Thanks to my guest, Joal Stein for talking to me about his creative process. You can find more information about Joal and his portfolio of work here and you can also find the recipe for KAISERSCHMARNN, the scrambled Austrian pancake dish which 10-year-old-Joal invented during his Latch Key Kid culinary adventure days, but later discovered was an actual dish. Perfect as a weekend-hungover-brunch for one.
Here's a poem by Joal that I really like:
She licked my ears
and left with flesh in her teeth
in the winter sunlight
I watched her paint with madness
while I napped in the garden
and dreamt of summer
I rest my left hand
on the cool grass and
repeat I will not surrender
the mouth speaks blue
crescent moon, shiny hammock cradle
earth lay down - dangle a leg!
I sling a rope over to you tonight,
if I miss you I’ll leave a note -
may this night bring
Take a read of the article that Grayson Perry wrote about guarding your creative nest.
Have a look at this short explanation about the 4 stages of the Creative Process.
Here's a interview with Natalie Dias on 'the physicality of creativity.' I like the way she refers to 'creativity as a trap.' She says 'call it tension, not creativity...'
Transcript - interview with Joal Stein by Julia Georgallis
JG - Hi, welcome back to the How to Eat Alone podcast with me, Julia Georgallis. I’m a baker, I write about food and I run The Edible Archive which is a platform for some of my food related research. This podcast discusses issues surrounding loneliness, solitude and solo dining. In it, I talk to different people about various aspects of being alone and each episode comes with a recipe based on a meal that we’ve discussed during the show. Each of these recipes is designed to be cooked by one person and one person only, because I’m sure you’ll agree, most recipes are written for two or more people, which is a bit annoying for the solo cook!
Last weekend I was hosting a bake sale to raise money for the Ukrainian crisis which has escalated considerably over the last couple of weeks. Towards the end of the day, when baked goods were running low, I started chatting to one of the customers and at some point in the conversation, this customer asked me ‘are you Julia, I listen to your podcast’ And then he said ‘you haven’t done any in a while… why? It’s true, I have been on a bit of podding hiatus - I didn’t think anyone would really notice - but the truth is I’ve had a really overwhelming few months dealing with, put it this way, a lot of shit coming at me from various angles and that overwhelm that I’ve felt has completely decimated my creative spirit as life has gotten busy - I haven’t been motivated to do anything really apart from just get through the day and sadly, that means there has been no room for creating anything new in my life, including new podcast episodes. I feel like I have been at capacity for what I can achieve - I wonder if other people are feeling the same way right now?
This podcast began when I unexpectedly found myself isolating from the pandemic alone in Portugal, where I was living at the time and, like many others, I found that once my life had emptied out and I wasn’t so busy, I had a lot more time to nurture and grow the ideas that I had never had the time to act on previously like writing more or making a podcast. But we are now approaching Covid19’s 2nd birthday (happy birthday Rona) - since 2 years ago that creative nest that we might have built for new ideas to form has kind of been encroached upon since coronavirus restrictions were lifted here in the UK a couple of months ago. Since that first lockdown at beginning of the pandemic we’ve had more to contend with - we’ve faced mountains of restrictions, more lockdowns, new and scary coronavirus variants, climate crises, political unrest and now this threat of war hangs over Europe so things have gotten darker and darker - that darkness has meant, I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but I think it’s meant for me that my creativity does not want to cooperate right now. A couple of weeks ago when the world seemed to reach peak darkness I had a bit of a word with myself. I said ‘JULIA WTF ARE YOU DOING START DOING THINGS, STOP DRAGGING YOUR FEET START CREATING STUFF YOU ARE STILL ALIVE AND YOU’RE STILS WELL SO DO STUFF’ and started to edit this episode, which I recorded a while ago, when my inspiration fuel tank was probably still half full - I didn’t know it at the time, but the chat I had with this episode’s guest, Joal Stein, has been exactly what I needed to pull myself out of this uncreative fog - I hope it does the same for you too should you find yourself in a similar situation.
