Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ideas by Melissa Senate

Several people who know me well, including my dear ex-husband, said: “You wrote a book about cooking?” There was one “Really?” A few raised eyebrows. And the ex-husband cackled.

I’m not a cook. I come from a long line of not-cooks.

But when food--Italian food with its inherent romance and mystery--and hand-scrawled recipes with essential ingredients of fervent wishes and bittersweet memories began forming in my mind last year, I didn’t say, Forget all this--you can’t write a book about food and cooking and hand-scrawled recipes! Instead, I did what I always do when an idea has gripped me, heart, mind and soul: I waited for the “What’s this really about?” to present itself, to explain to me where all this was coming from. A novel about cooking? About a heartbroken woman who inherits her mysterious grandmother’s home-based business and must teach an Italian cooking class when she can barely make a decent marinara sauce? About her four students, seeking much more than just how to cook chicken alla Milanese and risotto?

In those months before I started writing a word of my upcoming novel THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, I realized I was thinking a lot about my childhood-- particularly about a long, narrow kitchen in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens, four flights up on a busy street. I could not stop thinking about that kitchen--how, despite its dirty beige walls and short window with the fire escape and burglar bars, it was my favorite place to be.

The summer I turned eight, my mother very permanently split from my father and moved us from our apartment building in the Bronx, New York to that apartment in Flushing, Queens (another borough of New York City). She worked full-time as a clerk in Korvettes department store (anyone remember Korvettes?), and by the time she picked up her three close-in-age children from daycare at the Y at 6:00pm, she was exhausted. So she smartly taught us how to help her cook. My older sister was on stove duty. I was an assembler. And my younger brother was a masher. And in that narrow kitchen, we’d spend a magnificent hour or two together, sharing funny, serious, mundane, interesting, scary, happy, not-happy tidbits about our day, about ourselves--sharing, period--as we cooked together.

My mother, one of the people I admire most, was no gourmet. Her rotation consisted of five meals: tuna fish in the shape of a smiley face with lettuce eyebrows, raw carrot nose, and onion-slice mouth; lightly fried flounder (the smell of which still fills me with joy); plain meat balls the size of baseballs (sans spaghetti or sauce, for some reason); fried liver and onions, and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. On liver and onions night (her favorite), she’d heat up Swanson’s turkey TV diners for the kids, which of course we loved (you would too, given the alternative).

To this day, tuna fish sandwiches with wilted lettuce, the kind that comes from four hours in a lunchbox, lightly fried flounder, and those giant meatballs, are my favorites, my comfort food. I shared my worries as I lay egg-coated flounder in the plate of breadcrumbs, listened to my sister’s hopes and fears as she placed meatballs in the big pot of water-ketchup broth, assured my brother, whether about long-division or bullies or the curious lack of relatives in our lives except for our maternal grandparents, as he mashed tuna and splattered mayonnaise. We talked in that kitchen. And a few subway stops away, in my grandmother’s similar kitchen in a similar apartment building, there was much of the same talking, the same food, the same comfort. My grandmother didn’t like to talk about herself or her past unless she was busy doing something--like scrubbing baking potatoes. And so I got a precious earful at the sink. She did too.

Now, four hundred miles away from both kitchens, I try my best at cooking, but I am my mother’s daughter and my grandma’s bubeleh--i.e., no foodie. (Although, I must say that my chicken alla Milanese, lasagna, and Bolognese sauce, after months of research-practice, are deliziosa.) So when asked where on earth I got the idea for THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, how I could write a novel about food and cooking and a main character teaching anyone to make classic Italian dishes, I often talk about my love of Italy, of the cooking memoirs I read, the research, the months of recipe testing I did--my dear son as taster. Because it’s almost impossible to explain how the essence of the book, what it’s really about, comes from those cramped kitchens of my childhood (and, much later, two very special trips to Italy), from beautiful, painful, very dear mish-mashes of memory--the kind you can’t necessarily conjure, but which forms you, stays with you, provokes in you questions big and small . . . and only hints at answers.

My ideas have always come from that place, the place in between the tuna fish smiley faces and secrets, where family and memory, love and loss, connection and lack thereof--and perhaps most of all, questions to which I have no answers, are always at work. It’s one of the things that makes “So where did you get the idea for this book?” so difficult to put into words. Except 90,000 of them, of course.

I would love to know your version of my smiley-face tuna-fish--those special meals from childhood you still love. For my son, now eight-years-old, I know it’ll be black bean tacos topped with a particular kind of shredded cheese, and the spaghetti Bolognese my heroine and I learned to make together. Giveaway Alert: One commenter (U.S./Canada only) will win an advance review copy of THE LOVE GODDESS' COOKING SCHOOL, so share away!

