Q & A with Jael McHenry, Author of ‘The Kitchen Daughter’

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UPDATE: And…the winner of The Kitchen Daughter is CARMEN. Congratulations Carmen! The winner was chosen at random, which is to say I wrote everyone’s name on little pieces of paper, folded them, shuffled them, and put them in a baseball cap. My daughter stuck her hand in and pulled out Carmen’s name. Thanks to everyone who left a comment. I loved all of your recommendations and look forward to some tasty reading.

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If a novel features any of the following words in its title—“quilt” ” knitting” ” whisperer” “code” or “angels”—chances are it will not be read by me. (No logic here; just a matter of personal preference when it comes to themes. I actually love to knit.)

If, on the other hand, the title contains the word “kitchen” I am all over it. Back in 1991, I scooped up a copy of Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife the minute it was published and I was glad I did. The word “kitchen” is what led me to the quirky and engaging Japanese writer, Banana Yoshimoto, whose debut novel was titled…Kitchen. And, it is also how I found Jael McHenry’s first novel, The Kitchen Daughter.

And if the title hadn’t grabbed me, the cover certainly would have!

I had no idea when I bought Jael’s book that I would soon have an opportunity to meet her. That would have intimidated me, because novelists intimidate me (ask me sometime about the time I had lunch with Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates). I am in awe of anyone who can write a novel, let alone one that gets published (even those with titles containing the words “quilt” or “club” etc.). I’m happy to report that not only is Jael not intimidating, she is delightful, and a thoughtful speaker as well. We met in May at Eat Write Retreat, a food blogging conference in D.C. She talked about food writing from the perspective of one who writes fiction.

Food is a predominant theme in The Kitchen Daughter. The protagonist, a young woman named Ginny who suffers from Asperger Syndrome, feels more comfortable in the kitchen than she does interacting with other people. Her relatively safe world is turned upside-down when her parents die suddenly and she is forced to deal with grief, as well as well-meaning but intrusive family members, and practical issues such as what will become of the family home. Ginny retreats to the kitchen, where she finds that she is able to conjure the ghosts of the departed when she cooks their recipes. Now she must figure out what the ghosts are trying to tell her about her parents’ past and about her future.

I wanted to know more about how and why Jael wove food into her novel as a central theme, so I asked her to participate in a Q & A, to which she kindly consented. And, as a bonus, I am giving away a copy of The Kitchen Daughter. There was one in my Eat Write Retreat swag bag, but since I already owned a copy, I ended up with two. To enter, simply leave a comment telling me what your favorite work of fiction is that focuses on food as a central theme or issue.

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Q: Where did the idea for the story of The Kitchen Daughter come from? Were you just ‘struck’ with it one day? Or was it an idea that developed over time?

A: A little of both! I’d been writing fiction for more than 10 years, and actively trying that whole time to get published, writing novel after novel, but I just hadn’t managed to write the right book that agents and editors would fall in love with. So when I was trying to decide what to write next, I did some soul-searching, and realized that although I’ve always had a passion for food and cooking, I’d never incorporated that passion into my fiction. So I was thinking about different plots and characters centered on cooking, over the course of a few months, and then one day I was in the kitchen and the central idea just hit me – what if something about her cooking draws spirits into the kitchen? It all sort of snowballed from there.

Q: Conjuring ghosts through their hand-written recipes is brilliant. How did you come up with it?

A: It was kind of a burst of inspiration, but the more I thought about it, the more it’s just a literal translation of something that I feel happens figuratively a lot – the idea that if we cook recipes from our loved ones, those loved ones are “in the kitchen” with us. I played around with the concept for a while – can she bring just anyone back? – and decided that only the handwritten recipes would have enough of the spirit of the person who wrote them to forge that connection. And smells are so powerful, especially at triggering memory, it was natural that the smell of the cooking food is really what calls the spirits back.

Q: It’s clear to anyone who reads this book that you must know how to cook. Where did your interest in cooking come from? Did you grow up in a family in which cooking and good food figured prominently?

A: My mom is a fantastic cook, and we were always a very food-focused family. Especially around the holidays, we’d dig out all the old recipes – Cornish pasties, Ukrainian pierogi, about a dozen different Christmas cookies that became tradition – and put together these great big feasts. And we always joke that breakfast isn’t over until we decide what we’re having for lunch. So I learned a lot helping my mom out in the kitchen, and I learned all the basics from her. I got out of the habit for awhile in college and grad school, but then when I got married and we started having dinner parties, I really rediscovered it, and got serious about building my skills and expanding my repertoire of dishes. There’s nothing I love more than coming up with a really creative menu and executing on it. I did a five-course corn menu for some friends a few weeks back – smoked salmon on corn blini, chilled corn soup, gnudi with corn and almonds, sweet corn ice cream, among other things – and it was so much fun! Everything except doing the dishes after.

