When I write, I steal from life. Shamelessly. Joyfully. As a writer, I want to create something that feels completely compelling and real even though it didn’t happen. So even though it’s not autobiographical, The Kitchen Daughter is a novel that draws heavily on my life and my world and the things that are important to me.
The recipes that mean the most to me are family recipes, and I have very strong and powerful associations with those particular dishes – potato-and-cheese pierogi from the Ukrainian side of the family, Cornish pasties from the English side, and biscuits with sausage gravy, which is a family recipe from my Grandma McHenry, and that one’s actually in the book. There are 10 recipes in the The Kitchen Daughter, and it’s hard to say whether the characters or the recipes came first. They sort of developed together. But food really suffuses the whole novel – Ginny filters nearly everything through the lens of food, so she’ll describe how someone’s voice sounds like tomato juice, or their breath smells like bean water, and I don’t think I could have done that so thoroughly if I weren’t completely in love with food myself.
The idea about the food bringing the ghosts back came to me one day in the kitchen, which seems fitting, right? The sensory experience of cooking – the smells, the tastes – is so powerful, it made perfect sense to me that it could literally bring back the dead. Whenever I talk to people about the idea of ghosts being drawn to the kitchen by the smell of a certain dish, they almost always have a story for me about a particular dish they love, and it’s usually a family recipe. They’ll cook something, like their mom’s spaghetti sauce or their grandmother’s coconut cake, and they say it feels like that person is there in the kitchen with them. So in Ginny’s case I just made it literal. She starts out cooking in order to comfort herself, making her grandmother’s ribollita, which is an Italian bread soup. And her grandmother’s ghost shows up, with a cryptic warning for her, and when the smell of the food fades she fades too. Then when Ginny realizes that she can bring these ghosts back by cooking from their recipes, she has to decide whether that’s something she wants to do on purpose.
Ginny has Asperger’s syndrome, so she’s on the autism spectrum, which makes it hard for her to read social cues and body language. So she’s very isolated. In the beginning of the book, she uses cooking only as a way of calming herself. She likes to follow recipes, going step by step by step, and that’s soothing to her. For me, cooking is such a wonderful way of connecting with other people, I wanted to create this character who had never used food to connect before. It’s completely inward-focused. But can she use this same gift, this same passion, to focus outward and make connections with people outside her family? That’s one of the key questions in the book.