George and Cora-Lee Eisses-Smith are two people that never fail to delight and inspire me. From their literary-themed dinners, which you’ll read about in this Q+A, to George’s art, to random chats with them either at their home in Middle River or wherever I might see them around Baddeck, they are free spirits and incredibly genuine people, and always leave me feeling excited about life.
And so, I am very proud to present a Q+A courtesy of the couple’s “better half,” the talented Cora-Lee. She’s a great story-teller and I loved reading about their journey to running their own business, as well as how George’s enthusiasm for heritage pork got him into more work than he’d bargained for!
(Photos and captions are all courtesy of George and Cora-Lee; random scribbles on the photos are mine.)
1. What’s your age?
Cora-Lee (CL): 36
George (G): 56
2. Cape Breton born and raised? Or transplant? (Plus whatever biographical details you feel like giving).
CL: Annapolis Valley born and raised, so not too far off the map… but I know that still doesn’t give me the privilege to call myself local, haha. G: Born and raised in Liverpool, England; came to Canada (Annapolis Valley, where he met the afore mentioned CL) in 2000.
We moved to Cape Breton in 2005, so that George could take the chefing job at Crown Jewel in Big Baddeck. We lived in a tiny apartment 3 floors up above Wong’s in Baddeck with seasick worthy slanted floors – but hey, it had a great view of the lake! – for the first 9 months; then we bought “The Pink Palace” (our current ramshackle abode) in Middle River.
3. Tell us about The Dancing River Sprite. How did it come to be? How did you come to be in Middle River?
The Dancing River Sprite is primarily 6-course literary-themed dinners that we run every month for 2-4 consecutive nights. We source local organic ingredients, use mismatched antique china, silverware, and linens, and stage the theme of the book with props and costuming. After every course, George talks about the food sourcing and preparations (the menu is written cryptically in the style of book, so you don’t really know what you are getting until it is presented to you) and then CL gives readings and storytelling excerpts. We host these from our rambling pink house, where we have a licensed kitchen, and we have an email list to let people know when the next event will be happening. In support of accessibility to all, we have it set up as pay-what-you-can, because we are a bit fed up with the whole trendy celebrity chef “glamourization” of food where you pay a small fortune to eat local organic towers and drizzles! I mean we’re into the local organic towers (try doing Dr. Seuss with food flat on a plate!) and have been known to apply the occasional drizzle, but we’d rather you tell us what you think you should pay for it. The democratization of creative food is a passion close to our hearts!
We’ve also recently added a 1970s airstream to the mix, so that we can expand into mobile feasting opportunities in places like the Annapolis Valley.
In 2004, CL was working as manager of the fashion design studio, Turbine, in Falmouth, and when it was decided a café would be added to the business, George was hired as the chef. Every Saturday morning, we would go to the Wolfville Farmer’s Market to buy ingredients and then write the menu for the week. This came to the attention of the leader of the local chapter of Slow Food (international organization that works in support of local, organic, sustainable food) and he recommended George to Nahman Korem, the owner of Crown Jewel, who was looking for a chef.
CL had worked on dinner theatre fundraising projects in the past and loved the idea of doing something similar once we were in a position to establish our own place; plus she had a collection of antique and vintage clothing that was dying for further airing opportunities! So, the Dancing River Sprite Teahouse was born in 2006 and it was the themed dinners that took off and became the primary part of the business.
4. What made you decide to raise your own pigs? Has it been worth it?
Ah yes, the pigs… that would be George’s department. Being the city-raised boy that he is, the rose-coloured glasses were securely in place when gazing in the farming direction, and his dabbling in keeping chickens, ducks, geese, and goats (as well as birds of prey and practicing falconry) behind a pub in the centre of London, met the opportunity for expansion into the world of heritage breed pigs, upon arrival in Cape Breton, with unfettered glee. CL, on the other hand, who was raised on a dairy farm, stood back smugly and waited.
And so, Mr. Chef happily anticipated proper British sausages and most importantly proper British bacon from his Tamworth proper British bacon pigs while the breeding pair frolicked and grew bigger in their lovely pastures green. And with these tasty visions also came the deluded dream of processing 40 pigs a year and turning it into a fun and frolicsome adventure for all.
Flash forward to winter 2010. Several breedings, product processings, and years, later, there are now 22 pigs on George’s “farm” and he is not feeling so gleeful. The reality of feeding, watering (oh the joys of winter!), housing, and fencing that many has hit home and he is ready to call it a day. Enter smug CL, who smartly decided that I told you so would not be the best place to start. But Darling, you have spent all this energy and effort to create a lovely proper British product line from your proper British pigs, and we have many loyal costumers, some being proper British, who we can’t disappoint… and, most importantly, where will you buy your bacon?