Q: I love the way the protagonist, Ginny Selvaggio, uses food analogies to describe peoples’ voices. Can you talk about that particular detail about her character?

A: That came relatively late in the rewriting process. Ginny is much more comfortable with food than she is with people, so all along, in Ginny’s voice, I had felt like it was natural for her to describe people in terms of the food they reminded her of. Someone’s breath smells like bean water, someone’s shoulder feels like the shank end of a ham. So all along she was describing sights and smells with food analogies – and it came last that of course she would think of sounds that way too. Especially for members of her family, and the way their voices sound different when they’re talking to different people. Ginny has a way of capturing that and it’s part of what makes her voice unique and compelling, I think.

Q: Did you always intend to include recipes in the book?

A: It was always an option, but at the time we submitted the manuscript to publishers, we didn’t have the recipes in yet. I figured it was a decision I should make with my editor. And my editor was super-excited about doing that, and she’s the one who came up with the layout, that each of them looks like a card, with that little tab up in the corner like recipes in recipe boxes have. Our only concern was that they would interrupt the story too much, so there isn’t one in every chapter, and they’re not right in the middle of the text. They’re set off a little bit. And I was thrilled that we got to do them as images, with the “handwriting” of each character, instead of just using a different font. I love how they turned out.

Q: How long did it take you to write The Kitchen Daughter?

A: It took about a year to put together a draft that I thought was strong enough to send to agents, and then my agent and I worked on it together for another year. It sold in October 2009, and then there were several more rounds of edits with my editor, probably another six months’ worth. So not long in the grand scheme of things, but there was a lot of hard work editing that shaped it into the final book it is today.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the way you write? Do you write during a particular time of day? Do you have any special rituals that you follow? Do you write many drafts? How do you know when a piece of writing is finished?

A: It really depends on where I am in the process. If I’m working on an early draft, I write when I feel like it, with the caveat that I make sure I don’t go more than a few days between writing sessions. I don’t wait for inspiration, exactly, but I don’t force myself to sit down at the desk at 6 a.m. and churn out 500 words before I’m allowed to do anything else. If I’m under deadline, though, I go completely left-brained, and I have schedules and lists and goals and color-coded Post-It notes. I am definitely a multi-draft writer. I write a very fast first draft to get down the basics of the characters and the plot, and then everything else is revision, revision, revision.

Q: Do you have any favorite books by other authors in which food and/or cooking figure prominently?

A: I just adore Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel – it’s such a classic of the genre, with this wonderful fable-like quality. I have to re-read it every couple of years. It makes me so hungry.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to cook?

A: Depends on the day and the occasion, but I love making biscuits and sausage gravy, which is my Grandma McHenry’s recipe (and that one is actually in the book). When we have people over I love to make bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with a combination of bleu cheese and mascarpone – they’re completely addictive. But mostly I like trying new things, experimenting, improvising.

Q: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?

A: I’m deep in the throes of writing the next book, but it’s going slowly! Partly because I’m distracted with all sorts of activity related to The Kitchen Daughter – travel, interviews, events, preparing for the paperback launch next spring – and partly because the one I’m working on is set in 1905, so it requires lots of research. But I’m having a great time.

Makes 16 brownies

Midnight Cry Brownies

Adapted slightly from The Kitchen Daughter, by Jael McHenry (Gallery Books, 2011)

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup raw turbinado sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt (I used fleur de sel)
  • Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cocoa powder and espresso powder. Let cool slightly.

In a larger bowl, whisk the eggs until pale yellow. Add the sugar and continue to whisk until well incorporated. Whisk in the cooled butter-cocoa mixture. Stir in the vanilla and flour until just combined. Pour into an 8-inch by 8-inch glass or metal baking pan lined with lightly buttered foil. Sprinkle the salt evenly on top.

Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until set around the edges but slightly jiggly in the center. Set the pan on a rack to cool. Remove the brownies from the pan and peel off the foil. Cut into XX squares and arrange on a serving plate. Dust with confectioners' sugar and serve.

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31 Responses to Q & A with Jael McHenry, Author of ‘The Kitchen Daughter’

  1. Grace August 30, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    My favorite fiction book which focuses on food would have to be Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

    • Domenica August 30, 2011 at 11:37 am #

      Good one, Grace! Thanks for reminding me of it.

  2. Janel August 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    I like anything by Judi Hendricks and Barbara Samuel O’Neal. Their descriptions of food are just beautiful to the point of almost tasting the dishes as I read about them.

    • Domenica August 30, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

      These are new to me, Janel. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. Cheers, D

  3. janie August 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    I love Marlena de Blasi’s first book A Thousand Days In Venice and have made a few of the recipes included in the book. Also liked Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks, where I discovered my favorite scone recipe.

