Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cooking Up A Coincidence?

Anyone who has read this blog with even a passing interest (though I suppose thanks to my long absences nobody qualifies), I am enchanted by serendipity. Today was one of those delightful days when paths cross, stars line up, and thoughts are given a strange nudge from an Unseen Elbow.

On December 27th I listed a very nice copy of a limited edition, self-published book that struck me as rather unique -- Bake Slow and Sure; Heirloom Recipes from the National Road Era. Though there was neither a commercial, nor an academic, publisher to lend credence, a quick perusal proved that it was mercifully not one of those embarrassingly awful books that only the author’s friends will buy (and then only under duress), but a credible piece of workmanship. Actually it’s sort of two books in one -- a biography/history of Jane Skiles Byers and her husband, John White Byers, the author's great-great grandparents, who handed down the generations a very old cookbook, and also a cookbook itself filled with recipes from the National Road Era of 1818-1851. It was in new condition and signed by the author at the Fort Pitt Museum in 2003.

Late this morning the phone rang and who was on the other end of the line but the author himself, Frank La Cava. All 2000 copies have been sold, he told me, and though he may get around to reprinting it, right now he’s too busy writing a second book. We chatted for awhile and I found him a most learned historian and altogether guileless and charming in his delight in authorship and its resultant benefit of “being fussed over.” I wasn’t entirely sure why he called, but it didn’t matter -- it was a lovely interlude.

We hung up and I went back to the task of listing books. Almost immediately the bell on the computer dinged and I checked my email to find an order on my own website for Bake Slow and Sure. At first I thought Frank had ordered a copy himself, as I regularly sell authors their own first editions. But no. This copy was ordered by a woman in Pennsylvania to be shipped to a man in Albequerque. How weird is THAT, I thought to myself as I wrote her a note asking if it was a gift and if she would like me to gift wrap it and enclose a card with her message. Almost immediately she phoned. Yes, please, she would like it wrapped for her twin brother’s birthday.

“Both my brother and I love to cook,” she confided. “I hadn’t a clue what to buy him and so I was just fooling around on Google and it led me to you and this book. We were talking at Thanksgiving and I told him that I have our mother’s cookbook and he was anxious to make some of the recipes we ate when we were kids. There’s something about food from the past, the way it looks and smells and tastes that makes you remember. It brings up so many stories.”

This was getting downright eerie. Back in the late 90’s I wrote a book about storytelling that Reader’s Digest actually excerpted. A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a local newspaper about storytelling and the elderly. I didn’t want to do it, but the reporter was an old friend, and I couldn’t say no. To my amazement it was as if no time had passed at all since I wrote the book. I found myself talking with such passion and interest I felt like I'd been plugged into the wall socket. Later I thought maybe it was one topic I could actually revisit. As the days went by the idea kept popping back up. First I thought I’d try to resell an updated version of the original manuscript. It is, after all, the sole book with my name on it that I don’t despise -- too much. But the more I thought about it the more I wanted to explore the relationship between cooking and storytelling, as well as the idea of food as story.

And now here was this woman stating my theme to me! Amazing. Absolutely amazing how a book I never heard of led a guy in Pennsylvania to call up to chat with me about history and cooking and a woman in Pennsylvania to order the same obscure book she’d never heard of just moments later to send to a man in Albequerque, which led me to ask if was a gift, which then prompted her to expound on cooking and storytelling! Coincidence? Nope. Not a chance. The Unseen Elbow strikes again!

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