9 Sept 2009

Printing Palates with Fire & Knives

Renowned food writer, broadcaster and photographer Tim Hayward on the launch of new quarterly, Fire & Knives- ‘new writing for food lovers’...

A new print title - are you mad, Tim?
I’m pretty sure I’m sane. Firstly, everyone this is targetted at is a food lover with a bookshelf. Secondly, I used to think that content wanted to be free, but I’m increasingly convinced it was kidding itself and trying to be hip. What content really wants is to be made into a beautiful and seemly object and appreciated by people who love that sort of thing. Thirdly, as a non-profit operation we have two audiences here, readers and contributors. As long as both those groups still love and respect the printed word, that’s the way we’ll go.
How long has this project been in gestation?
A couple of years ago I began to realise that most food writers I knew weren’t getting the stuff they wanted to write commissioned. At the same time most food lovers I knew were complaining that food writing in the mainstream was becoming more and more lifestyle focussed so they couldn’t find the stuff they wanted to read. A year ago I met some people who had backgrounds in small circulation magazines and ‘zines and I realised a magazine might be economically doable if it avoided advertising, stayed print only and non-profit.
The big surprise, and I suppose the final motivating factor for launching, was the recession and the situation in magazine publishing. At least one or two food titles will go to the wall and others will be forced to compromise on quality and drive to broaden their audiences - so the quality void into which we’re launching just gets bigger and bigger.
What has been the response of your peers and loved ones, and if negative, do you really care?
Other writers have been universally positive, chipping in great work for no fee and generally being supportive about the whole thing. Readers and the online community have been nothing but encouraging and helpful. By far the main response has been ‘about bloody time’ or ‘thank God...’ which, in terms of positive initial research response, is to say the least, reassuring.
Do you feel the shift of publications onto the internet represents a loss of texture?
Utterly. I’m sitting here typing this in a leather chair, surrounded by real printy books. I could tell you what that smells like and the deep feeling of calm it imparts... but you already know that.
Don’t get me wrong... I love the geeksphere in all its forms but it’s not how I enjoy taking my recreational reading.
Part of your remit is to showcase new talent. How large a part will this be?
Huge. I’m working with writers at all sorts of levels here... hell we’ve got Elizabeth David, Matt Fort and Tom Parker-Bowles in the first edition... but I’m also working closely with some online writers to help bring them into some of their first ‘dead-tree’ work. I can’t give you a percentage split but I would make one point: if one was looking for the next M.F.K. Fisher putting out her first tentative pieces, it would be no good looking in the pages of Vogue like it was back in the day – she’s going to be a blogger.
What do you think of the way traditional media treats so-called emerging writers?
They are so scared and confused at the moment, at every level of the traditional media, that all bets are off.
Have you had to remortgage to fund this, or is there a benevolent backer behind the scenes?
No backers, I’m afraid. But it doesn’t cost as much as you might think and subscriptions do cover print and production costs.
Do you really think it can sustain a domestic focus?
I really believe our own food culture is rich enough to sustain a magazine. This doesn’t mean it’s all about pie & mash – I’ve just commissioned a piece on a Bengali women’s allotment group - it just means I’m heartily bored of food writing that’s all about one’s agreeable summer place in Umbria and how we simply can’t grow decent fruit and veg here. It’s time we grew up and realised that we’re not, as the British middle class seem to believe, a Mediterranean country, shifted to these latitudes by an unkindly tectonic upheaval. If we persist in judging our food by the availability of ingredients for an authentic bouillabaise and the redness of our peppers, it’s no wonder we’ve had an inferiority complex for so long. I spent two weeks in Provence this year looking for a decent kipper - not a one to be found! By that standard French food is bloody useless.
Is this an antidote to egotistically scribed restaurant reviews?
Restaurant reviews are great. Other places do them really well. I just wanted to detach us entirely from the ‘conspicuous’ part of consumption.
Looking at your front page, is the tone set to be a dash Chapesque?
Not intentionally. We took our design cues from several diverse sources: Wartime Min. of Food pamphlets, fifties food packaging, old Penguin covers, diner graphics, art-deco bottle labels, woodcuts in old cookbooks - stuff we loved. The designers at Present Joys came back with this and we’re thrilled. I love the way that logo would fit just as well on a 1942 pamphlet on jam making, a pack of cheap American bacon in 1963 or a pop-up restaurant in Hoxton. Actually I’m looking at designs for branded aprons today and that logo just looks great on everything. I suppose there’s an element of retro - but then any discussion of food culture has to include a large helping of history so maybe that’s no bad thing.
I always enjoyed The Chap - they were a great example of what specialist interest publishing could do back then - but I wouldn’t like to head down that predominantly male cul-de-sac. That said, what defines modern British food lovers is a developing pride in our culture, the conviction that there's a proper way to do things and the unfashionable belief that those are worthy subjects for intelligent discourse. If that’s Chappy then I’m proud to stick by it.
Who came up with the inspiration for the rather sensationalist title, ‘Fire & Knives’?
Sensationalist? Oh dear. Me, I’m afraid. Cooking in a diner in San Francisco in the eighties, I spent a drunken night with an unsuitable waitress talking about the restaurant we’d open if we ever had the money. She said we should name it after what made us so excited about food... I said ‘the fire and knives’ and it’s stuck in my mind ever since. I might still open it one day.
And finally, what features might we expect in issue one?
Oooh, lots. We have a previously unpublished manuscript from Elizabeth David - a marvellously acerbic review of Fanny Cradock. The lovely thing is that you'll be able to see exactly how she wrote it, long before word processors. The incredible passion in the strikings through and scrubbings out. Tom Parker-Bowles has the most astonishing collection of old cookbooks - one of the best I’ve seen - so he'll be telling us about the importance of the older books in revitalising our food culture. Matt Fort is writing about defining Britishness in cooking. We have social history of the dinner party; a brilliantly surreal short story. We’ve sent a club fashion photographer to do combat shots in a pop-up; an impassioned lament for the endangered Thermos; something on tobacco as a flavouring. It’s packed with loads of that sort of thing. I estimate if you get it in November you’ll still be reading it in the new year. Oh, and a film critic has discovered the most food obsessed movie ever... and it’s none of the ones you're thinking of…

A subscription to ‘Fire & Knives’ may be purchased online: http://www.fireandknives.com/ (£20 per year)
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