I loved talking with my most taurus friend Steven Dunn about canned fish and more (but mostly food). He's so generous and cracks me up on fb all the time. Also if you haven't read his books you're really missing out (go and do)!
K: Steven, maybe I misremember but I think the first time we interacted was when you posted about being part of a Canned Fish Club and that you’d have meetings where everyone would bring different canned fish and eat it and that was basically the club and I thought that was so amazing and I wanted to join or start my own Canned Fish Club, to just sit around and open cans and talk shit and maybe pair them with a drink or two.
One of my favorite foods growing up in Östersund (Sweden) was this very particular mackerel in tomato sauce (Makrill i tomatssås by ICA) that we’d eat on crispbread. It’s still one of my favorite things in the world and I haven’t really been able to find it here in the states, but every once in a while my mom will ship me some and I space them out to enjoy on special occasions. It was just cool to find out someone else was into canned fish and it inspired me to expand my taste. Lately I’ve been getting into sardines.
Anyway, how did the canned fish club come to be and is it still happening? And I’d love to know how you first fell in love with canned fish and what it was for you?
S: The Canned Fish Club was at my old engineering job. I was eating some fancy sardines in the break room one day, and a dude got excited and we talked about all the fish we loved. And he said they'd already had a Canned Fish Club at work, where once a month they'd all bring in stuff and share. A lot of people traveled for work, so they'd bring stuff back, like miso halibut from Japan or black bean sardines from Thailand. I quit that job in 2019, but I need to start a new club.
And speaking of traveling, thanks to you talking about how much you loved the mackerel in tomato sauce in Sweden, I made sure I ate some when I went to Sweden and Norway a couple months ago. I didn't get that particular brand you mentioned, but I bought a bunch of mackerel in tomato sauce. I love how you talk about food, so I also ate some lingonberry while I was there because I'd never heard of it until you were longing for it on facebook.
I first fell in love with canned fish when I was maybe 4 or 5, because me and my grandad would sit on the porch in the summers and eat sardines and yellow mustard on saltine crackers. He'd always assemble it for me, and I loved how he always made two lines of mustard that ran the length of the fish.
K: I love that story, the two lines of mustard. Plain saltine crackers are underrated, I need to try that. My grandpa took me fishing sometimes, ice fishing, and I have this vivid memory of sitting in a tent on the ice and fishing in a hole in the middle. I don't remember what fish but I remember eating it fried on crispbread with butter.
I really miss lingonberries. We’d eat it on or with just about anything: porridges, macaroni casseroles, meatballs. It’s not super special I guess in itself but just a lot of taste and food memories associated with it for me (I should have told you about cloudberries too! Warm on ice cream). Another thing I really miss is my dad’s beef patties made with liver, it has a very special taste and it goes amazing with lingonberries. But I don’t have a meat grinder. Did you care for the lingonberries? I just had lunch and now I’m hungry all over again. I love how you write about food too, and just your life in general.
I feel like I have a lot of canned fish to explore. I ordered some Nuri Mackerel Spiced in Olive Oil and loved it a lot and have been meaning to get more but mostly I get less fancy, affordable cans at the store. The sardines I had the other day weren’t great, more like a mush. You have anything at home you’re looking forward to eating?
I was excited about you going to Norway and Sweden. My grandmother was Norwegian but lived in Sweden but we didn’t really visit there much so I'm not that familiar. What were some of your favorite things you saw or did during the trip? Favorite places? It sucked that the fish church in Gothenburg was closed.
S: Oh man, I love your memory of you and your grandpa ice fishing. I love it so much it feels like my own memory. I had to think about why, and of course there's the overlap of our grandpas, but I think the root of that memory is care, like someone spending some one-on-one time with us relaxing and feeding us. The luxury of rest, connection, and care. And speaking of care, the adult and young adult author, Emily Franklin, in Massachusetts, recently sent me a box full of tinned fishes, all new things for me, like a lot of paté de cavala (mackerel paté). She also sent spiced mackerel from the famous Pinhais in Portugal--I've watched a documentary about them a lot but I've never had any of their fish. Oh, and she sent homemade honey from her own bees. I'm impressed she has those skills, and I admire and appreciate her care to send me those things. We only know each other from facebook, and she sees how much I post about tinned fish. That's what I'm looking forward to eating. I'm in the process of getting a box together for her.
And yes, I loved the lingonberries. I had them with beef patties, gravy, and potatoes, because that's how you talked about having them, so I'm glad you mentioned that meal again in your response. I know you said you have a lot of memories tied to lingonberries, do you mind sharing one that stands out most.
K: Probably the liver patties. I actually talked to my dad about them the other day because I’d written to you about them, asking about what went into them. It’s tied to a memory of helping make them as a kid. But also a macaroni casserole (makaronipudding), and I know you don’t like mac and cheese and I’m not going to sell you on it but it does incorporate bacon and kielbasa sausage! And we’d eat it either with ketchup or lingonberries, a sunday meal.
