Malcolm Jolley talks to Laura Calder about The Inviting Life.
I learned a new trick from Laura Calder, or a pair of them. The author and broadcaster is a friend, so when it was time to interview her about her latest book, The Inviting Life, on miserable day earlier this month, I invited her over to my house for a bowl of soup to discuss it. Looking out my kitchen window at the muddy disaster that is currently my backyard, I mentioned that part of the landscaping work my wife and I plan to do this spring and summer was move a large pile of rocks from one side of the yard to another. Looking at some of the bigger boulders in the pile, Laura offered some advice, that she demonstrated physically by getting into a ready stance.
“OK,” she said, “whenever you’re about to lift something heavy, say out load the word ‘abdominals!’ Otherwise you might forget to use them and hurt your back.”
She’s right. Just by saying the word out loud my core muscles engaged. Then, she taught me another one: if you say the word “tall” out loud you’ll straighten out your back and improve your posture. I have been using them ever since, and they really work (at least for me). There are doubtless other ones that could be engaged, but we left it there and sat down at the table to discuss this new project of hers, which contsitutes the interview below. The Inviting Life is something of a departure for Laura Calder, whose bestselling cookbooks like French Food At Home or Dinner Chez Moi focus on cooking and hospitality. The Inviting Life has some recipes and good advice about how successful dinner (and other) parties work, but it’s more than that. It’s a guide to making all aspects of domestic life better and meaningful. It’s also something of a memoir, charting the fortysomething’s domestic situations over the various phases of her life. Here’s what she had to say about it…
This interview has been edited for style, clarity and length.
Good Food Revolution: So, why did you write The Inviting Life. Was it because of how you were feeling about the world?
Laura Calder: Every book is an exploration, and I was obsessed with these topics. There were in my head and I wanted to know more about what I thought of them. I didn’t want this to be a how to book, but I wanted to know why I do a lot of these things. Lots of people do: we host and we make home all the time. I started thinking is there meaning here? What’s it worth? Anything? Because no-one pays you. I was trying to see what good it does, and I was trying to validate it. I am an educated woman, I have been quite accomplished in my life, but then suddenly I find myself a haus frau. And I thought, wait a minute. This is not how it was supposed to be. So I had to ask, what is this actually doing? Is it just me with a mop and a coupe of Champagne? Or, is this work that is actually important to the world?
Good Food Revolution: And…?
Laura Calder: Well, when you start seeing the behaviour of someone like Trump, or you just see general decline, and you start thinking these roles are important. They keep things on an even keel. When you remove that basic security and courtesy, and the things you learn how to do because your mum teaches you, a lot of other stuff starts to go to pot.
Good Food Revolution: A book for our times.
Laura Calder: I started writing this before these ideas started to become popular, but I can see it’s Zeitgeist now. Once things start to go too far in one direction, the pendulum swings.
Good Food Revolution: I think that’s true. I also think you have always written in this vein, that you’ve championed civilized behaviour and hospitality. One of the things I like about this particular book, The Inviting Life, is that you talk about your childhood and the house your parents made for you. You obviously come by this instinct of yours naturally.
Laura Calder: Well, in our house nothing ever matched. Things were old, things were accumulated. It wasn’t Ikea. But I always like the history: what you learn about yourself and what an old house will tell you, and how a house can make you feel. There is a sociology about homes, about houses. I guess it’s like feng shui, where some houses might make you feel depressed, or nervous. You know when you’re in a negotiation, and you take the ‘power seat’ because it has its back to the wall, and across from me you’re open. Someone could come along and… [Makes a stabbing gesture, and laughs.] It’s something like that: about being comfortable or uncomfortable. I think most of the world doesn’t care about it as much as I do, but I care about it a lot. I’ve always thought they must – how could they not care as much about it as I do? But so many people are willing to live with such ugliness, and no one seems to care. But I believe in the nice touches, that your soul needs them.
Good Food Revolution: You say that people don’t notice this lack of beauty or character, but you must believe they would be happier if it were in their life. That’s how I read the book.