  4. Domenica August 30, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    I have a couple of Marlena de Blasi’s books, but not that one. Looks like I may need to get it. I remember Bread Alone; that’s another one that’s missing from my collection. Thanks, Janie.

  5. Katie August 30, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    My favorite book about food is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. It’s a reminder that it’s true that our emotions go into everything we cook and bake.

    • Domenica August 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

      I’ve been meaning to read that one. Thanks so much for reminding me, Katie.

  6. Katie August 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    Actually, I take that back. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a great comfort book. But as far as one where I learned about food – I have become fully engrossed with local food after reading Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir. I recommend it to both my foodie and non-foodie friends. It was fantastic learning about why a certain region makes a specific food/ingredient so spectacular. And then the recipes to go only with regional products was great too. I will never think of honey, salmon, chocolate, maple syrup, among many others, in the same way ever again.

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

      And that’s ANOTHER one I’ve been meaning to read…Thanks Katie.

  7. Janis August 30, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    Willie Wonka :–)

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

      We are big Roald Dahl fans in our house, Janis. Loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was a kid (but as an adult I like The Witches better ; )

  8. Becky Taylor August 30, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    I enjoyed “The School of Essential Ingredients” by Erica Bauermeister.

  9. Becky Taylor August 30, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    …”All I can say is that you will learn what you need to.” from the pages of this tasty novel.

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

      Intrigued! Thanks for the recommendation Becky.

  10. Jenny August 30, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray is one of my favorites – but I am loving The Kitchen Daughter – so much so I entered to win a copy here for my friend – so I don’t have to part with my copy. My son (7) has Asperger’s – I don’t know how I missed that on the reviews on Amazon before I ordered it – but I did order early – added bonus for me.

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

      I haven’t read Eat Cake…but considering that those are two of my favorite words in the English language, I think I need to pick it up. Thanks Jenny.

  11. Melissa Crytzer Fry August 30, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    Lovely interview, and now I suddenly …. have … an … urge … to … eat … brownies! Yum. I recently read a novel by Michelle Wildgen called “You’re Not You.” While the heart of the story focuses on a young woman who accepts a caregiving position, tending to a 40-something-year-old woman stricken with Lou Gehrig’s, the food themes was nearly a character itself. I think fans of “foodie lit” would find this novel a satisfying dish as it artfully reveals the role of cooking/eating, and its ties to emotional fulfillment.

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

      This is one I haven’t heard of, Melissa. Thanks!

  12. Keetha August 30, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    Joanna Harris’ CHOCOLAT felt like a dream. I loved the story and the descriptions of the the chocolate and confections.

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

      Two votes for Chocolat!

  13. Alicia Sokol August 30, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    I also love Like Water for Chocolate as food fiction goes. Other favorite books that include recipes (nonfiction) are Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl and Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, both memoirs. Domenica, I am already the lucky owner of Jael’s terrific book, too, so no need to enter me in the drawing. Finally, D, I think your brownie photo is lovely! Nice work!

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

      Thanks Alicia. I really enjoyed Reichl’s memoirs (especially the first two). And thanks for the compliment on the photo!

  14. Carmen August 30, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    OMG! Just read “Between Meals – An Appetite For Paris” by A J Liebling. It is a to-die-for read if you really are into Paris and French cooking/culture from long ago.

  15. Kristin Kane August 31, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    I am reading Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton right now and really digging it! Thinking I might need to make reservations at Prune, her restaurant, next time I am home.
    Great interview!

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

      Thanks Kristin. I agree, Hamilton is an excellent writer. I’ve never been to her restaurant either. I’m ashamed to say how long it’s been since my last trip to NY…

  16. Gail Magnani August 31, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    How can we not include “MY Life in France” by Julia Child? I grew up in Boston and watched “The Frech Chef” on WGBH when I was a little girl and have loved her since. I love your interview!

    • Domenica August 31, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

      Good one, Gail!

  17. Lauren August 31, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    I too liked “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”. Also “Good Enough to Eat” by Stacey Ballis. It was chick lit centered around a woman who owns a small eatery, but it was a great vacation read.

  18. Vicki September 3, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Hmmm for fiction I would the short stories of Anton Chekhov – in particular the ones that take place at the Russian dachas. There is always descriptions of food and the people enjoying it. It is so perfect as it makes me feel like I am back visiting friends in the countryside enjoying wild mushrooms, fresh breads, and glasses of vodka.

  19. Liliana September 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    I am also attracted to any book title is related to food or knitting. I just bought a copy of the Kitchen Daughter and am looking forward to reading it.

    The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais is also a good read.

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