One time my dad tried to bring homemade lingonberry jam in an old taped up milk carton through customs and I can’t remember if they confiscated it or were so puzzled they let it through. Anyway, I make the casserole from time to time when I want something comforting and use ketchup on it, reluctantly. Oh and blood pudding. It’s a kind of loaf made out of blood and flour, and sliced thin and fried. With lingonberries. Some use syrup, smh. Enough with the lingonberries!
That’s amazing about your friend. Spiced mackerel and mackerel pate sounds delicious! I love that she’s sending you food and you’re preparing to send her something back. And that we’ve made a similar connection through food. I’ve been thinking about food and memories a lot even before us talking about it. I have these comfort attachments to certain foods from when I grew up and maybe it’s heightened by moving to a different culture. How food becomes carrier of memories, a little like some music, connecting you to a place or feeling.
Sometimes I feel like I should write down recipes so these dishes won’t get lost but I almost never follow a recipe and the dishes are never quite the same so I don’t even know what I would write. I don’t have any recipes of my parents or grandparents either, only a Swedish cookbook I consult sometimes, but mostly it’s memory and repetition, using whatever ingredients I have. I wonder what will stick for my kids and what they might try to recreate later on? Are your kids taking interest in the foods you love? Do you keep recipes? Growing up in West Virginia and living in Colorado, I imagine it’s very different too. Any other nostalgic food memories that stand out or brings you comfort or you like to recreate?
S: Okay, mac & cheese with bacon and kielbasa sounds beautiful! I do like mac & cheese, but I think it's an overrated dish--I don't get the big fuss about it, but I'll definitely eat it. Black America is hilarious about mac & cheese, like it's the holy grail of all food, and as if nobody makes it better than Black Americans. We have so much good food in our culture and mac & cheese and potato salad is what we make a big deal about?? And everyone swears their grandma makes the BEST mac & cheese. Okay, rant over ahaha!
And yes, the memory of repetition of cooking. I don't have any recipes but I have certain WV dishes that I feel are important for kids' education: salmon cakes (canned fish again, ahah, and my nostalgic food), potato cakes, and cabbage roll soup. My mom is sorta like the town cook, and she used to be a cook at the elementary school...so food was important in our house growing up. Oh, and speaking of recipes, my wife has a recipe book from her Portuguese mom. My wife was born and raised in Hawaii, but is ethnically Filipino and Portuguese, so it's important to her to cook the foods she loved: Portuguese bean soup, chicken long rice, mung bean soup, spam musubi, and loco moco (fried rice, gravy, hamburger patty, toppied with a fried egg). Our kids are growing up in Colorado with West Virginia and Hawaii foods.
K: First of all, I’m so excited to try these fish tins you sent! That really made my day. I haven't gotten into them yet but I will soon. And I’m here for any and all food rants. I tried to make potato cakes after you posted about it once but it wasn’t successful. Also I’ve never tried salmon cakes but want to (I think R’s family used to make them). It’s interesting picking up all these different foods via the people and places you encounter. My aunt lives in Rome so I have good memories of Italian food I want to recreate and I’ve picked up dishes living here in VA that I never knew before, like pinto beans and cornbread, chicken and dumplings, that I like and make regularly. I’ll stick to Swedish pancakes tho.
I love how food ends up in your writing too. Your first book is called Potted Meat and I love the story in Water & Power, which is your second book about the navy and military culture, where the “I” (you? I hope it’s you lol) ends up stranded in Japan and refuses to eat at Hard Rock Café with the rest of the crew and gets on a random train to find some good food. I like the thought of getting lost without a map and seeing what happens. Do you have any aspirations to write specifically about food and travel? I feel like something like that was mentioned at some point.
Parallels: my dad was a cook too and I think cooked for the preschool I was in as a kid. And he also got on a ship when he was young and ended up in Japan.
Another question: are there any foods you’d be happy to cut out of your life forever, and on the other hand, if you had to eat something every day, what would it be?
S: Oh my god man, your dad was a cook too, and ended up in Japan! That's wild. I'm so happy we're talking about this and learning more about each other.
And thanks for recalling the Japan story in water & power--it's my favorite story in there but people usually don't bring it up ahaha. So extra thank you! That story is one of my favorite food memories, and it made me so happy to write about it.
Re: having any aspirations to write specifically about food and travel. YES! I've had this idea for about 10 years now of mapping French colonialism through sandwiches. But I wanna travel to each place and eat the sandwiches, like eat a torta in Mexico, a po' boy in New Orleans, banh mi in Vietnam, a grilled merguez sandwich in Algeria, and so on. Imma do this in life one day! Hopefully I can get a grant or something.
Okay, so foods I wanna cut forever: Chicken strips and mozzarella sticks (bland-ass foods).
Foods I could eat everyday: some form of eggs, and some form of fish.
What about you, what are the foods you want to cut forever, and the foods you could eat every day?
K: Holy shit you need to pitch Netflix for this Sandwich travel show! And write that book. That would be so good.
I need to ask my dad about Japan and get back to you because I'm not sure if I remember that story right. Do you ever feel like you regret not asking people in your family for more of their stories? I wish I would have asked my grandparents more questions. The older I get the more important that feels, whereas back when I was younger I was too busy with myself to bother, which is probably a pretty common thing. But I still have my parents to ask.
