Friends of Dedalus: Interview with Author Meredith Erickson

Friends of Dedalus: Interview with Author Meredith Erickson

Feb 10, 2023Sadie Williams

Tell her she can’t run to the moon, and Meredith Erickson will sprint there and back again five times. It’s just who she is.

The cookbook author and foodie might be Canadian, but she fully embraces what she believes is a uniquely American naiveté: the conviction that with enough grit and curiosity, you can accomplish anything. It’s what propelled her to tell the story of Montréal’s darling restaurant Joe Beef in “The Art of Living According to Joe Beef,” the cookbook that launched her to fame in 2011 and to take on other massive projects like documenting 200 years of Claridge's dining.

Her most recent publication was “Alpine Cooking,” which came out in 2019. It was a monster. A never-before-seen compendium of recipes and stories from Europe’s largest mountain range. In true Meredith fashion, it’s less of a straight cookbook and more of a “mixtape” (her words) that smashes together storytelling, character profiles, restaurant reviews, and recipes. Aside from booking a flight to Zermatt, this is the closest you’ll get to the dining rooms of those remote rifugios and Alpine villages.

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Currently, the author lives in Milan with her partner, who is Italian, and their child. Amidst the mountains of cacio e pepe and historic art, she’s already tackled two enormous new projects. The first is a new Alpine cookbook focusing on the Alta Italia region. The second is an Alpine-inspired aperitif that will launch this summer. We’re beyond excited to experience both.

Sadie Williams and Ashley Bryant from Dedalus interviewed Meredith in January 2023. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sadie: You're in Milan, so you're surrounded by great food, of course. Are there any Alpine recipes, that are showing up in your life? 

Meredith: For sure. In my book, there is a recipe for the wiener schnitzel. But the OG, the original schnitzel is actually the Cotoletta alla Milanese. It's actually a bone-in veal, breaded schnitzel that's much thicker. And it's also a thing that kids love. It's basically a huge chicken nugget.


Sadie: What's not to love. And what are you working on these days?

Meredith: I am working on another book called Alta Italia, all about if you were to drive from Liguria, Torino to Friuli, which winemakers would you meet, what would you eat and where would you stay?... It's a... I was going to say it's a giant mistake, but I say that with sarcasm. It's going to be cool. I really believe in this project, but when I pitched it I was just not thinking about the difficulties of it, kind of like how you ignore the red flags in a partner.

What I realized recently is that it's much more difficult than Alpine Cooking, because Alpine was four countries that all had a thread of continuity, which is the Alps. And also those places, because they deal with tourism, are really accommodating. Whereas here, in Alto Piemonte, and large stretches of Lombardia, the notion of hospitality is…less apparent. 

And the thing I’ve been working on for three years [with Richard Betts] is coming to the U.S. in June. It’s an aperitivo alpino. It's inspired by the Dolomites and made in Dijon. And I would say it's the aperitivo for people who don't like Aperol and have been waiting for something else. It's 100% all-natural. It's rhubarb, it's gentian — it's tastier than Campari. It's fresher than Campari. It's 22% alcohol. And it's being made right now.

Ashley: An amazing person to collaborate with. That's gonna blow up. Because there is such a need for that. I'm always constantly trying to find new aperitivos and amaros, because that's what I like to drink and I'll usually mix it with a little bit of something that’s lower ABV…and not all of them are great. 

Sadie: That reminds me of something you've talked about before, about how you try to take on projects that feel like they're filling a gap, right? You wrote Alpine Cooking because there was nothing like it that existed. You’re creating this aperitif because nothing really exists like it. So this new book, can you talk a little bit about the gap that that's filling or why you felt the need to do that? 

Meredith: Yeah. Great question. So at first, I thought, "Am I actually doing something new with this book?" And now I realize I really am because anybody who started out, I'm sure, was so frustrated.

So this one isn't about the physical limitations of getting to a rifugio. It's just having the determination to deal with people.

Sadie: Is that going to be a central theme of the book? "It's good if you can get through the hostility."

Meredith: Yeah. Just this weekend, I went — Lombardia is massive — around Franciacorta, there was this really beautiful restaurant that's been around for 200 years, and I walked in and they were making gnocchi for my baby. They knew all the media tricks. They're just so savvy. And the food was good. And then the next day, I went to a complete shithole that was literally beside a nuclear power plant and they were horrible to me, and the food was so great.

So in this one, I'm kind of saying, "You've got to trust me." And I think that places like Genoa are the next Marseille, or you know what Mexico City was like quite a while ago. They're really gritty, they're really difficult. The first answer is no. And then you razzle-dazzle your way into somebody's heart, and then finally get a yes, and then it's worth it. But all of these places are really special and no one's revealed them. And I think I'm revealing them in a way that's really important to me after the pandemic. And that's by only showing authentic family, private-owned locations. So there are no corporations or chains involved.

Ashley: There are so many people that go into projects with this kind of blind ambition and naivete, and I think it creates some of the best work.  Because otherwise, you wouldn't do it, right? You wouldn't have the balls to do it if you knew what it actually would be like. You need a little bit of that ambition, that naive ambition, to get to something real and something new and something exciting.

Meredith: My husband and I were watching this documentary on this architect, Renzo Piano. And he said this thing that we talk about all the time, because, I have an Italian-speaking son and I'm married to an Italian man. And the beautiful thing I think about Americans specifically, not Canadians, but Americans, is you feel completely free to discover and you can do anything you want.

Let's go, let's explore something. Let's go to Italy, let's try this new thing. Whereas Italians, it's really... When I'm telling him about wine like Lepiane or different wines from Gattinara, he's just like, "It's a shit hole. Why would you go?" And that's why books like this are never written by Italians because it takes exactly what you're talking about. It takes this naivete to be like, "I don't know, sounds cool."

