coverage


A book cover is a welcome mat. Cover art compels people to enter.

Once we had my book title, I knew exactly what I wanted on the cover. I arrived at the photo shoot with the necessary props: a bright blue piece of heavy paper for a backdrop and a miniature table set made of bamboo.

Lights! Camera! Action!

We spent the whole morning positioning the stools and decorating the table with impossibly small Japanese replicas of various foodstuffs. At one point the photographer gingerly placed items with tweezers, as if playing Operation. The photos were perfect. I breathed a happy sigh.

A few weeks later, I received the first round of covers from Dan Shafer, the graphic designer.

old-version-2

 

old-version-3

 

old-version-1

 

I dutifully provided feedback on each: yes to more of this, no to this, how about this?

Dan continued working his magic, but I something was missing.  I was seeking that click! of happy recognition when you lay your eyes on the book cover you want to hold in your hands.

old-version-4

 

old-version-5

Dan kept at it.

old-version-7

We were honing in but weren’t quite there.

Spring was shifting fast to summer, and the need for a finalized book cover was immediate. A placeholder was on certain online sites out of necessity. Bruce Rutledge, my publisher, was sharing advanced digital copies. In the final throes of the cover design conversation I was having with Dan, Bruce received a fateful email from a contact at Publisher’s Weekly who was enthusiastic about the book, but not the cover.

Bruce, Dan, and I convened on email. Bruce suggested a few tweaks based on the feedback. Dan agreed and offered to try some new ideas.

No more than 48 hours later, Dan had an email in my inbox. The first two attachments tweaked my original vision yet still did not sing. I clicked the final attachment and heard the aria I awaited.

My back bolted straight and I leaned into the screen.

That’s it!

We fiddled a bit more on details and there it was.

mmatbt-cover

 

As soon as Dan was free from my vision, he had the creative space to contribute his own. That’s lesson that I’ll apply to any number of situations in the future: don’t hold too tight to an idea or you might miss the best one.

photo shoot

Photo By Josh Samson (samsonimages.com)
Photo By Josh Samson (samsonimages.com)

One rainy January day Dan Shafer and I collaborated on a photo shoot with photographer Josh Samson. I requested that the shoot capture a cover photo, as well as document letters, slides, and ephemera for Dan to add to the visual mix of the book. It was a day of gratitude for my pack rat sensibilities. Dan would add these new images to his growing collection of my sketchbooks and personal photos I’d already provided.

Josh’s home studio linked his camera to his laptop, so we could immediately see each image in greater detail. After staging my cover shot, we moved through my life one item at a time: old passports, party favors (photographed above), and a stiff section of Wisconsin birch bark were put under the lights. Dan frontloaded the process so that the most difficult shots were tackled first, with the easiest ones left for the end of the day.

Outside of a lunch break, we worked steadily. Dan and I arranged the items; Josh manipulated his camera and the lighting. Josh took multiple shots of each item until we all agreed we had a winner. Josh’s biggest coup was capturing slides illuminated through a light box he’d devised at my request. This required three exposures that he would later overlay in Photoshop. Huzzah!

I walked away that day with a new batch of memories in digital form and a cover. These visuals made the book feel more tangible and I was motivated for the homestretch of final drafts and layout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

drafts

Writing Room (Photo by A.V. Crofts)
Writing Room (Photo by A.V. Crofts)

I never imagined writing a book would be easy. I’ve written enough to know the agony (and utility) of multiple drafts. I’ve practiced shutting out the world so I could snatch words from my head and stick them to the page.

But it’s work! Every sentence. Every page.

The first draft delivered to Chin Music Press in September 2014 was, in hindsight, just a clearing of my throat. A food writer friend said as much after reading it. While she enjoyed my writing, she felt I only told half of the story and danced around the central character of each essay: me.

The challenge became not just writing about myself, but writing about myself honestly. Who was I really at 21? 37? 13? I wanted my essays to reflect who I was at those ages, not who I was when writing them.

My second and expanded draft landed in the publisher’s inbox in February 2015. By this point, Chin Music had assigned me an editor, Allie Draper, and her careful comments on the first draft had pushed me to be more descriptive and specific.

More revisions followed, and I turned a third draft around in November 2015.

By this time, the book was beginning to gel: 21 essays, ranging from my childhood to the current year. The manuscript had them unfold chronologically. We also lifted a title from one of the essays from China: “Meet Me at the Bamboo Table.” Things were slowly falling into place.

