Behind the Book: A recipe gives rise to a novel
by Darien Gee
In 2009, my then-eight-year-old daughter brought home a few slices of Amish Friendship Bread on a paper plate. “It’s so good,” she insisted. Then she pulled out a Ziploc bag of starter and a page (a page!) of instructions. Now if you’ve never seen (or smelled) a bag of fermenting batter, well, let’s just say that it’s something you don’t ever forget.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was essentially a culinary chain letter, a “bake and share” routine that grew exponentially as you passed the starter on to not one, but three more people. I could see people running in the opposite direction, a bit like I wanted to do at that moment.
Still, my daughter held the plate in front of me, patient. I broke off a corner of the bread and chewed it slowly. It was good, moist and sweet with a sugar-cinnamon crunch. Maybe I was having a sugar rush of my own, or maybe it was because I had a few minutes of peace and quiet, but a vision of a woman came into my mind, reluctantly holding up a bag of starter and regarding it with a frown.
She was lovely, and she was sad. I didn’t know what had happened, just that she was stuck in the day-to-day motions that mimicked life when in fact she hadn’t felt alive in years. I saw her own young daughter, her husband, the home they shared together.
I knew right then that I wanted to find out more. I put the bag of starter in a mixing bowl, the instructions tucked inside, and placed it on the counter. I called to my daughter and told her we would be baking Amish Friendship Bread in 10 days. That night I sat down at my computer, the image of the woman still fresh in my mind. I started writing, and the story of Julia Evarts started unfolding, but still I didn’t know what was going on. Later that night, I saw a quarter flying through the air and landing in the palm of someone’s hand. That hand belonged to Julia’s sister. I liked Livvy instantly—her optimism, her bubbly personality. But I sensed that something had happened between her and Julia, that they were no longer talking though they had once been very, very close. I continued to write, and more central characters started to show up, all with stories of their own—Madeline, a lonely widow who opens a tea salon on a whim; Hannah, a former cello prodigy whose marriage is ending; and Edie, an ambitious journalist who is desperate to make her mark. I started to see all the connections, saw how the bread was linking people together in ways that surprised me. Characters appeared for only a moment but left an indelible impression.
I filled any available moment, day or night, writing. My husband had read the first few pages and agreed that there was something there. We came up with a schedule that let us juggle the kids, work and writing. I figured the story was either there or it wasn’t, and it was my job to write until it became clear either way.
All this time, my daughter and I were following the instructions that came with the starter. For 10 days it was the same thing—mash the bag—a task her brothers were more than happy to help with. We added flour, milk and sugar on the sixth and 10th days, and watched the starter bubble up happily. I still have that same starter, almost two years later.
I’ll admit that I was looking forward to baking the bread that first time. There’s something about squeezing the bag for 10 days that has you counting the days until it’s time to bake. When I realized that we wouldn’t have any starter left once we divided the batter and shared it among our friends, I kept a bag for myself. Ten days later, we were baking again.
It continued like this as I wrote the book, sharing the starter with friends and neighbors. I experimented with new Amish Friendship Bread recipes, all the time fortifying myself with the bread that was at the heart of Friendship Bread, my novel.
Amish Friendship Bread is so much more than a simple recipe; it’s about friendship and community, about sharing what you have with others and expressing gratitude for the good things in your life. I’m reminded of this every time I gather with my family in the kitchen, the bowl of Amish Friendship Bread starter on the counter, waiting for our next baking day.