Friday, March 18, 2016

Maggie Kast is Back at Book Readers Heaven as Guest Blogger and "What She Ate!"

After a lifetime career in modern dance, Maggie Kast received a Master of Theological Studies from Catholic Theological Union and began teaching, choreographing and performing liturgical dance. She received an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College in 2001 and has published fiction in The Sun, Carve Magazine, Kaleidoscope, Nimrod International, Paper Street and others. Her essays have appeared in America, Writer's Chronicle, Image and others. A chapter of her book, published in ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination. 

What She Ate

When I was a child I liked to spend recess sitting in the crook of a tree with a friend and making up recipes: chocolate pie, lemon meringue, puddings. Now I love to cook and read about food, not just recipes but food ways and how they relate to culture, what happens when people break bread together, how meals fit into rituals of family and group.

There are many wonderful novels based on food, some including recipes. Among my favorites are Henry Kressing’s classic The Cook, a funny and terrifying sort of fairy tale; the magic realist novel, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel; and John  Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, with its foodie turned murderer. In Babette’s Feast, both book and movie, a meal becomes a sacrament
that reconciles a community.

More recently J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, had huge success with a story of that region structured around a recipe for each chapter. It’s on my to-read list.
When I began to write, in the early ‘90s, the first thing I learned was to use sensory detail: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Sight comes easiest. The writer knows her character is five feet five with long, brown hair, but other sensory information may tell the reader more. The odor of her perfume and the smell of that brown hair might make the reader feel attracted, while the song that 
played on her first date may tell the reader how she felt. Wet tears on her cheek would communicate more than saying she was sad or touched, especially when her date’s rough but gentle fingers wiped them away.

Many realistic novels, full of other sensory detail, neglect to tell us what she ate and how it tasted. If it was hamburgers and fries, were they just fodder to fill stomachs or were they juicy, greasy, or crisp? Food traditions in the modern U.S. vary from town to town and era to era, so that meals in novels are wonderful ways of marking time and place. In my own lifetime I’ve seen rare ingredients from foreign shores replaced by local; farms replaced by factories and then replaced by farms again; butter replaced by margarine replaced by butter. I’ve experienced a shift from packaged pudding yes to packaged pudding no, sushi from no to yes. I remember when there were two kinds of wine: red and white.

My novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, takes place in Chicago 1930. My protagonist, Henriette Greenberg, has given up on eating because of painful conflicts at the family table, where her mother uses food to exert control while her brothers conspire to break the rules. Henriette buys a Tango bar each day on her way home from school so she won’t be hungry when dreaded mealtime arrives. Doesn’t sound like much of a scenario for food! But Carl, Henriette’s brother, fights the rule-bound meals by learning to cook himself. He gets government pamphlets that advocate low-temperature cooking for meat and corrects his mother’s practice. He hangs out in Chinese restaurant kitchens and picks up tips, buys Mu Shu pancakes and roasts a duck at home. When he is asked to make canapés to sell at a political rally on Haymarket Square, he makes up rounds of rye bread covered with salmon and topped by two little fish, lying head to toe like children sharing a bed. He discovers the Home Delicacies Association founded by Mrs. William Vaughn Moody, the widow of the poet, and learns from her to make bouillabaisse. To Henriette, her brother is a brilliant mentor who introduces her to delicious, sharp tastes, to the jazz music just then

arriving in Chicago, to the mysterious new discipline of psychoanalysis.
At the University of Chicago, Henriette meets Dilly Brannigan, a grad student in anthropology, and a whole new food world unfolds. He comes from a small town and, to Henriette’s horror, he hunts to live. Summers his family eats vegetables from the garden; winters they subsist on venison and potatoes. His mother is proud to serve the new lime jello and takes for granted the rich apple dumplings, swimming in syrup, that she learned from her own mother. Eventually, Henriette learns to prepare the meat that Dilly hunts, cooking on a wood stove, making rabbit stew with sour cream and bacon.

During the anxious days before the novel’s launch I took advantage of my love of cooking to prepare foods from the novel for a reception, each dish accompanied by the appropriate text. I discovered the joy of making Mu Shu pancakes (photos and recipe at and replicating Carl’s canapés. I converted those apple dumplings into tiny, individual tastes for a crowd, and caterer Blair Carothers figured out how to make something palatable out of Mrs. Moody’s “The Lion and the Lamb”: creamed seafood and chicken livers. Doesn’t sound like a happy marriage. But if Dilly and Henriette can get along as well as those ingredients finally did, the story will have a happy ending. Whatever happens, we’ll know just what she ate.

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