After submitting a fourth draft in January 2016, I met with Bruce and Allie to discuss the current state of the manuscript. We were fixed on a September 2016 publication date. Working backwards, we would need the cover design early 2016 and a final final final draft to Chin Music by early summer. These deadlines were almost a year away from the meeting and already weighing heavy on my mind.

It seemed like forever and also a blink. I was now well aware how long drafts and revisions took. Each draft was pendulum between personal narrative and the food experience. One more course correction was in order.

I produced a fifth draft in April 2016. We were so close. A few essays still needed tweaks, but I could sense an end in sight.

Soon, it arrived. I turned in my last draft May 2016. I was done! For now.

The next step? The files were shared with Dan, the graphic designer, who would start the process of laying out the book page by page.

I caught my breath and waited eagerly for the galley.

five minutes or five hours

(Photo by A.V. Crofts)
(Photo by A.V. Crofts)

I sat down to lunch with Bruce Rutledge and Chelsey Slattum not daring to hope that Chin Music Press wanted me to write a book. But they did. The combination of travel, food, and photographs appealed to them, as did the voice of my blog. Bruce encouraged me to use the blog as a springboard, creating new material in the same vein.

I left the lunch giddy and in disbelief. I told hardly a soul about the possibility for fear of jinxing the whole thing.

One month later, I met with them again this time with Dan Shafer added to the mix. Dan’s a graphic designer and instructor at Cornish College of the Arts who works closely with Chin Music on their book covers and layouts. This meeting built my excitement even more, as it was now clear just how seriously Chin Music took both the content and book aesthetics. We traded ideas about themes and homed in on a collection of essays ranging in length as well as locations from around the world. Conversational. Educational. Visual.

Dan captured the essence at this meeting: “It should be a book you can pick up for five minutes or five hours.”

We laid out a plan moving forward that sounded reasonable. I would start uploading photos to a Dropbox account for Dan to sift through and I would email Bruce a first draft at the end of my Maine summer.

Three whole months! No problem. How hard could it be to meet that deadline?

 

 

 

reciprocity

A Commonplace Book of Pie (Photo: www.katelebo.com)
A Commonplace Book of Pie (Photo: www.katelebo.com)

Two years after my piece ran in Gastronomica, a friend introduced me to Kate Lebo via the letterpress zine A Commonplace Book of Pie. Kate Lebo was an MFA student at the University of Washington where I worked so I looked her up in the directory and invited her to coffee.

That first coffee turned into lunches a couple times a year, often at various haunts on University Way. We talked about food, writing, and, of course, pie. I introduced her to the editor of Gastronomica, and they later published her poem “Rhubarb.” I cheered her over kabobs when Chin Music Press offered her a contract to expand her zine into a book. It was released to the world in October 2013.

Kate toured heavily to promote the hardcover A Commonplace Book of Pie. She invited me to co-host an event at the University of Washington bookstore that would primarily be a conversation like the many we shared since meeting.

The evening was terrific fun. Our easy banter mixed well with a full house. Students from Kate’s brought pies they baked for attendees to sample while waiting to have their book signed. Chelsey Slattum, Kate’s publicist, even slipped me a business card for Chin Music Press publisher Bruce Rutledge.

It sat on my desk for four months.

Chelsey reached out in April. Bruce wanted to meet. He had been in the audience that night and later read my blog which, by that time, now had more than 50 entries.

Lunch was scheduled for May 6, 2014 at the Banana Leaf Café, blocks away from Kate’s event that started it all

Thanks, Kate.

 

 

little did i know

Sudanese street food in Khartoum. (Photo by A.V. Crofts)
Street food in Khartoum, Sudan. (Photo by A.V. Crofts)

Six years ago I had a piece about street food in Khartoum, Sudan published in the 10th anniversary issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. A year before it ran, I started a food blog because I wanted a digital footprint out in the world that I could reference and also let people know where to connect with me.

I bought the domain name Pepper For The Beast, having run across the phrase at Seattle Art Museum exhibit that featured folklore from West Africa. It came from a fable about a dusting of pepper being used by a clever villager to disarm a large creature, thus conveying the concept of ingenuity triumphing over brawn. I like an underdog.

My goal was to update my blog once a month. I was going for quality over quantity. And to be honest, I needed to set a goal I could meet. Any more often felt like a stretch. It became a platform to showcase articles or experiences that spoke to the kinds of conversations about food I enjoy: what food communicates about a people or a person; how community forms around food; and how foods bridge cultures. By and large, I was a faithful blogger and got a post up every four or five weeks. I’m quite sure my mother was my most attentive reader.

I’ve heard plenty of stories of how blogs became books. Little did I know that my blog would lead to a book as well. Chin Music Press will publish my book on September 13.