Doing these interviews is kind of a version of that too. Wanting to get to know people better, wanting to connect more. I feel like you keep up with alot of people? How do you keep up with people and do you find it overwhelming at all?
For foods I'd be fine with not eating: I was gonna say chicken but I do like chicken wings, and chicken soup, so maybe not. Eh. Chicken breasts and boiled eggs can go for me.
I'd eat pasta every day, but that wouldn't be good, so I'll say a caprese salad, with good tomatoes. I could eat that every day. Funny that you said you could go without mozzarella sticks.
I'm gonna open one of those fancy tins for lunch in a little while and look forward to it.
S: Yes, chicken breast can get the hell on for me, also. But I love boiled eggs ahah!
I wished I would've asked my grandparents more about their stories also. One of my grandmas died when I was 7, so I didn't get to ask her much anyway, but I was with her a LOT during those seven years. My other grandma, who didn't die until I was 19, told me a lot of her stories, especially about when she used to clean houses for white people, and how the coal companies were like modern slavery, so I feel like I didn't miss much. But I wonder, because she told a lot of stories, that she had a lot more that I could've asked her about. The more I think about myself as a writer, the more I realize I'm basically mimicking my grandma telling me all these stories, and not only the stories, but the material was so important to her, like she'd tell me details about beans, and clothes she wore, and the little space between people's houses in the coal camp, and how couples were cheating on each other. And I also have my grandma's sense of humor because I thought she was the funniest person ever. I've been laughing for 30 plus years at the time I was in the backseat when my dad was driving my grandma through the drive-thru bank, and something unfair was going on and the white lady bank teller was being sassy with my grandma, and my grandma called her a slew-foot heffa who couldn't pour piss out of a boot if it had a hole in the toe and instructions on the heel. I fell out in the back seat DYING laughing.
K: Haha I love those sort of elaborate creative put downs that’s like a whole story, and that you’ve taken it with you. I don’t remember any phrases my grandparents used to use and I kind of wish I’d just cuss in Swedish sometimes but I’m too self-conscious, too assimilated now. Even if I stub my toe or hurt myself I cuss in English, it seems like a missed opportunity!
I’ve been enjoying the shift to fall here in VA and finally being able to wear a jacket and cooking some warm hearty meals. You said on fb something about scheduling your readings and visits to catch east coast fall foliage. You excited about that and is there a particular kind of fall experience you’re looking for, different from there? Is it your favorite season?
S: Oh man, I hope one day you get your Swedish cuss words back! When I was learning Spanish, in college and with people in the town, the people who were teaching me were the most proud of me when I learned how to cuss well. On the other side, a group of Chinese dudes at my college, who were learning English, wanted me to teach them how to cuss in English. It made me so happy when they came to art class cussing me out after they did their homework the night before, which was watching Black 70s movies that I'd given them. What you said reminded me of that: the sorta authenticity or confidence to cuss in another language. In summation, cussing is great ahaha!
And yes, I loooove fall, and Colorado's fall isn't that great because it's not super colorful and it's still hot here, so I run to the east coast every chance I get in the fall. Fall feels cozy to me, and peaceful, and much deserved after a hot-ass busy summer. It's like the world is chilling the fuck out. But mainly, it's just fucking beautiful, especially the light. I can never decide if fall or winter is my favorite season. What's your favorite season?
K: First I have to say that one of the tins you sent, Fangs Sprat No. 2 (smoked) Baltic Sea (sounds like a fancy perfume!), was one of the best meals I’ve had in my whole life. I can’t even explain it! Every bite was so good!
Fall is definitely my favorite here. It does feel like a big chill out. Everything quiets down somehow. I love walking around and the leaves falling around me and it getting darker earlier. Summer is probably my favorite in Sweden, here it’s mostly miserable, having to mow lawns and get eaten by ticks and wasps while you can’t even enjoyably sit outside.
But more a struggle with having quit smoking, in the fall? How do you feel about that now since it’s been a while? If you want to talk about it. I quit several years ago but I definitely kind of miss it when it feels like this, also miss having like… a vice? Don’t know if that makes sense.
Any fall album or artist you’re getting extra into at the moment? I feel like I’m shifting to more melancholy stuff.
S: Man, when we were in Norway and Sweden this past summer, I thought, "This is how fucking summer is supposed to be!" Then I came back to the Denver dessert and was miserable. Fuck a summer.
I miss smoking so much in the fall and the winter. I quit at the beginning of summer 2021, and it was easier because I never liked smoking in the summer anyway, but when fall and winter came with its crispness and beautiful snows, it was so hard not to smoke.
As far as fall albums, Freddie Jackson's Time For Love (1992). My dad used to play that album a lot while he drove us to football games and stuff in West Virginia fall. I forgot about it until I was recently in West Virginia for the fall, and the first thing I listened to was that Freddie Jackson album while I was driving from Pittsburgh to Morgantown, WV. And I usually turn to more melancholy stuff, especially Damon Albarn's Everyday Robots (2014), and that group he was in The Good, the Bad, & the Queen's self-titled album from 2007.
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