By Renée Kohlman
Sharing Comfort Food Stories
Renée Kohlman’s interview with Alex Sawatzky
Alex Sawatzky thinks a lot about food. An interdisciplinary artist and designer based in Guelph, Ontario, she is passionate about using visual methods and tools to celebrate community in both her creative process and end-products. Alex has recently created a new series of illustrations
called Food Stories which focuses on readers’ favourite comfort foods and the stories behind them.
R: What inspired you to begin creating these Food Stories?
A: I think a lot about food; my relationships with it, and society’s relationships with it. Food is a way of bringing people together and it’s also about understanding place, history, and what we can learn about ourselves and each other by looking at what, why, how and where we eat. Our relationships with food are pretty complex. Recognizing that all of those beautiful things like bringing people together, connecting with each other and the land, is important, but it’s also vital to recognize that food is political, social, and there are economic issues.
On an individual level, there are folks that struggle with disordered eating. On a broader scale, there are issues around food insecurity, poverty and the environment. All of these things affect our perceptions of food, as well as our access to food and food systems so I thought about a project that above all else would celebrate those relationships with food, and also highlight some of those nuances and lead to deeper conversations about how we engage with food and each other.
R: Why comfort food?
A: The thought of asking people an open-ended question about what foods we turn to for comfort came up and also if you look up “comfort food” in a google search you get a lot of generic results that are carb-heavy, sugary, “bad food”, but I wanted to move away from that dichotomy of good versus bad food. Instead, I want to move towards understanding what sustains us, what gets us through hard times, what we look forward to when we’re eating in times of joy, because comfort isn’t only something that’s needed when we’re feeling down. Sometimes comfort comes when we’re feeling pure joy.
I started this project in March, but I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years prior. I’ve had big plans for this project and now I feel like it has big plans for me. It seemed like as good a time as any to start it with the pandemic as we are all collectively experiencing a disconnection from each other, from food, from the land. It seemed like a great opportunity to reconnect with some of those things. People are so ready and willing to share their stories about food, if you just ask them some basic questions and just listen.
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R: How do the Food Stories work?
A: I have a form on my website, and I ask people to name their comfort food, and I ask why it is comforting to them. I ask them to share a particular memory or story that involves the food – something that is carried with them whenever they eat it. I’ll reach out over email with any follow up questions if I have them. Some people will write a novel about their comfort food, and with others, sometimes I need to poke and prod a little more. I use an app called Procreate and a bunch of different brushes and palettes all included there. It’s all digital. Sometimes people will send photos of them holding the food, or I will source some reference images myself and I’ll draw from those, then I lay them out in a way that tells a story and incorporates their own words around those images. If it’s a very long story, there will be several pieces within the drawing and then sometimes if it’s short and succinct, there will be one image. So yeah, they all vary.
Another huge thing I’m learning is that the same food, say chocolate cake, can be very different for every story. Having that juxtaposition is really interesting. I was overly ambitious and thought I could do one per day, but with my full-time job, I’m doing about 3-4 a week. I’ve done 26 so far, and I have a lot still in the queue, but I’m going to keep accepting stories until people stop sending them. I’m hoping it will be an ongoing project. I don’t charge for the illustrations, I just ask that people will consider donating to a food-related program or initiative that is near and dear to their hearts. For those that want to pay, I’ve been directing them to Fresh Food for Kids and Harvest Impact in the Guelph area.
R: Tell me a little bit more about your scientific and artistic background.
A: Coming out of high school, I couldn’t choose between arts and sciences as I love them both for different reasons. Within the Arts and Sciences program at the University of Guelph, I learned that I didn’t have to choose between them, and more importantly that I shouldn’t. My work and my projects are successful because I bring together both of those passions and ways of thinking. I took a couple of art classes in university, and over the years I found various ways of bringing aspects of art into my life that complement what I was already doing. I’m at this intersection of art, design, research, and communication. In regards to my drawing style, I find having a more hand-drawn approach to communication makes the work more playful and engaging.
R: What’s your favourite Canadian comfort food? If you had to do a drawing for yourself, what would it be?
A: My Oma makes Streusel Kuchen, which is essentially a German crumb cake. It’s a sweet yeasted dough with a crispy crumb topping. What I really love is when she bakes it with seasonal fruit, which makes it different with every season. I really love rhubarb, apricot and peach season. I love Streusel Kuchen because it connects me to my Oma, my family’s history and the cyclical nature of seasons in Canada. Personally, when I think about Canadian food, I think about changing seasons and connections to the land on which we live and what it gives to us.
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R: What has been the feedback of your Food Stories?
A: It’s been really amazing. A lot of people have been saying things along the lines of Now I feel like I’m sitting around the table with that person. Even just the process of writing out their story is very comforting to them and it reminds them of childhood memories, people who made that food for them, and it feels like this is a way of having people around the table through distance, which is really special.
R: If you could illustrate a famous person’s food story, whose would it be?
A: Samin Nosrat! I’m so obsessed with her and how she engages with food and people. With her enthusiasm for food, I feel that she would have a really really wonderful story.
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R: What has been the best part of creating these Food Stories?
A: There are so many great parts. On a community building level, it’s great to see how many people these stories are resonating with in different ways. There are lessons for me that I’m able to share in a subtle way. For a lot of people, comfort food is just pure and simple comfort food, but for me food is so much more than just food. It’s resistance to social norms. It’s land sovereignty. It’s medicine. It’s healing. It’s a witness to our growth, both physically and otherwise. It’s a witness to our internal connection to the outside world. It’s our relationship to land, place and agriculture; our heritage, our culture, our identity. Food is not the only component of those things, but it’s an important and unifying one.
For me, that has been the best part – to see all of those pieces of food and connections coming together. And as a qualitative researcher, seeing all of those different themes come up has really lighted the fire in me to grow this project even more. I love seeing how if you just ask a simple question of why and just listen, there are some really beautiful things that can come from it. I’m excited to let this project grow and just enjoy the process.
R: Are you a fan of cooking and baking? What’s happening in your kitchen right now?
A: Oh absolutely! One of my most favourite things in the world is having people around the table and eating food that I prepared. My partner and I just moved to a new house and for the first time I’m starting to garden and it’s really exciting for me as I’ve never grown my own plants before – I’ve always sourced from local markets. Watching my seedlings grow is really exciting and I know that it gives me a whole new level of appreciation for food and where it comes from.
Alex can be found on Instagram @_alexandrawings
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