Joal is a writer, a poet, a curator, an educator and an activist and I met him in 2018 when we were both staying at The Blue Sky Center which is a regenerative community initiative in the township of New Cuyama, which is deep in the Californian Central Desert. We were both there when The Blue Sky Center was hosting an artists residency. Neither Joal nor I was taking part in making the art for the residency, but we were both there in some creative capacity - I was in the kitchen cooking, he was working at the center but because we were surrounded by people making so much art and music and writing stuff, I didn’t know that he also had a creative life as well. Over the course of the pandemic I became more aware of his writing practice as he began to post more of it on his instagram feed which I follow and I really enjoyed his work.
You know, the creative process is your own, it’s something that lives deep within you and I think the thing that’s always fascinated me about creatives and the artistic process is that it’s never the same for any two people. What I like about Joal’s work is that it’s very diverse, Joal, like lots of people who consider themselves creatives, don’t really fit into a box - he does lots of different things and so I reached out to talk to him about he sees his creativity, what his process is about and about all of the different things that he does and how he pulls all of that together.
JS - I’m one of these people who definitely does not have the concise, tidy, neat packaged thing. Generally I work across architecture, urban planning, curation, immersive experiences and then I’ve also worked as a creative strategist for social movements and at the core of all of that is a writing practice and whether that’s poetry and my poetic practice which has always been with me from the earliest age and it sort of reveals itself at different points depending on what I’m doing, whether I’m writing copy for messaging, protest messaging, or activism or whether it’s a way of thinking through ideas in a curatorial show. So when I say what I do I am a curator, writer, researcher that is focussed on issues of social and spatial justice - so things like housing, climate change. My undergrad was in urban planning and community development. Then I worked as an urban planner for the city of Portland for a bit and then I went to design school because I got really fascinated the way that creatives approached problems in a creative and interesting ways.
JG - We met at Blue Sky Center but I didn’t know what your work was then I don't think we really discussed it, but then I saw your poetry and I’ve been reading that whenever you’ve posted it online - those words and those poems or pieces of writing, that’s how you pull all of that stuff that you’ve done together.
JS - That’s accurate. It is a way of pulling together all those experiences and then communicating - poetry’s very much a social thing I would say - here’s the way I say it. As you can probably tell I am a very, very curious person. And I have a sort of appetite where I’m consuming information and experiences more than my body can metabolise so I have to process it in different ways and the way in which I know how to do that best is through poetry where I’m just taking in so much stuff all the time whether it’s people I meet, conversation, books i'm reading, art shows I see, places I visit, food I eat and then I take it all in and it comes out most naturally.
JG - It’s like in put out put isn’t it. Like, a creative person has an input and then they have an output might be a poem or it might be a painting or it might be, like, a piece of music and that’s just how you processing something - you eat it and you spit it out.
JS - And… there’s two things that happen simultaneously. This thing I’ve observed working with other artists is that on the one hand this is a practice that you have to train and sort of give it respect and treat it like a craft but at the same time that creative impulse is as natural as breathing. If you’re not doing it all of a sudden you're feeling out of sorts, it’s like you’re hiking in a high altitude if you’re not trained for it, the air’s thinner - you get disorientated. It’s like that for me and I think for a lot of other creatives I’m not metabolising I’m not breathing properly because I’m not making art and I’m not processing things in a certain way
JG - You feel it quite intensely if you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing
JS - Very intensely.
JG - I mean I also went to art school and have a design background and then moved to food which is also creative. Recently I’ve started writing and writing has also always been with me but I’ve always just done it on my own - just writing stuff down. And actually now that I’ve given it more time and I’ve been writing for people it… it feels like I’m exercising. (Laughs). It feels like I’ve just started jogging again. You know when you start exercising and you start to feel really good and you realise that you can run for a bit longer than I could last week. It does feel better that I’m doing it more because I’m processing things a lot better.
JS - The running analogy is very apt to, at least for me, as someone who started running again more consistently at the onset of the pandemic and at first being like woah I dunno if I can do this anymore because that endurance I hadn’t built up, that muscle, that process and then the more you do it the more you’re like oh now I’m feeling good because I’m doing this consistently. I think that’s true of any practice. There’s one poet, Natalie Dias and she was like a D1 College Basketball player. Now she’s like one of the best living poets in the world. And I think she said once which always sticks with me where she knows what it feels like to push your body to its limits to something that seemingly you can’t get past but to know that there is a new body on the other side of whatever it is you’re pushing through that is capable of the thing you’re trying to. Same thing with writing. You’re like I dont know how to do this thing until you start to play around with it and then eventually you figure out a way that works and that is honest and really could come from your interior but is also reflective of the world that you’re observing and you’re participating in and sort of trying to reflect back there.
