Book Focus: When Cooking Was a Crime by Sheere Ng
THING BOOKS [TB]: Hello, Sheere! I read somewhere that you did your Masters in Liberal Arts in Gastronomy. Can you tell me what that is exactly?
SHEERE NG [SN]: It’s basically food studies. We studied food history, food politics, literature, memoir writing, material culture. It’s multidisciplinary, so it’s a little bit of everything including social science, politics, and nutrition.
TB: Why the decision to move into food writing, specifically?
SN: I guess I was always interested in cooking, but I never thought I would become a food writer because my exposure to food writing was things like recipes and food reviews. I wasn’t an expert in cooking and I didn’t think I could do food reviews. Then, Justin [Zhuang] bought me this magazine called Fire & Knives. It was so interesting, I never thought food writing could be about immigrants in London. It tells the story of people through food, essentially. So I started by pitching stories to magazines and freelance for them.
TB: How did the book When Cooking Was a Crime come about?
SN: While I was trying to start a food writing career, I also started my blog and was looking for stories to write about. I came across an article about Benny Se Teo and his restaurant Eighteen Chefs, it was about him as an ex-convict hiring ex-convicts. I cold called his restaurant and introduced myself as a freelance food writer, and said I was interested to find out about food in prison. I was referring to the official prison meals. He said, “I’ll tell you something even better. I’ll tell you about masak, illegal prison cooking.” I also approached Christian organisations that work with ex-convicts and they referred me to more of my subsequent interviewees.
TB: And you worked with a photographer and designer as well? How much artistic control did you give your collaborators?
SN: I knew there had to be some form of visual representation but there’s no documentation of illegal prison cooking. I wanted to work with someone who had an interest in the project as well so I pitched it to the photographer Donn [Wong] and he was really excited. But the moment he started shooting, Covid happened so he was confined in his own flat; he said it felt like it was a prison experience. He really experimented with it, he even tried to open a can without a can opener.
The designers [Practice Theory] did not charge us commercial rates, so I wanted them to have full artistic control of the project. I didn’t give them any restrictions, except for cost. The images are obscured in folded pages because they wanted a hide-and-seek effect, like how the inmates played hide-and-seek with the wardens.
TB: Already there isn’t much light shed on what life behind bars looks like. It’s even more interesting to look at it from a food perspective because food is very democratic. When you take it from that angle, people tend to be a bit more open about a topic that is “taboo”.
SN: That’s what I like about food writing. I always approach it from a food angle but what I’m really trying to say is more than just food. I like how it lures people into reading the story. They let their guard down because it’s about food, but it’s really talking about a culture or a people. I also like that when I first approach a topic it starts from maybe a dish, but the research always takes me to somewhere else.
TB: What was the time frame like for the whole project?
SN: I first met Benny Se Teo in 2011, but I wasn’t working on it all the time. I did some interviews, sat on my notes, went to study, and only approached these interviews again in 2016/17. Whenever I had the time, I’d go back to it, read the notes and see how I can break it down, then sit on it again.
When I first interviewed the ex-convicts, I was in my early 20s and still saw the world in black and white. The whole time I was interviewing them, I was trying to figure out in my head if this person is a “good man” or a “bad man”. I was looking at things in very binary manners. But approaching the topic again many years later, I learn that people are a lot more multifaceted and there’s no need to pigeonhole them. The good and the bad makes this person whole – that was my takeaway.
It wasn’t just knowledge in food writing, age played a part too. If I had published this book in my 20s, I might’ve overcompensated and turned this book into a Yellow Ribbon Project. But doing it in my 30s I was very careful not to do that.
TB: That’s interesting, I never thought of age/time as a factor in the bookmaking process.
SN: You let things settle, you look at it from different perspectives. For example, the food in the prison was served cold, but it was not intentionally served cold as a form of punishment. If I did the story when I was much younger I would’ve just left it out and made their suffering seem like there’s a heinous plot behind. As you age you’re more careful, you try harder to be fair.
Every one of my pieces – especially the ones that I care about – are excruciating to write because they go through multiple rewritings and edits; there’s so much back and forth. It’s not just editing language, it’s also asking myself, “Is this really what I want to say? How will it affect the people I write about?”