Margot Fedoruk is a desperate fishwife with a tale to tell.
In Cooking Tips for Desperate Fishwives, Fedoruk writes a memoir filled with recipes that coloured her happiest and darkest days. But her story does not begin on Gabriola Island in British Columbia, where she resides. It begins in Winnipeg.
Fedoruk grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood with a synagogue at the end of her street. She frequented her maternal grandparent’s furrier shop and spent summers roller skating with her best friend Rhonda Gillman. During their tween years, they’d go on to coin the ballad “The Big Schnoz.” Where they quipped that they met a “cutie and he said, how do you doodie” only to turn around and see one of their noses and frown. Fedoruk’s tussle with her nose, an experience known to many Jewish girls, will be one of the lighter hurdles she will face.
The first recipe in the book is Fedoruk’s “Killer Lasagna” and just like any good lasagna, this memoir is filled with hearty and complex layers: Fedoruk will confront love, loneliness, grief, and unruly family dynamics. She dives into her childhood and what it was like being raised Catholic (on her father’s side) and Jewish (on her mother’s side). You’ll grieve with her when she loses her mother at a young age to cancer. You’ll witness her find love with Rick, a sea urchin diver, while tree planting in British Columbia, and later witness her becoming his fishwife. A role she didn’t know would be so lonely. You’ll see her become a mother. You’ll see her start a homemade soap business. And through it all, you’ll see her still believe in the power of love.
On a ferry, sailing through open waters to Nanaimo, Fedoruk took my call.
Desperate Fishwife is a very clever title, but the term is filled with angst as well. Is that your own term or is it a term that is often used amongst fishwives?
I came up with it. I felt like the word desperate and fishwife sort of suits me. I have a sense of humour. I can laugh and cry in the same five minutes. It explained my life perfectly. It’s kind of quirky; I honestly can’t remember how I came up with the title but I was surprised Heritage House actually kept it. That made me pleased.
There’s a real emphasis on food and the love of food and the role food plays in culture and community. Did you always know you wanted to include recipes in the book?
It helped me because I wrote the memoir in little bits and pieces. I’d write one essay then I’d write another piece maybe when I was on the Buckaroo or something, but I couldn’t figure out how to tie it all together.
Making food with my children when they were young helped me so much. It immensely helped me get through long lonely holidays. We used to make pot stickers or samosas for hours so it made sense that the recipes would tie everything together.
The humour does come through. And it offers a nice balance to counter the heaviness in your story.
I was worried. I never really thought of it as humorous and until somebody said, “I laughed out loud,” that truly surprised me. Because when I wrote it, or maybe when I was finishing writing it, it was during COVID-19 and Rick was fishing, so I was lonely. The book felt like it was just a bucket of sadness. But there’s moments of lightness too. So it actually surprised me that some people found moments of humour in it but I can see it now.
There are certain times in the memoir where you talk about loneliness in a tender way, especially during your childhood. But the theme of loneliness continues throughout your story and life. Has loneliness always felt like something you’ve been wrestling with and trying to navigate?
I never noticed it until I was married. When I was young I never thought, “I’m lonely.” But as I was writing the story, I could see the themes. I knew I was lonely when I was raising my children on the island when Rick was away, but I couldn’t name it when I was young. I discovered a lot of the patterns of my life as I was writing the book.
If you could go back, what would you tell your younger self now?
Maybe it sounded like I had a sad childhood but I really did enjoy my childhood. Of course the family life was not so fabulous, but I always took the good with the bad. Would I live this life again? Could I do this again? I think I would go back and tell myself, “No, I don’t think I can” because it was hard. I suffered.
I want to ask about the exchange you had with Jeff Greenberg, one of your classmates. You write that he had told you that because you’re only a quarter Jewish you’re not really Jewish. And you go on to speak about how your mother was the only divorced woman on the block and that you felt like you constantly had to prove yourself to be in this world. Yet, it never felt like you were confused about who you were. You found connections between Passover and Easter, for example, in having to look for Easter eggs and matzah. Did other people’s perception of how Jewish you were influence your perception of your own Jewishness?
My situation felt natural because that’s all I knew. I didn’t feel it, especially in Winnipeg, where I was, there was a lot of everybody. But I was maybe harsh with my mother because I always felt like she was running away from her Jewishness. I have kind of turned away from my Jewish background. I did something very similar to her, I married somebody who isn’t Jewish. And I never raised my children as Jews, they barely know anything about the religion. After I wrote the book I felt I was harshly critical of my mother after I realized I had done something similar, as I did not embrace my Jewish faith as much as I could have.
Because of these reflections, has there been a shift towards your feelings to your own relationship to this part of your history?
Definitely. Just recently I was invited to a Jewish literary festival and it was hard for me to realize that I do have Jewish heritage. I want to be involved. I want to embrace more of my culture that I turned away from.
Throughout your memoir, you are incredibly resourceful. You’re scouring the forests, planting trees, you know how to make so many things using natural resources. Where do you think your resourcefulness comes from?
With resourcefulness, I think of my Baba. My Russian Baba, who during or sometime before the war, used to sell vodka on the Trans Siberian Railway to survive. They [my grandparents] came as displaced persons to Winnipeg and had to figure it out. And my mom always had three jobs. So it was their influence, and it was because we moved to an island. Everybody makes things from scratch here. Some people even do crazy things like grow their own wheat and grind it. And luckily Rick is right on board with me. It’s a passion that we’ve nurtured together but it’s also part of the island culture.
Your memoir dives into your family trauma (both as a child and adult) and shows the deep love you have for your grandparents, your parents, Rick, and your kids. But in it you touch on your anxiety, especially surrounding the fear of making the same mistakes as your parents did.
I’ve been anxious. My sister’s anxious. But I’m always trying to better myself too. I’m trying to conquer my fears. Writing the book gave me confidence too. And I did get into grad school, which was something I always wanted to do but maybe didn’t think that I could. I never believe in myself. But the book has made me believe in myself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photographs courtesy of Margot Fedoruk.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.