SOUP NIGHT

Do I have a fun book and story to share with you today!

It all started about a year ago, when the four walls began closing in. People! I thought. I need people!

Cue Barbra Streisand.

Writing is a solitary occupation, and I spend my days largely by myself, four-legged friends notwithstanding. Much as I love my cozy office, increasingly I found myself missing the cameraderie of a “normal” work environment, and the company of other people.

Not one to mope, I decided to do something about it. And so I got in touch with a few writer friends, knowing they were in the same boat, and asked if they’d like to come over once a month and play. I’d provide the soup, they could all bring sides. We’d spend the morning writing, then relax and visit over lunch.

As quickly as that, Soup & Solidarity was born.

It was a huge hit, if I say so myself. My house is small, with a limited number of corners for everyone to curl up in and work, and a table that seats six. Half a dozen of us makes for an intimate, friendly group, prone to linger over lunch as we swap tips, talk shop, catch up on each other’s books and families and yes, sometimes even kvetch about our jobs.

It also gives me a chance to let my inner Martha Stewart out. Once a month, my house is spotless. Once a month, I have an excuse to show off my mother’s pink china and set a pretty table. And once a month, I get to whip up a pot of something warm and nourishing.

(OK, I want to make it clear that I really do clean my house and cook for my family more than once a month, but you get the idea.)

Here’s where things get even more interesting. Coincidentally (was there something in the water last year?), I got an email from my friend Maggie Stuckey.

Maggie Stuckey
Maggie Stuckey

Here’s Maggie. Isn’t she adorable?  She has the best smile!

Maggie sent an email letting me know that she was working on a cookbook about soup, and specifically soup groups. Did I know of any?

Did I ever!

I emailed her back right away to tell her about Soup & Solidarity. And that is how we ended up featured in Maggie’s new hot-off-the-press cookbook, SOUP NIGHT!

SOUP NIGHT

I can’t rave about this cookbook enough. Seriously, you need to go out and buy it right now. (In fact, you can click here to do just that.) It’s that fabulous! The best thing about the book is that it’s not just a collection of wonderful recipes, it’s a collection of wonderful stories, including mine.

I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, let’s talk about soup. I love soup. The simplicity of it, the earthiness of it, the purity of it. There’s something almost magical about soup, isn’t there? Soup brings people together. It speaks of hearth and home. Soup is humble; it doesn’t put on airs. You don’t need to dress up to eat soup.

What could be better than soup? Especially on a frosty night…

Canadian Beef Stew

This is one of my family’s favorite soups (and yes, the recipe is in SOUP NIGHT – and I’m sharing it with you below). The leaves on the trees can turn color and blow away, the nights can grow frosty and cold, but fall doesn’t officially kick off at the Frederick house until I’ve made my first batch of Nana Mac’s Canadian Beef Stew.

My grandmother, Eva MacDougall (aka “Nana Mac”) was from Nova Scotia. I have no idea how long this recipe has been in the family, but she taught my mother how to make it, and my mother taught me.

My mother told me the story that goes with this stew, too. It’s a wonderful story, about a young woman from Canada who boards a train in Halifax one day many years ago, bound for a job in the United States. The young woman doesn’t know a soul where she’s going. It’s a big adventure, but a scary one, too. As she says a tearful goodbye to her parents, her mother presses something into her hands–a little piece of home to take with her.

The young woman was my mother, of course. What did my grandmother give her? A simple lunch: a thermos filled with homemade beef stew, some bread-and-butter sandwiches made with homemade Nova Scotia oatmeal bread, and a slice of homemade apple pie. A little piece of home indeed.

The story gets better. My mother was on her way to a job as a private duty nurse in Connecticut. My father, who was in the army, had worked as an orderly in a hospital where he cared for her patient. He came to Connecticut to visit him one day. When my mother opened the front door, my father took one look at her and fell head-over-heels in love. Within a month, they were engaged.

Mom & Dad wedding

Who says soup isn’t magical?

And once a month, it sprinkles some of its magic over my writer friends and me.

Jane & Trudy

We were a smaller group than usual this week at Soup & Solidarity. That’s Jane Kurtz on the left, author of many wonderful books for young readers, including her brand-new novel ANNA WAS HERE (click here to read a rave review in The New York Times). She’ll be featured soon in one of my “In the Spotlight” blog posts. So will Trudy Ludwig, who’s on the right. Trudy’s a nationally-known expert on bullying and social justice (she’s even been on the Today show alongside Big Bird, how cool is that?!), and her latest picture book THE INVISIBLE BOY was just named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Huzzah!

Not able to join us this time around: Susan Hill Long, who was recently featured in one of my “In the Spotlight” blog posts (click here to read it), and whose new novel WHISTLE IN THE DARK was just named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2013; Susan Fletcher, whose fabulous FALCON IN THE GLASS will be featured soon in an upcoming “In the Spotlight”; and Chris Kurtz, who was also the subject of an “In the Spotlight” blog post (click here to read it), and whose hilariously wonderful THE ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG garnered raves and multiple starred reviews.

