Fresh Ingredients for Creative Writing

I recently signed up for a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) program, in which I receive a basket of vegetables each week for the rest of the summer, and into the fall. I thought it would be a great way to supplement my garden, which I didn’t make big enough this year to meet my vegetable needs.

I anticipated that receiving a basket of fresh farm vegetables each week would inevitably change how I cooked. What I hadn’t counted on was how it would also change the way I thought about writing.

I’ve realized that I often cook the way I write: with a few go-to dishes with staple ingredients. In creative writing terms, I often write in the same genre (creative nonfiction) using the same favoured literary techniques that seem to come naturally to me. In neither do I venture too far from the norm.

I understood when I signed up for the vegetable baskets that I’d occassionally be receiving vegetables that I didn’t usually buy, and therefore might not be familiar with. (After opening my first basket of vegetables, I emailed the farmer to tell her how excited I was to make rhubarb cake . . . not realizing that what I’d received was actually swiss chard!). I knew with this venture that I’d need to try some new recipes.

In the first basket, along with the familiar cucumbers, zucchini, green bell peppers, green beans, sugar peas, zucchini (summer squash, they call it), green onions (scallions, they call it), and the infamous swiss chard (which I did not, by the way, make into a chard cake!) were some items that I hadn’t cooked with often (like eggplant and beets) or had never cooked with at all (like Jalapeño peppers) and some I didn’t even know the name of (like swiss chard . . . and okra!). And then there was one I knew well – its unmistakable sweet smell wafted up to me before I even saw it: dill. There was a healthy bunch of it, roots and all.

It was a familiar herb, but I hadn’t cooked with it much. I knew it best as the ingredient that made pickles taste fantastic. But what other uses did it have? I was confident I could use the other vegetables up in the week, but the dill I wasn’t so sure of (especially as I wasn’t planning on doing any canning in the next few days).

Not wanting to waste an ounce of my new produce, I got to work trying to find recipes that used dill. But not many seem to call for much of it, so I found myself trying multiple new recipes in the hopes of using a bit more up. I made buttery carrots with dill, crispy cucumber salad with dill, greek yoghurt dressing with dill, and homemade wholewheat bread with dill.

Recently I’ve also started a new reading project to chronologically go through all the major works of literature of western thought, starting with creation myths like The Epic of Gilgamesh and ending with contemporary works such as Jacques Derrida’s essay “On Forgiveness.” I’m currently stuck on Homer’s The Iliad, a book I was required to read my first year of university but which I struggled to follow the plot.

I wonder if my ambitious reading project — reading numerous works that are completely outside of the genre I usually read in — could be likened to receiving varieties of vegetables I don’t usually buy or cook with. Both require experiencing a daily ritual in a new way: tasting things a bit out of the ordinary.

For instance, I don’t usually read war books, and so slugging through an epic like The Iliad has been challenging for me on that account. But as I’ve read, I’ve been surprised and even delighted at the literary techniques that I’ve seen repeated, especially the simile (making a direct comparison between the thing at hand and something entirely distant, but fittingly compared). Like dill, it’s something I’m familiar enough with to readily identify, but I personally don’t use it often. Some examples of Homer’s similes:

“As when a pair of wild beasts in the dusk
stampedes a herd of cows or a flock of sheep,
by a sudden rush, and no herdsman is near,
so the Akhaians lost their nerve and panicked.” (Book XV, lines 376-79)

“Like a surging wave
that comes inboard a ship when a gale blows —
wind giving impetus to sea — the Trojans
crossed the rampart with a mighty cry
and whipped their chariots toward the sterns.” (Book XV, lines 443-47)

“As when a stallion,
long in the stall and fluffed at his trough,
snaps his halter and goes cantering off
across a field to splash in a clear stream,
rearing his head aloft triumphantly
with mane tossed on his shoulders, glorying
in his own splendor, and with driving knees
seeking familiar meadowland and pasture:
just so Hektor, sure-footed and swift,
sped on the chariots at the god’s command.” (Book XV, lines 306-15)

These three examples come from the same book in The Iliad, all within less than 200 lines of each other. Though they are very different images, they all employ the same format: using “like” or “as” as an opener, they describe the thing that is to be compared (a pair of wild beasts, a surging wave, a stallion long in the stall), in detail, before giving the thing that the author wants us to see in front of us (the Akhaians losing their nerve, the Trojans crossing, Hektor speeding in his chariot). Like the same herb, served with different ingredients, in multiple meals over a short period of time, it’s the same thing — the same trick — each time with different details.

Fresh dill could also be used in place of bayleaves I read, so I snipped some off some to add to my spaghetti sauce one day, and my vegetable casserole the next.

“Think of the sound of strokes
woodcutters make in mountain glens, the echoes
ringing for listeners far away: just so
the battering din of these in combat rose
from earth where the living go their ways — the clang
of bronze, hard blows on leather, on bull’s hide,
as longsword blades and spearheads met their marks.” (Book XVI, lines 722-31)

It’s still the same ingredient, though used slightly differently, freshly.

And so, how does all this relate to my own creative writing? Like receiving different herbs and vegetables — not staples selected in a store, but a variety of disparate kinds delivered to you (whichever happen to be in season at the time) — so too reading genres that are entirely different from your norm can expose you to different literary techniques that you don’t often encounter. The trick, then, is to now let them infuse and flavour your own writing.

Question: How do you implement fresh techniques into your writing?