It’s also a reminder that language both resides in the body and is literally a shared relationship between people - it is literally inside the body and then when it’s used in certain ways it becomes this exchange of media making between people.
JG - Yeah it’s a very physical thing isnt it? A word.
JS - Writers talk about this all the time when you’re stuck - maybe not the writer’s block which I don’t really believe in the writer’s block, it’s been mythologised but there are moments when you’re trying to get through a complex idea or feeling or emotion or something and you’re like ahh I know what is, for me I feel it in my upper stomach… like… I know… I knowwww what I’m trying to say or convey is in here somewhere. When I get way to like GAH I dance or I move my body somehow so I can knock it loose.
JG - Yeah I get that you do feel it physically. For me it’s always in my forehead, its always in my brow like there’s something there.
Do you have a creative process? Funny that you say that writer’s block is mythologised because I think sometimes the creative process can be a bit mythologised as well. But do you think you have one?
JS - You and I both went to design school and we talk about design as process but then we know its really more complex. So me and my creative process, to answer your question here is I need a good environment. I need a space to like think, a space for me to get up and move around with my body a lot of thinking has to happen with my body and how I move - if I’m too cramped the thinking starts to cramp up too - the body cramps up.
JG - Like not in a crowded coffee shop
JS - Maybe if it is a coffee shop with a big counter where I can swing my feet. That’s great. If I’m like squished on a small table and my elbows are tucked in and I’m looking like a T Rex typing on a laptop, no.
But a creative processes are more like life processes, I think.
If I get up in the morning and stretch, drink a water, make a cup of coffee or some tea, wash whatever dishes are left over in the sink from the night before, I’ll put them away. Generally I like to read for an hour, whether it’s a book I’m reading or an interesting article, something just to put my head there. Then at some point I need to go on a run or do some sort of yoga practice just to get my body really moving and then when I’m working I have to write everything down. I have snippets that are scattered on my notes app and note pad and note books and note cards and then I generally tend to forget the things I write but I find these morsels where I’m like oh yeah that thing.
This thing over there, I can pick that, and I can bring them together and I’m thinking about the poetic practice, sometimes like a rhythm or a phrase or a line for me honestly it’s often just an image. Like an image in my head that is almost like a movie or a film still and from that I’ll try and figure out ok what is the core of what is trying to be said here. Sometimes I’m in control and I’m like I’m the director of this show and I know what it is that I’m trying to convey and say and sometimes it’s completely different, it’s like a seed I planted in the soil and it’s my job to just tend to the soil and the roots and make sure it gets water and sun and when that happens it’s something else that’s coming through me, not necessarily like a god or whatever but there's’ just something within that I don't feel control over and whenever that happens the creative process is just to let it… to surrender to whatever that is. And let it emerge as it will.
And then the most important part for me is the coming back and editing. I have to give myself time to edit and that is so crucial for any writer and I think a younger me was like BLAHH I’m just gonna write my feelings and dah dah dah and as I get more discerning there’s a craft to it there’s the power of a word and language of an image and then there’s knowing how to channel that and then editing to me used to be like punishment - I’m gonna punish myself, that was stupid, why did I write that, what was I thinking? And now it’s more a practice of like revisiting myself and meeting myself again and being like, ok this is where I was, what was I thinking at the time, what emerges out of this here?
JG - It's like being a bit kinder to yourself, editing
JS - Yeah. It is being kinder to yourself. As an editor you’re not trying to impose your voice in a piece you’re really trying to let that writer’s voice shine so when I’m editing my own work it becomes this sort of mirror to myself which is the hardest thing for a lot of creatives. Also the most important thing is how do I help myself figure out my voice in my practice and my approach in a way that is honest and is respectful to the way that it’s growing. Like I’ll read a thing that I’m working on, and I’m like I’m trying to change as a writer, it’s starting to go this way rather than just trying to be this kind of writer I need to respect and honour what I am, that input output, um, and what I am consuming and what I am starting to produce out of that and then allow for that growth to happen.