So, as of 2010, we stopped breeding pigs, and, due to our super-abundance of said proper British specimen, we have yet to run out of pork. We vended at the Baddeck Community Market for 2 years, but didn’t participate last year due to time constraints, which in turn is helpful in limiting the amount of pork usage, as we mostly sell from farm gate and at our feasts. But we still have 5 pigs on pasture, and although George finds this to be quite manageable, the plan is scale down to the 2 females we plan to keep… and then? We’ll have to then make another decision on whether to breed one or both again or to just have 2 rather large and lovely pets.
Worth it? Even smug CL must admit that that proper British bacon is damn good.
5. What is a typical “day in the life” for you?
Oh dear…is there ever a “typical” day??! Well, I guess every day starts with George getting up to feed his brood of pigs, chickens, ducks, and the lone turkey that is very much a pet (his name is Aristotle – once they get names, they are no longer dinner) and taking the dogs for a walk.
If it is winter, this will also include bringing in bucket loads of wood from the back shed (if we are lucky and organized in the summer) or the snowbank in the yard (more typical and the current situation) for the wood stove. If it came from the snowbank, it becomes the job of CL to rotate the Stonehenge, which is artistically built in front of said stove out of said wood, periodically throughout the day and mop up the ensuing puddles, as well as feed the sacrificial offerings (meaning the wood, nothing else… I was referencing Stonehenge and it seemed appropriate…) into the stove.
We then convene for breakfast (most likely bacon and eggs) and, after that? Who knows? If it is Thursday, CL is off to work at the Baddeck Library by 11, so office stuff, like emails and paperwork, or laundry will get done in between. And on Tuesdays, we don’t leave until 4 (George comes along on the Tuesday night shift, in the winter, and he’ll sit and read while the knitting circle ladies chatter away and fill him on Baddeck gossip).
Other than those 2 days, the winter schedule is pretty random. If it is a feast week, CL spends the weekend prior to the feast weekend reading the book and taking notes on food references and plot lines. On Sunday night we plan the menu together, after watching a film version of the book, if available. This can go really well and we’ll be nice and pleasant to each other, or it can go off the rails for a while (we both have very strong ideas about ingredient pairings and presentations), but it always ends amicably with six courses with which we are both happy.
Things might get tweaked a bit during the week as George begins preparations, and we completely bail on a course and re-think it if it was not working out (a seaweed foraging adventure looked great on paper last winter….:}) George spends the week sourcing ingredients and doing all the prep work, and CL writes her notes for the readings, plans a costume, set props and music, and writes the cryptic menu. On feast days, it can get pretty stressful, depending on how the food experiments (we’re always trying brand new things we have never done before) are working out, but that day is all about set-up, and then we kick off around 7 pm and finish up at about 11 pm. Then comes the unwind (we run on pure adrenaline from 7-11) and eventually we find our bed.
The rest of our lives are filled with the usual things like cleaning our rambling house (George does all the cooking and washing up; CL does the rest), shoveling snow and repairing fencing and animal shelters (the department of G), herb, vegetable, fruit, and edible flower gardening (the department of CL) business paperwork, bookkeeping, taxes, etc (CL), and, of course, ongoing and never-ending artistic house renovations (CL&G). The third floor of our house is also an art studio, where you will often find George hiding away painting or sculpting his latest masterpiece, and a lot of fabric and vintage clothes, as well as a sewing machine that has perfected the art form of gathering dust in CL’s portion of the space. You may also find a black cat, named Mrs. Rochester for her desire to live alone in the “attic”, segregated from the other 2 cats, for whom she has a strongly pronounced dislike. We also read lots of books (occupational hazard of CL’s line of employment) and watch lots of movies most winter nights (also gleaned from extensive library resources). In addition to all this, George also works a restaurant contract in the summer months, and he makes all the sausages, bacon, and pancetta as needed.
That pretty much covers it, allowing, of course, for the escape of wayward animals and other typical but totally unpredictable happenings.
6. What are your favourite local foods? (This could be a vegetable, a dish at a restaurant, however you choose to interpret it!)
CL: Ashley House’s organic, sprouted-grain, wood-fired-oven bread!!!
G: Traditionally versatile but modern day underutilized fruits and vegetables you can find randomly growing in the wild or in people’s backyards, like quince and crabapples – yes, there is a greater world beyond the realms of “jelly”.