A bit of bio: I’m the author of nine previous novels, including my 2001 debut, SEE JANE DATE, which was made into a cute TV movie, two YAs, and my most recent women’s fiction title, THE SECRET OF JOY. My next novel, THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, will be published by Simon & Schuster in late October! For more info, please visit my website. You can also find me on Twitter and Facebook. A former New Yorker, I now live on the lovely coast of Maine with my son.

41 comments:

  1. That's a wonderful post Melissa! And I can't wait for the book--I love novels with food in them:). My mother hated to cook too. And we definitely had liver and onions night--my sister and I had hockey puck hamburgers on those. My best food memories are birthday cakes. We each got to choose what we wanted. Mine was an angel food cake with whipped cream icing. We continue that tradition in my own family and I'm certain they'll remember the chocolate cake with chocolate sour cream frosting long after I'm gone:)

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  2. Great post! I've read a few of your books and really enjoyed them. And, I'm very excited about this novel -- the cover is gorgeous!!!

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  3. No matter what time of day you arrived at my grandmother's house unannounced, her old, faded kitchen table would be loaded with food. Being from the south, her staples were white beans and cornbread (which I would slather with ketchup...hey, don't knock it until you've tried it) and crispy fried chicken. Now, I'm not talking about that wannabe fried chicken from Col. Sanders. Memaw's fried chicken was so crispy it was almost red in color. To this day, I don't know how she got it so deliciously crunchy and yet, tender and juicy. In the summer, there would be freshly prepared veggies from her garden. Vegetables like fried okra, pickled beets and crisp cucumbers and onions in vinegar. She would sit with me, piling more and more food on my plate as I complained or raved about my day, offering good advice and encouragement. I didn't realize it at the time, of course, being so young and self-absorbed, but what Memaw was really feeding was my soul. She's been gone almost twenty years now, but one of my most prized possessions is her faded, stained, dollar store cookbook. Inside, I find hand-written recipes and grocery lists. Things worthless to the world, but to me, priceless.

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  4. What a wonderful post - I felt like I was in the kitchen with you and your siblings and your Mom! For me, comfort food is frosting eaten out of the tub with a spoon. Also, hot chocolate with the little mini-marshmallows on top.

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  5. I loved this! The dish that brings back my childhood the most is cabbage and tomato soup. I know it doesn't sound like much, but it is heavenly - everyone's who's tried it has loved it. Both my sister and I have tried to duplicate my mother's recipe with little success.

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  6. Melissa... Readers hunger for novels like this and I know it's going to be a huge success. It will resonate with so many of us who grew up in homes where food went from the heart to the table and not the other way around... At my house my mom's idea of a nutritious dinner involved something brown, something green and something orange... We lived for McDonalds, lol... Can't wait to read your latest/greatest.

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  7. Hi Melissa! I already know I'm going to love this book! I do love to cook, and one of my best moments was when my older son asked for a cookbook filled with all my recipes when he had his first job after college in a city 2000 meals from home. And both my sons know that when they come home there will be twice-baked potatoes, or homemade spaghetti sauce or french cherry pie waiting for them, in the same way my mom always makes sauerbraten and potato pancakes when I'm visiting her.

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  8. My comfort foods are my mom's chicken and buscuits, grilled cheese with soup and my grandma's gingersnap cookies. Everytime I bake my grandma's cookies I am instantly thinking of her and transported back to her kitchen. Your post made me think about the food I'm feeding my little ones and what they will look back on when they are grown.
    I am looking forward to reading your newest, I hope it includes recipes!

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  9. I got so hungry reading this. My comfort food is weiner schniztel with spatzle. My mother is Austrian and she makes schitzel so light and buttery it could float off the plate. I also crave very gooey, cheesey mac and cheese. And finally, on rainy, bleak Saturdays there is nothing like Dim Sum. I love the ones with pink shrimp snuggled into a dumpling.

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  10. What a wonderful post, Melissa!! My mom is an amazing cook, so I truly have too many food memories to name. Now that I have a son, I'm trying to incorporate a lot of her recipes into our dinnertime menus. My favorite is when my dad eats my food and declares it better than the original, my mom's. We all know he's just saying it to encourage me, but still, it's awesome.

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  11. My mother made butterscotch pie from scratch that was out of this world. I've never tasted anything like it. When I was little, she'd bake two -- one to be shared by the family and one that was only for me! I still remember taking that pie into my bedroom, closing the door, and eating 1/2 of it with a spoon. How I never got sick remains a mystery. LOL!

    Loved your post, Melissa.

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  12. Melissa, what a heartfelt, fabulous post! You had me at tuna fish with wilted lettuce. ;-) I remember when my crazy mother liked to do special meals for holidays. So, on St. Patrick's Day, she'd have everything green, including green milk and green mashed potatoes. She also loved to make us cookies in the shape of dog biscuits and put them in our lunch boxes. I think I get my creativity from her (but not her cooking skills--she is a wonderful cook while I'm a microwaver). Can't wait for your book to come out. I saw the cover the other day and thought, "THAT rocks."

