Friday, July 21, 2023

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Susan Stinson, Author of Spider in a Tree


Shad, Chocolate, and Gingerbread: Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson

It’s the summer of 1741. The Rev. Mr. Jonathan Edwards, a fourth-generation English settler, calls Leah, a woman kidnapped from Africa and currently enslaved in his household, into his study. Leah comes in carrying a cup of chocolate and a piece of gingerbread.

They are in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I live now. This is a scene from my novel, Spider in a Tree. Jonathan is recently back from preaching his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in Connecticut. Leah, who has just been preparing a barrel of shad to be preserved for the winter, is soon to be married to Saul, a man enslaved in the household.

Jonathan has been riding his horse in the woods. As he rode, he pinned notes to his clothes with ideas about a treatise he is working on. He’s writing a defense of slavery in support of another minister, whose congregation has accused him of sin for being a slave-owner. Jonathan’s wife Sarah helps him unpin the notes before he calls for Leah, but slavery is not only being practiced in his home, as it is every day, it’s on his mind.

In Connecticut, people experiencing a religious revival fainted and called out to God in fear for their souls while Jonathan was preaching. This moment back home in Northampton is, like a sermon, also a ritual. Jonathan wants to give Leah counsel and advice before her marriage. Leah, who must put the needs of Jonathan and his family before her own every day, finds this invasive and painful. There is very little room for any of her feelings to be expressed, but she seizes this sliver of an opening to say something true: that she wishes her mother could be with her. The historical Jonathan Edwards wrote rough notes in support of slavery, but he included a critique of the trade itself. He had participated in this trade, so perhaps he had been influenced by the enslaved people who lived with him to think slightly differently about it. In this scene, I am trying to imagine and embody one way that might have happened.

Leah is cleaning shad because this fish, which live most of their lives in the sea, swim up what Native people from the valley would have called the Kwinitekw and settlers the Connecticut River in the spring to spawn. This might be a little late for Leah’s barrel of shad, but the seasons are variable, and people traded up and down the river. I can imagine various circumstances by which she might end up with a barrel of live fish in July instead of June.

Leah brings Jonathan chocolate because he regularly ordered it from Boston. A quick search on the digital archive Jonathan Edwards Online finds references in his account books and letters. Chocolate was part of the Caribbean trade that was based on the labor of enslaved people. In colonial port towns, people milled it into balls or cakes. In a family kitchen, these were shaved into hot water in a chocolate pot, spiced, then whipped so that the shavings melted and there was a foam.

Jonathan’s daughter Jerusha makes Leah gingerbread because she is trying to be kind. She might have made spice bread, but she knows Leah doesn’t like allspice. Jerusha doesn’t know why that is. The slave ship that Leah was trapped on picked up a load of allspice in the Caribbean. The smell reminds of her of horrors that traumatized her deeply and left her far from home, enslaved. Making Leah gingerbread on the eve of her wedding is kind, but that kindness is warped by the fact that she is enslaved, enmeshed in a hierarchy that Jonathan is both practicing and defending. Leah has been brought here as commodity, like chocolate and allspice. Concern by her enslavers for her happiness or for her soul Is rotted at the root until that blight is addressed. She knows this and struggles to make her life within these constraints. Jonathan, who has a reputation of being uninterested in food, insists she eat the gingerbread. The story doesn’t say whether she does or not, but the spice and sweetness she is being offered are far from a full, free meal.

Thanks for stopping by to share your food for thought, Susan!

You can find Susan here:

Twitter @SusanStinson

Books on Amazon

Spider in a Tree: 

Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: Remapping a New History of King Philip’s War, about the Kwinitekw and the valley in 1675, sixty-six years before this scene:

Works of Jonathan Edwards Online. Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. 

Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale: Jonathan Edwards and Slavery

Historic Deerfield: Baby It’s Cold Outside: a sweet historic of chocolate in New England.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Robert McKean, Author of Mending What Is Broken

Fattening the Birds

The fragrance of freshly milled wheat berries has a depth and liveliness unlike anything else, flowery, sweet, beery, faintly green and earthy. As the grain shatters beneath the grating stones and the new flour empties from the mill, an aromatic dust cloud wafts up speaking of a symbiotic relationship between human and grain that reaches back thousands of years. Peter Sanguedolce, who eats too much because he loves food too much, who eats too much to escape the sorrows that engulf him, who eats too much simply to eat too much, finds himself in Mending What Is Broken bewitched by the complicated, painstaking process of baking whole grain sourdough bread: nursing the starter into life, invigorating the preferment over several days, mixing flour and water and waiting through the autolyse period for the flour to hydrate, incorporating the flour and preferment and performing a series of stretches and folds to tease out the gluten. Then hours of bulk fermentation and shaping—Peter mimics the experts’ floury hands in the photographs in the numerous bread-baking texts he’s bought—and the long overnight snooze in the rattan baskets in the refrigerator to encourage the flavors to deepen and complexify, before the morning’s bake at five hundred degrees—all the while praying to Fornax, goddess of the oven, that his doughs will rise burnished and crusty and make proper loaves, that is, loaves in the shape of parsons’ hats. 

Which they sometimes do, and sometimes perversely do not do.

And so there’s trouble. There’s always trouble. As Western Pennsylvania’s winter gales cushion Peter’s ramshackle Tudor home in silencing ermine stoles of snow, he broods over his sourdough cultures like a nervous parent at a child’s recital. It’s the temperature in his old kitchen, he hypothesizes. One minute it’s too cold in here, the next too hot. From Amazon he orders a proofing box, an expensive contraption that sits on the counter and furnishes a small heated parlor like a diorama he can peer into in which his finicky wild yeast and lactobacilli might be coddled at any temperature they desire. Good idea, poor design. The proofing box won’t maintain a dependable temperature, either. He returns to Savage’s Hardware and Sporting Goods, where the joke among the hardware boys is that Peter’s bread is running him about fifty bucks a loaf, to purchase a roll of aluminum insulation wrap. The quilted wrap creates a circular stockade around the proofing box some two feet in height and three in diameter, the whole affair resembling, he raises his eyebrows uneasily regarding it, a kitchen-sized nuclear reactor. 

He’s suffered two failed marriages, lost his father’s clay sewer pipe business in an economic downturn, and is now threatened with the complete forfeiture of his shared custody rights to the ten-year-old daughter he cherishes. In the meantime, he bakes bread, let’s say he manufactures bread, way too much. But when you’re sublimating, how much is too much? He eats what he can, he eats more than he can, and, after dropping off surplus loaves at the rescue mission in town, he takes to fattening the birds in his backyard, the chattering sparrows and the cardinals that do not migrate and the mourning dove couple, who appear to have taken a cue from their feathered friends and no longer put up with the hassle of seasonal relocation. A Sunday morning in frigid January, as Peter waits out the tedious hours before he’s permitted to visit with his daughter in a supervised setting, he tears apart a loaf warm from the oven and heads outdoors. Spotting the large man maundering into his backyard in trench coat over pajamas, the bird nations and especially the silky, long-necked doves who lift in a whistle of wings from their perches, join him, burbling contentedly, for breakfast. 

I have been baking whole grain sourdough bread for fifteen years. I seldom write from life, but will, on occasion, make loan of a personal item to a character, if the character shows that he or she can make good use of it. I’ve tasted Peter Sanguedolce’s bread. He does.

Thanks for sharing your food for thought, Robert!

You can find Robert here:

Twitter @mckean_rob

Facebook Fan Page

Books on Amazon

Populating Robert McKean’s novels and stories are some five hundred characters, steelworkers and bankers, doctors and jewelers, teachers and librarians, lawyers and yardage clerks, salesmen and ballet instructors—all residents of Ganaego, a small mill town in Western Pennsylvania. His new novel, Mending What Is Broken, is being published in August by Livingston Press. McKean’s short story collection I'll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town was awarded first-prize in the Tartts First Fiction competition (Livingston Press). His novel The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts was awarded first-prize in the Methodist University Longleaf Press Novel Contest. The novel was also named a Finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. Recipient of a Massachusetts Artist’s Grant for his fiction, McKean has had six stories nominated for Pushcart Prizes and one story for Best of the Net. He has published extensively in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Armchair/Shotgun, Kestrel, Crack the Spine, and Border Crossing. For additional information about McKean and his Ganaego Project, please see his author’s website: