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: Susan Hill Long

As many of you know, I’ve started 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!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Susan Hill Long. Sue is a dazzlingly talented writer and editor, the mother of two fabulous girls, an avid runner and cross-country skiier and hiker, a fellow bookworm, and also a fellow New Englander! I’m just crazy about her new book, a middle-grade novel called WHISTLE IN THE DARK. It’s already getting rave reviews, with The Christian Science Monitor calling it “wonderful” and “beautifully crafted historical fiction,” and Booklist noting that “as engaging historical fiction does best, this debut novel … vividly brings to light a period in time where values prove timeless.”

Whistle-jkt-legal

I have always been an avid fan of historical fiction. I just LOVE the way richly imagined books like Sue’s can transport me to another time and place and breathe life into history–in this case, a small Missouri lead mining town in the 1920s where 13-year-old Clem, who loves books and stories and words, has to go “down the deep dark” of the mine in order to help his family. There’s a great deal more to the story, of course, but I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to READ it!

I also love books whose characters walk right off the page and into your heart, and WHISTLE IN THE DARK is that kind of book. No wonder an excerpt from the novel won a prize even before it was published! It’s that stunning!

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

1. Tell us a bit about how you came to be a writer, and how you came to write WHISTLE IN THE DARK.

I was first published at age 5, on my dad’s silk-screen press, which he set up on the ping-pong table in the basement. A career was born!

Not really. I worked as an editor for a while, and began to write for a living after that. I found I much preferred being on the author side of the desk than the editor’s. Of course, to be a writer, a person must learn to edit, to revise.

Susan Hill Long

2. I love Clem! He is just such a REAL boy.  And Grampy, and Old Saw, and Lindy–all of them–they’re just so solid and real. As a writer, how do you develop characters?

Thank you, Heather! I’m so glad you love Clem and his family, friends, and foils. I love them, too, and still think about them sometimes. If they seem real to you, that must be why. (I once heard Sara Pennypacker say she wouldn’t begin writing a book till she would take a bullet for her character.)

3. The book was inspired by a historic event. Can you tell us about that, and also about your research?  What were some of the most interesting things you discovered in the process?

The Great Tri-State Tornado was indeed a real event. It happened in 1925. I read two excellent books in particular about the storm, and also corresponded with a fellow who was kind enough to share his own family’s personal story from that terrible day. Most interesting to me was the way people cope with catastrophe, how they move on, because they must. People tend toward what’s good; they make some good come from bad.

4. Have you ever been down in a mine or in a cave? If you have, how did that experience inform your descriptions here, which make the reader feel like they’re standing side by side with Clem. If you haven’t, is it something you’d like to do?

I have been in a cave, and I don’t even want to talk about it!

5. An excerpt from this book won the Katherine Paterson Prize from Hunger Mountain.  Tell us about that honor, and how it made a difference.

Oh, it certainly was an honor, Heather. When I got the news, I ran down the stairs and out the door and down the sidewalk. I hardly knew what to do with my happiness and surprise. The difference the Katherine Paterson Prize made was both measurable — it encouraged me to complete the manuscript, an agent contacted me through Hunger Mountain, and eventually a book was bound — and immeasurable — the confidence it gave me to keep going, the possession of a secret message I could whisper to myself whenever I needed it. (Psst. Remember that time Katherine Paterson thought your writing was pretty good? Squee!)

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

When I was a child, I loved all books by Joan AikenBlack Hearts in Battersea, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — just typing the titles gives me chills! I read The Chronicles of Narnia countless times, and I had two old George MacDonald books that had belonged to my grandfather — The Princess and Curdie and The Princess and the Goblins. Magical.

When I learned that Elizabeth George Speare had died, I burst into tears. I’m not sure why, but I think I felt such a personal connection to her books, and my memory of reading them is still so strong — I lived in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut, till I was 9 years old, and so The Witch of Blackbird Pond was “my” book, because it was set right there in my own town. I loved Kit. I loved my own outrage, reading about Kit’s plight. (She’s not a witch, you’re the witch, you old Goodwife Cruff!)  I’m going to go and read it again right after I finish typing here.

7. Do you have any writing rituals? 

I go for a run to start the day, and when I sit down at my desk I glance at this message: “keep calm and carry on,” which happens to be printed on a very large eraser — important reminder for a writer.

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

I’m working on another novel for middle-grade readers. All I can tell you for now is that I love my characters.

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

To read an earlier In the Spotlight interview with Chris Kurtz, click here.