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  13. Nicely done! I'd get a lot of the same responses if I wrote a book about a cooking school. When my parents were married, my mom would do the dinner thing. But after they divorced, she, my brothers and I all decided that a big bowl of popcorn (buttered & salted, of course) sprinkled with M&Ms made a fine dinner. I still believe that. My husband doesn't. Which is why he's in charge of dinner.

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  14. I love your post Melissa and can't wait to read your new book!

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  15. Melissa, I think your post touches so many of us because that kind of conversational connection with our moms, grandmothers, siblings is something we loved and craved as much as the delicious things they made... I can't wait to read this novel!!

    My mom is a terrific cook (while I, to borrow Susan's most excellent term, am a "microwaver"!), and she made us this warm, wonderful rice/meat/nut dish growing up that I still love. The smell of allspice brings me back. :)

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  16. Love the post, Melissa! This is the sort of book that touches your heart and stirs up childhood memories with food related moments. Sounds amazing. Love the cover!

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  17. Great post and FABULOUS COVER! I too am a non-cook who comes, unfortunately, from a long line of amazing cooks. I totally get it.

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  18. Melissa, this was a beautiful post!! I could almost smell the flounder ...

    At my Grandma's funeral yesterday, much of the talk orbited around her cooking, and fond memories of recipes we can only dream of duplicating.

    I had to chuckle at Susan's comment, with the green St. Patrick's day-themed food--my mom did similar things! :)

    Lovely post, lovely cover, can't wait to read it!

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  19. I too come from a non-foodie family, and had years of TV dinners served up by my novelist mother, who still prefers writing to anything domestic. Can't say I have any nostalgia for the soggy spinach contained therein. Now I've married a foodie and am trying to learn to cook as well as his mother! Impossible goal... Can't wait to read the book.

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  20. Mine would be the cinnamon and sugar toast my grandmother always made for me. And also, it would be her telling me that I needed to learn to cook. I always told her in reply, that if a man wanted to eat, he'd cook! I also have memories of making peanut butter cookies with my grandpa.

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  21. ps - I'm at Kellijo23@mchsi.com (Kelli Jo Calvert)

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  22. Gorgeous--and my favorite kind of read. (I am a foodie, but I love reading about characters who are learning how to cook. *LOL*)

    Childhood faves: fried chicken (this was hit or miss: mom would sometimes burn it or make it the best in the world. You never knew which one you'd get); grape Popsicles; fried potatoes and onions or fried potatoes and okra (which I preferred); fried catfish caught from our pond (the best!!). Mom made great french fries, if you pestered her enough. I loved her fries. They were homemade, so they were a hassle. Great with the fish though. Oh, and I remember mom making popcorn balls at Christmas with jello, so they'd be either red or green balls. Jello, corn syrup, sugar, water boiled until it "strings"--and then poured over popcorn. Good stuff.

    Dad makes cream gravy and bacon with biscuits on Saturdays. That's a good Saturday if you're around for that. If you're really lucky, there are also hashbrowns and eggs over easy. Once, when my mom was in the hospital and Dad had to cook for us, he caught a snapper turtle (I'm pretty sure it was coincidence) and he fried that up. It was delicious. He also makes great fried chicken and gravy.

    Okay, now I'm hungry.

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  23. Melissa, great post!

    My parents emigrated from Cuba in the early 60s with 2 babies in tow (I was one of them) My mother never cooked a day in her life until she hit the U.S. Her "non-meals" are famous in our family, although she makes the meanest arroz con pollo you can imagine. No other can ever compare;)

    Your book sounds fabulous!

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  24. You guys are all making me very hungry!!! ;-)

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  25. I love this post, and I can't wait for this book to come out. My fave childhood meal would be tomato soup (out of a Campbell's Soup mug) and grilled cheese cut into triangles. It's my comfort meal of choice.

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  26. I am enthusiastically looking forward to this book: Melissa + food/cooking theme = awesome! A favorite childhood comfort food for me is homemade chicken veggie soup made from vegetables we picked from my mom's garden- yum!

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  27. Thank you all so much for these wonderful comments. I love reading about everyone's different comforts foods/childhood memories. Thank you for sharing!!

    Jess, I'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother's passing. My grandmother passed a few years ago and I dedicated The Love Goddess' Cooking School to her and my grandfather.

    I'll choose a random winner of the advance review copy in the wee hours, so keep sharing your childhood favorites!

