At the end of every semester when I was teaching English composition classes at UNM-Taos, we celebrated with a pot-luck meal. Each student brought a dish to add to the buffet tables that lined the room. But not only that: They had to do research on their choice of food and present their findings as a one-page essay to post on the wall above their dish. (These were English classes, after all.)
“Everything – and everyone, as well – has a story,” I would tell them when explaining this assignment. Picking up a yellow pencil, I’d say, “THIS has a story – who first created it, where, how, when, and why.” Then I’d walk around the room, pointing.
“Every person you see and pass on the street, every student in this room, has a story,” I’d say. “There’s a story behind everything, including the food we eat. Let’s discover them.”
The results of this pot-luck exercise were always both intellectually and gustatorily delicious. Who knew that America’s favorite cookie, the chocolate chip, had such a storied history, for example? (Here’s one, tame version: https://www.sugar.org/blog/the-history-of-the-chocolate-chip-cookie/ .) Rice. Bread. Corn tortillas. All these, and so much more, have long, old, and deep stories.
So we we ate from the dishes the students brought, we read their short essays, and we learned things. Not the least of which, I’d hoped, was to not take things for granted; rather, dig beneath the surface of everything, at every opportunity, to uncover and appreciate their deeper meanings.
Now let’s take books, for instance. What makes a person want to and need to go to the trouble (blood, sweat, and tears?) to write one? What is the driving force, the burr beneath the saddle, as I often think of it? What are the origin stories behind the books themselves?
In my own case, I was driven to write my first book, Somewhere Child (Viking Press 1981), by the aching desire to find my daughter who’d been abducted by her father. My two subsequent memoirs, about my Peace Corps service in Gabon, Central Africa, and, later, my independent economic development project in Mali, West Africa, were written in the hope that my estranged daughter might get to know who I am.
My novel Jamie’s Muse (Nighthawk Press 2018) was motivated by a deep need to bring back to life my Scottish great-grandmother, Helen Reid David Black, who, with her young husband William Black, emigrated from Scotland to South Africa in the early 1880s and died there, mysteriously, in her early twenties.
I needed to learn who Helen was, what she was like, how courageous she was to travel to Africa, known as “the Dark Continent” then. I spent years seeking her, striving to retrace her steps, fruitlessly searching for solid documents; ultimately relying on intuition and imagination to fill in the blanks.
When I learned in 2018 that I myself would become a great-grandmother – of twin girls — I wanted to make it easier for these girls to get to know me, if they ever wished to. So I decided to do another book — this one a collection of personal essays and recipes from my years as a caterer in New York — and to dedicate this book to them.
Yes, this book project became my “pandemic project” last year at this time. Yes, it was a fun and delicious way to isolate at home and stay busy during the lockdown – baking tarts for photo shoots and sharing them with close neighbors. Yes, anyone who enjoys baking or who wants to learn, would appreciate having Sweet Tarts as their friendly guide.
But the story behind this slim, happy, how-to book has to do with these little girls. By the time they are old enough to read and understand the true stories in it and to follow the recipes, I’ll likely be gone. This book is my legacy to them.
This coming Monday, August 30, at 5 pm Central Time, I’ll be joining authors Cynthia Claus and Judith Gille in an online event sponsored by the San Miguel Literary Sala, and I’ll be reading three short essays from Sweet Tarts. Please try to join this Zoom reading if you can. It’s free.
Visit https://sanmiguelliterarysala.org/product/aug-30-2021-literary-sala-reads/ for more information and to learn how to register. I’d love to see you there.
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And you can visit my website’s home page (www.bonnieleeblack.com) for more information about the books I mention here.