Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Signe Langford
Meet Signe. My first encounter with Signe was in her backyard back in 2009 or ’10. We didn’t know each other then, but a friend had asked me along to a ‘foodies’ lunch. Who wouldn’t go to that?! It was a great afternoon of eating, drinking and socializing. ‘Who is this interesting woman?’ I thought afterwards. We had a few more encounters after that. One was buying her bed. Does anyone remember the hilarious ad on Kijiji that went viral? “For Sale. Yoga Mat. Used Once. $1.” Well, it was in that vain. Laugh out loud funny. For an extra $50, the bed came with her expert handyman who dismantled it and put it all back together. A bargain. And I got a ‘gift with purchase’: a half-dozen eggs from her beautiful backyard hens. The next was at the Cow Ball, which Signe organized in aid of cow-sharing to link city dwellers with real food from real farmers. Our paths crossed long before this, but I’ll get to that.
You can already sense that Signe has something to do with farm animals and real food. Life has come almost full circle for her. Born in Hudson Heights, Que., Signe grew up in an English country enclave with a garden full of chickens and ducks. She moved to Montreal when she was 17 to study Fine Arts and found that growing up in Quebec without the language was tantamount to employment disaster. She moved to Toronto in 1987 with her then partner, knowing one person, her sister. She was amazed at the work opportunities then and took a number of different jobs; one of them as a medical underwriter. Despite her handful of degrees: BFA (Bachelor of F*** All according to Signe), and years at York, U of T and OCA (it didn’t become OCAD until later) no work surfaced in the arts. In 1997 she worked with her partner at the Riverside Cafe. Does anyone remember that place? I do. I worked for her in 2001. We didn’t realize it until the other day sitting in her back yard. Small world. I wasn’t there long, but one thing I do remember was the fabulous menu, which Signe put together. It was a coffee shop before she came on board and transformed it into a culinary hotspot, receiving four stars from The Toronto Star’s Amy Pataki; tough to get from Amy! Several years and one breakup later, she left, bought her own home and began her career in other people’s restaurants, transforming them from meh to popular eating haunts. One was East Meets West (now Batifole); within three weeks it went from empty to packed. She moved around doing this type of thing in Toronto for several years. Her last stint was at Amber, a popular lounge with a nefarious side, in Yorkville. But her time there just about broke her, and she decided she wanted to do food writing vs food making and took a food writing course at George Brown College, and later, also got her wine specialist certificate.
She ended up leaving the restaurant biz in early 2004/5, setting her sights on food/garden writing full time. Following her decision to go headlong into the world of food writing, Signe introduced herself to everyone in the biz, went to parties, made pitches around the city. A good hoofer gets work. In that first year she made double what a freelance writer is expected to make, but begs people interested in what sounds like the ultimate work experience, “Don’t give up your day job”. Even double is barely existing. Today she makes a living at it, but with the decline of print media, the work is dwindling. She’s currently shifting her focus away from food writing to more social/ethical arenas in the farming world. She’s made great connections with independent farmers and is not a fan of Big Agriculture which exploits workers and animals alike. It can alienate you as a writer but she stands firm in her personal convictions. As well as writing articles she puts media kits together for farmers, focusing on culinary PR and gardening.
Her garden is prolific and a veritable maze of flowers, veggies, edible plants and of course, hens. While we were chatting, she stopped. “Look up. There’s a hawk. Did you notice the birds stopped tweeting and the hen is making a low cooing sound?” I did! “She (the hen) is warning everyone to be quiet and hide.”
I felt like I was in David Attenborough’s world, but it’s a typical afternoon in Signe’s backyard, affectionately known as Cluckingham Palace. Her love of chickens started early in her family home growing up. Around 10 years ago, she realized she missed them and started watching “chicken porn” online. Her current brood is made up of last chance, and orphan heritage hens. And the eggs? I don’t eat eggs anymore, but I remember them being fresh and fantastic. An animal that has a good life, produces good food.
After seeing her writing in Garden Making Magazine, Signe was approached by Douglas & McIntyre in early 2015 to produce a cookbook. But not just any cookbook. It’s devoted to recipes derived from growing your own food: backyard gardens and fresh hen eggs. The book was released in October 2015, and is available on Amazon, from her and in bookstores around Toronto. She is currently working on a second book. “It’s all about how to garden and cook with indigenous and even some introduced species of plants. Basically I want folks to eat the weeds and rethink what we call beautiful. I’m showing that dandelions, stinging nettles, sunchokes and burdock can be elegant and beautiful.” When Signe isn’t writing, reviewing, advocating and cooking, she gives cooking and gardening lessons and workshops; she also works directly with farmers, and hangs out with her “ladies”: Big Mamma and the crew.