I have lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season, including these awesome friends!

Happy Thanksgiving to each one of you — now go eat some soup!

NANA MAC’S CANADIAN BEEF STEW

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into

2-inch cubes

2–3 cups water

1 teaspoon summer savory

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 pound fresh button mushrooms, stems removed, cleaned, and cut in half

4-5 medium onions, chopped into large dice

10–12 good-size carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

4–6 potatoes, peeled and chopped into large chunks

2-3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices

1 medium turnip, peeled and chopped into large chunks

1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat; add the meat and sear on all sides. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to work in batches. Don’t crowd the meat; if you do, it will steam rather than sear. Each batch will take about 5 minutes to develop a good sear.

2. Add water to cover and the summer savory; season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the mushrooms until tender, about 8 minutes.

4. Add the mushrooms, onions, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and turnip to the soup pot. Cover with water again and simmer for several hours (or all day in the slow cooker), until the meat is fork-tender.

Enjoy!

In the Spotlight: Chris Kurtz

Today I’m starting a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful, stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

A born storyteller, Chris Kurtz is also a musician and a third grade teacher (lucky third graders, is all I can say). He’s stepping into the spotlight today to tell us about his book THE ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG.  It has a wee subtitle, too — A NOVEL OF SNOW AND COURAGE — which I just adore.  In fact, I adore everything about this book. It’s exactly what I would have wanted to read when I was in elementary school, or have read to me when I was a bit younger. A funny, heart-warming adventure starring a plucky pig named Flora, who dreams of leaving the farmyard behind and becoming a sled pig in Antarctica! Now I ask you, what’s not to love about that?

ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG
I bought multiple copies. One for me, one for my wee niece, and one to have on hand to give as a spontaneous present. Because there’s nothing better than being able to give a spontaneous present, right?

Here’s what some reviewers had to say about the story.  First, from Kirkus:  “Out of the way, Wilbur and Babe: Your cousin Flora has ‘adventurous hooves’!” Booklist notes: “There’s humor as well as heart, grit as well as tenderness in the telling of this Antarctic adventure tale.” Horn Book calls it “a rollicking story” and gave it a star.  I call it BRILLIANT, and give it my highest recommendation.

Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Chris, and ask him about writing, his book, and what’s next.

1.  Tell us a bit about how you came to be a writer, and how you came to write “The Adventures of a South Pole Pig.”

I’m a writer because my sister encouraged me.  [Editor’s note — Chris’s sister is Jane Kurtz, who is also a friend of mine, and who I also hope will be In the Spotlight soon.] She said she thought I was good at telling stories in my letters home while I was living in another country.  My daughter has a cat that is completely white and pretty overweight.  That cat made me think about an animal that might live in the South Pole and have an adventure, and I think pigs are cute.  But in the end I put in a couple of cats in my story, too.

Chris with Kalino the cat
Chris with Kalino the cat

2.  Flora is SUCH an engaging character — I love her spunk. Did she come to you in a flash, or gradually?  I’d love to hear a bit about how you developed her character.

I came upon Flora’s character by thinking about myself.  I’ve made lots and lots of mistakes in my life and I’ve done a lot of dumb things because I thought I was smarter than I really was. So I made Flora get into the same kind of trouble as me.

3.  Are there particular writers who have inspired or influenced you?  Favorite books?

I love learning about other authors.  My favorite author is Kate DiCamillo.  But I was a big reader when I was a kid and I loved dog stories and survival stories.  I still love those kinds of stories. My favorite book when I was a kid was called DESERT DOG by Jim Kjelgaard.  I didn’t know how to pronounce his name until I was an adult.  It’s pronounced keel-guard.

4.  How does teaching influence your writing — or does it? Is there cross-pollination between the two?

I teach writing in a real way.  I know that writers get stuck.  I know that writers have to have no one talking to them when they are trying to write.  I know that writers need thinking time.  And I know that writers need lots and lots and LOTS of encouragement.  So these are some of the things I make sure to give my third grade students.

5.  What can we look forward to next from you?

I’m working on another animal book.  I really like my main character and I hope that my editor likes him too so that I get to have another book out there.  But I know that there are no promises and no sure things in the world of books.

6.  If you were to travel to the South Pole, what one item would you absolutely positively not leave home without?

If I traveled to the South Pole I would be sure to take really, really warm boots.  I hate having cold feet.  But please don’t think that I would ONLY take my boots.  I wouldn’t want arrive in the South Pole without my pants!

Thanks so much, Chris, for visiting with us today.  And for the laugh! Now everybody go visit his website for more fun facts (click here), then buy his book and READ IT!