The next few posts will focus on how things unfolded from then to now—along with some excerpts of what’s inside the book.

everyday meals everywhere

A subtitle emerges for the book, Meet Me at the Bamboo Table. (Photo by A.V. Crofts)
A subtitle emerges for the book, Meet Me at the Bamboo Table. (Photo by A.V. Crofts)

 

I took the photo above at the end of January, when it was crunch time on the subtitle. I’d batted around possibilities for months, but a survey to a small circle of friends sent me back to the drawing board. Out came the Post-It Notes, the trusty Sharpie, and just about every imaginable word related to food, travel, and memory I could muster. What surfaced stuck immediately: “Everyday Meals Everywhere.”

Meals shape and change me, no matter where I am. And they need not be five-star banquets to leave a lasting impression.

Today was bookended by two such everyday meals: a late breakfast atop a Berlin rooftop terrace, capped with a cozy pasta supper across town in the dining room of a 7th floor walk-up. Conversations easily swirl as drinks are poured, plates are served, and then eventually dishes are cleared. No one wanted to break the spell tonight, as we lingered over dessert well into the wee hours of the morning.

These meals are magic.

 

 

 

 

 

meet me at the bamboo table

MMATBT Cover

 

I’m thrilled to announce that this September, Chin Music Press will publish my first book, Meet Me At the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere. This is a book about meals that spans 15 countries and three decades. It highlights how food anchors my memories as well as builds and strengthens my communities.

Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes, says that writing is like birthing a Volkswagen. I laughed when I read that but, having now been through the process, I think she has the model wrong. At least for me. Writing this book was more like birthing a Volkswagen bus.

What started in March of 2014 will be bound and in my hands in just a few months. Up until this point, my writing focused on the intersection of food and identity with me as observer (or documenter). This book places me smack dab into each essay.

Meet Me at the Bamboo Table also allowed me to dive back and swim deeper into stories that I first shared on this blog. Pieces about Wisconsin, or my love of pickles. I’ll be using this blog in the next few months to share parts of the publishing process and sneak peaks at the book itself.

I can’t wait.

all are welcome

(Photo by A.V.Crofts)
(Photo by A.V.Crofts)

In a primary season with sharp language around immigration, two articles beg to be read widely. Both feature programs that use the shared experience of food to strengthen the bond between immigrants to their new hometowns.

The first article profiles Hot Bread Kitchen, a top-shelf bakery committed to producing high-quality loaves of all kinds. The brainchild of New York baker Jessamyn Waldman-Rodriguez, Hot Bread Kitchen employs recent immigrants and trains them in all aspects of the bakery: from making dough from scratch to pulling fresh-baked loaves out of the oven at the perfect time. Not only do their breads sell to some of the fanciest restaurants and shops in the city, all of their bakers are placed in full-time positions after completing training.

Two hours south by train from New York sits Edible Alphabet, a project under the care of the Free Library of Philadelphia and in partnership with Nationalities Service Center. This program offers a new twist on English language training by blending language acquisition with cooking. Ingredients are the vocabulary lesson and each class ends with a shared meal. NPR recently showcased some examples of dishes, all designed for affordability and the varied tastes of Philadelphians, wherever they come from.

Baking—and breaking—bread together is a form of welcome. Given the less charitable sentiments that keep surfacing in the bluster of the primary season, I pledge allegiance to programs like Hot Bread Kitchen and Edible Alphabet who happily celebrate many flags.

 

 

 

i want the world

Photo by A.V. Crofts
Photo by A.V. Crofts

 

I heard a report on the radio last night
that included a section
about how while Paris apartments are small
the city is large and you spend time outside:
in restaurants
clubs
parks
cafes
etc.
The city is an extension of your home.
The city is your home.
Which is how I feel in Seattle.
Or Portland.
Or anywhere.
I don’t need a huge house
because I can seek more space
elsewhere
and still feel at home.
Hollande has pledged 5000 more police
working the streets of Paris.
Okay.
But that isn’t really the point, is it?
We need 5000 more people
not to cancel their Paris plans.
5000 more people
to go out to eat tomorrow, and the next day.
5000 more people to still visit Egypt.
To hold on to those plane reservations
even though 900,000 airport workers in the U.S.
do not clear daily security checks
even though passengers are made
to still take off our shoes
and abandon our honey, lotion, and jam.
You can look at Paris and be fearful.
You can look at Paris and be furious.
But you can also look at Paris and be grateful
that
you
are
free.
To do what you want!
And I want the world.
All of it.
It’s been so good to me.
Everyone.
Everywhere.