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  28. This is so sad, but my brothers and I often joke about how awful a cook my mother was. So I'm not sure we have anything special from childhood to remember! My grandmother, however, always made a special dessert for Christmas and Thanksgiving that we call "Cherry Delight." It's basically a cherry cheesecake with whipped cream, but for some reason, nobody ever equates it with a traditional cheesecake. It's always served in a square glass baking dish & cut into squares. I've carried on this tradition in our adulthood, now that my grandmother has passed away.

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  29. What a delicious post, Melissa! And I cannot WAIT to read this book!!

    My mom was never much of a cook, and I love a good meal, so I learned to cook at a young age. Thus, I don't have any great memories of comfort good. Maybe salmon croquettes, made from the stuff in a can and fried in oil, if for nothing other than nostalgia.

    Speaking of nostalgia, I totally remember Korvettes!

    xo

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  30. My mom was an awesome cook (and totally OCD - she wouldn't let anyone near the kitchen when she was cooking), so it's hard to settle on just one dish but there was one thing she made that was particularly special. It's a Lebanese dish called 'kibbeh' - ground beef mixed with wheat germ, allspice, nutmeg and who knows what else - and shaped into a an outer shell which then gets stuffed with more spiced beef and pine nuts. Each little kibbeh looks like a mini-meat-stuffed football and is usually deep fried, but there’s also the raw version, which is a bit of a delicacy in Lebanese cuisine. My mom was obviously not overly enthusiastic about feeding her kids raw meat, but it was soooo good that she couldn’t resist our puppy-dog faces whenever she’d be sitting at the kitchen table, stuffing those little footballs, that she’d slip up a couple of mouthfuls after sufficient begging. When I grew up I found out that kibbeh niyeh – raw kibbeh – is a delicacy served in finer Lebanese restaurants and now my mom makes me a dish of it every year for my birthday. When I asked her if she could teach me to make it, she just laughed in my face and walked off, muttering to herself and shaking her head.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Melissa : )

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  31. LOVE this post! I have the Italian grandma (just spoke to her this afternoon, actually) whose chicken cutlets I STILL can't master! I've made them with her so many times, and I am a good cook, but for some reason, no matter what I do - even the EXACT SAME THINGS she does - I can't duplicate them.

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  32. Great post and the book sounds fantastic. My mom wasn't a great cook either, but she used to make this cheddar currant bread baked in an iron skillet that I loved. I can almost smell it in my memory, warm with butter smeared on it. Sigh. I consider myself a fairly proficient chef and I love to cook, but I haven't made that bread since I left home. I'm not even sure I have the recipe, but I am now going to see if I can find it.

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  33. Growing up both my parents worked so it was lucky if we all sat down to a cooked meal. My Grandma always cook noodles for Thanksgiving Dinner. Her noodles were the highlight of the feast.

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  34. Melissa,
    My grandmother was a "country cook" - so our meals were always comfort food. Chicken fried steak slathered in homemade gravey with mashed potatoes and lots of butter comes to mind. I always smile when I think of the nights we had "sh** o a shingle" - hamburger gravy over toast. We loved it. I might just have to make that for my kids soon. Congrats on your new book. October is almost here!

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  35. I can't wait to read this book. And the cover is absolutely divine! I think it's a terrific thing when a so-called "non-foodie" takes on food. There's hope! I think the comfort food of my childhood was my grandmother's fried chicken and black-eyed peas. Slathered, of course, in plenty of bacon grease. These days I believe these foods are technically illegal, but every now and then....I just have to have some! Can't wait for this book!

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  36. This was such a beautiful post! You brought back my own memories of my grandmas cooking- which to this day no one can match. While she shared some recipes with me before she passed away I havent had the guts to try them out...I know it won't taste like hers!!! Maybe one day when my daughter is a little older we will take a dive into those recipes :-} Congrats on the book! I am keeping my fingers crossed- but winner or not this is on my must read list!

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  37. Lovely post. I'll have to get your book when it's out. I'm not a great cook, either, but for a reason I can't comprehend, I love foodie fiction.

    My mother wasn't a great cook, but when it came to pies, she was the best cook. My comfort food, which I have about 3 times a year, is grilled cheese sandwiches. The only difference is that my mom used Velveeta cheese and white bread; I use Swiss cheese and healthy grain bread.

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  38. Thank you all again for these wonderful, wonderful responses and kind comments about the post and the cover. I love how varied our childhood comfort foods are.

    MsHellion, you've won the advance review copy of The Love Goddess' Cooking School, so email me when you see this and I'll pop a signed copy in the mail to you!

    Thanks again!

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  39. Looking forward to the book.

    When I was a kid, there was nothing better than my great aunts chicken noodle soup. No one makes it like her!

    jen161@hotmail.com

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  40. Ah man! Missed the contest. But I will say that I would probably pass over dinner at a fancy restaurant in favor of a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup on a cold day. Nothing like it!

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