This author of the month feature is among the most fun activities I do in my writing life. Every interview yields new information about the writing life and expands my horizons to include writers of every genre. This month is no exception. I’m so pleased to welcome September’s authors, sisters Mary Newman and Constance Kirker, who have written books about food and the cultural history behind its use. These amazing food gurus have serious academic credentials, a passion for travel and adventure, and a deep understanding of how food and culture interact. Ever wondered about coconut? Mangos? Cherries? Settle back as Mary and Connie take us on their journey into the nature of these delicious foods.
Janet Irvin: Welcome to From the Write Side, Mary and Connie. I suppose my first question is why foods? How did you come to this area of expertise?
Connie Kirker: The happy experience of our working on books together came about, as is the case of many turning points in our lives, through happenstance. On leave from Penn State University, I happened to be living in Singapore where my husband, Tom, was working as a banker. The CIA, the Culinary Institute of America, was opening its first overseas campus in Singapore and I was offered the opportunity to teach a course on cultural history for their chefs in training. An art historian by training, my expertise is in Asian and African art history and I have had opportunities to teach comparative cultures on Semester-at-sea, but teaching chefs, with an emphasis on food culture was a new challenge.
Mary Newman: When I was awarded a Fulbright semester at a university in Thailand, I came to the realization I had to become more adventurous in my culinary tastes. American mac and cheese, was probably not going to be available in Thailand. I set out to become a foodie by being willing to try different foods and learn about how those foods are prepared. That experience encouraged me to be a foodie in the many other countries we traveled through as we were writing our book.
JEI: Glad you clarified the CIA reference! 🙂 What is it like to co-write a book, especially with your sister?
CK and MN: While we haven’t lived nearby or worked together over our 70 some years, we have always gotten along well, probably because we are so different. Mary leaning to the sciences, Connie to the arts. We can credit our parents, particularly our mother, for our being open to exploring new ideas and giving something new and challenging a try.
We bring very different skills and expertise to the projects and are able to “divide and conquer” without much conflict. Mary loves the actual cooking, Connie is the food photographer.”
JEI: What are the challenges to writing with another person? The advantages?
CK and MN: Connie lives in Philadelphia, Mary in Cincinnati, so our first challenge is the technology, as is probably true of many in our “demographic”. We both enjoy the process of discovery and the sharing of some new factoid about our latest topic. One of the best parts of our collaboration has been the opportunity to travel worldwide, our food series having a global emphasis. For example, while researching Edible Flowers, we visited markets in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. To learn about cherries, we searched out festivals in Portugal, France, Italy, Romania, Belarus, and Ukraine. For our book about coconuts, we visited the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Sadly, covid put a crimp in our travels.
JEI: How did you choose the subjects- flowers, coconut, cherry- for each of your books? Was it difficult to find a publisher for your work?
CK and MN: Again, happenstance. Our initial project, writing a book about how to become foodies, The Foodie Sister’s Merit Badge Handbook (for which we are still hoping to find a publisher!) is the heart and soul of our collaboration. The topic of specific foods and their cultural history does not at first seem to relate but we have found that travel, activities like cooking classes, along with the research itself can easily be steps to foodie-hood.
Invited to submit a topic for the Global Edible series by editor Andrew Smith, in a newsletter of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, we simply chose a food that was interesting to us, as eaters, researchers, and gardeners. Our first book, Edible Flowers, was published in 2016. The publisher, Reaktion, subsequently invited us to write Cherry in 2021 and Coconut in 2022.
JEI: You have traveled widely to research and experience your subjects. Which is your favorite place to visit?
CK: It’s really hard to beat Paris for any kind of food experience but I have wonderful memories of returning many times to Ubud, Bali to take cooking classes with Pusba.
MN: For me, I really enjoy traveling with the intention of meeting people from different cultures and sharing experiences with them. For example, when we were researching Cherry, one of the countries we visited was Romania, and we made wonderful connections with the people of a small village in Transylvania that has ties to my church here in Cincinnati. The women of the village showed us how to make cherry soup and we had a communal meal with them, and we planted a cherry tree at the local parsonage. So, we came to Romania looking for cherries and discovered new friends.
JEI: Mary, you have broad experience as a foodie and have done significant volunteer work with Meals on Wheels and community soup kitchens. How have these experiences informed your writing?
MN: Just as I enjoy connecting with people in the countries I visit, I also like interacting with the different cultures here in our own country. As an example, I prepared several African dishes for a Martin Luther King Day celebration and for students and faculty at a primarily African American high school. Connie and I worked with recent African immigrants to cook a meal together as a way of helping them learn English. We taught them English, they taught us how to prepare some coconut dishes.
JEI: For those readers who are unfamiliar with the term, can you explain molecular gastronomy?
MN: Molecular gastronomy is somewhat the opposite of the fresh farm-to-table movement. It focuses on the physical and chemical properties of the food, sometimes deconstructing it to create new, unique foods and presentations.
JEI: And the edible flowers- farm-to-table movement?
CK: The appearance of edible flowers as a garnish on your plate conveys a sense of freshness – the essence of the farm-to-table movement.
JEI: How different is the non-fiction writing you do from academic or fiction writing?
CK and MN: While we are writing non-fiction, the aspect of storytelling is important for the general audience for our books. For Connie, researching our books leads to interesting academic writing and presentations for academic conferences. Titles for recent conferences in Bilbao, Spain, and Paris were: “The Aesthetic and Sensory Pleasures of Consumption in Historical and Cultural Contexts: The Messy Mango” and “Evolving Mango Metaphor in Diaspora Literature: Maintaining Immigrant Identity Through Foodways.”
JEI: What topic is next on your food list?
CK and MN: We are working on a volume in the Edible Global series on the cultural history of the mango, which is well underway, due to the publisher in December.
But we are always germinating new ideas. We would like to revisit The Foodie Sister’s Merit Badge Handbook– it deserves a publisher and is not really a fit for Reaktion.
We are also considering topics that make use of all the research we have done, including a book about libations, pouring with a purpose. The topic of food gifting both personal, such as hostess gifts or food for a funeral, ritual food as gifts to the gods, and food diplomacy, has potential. An ongoing research topic is the connection between sweets/candy and religion. Then again, we could write about pears.
JEI: I hope you invite me to one of your cooking sessions! Now, for a small departure from the writing life, what are you reading these days?
CK and MN: We are both reading Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee – highly recommend it for practical positive thinking.
Mary will be traveling to the hospital for a hip replacement, so, sadly, no exotic travel together for a while. With COVID seeming to be waning, Connie will resume cruise ship lecturing with a series on the Mediterranean islands in the fall and a voyage from Singapore all the way to Athens next spring.
For more about the Edible Global books and more about the authors, check out www.maryanewman.com