Sadie: Curiosity.

Meredith: Curiosity. And Americans, I think that's a really beautiful thing about an American attitude, is also this can do... "Everybody says no, but fuck it. I'm gonna just try it."

Sadie: Talking also about that filling-the-gap mentality, that bottomless curiosity. Can you talk a little bit about how that manifested when you were writing Alpine Cooking? What was it beyond, "These places are gorgeous and the food is delicious," that really drew you to that subject matter, to those places? 

Meredith: I think both of these projects bring out a masochistic side of me. The more people say no, I might want quit, but I don't, because it just makes me want to do it even more. The next book project that I'm going to do when I'm 50, seven years from now, is the definitive Canadian book. Really weird places across Canada and the North, which is really unsexy, but very real. And Canada's so fucking big, it's gonna take forever. It's gonna be so expensive to produce.

But I have to be honest that when I look at those three projects, I think that's the thread of continuity, the level of difficulty. And no one's ever really done that in Canada. So, doing projects that people haven't done before and hearing stories that other people never think to ask these kinds of people. My book, Alta Italia, is not Tucci. It's not Tucci's take on his CNN version of Italy, which people love. He's so nice. It's great, but I'm not that interested in Massimo Bottura.

Sadie: Do you mean you’re not interested in romanticizing Italy?

Meredith: I mean I like shining a light on people who I think are interesting. It's not the best restaurant in the world or the best pizza you've ever had. I don't really believe in that. It's more going to these places, these rifugios that are really high up, that go for six days at a time without having any fresh food or produce come up, and seeing, "How do you live like this?"

Sadie:  Also I was thinking about, I listened to a podcast where you were talking about Alpine Cooking and you mentioned how Alpine rifugios might not get food for six days and need to be creative with things that other people might not consider luxuries like eggs — which I guess today in the US are now luxuries. But it made me think, do you see any parallels between that kind of frugal creativity and your Surviving the Apocalypse book?

Meredith: Fred Morin is my best friend, you know Fred from Joe Beef. We're all thinking about New York, six or seven years ago, when the advent of Eater allowed people to dial into other people's creativity. This has been in the news so much because of Noma closing, but places in Mexico City, which they did collabs all the time with him, cooking Nordic cuisine. That's so weird to me. With us, our mandate is always when you're doing a book, you don't look at other books. 

If I were starting a vineyard right now, for a certain time I wouldn't drink other people's wine. I would just need to understand my vision and manifest my vision. And then once I've got it, then I can do that. But I think also “Surviving the Apocalypse” is all about being yourself. Fred was such a nerd when he was young, and he was really ostracized and that's come with him all of his life. And all of those things are now why he's so celebrated. When he was 12 and everyone was chasing girls, he was making a cabbage patch in his backyard, and he had a ham radio, and he's still really into ham radio. So I think living your own vision and your own creativity is important.

And in the Alps, there's no for people to be like, "Oh, it's a Tuesday. Where... What's hot tonight?" You just have these staples and you have to do what you're inspired by from your own backyard. I think that's the through-line.

Sadie: I like the note about Fred and his ham radio and his cabbage patch. I think sometimes it's so important to just shut down the suggestion box when you're a nerdy person with a vision, or when you're making your book or your hypothetical wines, like, "I can't take input from anybody else right now. I just have to focus on the thing that's being created."

Meredith: Yeah. And I think that things, for me, it’s all about intuition. There are certain towns in the Alps that are built on resorts. They're not built as genuine Alpine towns. They were bought by someone. Courchevel, for example, is like that; Val-d'Isère in Les 3 Vallées. And they have sushi restaurants. And I don't understand why. That doesn't feel right. When you're also eating at Joe Beef, it's food that feels of the place, that makes sense of the place. Joe Beef has a really strong identity in my books. There's no issue of, "We don't know what the cover should look like.” We always really know what we wanna do.

Sadie: I had a question about one specific recipe in your book, the hay soup. Can you talk to us a little bit about what is going on in the hay soup? Is this something that somebody could replicate in the comfort of their own home? Or do you have to go there? 

Meredith: I think for that one, you have to go there. Because getting back to one of our earlier points, that's what they had. They have edible flowers, cream from their cow, hay, and breadcrumbs, and so you mix it all together and it's just this fortifying soup. But I think the take is that even though it sounds kind of it's very brown and sounds kind of gross when it's plated their way with edible flowers in this rustic kind of environment, it's very elegant and really beautiful.

Sadie: That's such an intriguing one. It just sounds like something that I would've made as a kid — I tried to make a lot of acorn tea as a kid. Not a thing.

Meredith: That seems very Vermont. I don't know if you were born in Vermont.

Sadie: I was born in Vermont, and I grew up skiing racing. I don’t ski anymore, and there are very few things that make me think, "Oh, I think I would like to do that again." This book is the ultimate one of those. I was reading it, thinking, "Wow, what are these feelings? I could get on the mountain again." And it's for this wine and food.

Meredith: I've only skied in the US a couple of times but in the Alps there are not really lines and it's really all about rifugios and having a purpose. Like this whole Dolomiti Superski, it's really to get around the Sella Ronda, the Sella mountain range on this one tour and see these different sites and have a great espresso here, and then you plan your lunch there. It's just really more about touring around than going up and down, I feel. 

Sadie: It's less of a competition of how many runs you can get in, how fast you can go, and how great your turn is. And more of like, "The wine is good, so let's go there." On our skis.

Meredith: Basically. Yeah, that's the energy. That's the kind of skiing for me.

Sadie: What is the most rewarding part of creating books like these for you? 

Meredith: It gives me dividends of years of great holidays and knowing where to go on the weekends.

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