JG - Do you think you can control what kind of writer you are necessarily though
JS - Control? No. You really can’t but you can notice.
JG - Which is really kind of what you were saying earlier about it’s a really good life practice.
JS - It’s a great life practice! So I moved to a very rural area of the state of Vellacruz in Mexico a year and a half ago ish and the house I moved in to had a beautiful lush garden by the river and the climate is like a green house. And I remember looking at this garden and seeing what the person before me had done and then my first impulse was what should I do with this garden? And I was like, I’m in one of the most lush places I’ve ever been to, the first thing I need to do is just to sit and watch it for a bit - what is the garden want to do itself - and very quickly gets overgrown but I just wanted to see and watch it and notice what it does before I try to impose what I would want it to do. Maybe that was just a point in time where I was in my own practice was that’s what I felt like I needed to do - I just needed to see what was happening naturally and then meet that on those terms without feeling like I’m gonna come in and hack away and try and control it.
This idea where to stop and really try and notice what is already here and what has been here before - I know a lot of humans who do do that. And there are cultures where that is what’s natural - but someone who’s raised in the United States of America, a white male that is not what’s natural. What was conditioned to me in an early age was ‘what is it that you want to make and then make the thing and then try and kill the ground, clear it and impose your world view or your ego on a thing’ and so it’s been a continual process of what if I let go of that - what happens?
JG - Yeah and the creative process is about letting go to a certain extent because it’s like you realise it’s the knee jerk reaction that you have to let through - that’s letting go, isn't it? It’s the same as letting go
You said as a kid you’d always written
JS - Yeah. I was a latch key kid and most latch key kids I know, you know, they go home after school and take care of themselves because their parents are at work or busy. And granted that there were neighbours where so if anything was up I knew where to go right but I would make food for myself and say I was doing my homework - I was a voracious reader at a young age and my writing was like small stories and weird ideas and some drawings and mostly stories about athletes and sports like ‘Joal winning the world series’ or winning the NBA final - these kind of stories and characters and I enjoyed story telling and as a latch key kid where I’d make food for myself and I didn’t know what I was doing. First thing I tried to make was a grilled cheese. And I think well ‘maybe I can microwave it, it’ll be faster’ and there was a soggy grilled cheese microwaved cheese sandwich. And I ate it and was like this is disgusting, I never want to eat this again.
JG - The first episode of this podcast is called MICHELLE OBAMA’S CHEESE TOASTIE and, Michelle Obama, in her autobiography talks about how she makes herself a cheese sandwich and she says she microwaves it and I’m like ‘mate…don’t microwave your cheese sandwich!’ That sounds horrible.
JS - I’m gonna ride so high on that. Me and Michelle Obama and both like to microwave cheese sandwiches.
JG - Annnnd the cheese toastie chat returns. I was in two minds whether to edit this bit out because obviously I have a whole episode dedicated to cheese toasties or grilled cheese sandwiches or whatever the hell you want to call them, but somehow I feel like they are just gonna keep coming back around, like cheesy boomerangs. I did initially think about making this into a podcast drinking game and encouraging people to take a shot anytime there’s mention of cheese toasties but honestly, you’d be plastered by the end of this episode.
JS - Honestly I loved peanut butter as a kid and I’d eat peanut butter. We had frozen mozzarella sticks and I would figure out ‘ok this is how I make frozen mozzarella sticks’, cook ‘em on a baking sheet… and I loved nachos… there’s a lot of cheese… a lot of cheese happening. And then I made scrambled pancakes and be like ‘this is kind of weird’ but then I realised ‘oh this is a European dish…’ years later
(JULIA LAUGHS IN THE BACKGROUND)
JG - WAIT HANG ON A SECOND - what’s the European dish for scrambled pancakes (LAUGHS)
JS - Oh wait! Hang on! There is a name for it and it’s…. kaiserschmarrn. It’s German!
JG - Alright, so Kaiserschmarn absolutely sounds like a made up word - but it’s real. It’s as Joal says, a shredded Austrian pancake that’s also really popular in Germany - it usually involves raisins, some kind of fruit sauce like apple sauce and a light dusting of icing powder. It does actually seem like a great dish for a little kid to make, it’s quite fun. When I was making this recipe, I kind of think it’s also perfect for the hungover adult. Which I guess is basically the same thing as a child.