7. Do you think you’ll stay in CB down the road, or have you thought about moving? Why, or why not?
We have always planned the CB adventure as a temporary diversion en-route to moving back to the Annapolis Valley, mostly because CL’s parents live there, as well as a large portion of her extended family, and her sister lives in Dartmouth.
Also, as beautiful as this island is (and yes, CL will readily admit it is more dramatically beautiful than the Valley), we still find it doesn’t quite compensate for the isolation factor, which is, ironically, the greatest contribution to the preservation of the beauty. Seeing close friends with any great frequency is difficult if you live far apart. And yes, we shop at the farmer’s market, grow our own fruits and vegetables, and forage wild edibles, but we also shop at the Superstore, which is an hour’s drive away. In the Valley, there are 2 within a 20 min radius of where CL’s parents live (which is still very much lush countryside). And not to mention 3 (count ’em, 3!) Guy’s Frenchy’s!! For a serious secondhand clothing store addict, and very especially Guy’s Frenchy’s, like CL, that is a serious negotiation factor :} It is also just about roots, and the Valley still says “home” to us. It is like all the young people who move away from CB to work elsewhere for a while and who still want to come back some day – where you’re from is sometimes a strong pull to what your feeling of “home” really is.
Having said all this though, CL’s family still laughs every time we say we are moving back. We have been here 8 years now, and our 2 year plans keep getting extended, so who knows? If and when we do move, we fully intend to implement the mobile feasting plan in reverse and return every month to put on a literary six-course extravaganza!
8. Swimming – ocean or river?
CL: Ocean. Growing up along the Bay of Fundy (not that one really wants to swim in it!), I could never live too far from the ocean. And swimming in the waves after a late summer storm is a pure delight! Living right beside Middle River though has the advantage of proximity, and we often go down to our own “beach” (it actually is pretty sandy!) for a quick dip in the swimming hole on really hot days. And, yes, the “really hot days” is the caveat. Middle River and the Bay of Fundy have similar temperature issues for the swimming inclined. When George very gingerly wades in (as only an Englishman can), he screams like a girl.
G: River. I don’t know why; it’s more fun. (CL: Probably the screaming like a girl part.)
9. Tell us about the Feasts you create and serve. What have you learned from doing these feasts? Does anything about the feasts and what you have learned as a result of doing them, apply to Cape Breton and small business development in general? (In other words, what could other people learn from you?)
Okay, I think I have already covered the first part of this multi-faceted question when I answered question 3. Sorry, I should read ahead. Also the fact that I am answering these as one question/day in an isolated islands sort of way (and honestly, Leah sent me these about a year ago, so this is tremendous progress on my part!), over about a week and a half, means that the inhabitants populating the islands may have jumped off the ship in their exuberance to find land without first checking it was suitable land for their particular character and… okay, what was my point?
Right. What our knowledgeable selves can teach? Well, here’s what works for us. We are running a business that incorporates all the things we love, but we also have part-time day jobs that keep the financial pressure off of, and therefore keep the love in, the rest of it. Also, we run our “restaurant” on a shoe-string. When we began in 2006, I started with a $7,000 loan and not much else. It has always been a case of make do and mend, and we’ve only upgraded equipment (at one point we were down to 2 electric stoves that only had 1 working burner, which sometimes made a circuit and gave off a shock, and 1 working oven, with the door falling off, between them) as the business brought in enough money to buy it. You don’t need to do the big investment fancy start-up to launch a business. Simple can be best. And that is a lot about how we live our lives. What do you really need to make it work? “Want” can come along later, and you might even find that by the time its available to you, it is no longer desired. Simplicity drives creativity for us, and this can open up a whole new exploration of ideas that you would not have considered had you gone the conventional and expected route.
10. What excites you about where you live? (This could be community stuff, or it could be stuff you love about the natural world, or whatever!)
I think we’d both say the natural world, the outdoors – the river that runs through it… George’s favourite daily adventure is taking the dogs down to the river and trying to teach them to skip stones. (I don’t think he can claim too much success on that one yet.) I sometimes go with him for a second dog run in the afternoon, and the river is always different. It floods, it freezes, it sometimes tries to do both and then when it recedes we end up with frozen flying saucers halfway up the trees. In the spring, the meadow is flooded with bloodroot – my favourite wildflower. We love year-round picnics and campfires, and, outside of the biting insect season and the forest fire advisory season, where we live provides ample scope for both.
This Q+A with Cora-Lee is part of an ongoing series of interviews I do with people associated with Cape Breton in some way – mostly young people, but not necessarily. The complete list of interviews is here.