is alive in all of them. In other words, giving a context for the food through history, geography, ethnography, is what I want to do, so that the recipes have meaning and can reverberate with people on many levels. The location, the photographs and stories in the books, are as important to me as the recipes.”

And what comes next?

“I am still in thrall to Iran and the Persian culinary region – a holdover from my work on the book. Even I don’t know what will come next.”

Naomi Duguid’s Books

The first six are co-authored with Jeffrey Alford:
Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas. HarperCollins, 1995 (ISBN 0-688-11411-3)
Seductions of Rice. Artisan, 1998 (ISBN 1-57965-234-4)
Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Artisan, 2000 (ISBN 1-57965-114-3)
Home Baking: Sweet and Savory Traditions from Around the World. Artisan, 2003 (ISBN 1-57965-174-7)
Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent. Artisan, 2005 (ISBN 1-57965-252-2)
Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. Artisan, 2008 (ISBN 1-57965-301-4)
Burma: Rivers of Flavor. Artisan, 2012 (ISBN 978-1-57965-413-9)
Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan. Artisan, 2016 (ISBN 978-1-57965-727-7)
Naomi was also a contributor to Baking with Julia (William Morrow, 1996) and a participant in the PBS TV series ‘Baking with Julia’
Recently she was among the contributors to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets (ed. Darra Goldstein: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Naomi Duguid on the Web

Her splash page is naomiduguid.com. Links can be found there to the page about her culinary tours (in northern Thailand and in Burma; upcoming in Iran and Georgia) at immersethrough.com
Twitter and Instagram: @naomiduguid