JS - It has like apple sauce but basically it’s scrambled pancakes.
But what I will say is that it gave me the freedom to just experiment with what was at hand and I didnt have any school or pressure - it was an audience of one, there was an audience of me and it was me trying to see what I could make with what was there. I didn’t really have a recipe and if there was a recipe book I was too ADD of a kid to follow it so I was like let’s just see what happens here and then through that you start to figure out how to develop tastes, like what tastes good like the way that different spices and blends and seasoning work together, how long you cook a thing changes way the texture and the taste of it - all the things that a cook needs to know, a chef knows. And to develop that. And for writing, for me, I never went to writing school I never got an MFA, I was doing these other things, but in a sense that was good because it allowed me and still gave me a chance to try and develop my own sense of style and voice based on what was at hand already, in terms of life experiences and what I was reading and it made me unafraid of creative failure.
JG - Cooking for yourself does that for sure.
JS - Sometimes it doesn’t work out! And that’s ok and then you either try again or you make a new thing
JG - And then as you say because you’re cooking for yourself, it’s fine - no one minds. Were there any successes that you still cook?
JS - I can cook a mean bowl of New England clam chowder
JG - What that you learned to make as a child?!
JS - Yeah. I mean it first started out as ‘open the can, heat up the can’ but then I was like oh this is how you make a clam chowder. Like 12 or 13
JG - Cos I mean, I have to admit I was not a latch key kid because I had a stay at home mum and my house was always full of people and you know that idea of being a latchkey kid, I s’pose is a little bit romantic to me… even though like obviously there’s challenges that come with being a latchkey kid and stuff but I liked the idea of life with no adults after school and you could have a break - and i was an introverted kid but im from an extroverted family and the idea of going home and cooking something weird for myself is what 12 year old Julia might have quite liked. You know I didn’t know how to cook for myself until I left home at 18 so… the idea that you could teach yourself that incrementally is quite nice.
JS - Yeah. And, it had its problems and drawbacks but it’s one of the things you know when you look back at the course of your life that definitely explains a lot of how I am.
JG - Yeah. Independence from a young age is very important and also very important to the creative process as well and you know because independence and creativity I think go hand in hand and it’s nice to have space and I suppose being a creative is also good going back to thinking like a child because when we’re a child being creative is how we learn so again it’s like flexing that muscle from a really young age and it’s trying to get it to work and trying to get it to function as young as possible.
JS - Yeah think about all the stories and games you made up with your friends, having that play factor is good… like I did have friends who were my neighbors who were my age so I always like had kids to play with if I wanted to but when I had to play by myself, it definitely flexes a self play mindset I definitely, to this day, I still do that in a kitchen, like not with baking - with baking I have to follow the scientific recipe but when i’m cooking, to this day I’ll be like I’m looking for this kind of flavour and texture that I want to eat - what are the things that I might need to get or have at hand - is it like a sauce, like what is it? And then, these are like my favourite cooks to be around where they just go with what’s at hand and then like this spice might be nice and smell the spice and then be like ‘I think this will be good with what we’re making right here right now…’ Bringing together what is happening according what you’re feeling in that moment.
I think the thing that I still do in cooking and also with the creative process is like what is this thing I wanna smell and add to this dish I’m currently making -
JG - It’s like reactive, creative, cooking
JS - Yeah it’s like improv - when you see dancers who like the freeform dance and they’re just responding to each other in that moment - there might be some sort of structure but that structure and story behind what they’re trying to tell but the specific details of what happens next, you’re not quite sure, it just kind of happens in the moment
JG - Yeah - it is very similar to that actually. What do you eat now on your own.
JS - So because I’ve been living in Mexico for a while, and there’s so many amazing tropical fruit, I was just into fruit, like papaya, mango, dragon fruit - I lived by a yoghurt shop and they’d make their own yoghurt. And then I’d get the fruits that were also local. Get the granola and peanut butter, chop up the fruit, put it in the yoghurt, add a dollop of peanut butter, a little bit of honey, some chia seeds, and then like bits of raw cacao and eat that up. And that was an amazing thing for me to eat. I also like to make grilled cheese sandwiches. I think my grilled cheese sandwich game is highly elevated now - I like a grilled cheese that has some sweetness to it, so putting some like fig or apricot jam in with the grilled cheese usually with a brie - a melted brie grilled cheese sandwich.