Laura Calder: You can tell when you do something that makes a place a little nicer and people go, “Oh!” I guess it just hadn’t occurred to them. I wanted to get people to think about the stuff of their daily lives.
Good Food Revolution: Like what?
Laura Calder: How they make their food look. Do they cook? Do they take time to sit down? I wanted to show how you can make your life better through these little mundane tasks that you have to do anyway.
Good Food Revolution: That’s a good point, because the Inviting Life isn’t just about hospitality, it’s about doing these things for yourself.
Laura Calder: Yes, you have to host yourself too. I am always throwing dinner parties, but they’re for me too. I guess I do it because you can see on the faces of your guests that they appreciate it.
Good Food Revolution: I should hope so. Wasn’t part of your motivation to write The Inviting Life was to try and get this kind of work, like making an inviting home, more broadly appreciated? I mean by society at large.
Laura Calder: These roles are by and large unpaid and unsung. I am sometimes accused of wanting to drag women back into the 1950’s, and I say, “No, that’s not it at all.” I get defensive when people say I don’t work because I work like a dog. I just happen not to get paid for it and I don’t have a title. I think that when women left their homes, years ago to get work, women got more respect. But, the traditional work that women did, the stuff that’s in The Inviting Life, was even further discounted. Nobody sees how big these jobs are and how much value they have. So it’s not just a book about how to throw a dinner party, or how much vodka you need for whatever cocktail. I was trying to have more depth and put some of that insight in there.
Good Food Revolution: Sure, but the book is also a book full of stories. Reading it, I felt like I was following you around a bit, from your childhood in New Brunswick, to your life as an expat in France, your period ‘homelessness’ when you making television shows and traveling to promote them, culminating in your marriage and settling down in Toronto.
Laura Calder: I try and be sneaky about it. I always want depth to things, and to find the depth, but I never want to sound heavy. So, that’s my trick: to write in this sort of light and (I hope) amusing way, but there’s always a few levels to it. There usual is something important happening, even if I am telling a joke or telling a story about someone.
Good Food Revolution: And you have a lifetime of stories to share.
Laura Calder: We all do!
Good Food Revolution: True, but I guess what I am trying to get at is: could you have written this book ten years ago?
Laura Calder: I guess not. I wouldn’t have had the insight. For the last three or four years, I really was a housewife.
Good Food Revolution: You were also an author and writing a book
Laura Calder: Well, yes. But you know, a lot of these hosting books are done by people who have a lot of help, that maybe aren’t really in the gutter doing it. I wanted to keep The Inviting Life relatable, especially with this keeping house stuff. I haven’t done it my whole life, but in the last few years I said to myself, “OK, I don’t have a job right now, I might as well do this and see what it’s like.” There are days when you just think it never ends. So, it’s also a book about how you lift yourself up because life is a grind. What are the little things you can do that make the real grindy bits less grindy? One way is to understand their value. And then hosting. Getting people together and making food that’s nice, decorating things. These are ways of lifting your spirits. Otherwise life would be…
Good Food Revolution: Too terrible to contemplate?
Laura Calder: You know what it’s like when you’re working in your pyjamas and you haven’t had a shower? You don’t really function well.
Good Food Revolution: Of course. I often will put on a dress shirt and a pair of leather shoes just to make me feel like I have important work to do and get into a professional mindset.
Laura Calder: You have to dress for the part. I have days like that too, especially when you work from home. You can go into slob mode, and that’s how easy it is to hold yourself back.
Good Food Revolution: OK, well I am sold on the Calder technique, but who do you really want to reach?
Laura Calder: You mean, who needs this? I think young people starting out with their first homes and are sort of fumbling around could use it. I also think there are people my age who have forgotten about some of these things, because they’ve been at it for 20 years with kids, cooking and cleaning every day, that just need that spark to find there’s meaning doing all this stuff. You know, when these things are done and there’s stability in the house, the other people can get on with whatever it is they have to do. Your kids are not going to be worried about when they’re going to get fed. It’s the foundation of the home. Look, this is not a finger wagging etiquette book, it’s an enjoy your life book.
Laura Calder is on Instagram at @Laura_Calder.