Heather June Gibbons is the author of the new poetry collection Her Mouth as Souvenir, winner of the 2017 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, just out from the University of Utah Press. She’s also the author of two chapbooks, Sore Songs and Flyover, and her work has appeared widely in literary journals. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University. She lives in San Francisco. More about her work can be found here.
Here, she talks about simple seafood, the ritual of tea, and how any grilled cheese is a good grilled cheese.
On her all-time favorite meal:
Growing up on an island in the Puget Sound, in Washington State, I developed a deep emotional attachment to fresh seafood, simply prepared. My family caught fish and crab, gathered oysters, and dug for clams. Some of my best childhood memories are of shucking and slurping raw oysters, setting and pulling crab pots with my dad, and eating crab at campsite picnic tables. On an elementary school field trip to the beach, I grossed out some girls by cracking open an oyster and eating it raw, right in front of them. I felt like such a badass.
When I was eighteen, I spent a summer working on a salmon processing ship in Bristol Bay, Alaska. We worked sixteen-hour shifts on the processing line, gutting, freezing, and packing Sockeye salmon, then offloading them via crane, into the hold of a Russian cargo ship. It was very demanding work, and difficult in other ways. I remember wading knee-deep in fish heads, shoveling them toward the open drain where they’d be ground down and spit back out into the bay. That summer, I slept with a knife under my pillow, dreaming of fish heads. All those shocked eyes staring up at me. Still, I never got tired of eating salmon.
If you haven’t yet lost your appetite, a cooking tip: wild Sockeye doesn’t need much preparation, and the flavor is incredible. I recommend grilling a fillet with salt and pepper, and maybe a little garlic or soy sauce, then a squeeze of lemon at the end. I love the color of salmon (aptly, salmon pink), and its silken texture. I prefer mine a bit rare. To test, gently prod with a fork, and when it flakes, but there’s still a trace of translucence, it’s done.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
A weekend dinner on a warm summer night, eaten outside. The sun is low and buttery, but not quite setting, and because this is imaginary, there are no mosquitoes.
On snacking while writing:
I drink coffee and water in the morning, then I switch to tea. I drink a lot of tea while I work. The ritual of getting up to stretch my legs a little, put the kettle on, choose the cup and the tea while I wait for the water to boil, then steeping the tea, the smell of it—all of that is as important as actually drinking the tea.
On her go-to late-night snack:
Cheese and crackers. If it’s a certain kind of late-night, a grilled cheese sandwich. My favorites are made with fresh sourdough bread, sharp cheddar and Havarti, lots of butter, and catsup mixed with Sriracha for dipping, but any grilled cheese is a good grilled cheese.
On her food quirks:
I always get hungry at airports before take-off, even between meals, and even right after eating. It’s inexplicable. Maybe it’s rooted in some anxiety about not wanting to be hungry on the plane, I don’t know. Before moving to California, I used to fly in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport pretty regularly, and it’s a terrible airport, notorious for long delays, particularly in the winter. I don’t miss flying in and out of there, but I do miss eating at Chef Rick Bayless’ Torta Frontera. That, I used to look forward to.
On her final meal request:
If I’m lucky/unlucky enough to know this will be my last meal, and lucky enough to have any appetite at all, I’d want roasted halibut with herb butter, mashed potatoes, baby carrots roasted with thyme, a lightly dressed salad of greens, and good wine. If I’m feeling well enough, I might want to make it myself, and eat it with family and friends. I love cooking for other people, though I have the habit of workshopping my own cooking while eating, which not everyone appreciates. I don’t know where we’d be eating, because I try not to think about where I’ll die. But because you asked, I picture a cottage somewhere, surrounded by trees. For dessert, we’d have apple pie made the way my mom used to make it—tart apples, not too much sugar, emphasis on the thick, flaky crust— served à la mode. And this meal, I wouldn’t workshop.