Food and narrative combine at The Spiral Bookcase

On Monday night, the Spiral Bookcase bookstore in Manayunk was a haven for celebrating food, family, and the stories that bring us together. Readings from novels “The Kitchen Daughter” by Jael McHenry and “The Baker’s Daughter” by Sarah McCoy were paired with cupcakes from Sweet Elizabeth’s Cakes, Philly soft pretzels, and Spiral Bookcase owner Ann Tetreault’s homemade poppyseed bread.

Author Sarah McCoy, who lives in El Paso, Texas, got the inspiration for “The Baker’s Daughter” from a visit to a farmer’s market back in 2007. She met a German woman selling baked goods who had ended up in Texas by marrying an American soldier. From that meeting the seed of a character named “Elsie” was born.  McCoy said that character never left her, and she immediately started “smelling and tasting her”, and gathering inspiration for recipes that Elsie would make in the story, like Bavarian pastries.

Jael McHenry used her love of feeding people as an impetus to write her novel. “The Kitchen Daughter” takes place in the Philadelphia neighborhood where the author once lived.  McHenry’s explained, “I experience food as a way to connect to people, to feed others. I started thinking, what if I had a character that never connected to others through food?”

The author eventually developed the concept of a main character with Asperger’s syndrome who can’t make connections with people and uses food and old family recipes to comfort herself.  “My love of food lives in these pages”, McHenry said.

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Themes of how food connects people were discussed throughout the night. Robin Black, a local author, organized the reading. Black grew up with a paraplegic grandmother who sent her into the kitchen with her recipes. “So much about family, our own, and the large family of community, is about nurturing through food”, she said as she introduced the authors.

Marta Rose, a local writer and baker who attended the reading, agreed with the idea of using food as a way to push forward narrative. “Food is woven through all of our lives and an important part of all major faiths, so it just makes sense to use it as a narrative.”

As the night ended, and the plates of poppyseed bread and other treats slowly emptied, folks lingered just a little more, talking about recipes they wanted to try and their own family history.

Sharing recipes – Ann Tetreault’s family poppyseed bread

The recipe for poppyseed bread connects Tetreault to her family’s roots and food traditions. “This recipe is from my great-grandmother (and possibly began many generations before her) who moved from Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) to the states when she was 18. I grew up enjoying this bread as well as other Slovak goodies, at her house and at my grandmother’s house during holidays and special gatherings.”

Tetreault began learning how to make the bread in her grandmother’s kitchen about seven years ago. ” She taught me without a recipe, and had me learn the right method to knead – “Don’t be afraid of it!” and to have patience while waiting for the glorious doughy mounds to slowly rise. We even used the same bowl and rolling pin that my great-grandmother had used when making the bread decades before.”

Tetreault explained that the time spent learning the recipe in her grandmother’s kitchen was a ‘type of sacred space”.

Used with permission.

6 cups flour

2 packages yeast

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2lb butter – two sticks

3 eggs

1/2 milk

1/2 pint sour cream

3 cans poppy seed filing (Tetreault uses Solo brand) – 1 can per loaf

Mix flour, butter, sugar and salt. Add yeast to warmed sour cream and stir, add to mix. Add 1/2 cup of warmed milk,1 tbls sugar, eggs. Knead until stretchy and fully combined.

Divide into three parts. Let rise until double in bulk (appx 2 hrs). Place dough in bowls and cover with tea towels.

Take one part and knead until stretchy. Roll out until about 1/4 inch thick, into a large oval. Brush on poppy seed filling, right up to the edge. Roll up, tuck ends underneath, and let rise for another hour.

Brush top with milk prior to baking. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown. Slice and enjoy!

The loaves can be frozen for quite a while too. Remove from freezer and let thaw about 10 – 14 hours.

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