JG - YUM. That sounds really nice - fruit and cheese is the one
It’s been really nice to talk to you and I’ll come up with a recipe to go alongside this episode
JS - You’ll come up with a recipe for this?
JG - Yeah so every episode has a recipe related to the episode and it’s the exact amount you need for one person
JS - How about this? You do the recipe. I’ll make the recipe and then I’ll make the recipe and write a poem inspired by the recipe
JG - Alright! That sounds wonderful. That would be amazing
I wanted to say a massive thanks to Joal for taking the time to talk to me all those months ago. You know creativity is so personal and it comes from all these different places so it was good to hear another creative brain and talk about their inspiration and to compare notes, to remind myself in this period where I don’t feel so inspired that actually inspiration is very much like the garden Joal mentions and like flowers and plants, it needs to be cultivated and made room for and given time to. I have the British artist, Grayson Perry’s words that he published in a Guardian article that he published just after the first lockdown in May 2020 - I have these words in my head, he’s talking about the creativity that being stuck in doors isolating during the coronavirus brought with it - so he says:
‘In lockdown, we have been made to think about what is important to us, and we have had a lot of time to do it. What better recipe for making art can there be? As we come blinking out into the light, now is the time to leave a space in our lives to make art, whether we join a choir, a writing group, a quilting bee, a dance class, set up a studio in the shed or make funny videos on our phones. Make a little nest for your feelings about being alive, nurture them that they may fledge and fly.’
And these words really spoke to me and they kind of echoed Joal’s words when he said during this episode - ‘GO WITH WHAT’S AT HAND, BRING IT TOGETHER AS IT’S HAPPENING ACCORDING TO WHATEVER YOU’RE FEELING AT THE MOMENT.’
I love the idea that the creative process is also a life process and realise the reason that I haven’t felt super duper inspired is because my life seems all over the place at the moment, it’s really mixed up and I'm not protecting the nest that I built around my creative ideas for them to flourish in the same way that I did over lockdown. But HURRAY thankfully, over the last few days, I’ve started doing that again, I’ve started to make space for flexing that creative muscle.
Because I love the word and the fact that this was accidentally created by Baby Joal but then turned out to be real, I’ve given you the recipe for my version of kaiserschmarrn for one, the Austrian scrambled pancake. It doesn’t take long to make at all, I’d say 20 mins tops and I really like this for a really good solo weekend brunch recipe - in particular if you’re a bit hungover because the raisins are supposed to be soaked in rum so it helps with a hangover at the weekend. I’ve added pear to mine but you can put whichever fruit you want to. Kaiserschmarrn are also a riff on pancakes which as I’ve mentioned before in other episodes, as well as toasties, pancakes are another great friend of the solo cook and It was Pancake Day in the UK last week, so I’ve kind of had pancakes on the brain.
Recipes can be found on theediblearchive.org - just scroll through to the HOW TO EAT ALONE section of the website and click through to RECIPES FOR ONE. I’m sending Joal over these recipes and he’s going to send me a poem that he writes about them, so I’ll publish a little minisode about that when he gets that to me. I’ve added some of Joal’s poetry and a link to his work on the show notes, plus a few little morsels of joy about the creative process. You can follow my podcast on instagram, the handle is howtoeatalonepodcast. The instagram page is also a space where you can share any ideas that you might have about being alone, you can get in touch with me and you can have a look at all of the previous episodes and all of the previous recipes.
As I end this podcast, all I can say is, WTF is going on - everything feels pretty doomed at the moment and it just feel like a sad time to be alive and I’m worried about my fellow humans.
I hope during these uncertain times, you’re taking really good care of yourselves but also of your creative spirit - I hope you’ve enjoyed being alone with me. If you like this pod, please consider giving it 5 star rating on Apple Podcasts or share it with whoever you think might also like it. Thanks for listening, see you next time for the next episode of How to eat alone.