Lea Wait, here. As many of you know, so far I’ve been published in two genres: historical fiction for young people, and contemporary mysteries for adults. But besides my name on the cover, my books have other characteristics in common.
Of my nine books, six are set at least partially in Maine. All my major characters have strong feelings about family. If they don’t have a family, they yearn for one. If they have a family, they struggle to protect it, but also fight to maintain their independence from it. And, in all my books, I’ve discovered, food is important. It’s especially true in my books set in the 19th century, because obtaining and preparing food in those years took up so much of the average family’s time and energy.
Stopping to Home, set in 1806, opens with Abbie and Seth, hungry and cold, in the room where their mother has just died of smallpox. The town doctor takes them to a home where a sea captain is also dying of the pox, but his young wife has food and could use help. (“You’ll need to mourn for your ma, but you can mourn as well in a warm kitchen where you’ll be of use as you can in a cold room with no food.”) Abbie, age 11, understands immediately. When she and her brother are offered a place, she doesn’t bother to heat what is on the fire. “We wiped the bowl with the bread and ate it, every crumb. I cannot imagine anything tasting as good as that soup and bread.” Abbie determines to make herself an essential part of the household, and we follow her throughout 1806, seeing how Muster Day, Independence Day, birth days, Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, were celebrated in the District of Maine, as Abbie and Seth and the young Widow Chase find ways to solve their problems and become an extended family. Seasonal food is, of course, a part of their year: dandelion greens, the herb betony, mackerel, blueberries, cod chowder (Seth’s favorite,) bread puddings, pickles, turkey. And so forth.
In Seaward Born, which begins in Charleston, South Carolina, Michael is a slave whose mother is the cook for a house on Tradd Street; his father is a free African fisherman. After both his parents are killed in the devastating hurricane of 1805, Michael is rented out to work as a lighterman in Charleston Harbor. He loves his job. But when his mistress at Tradd Street dies and he is left to her son, Michael’s world changes. He must decide whether to risk his life and “steal himself” by fleeing north by sea, or be sold to the Alabama territory. When he’s discovered at sea he proves himself valuable by using cooking skills he learned from his mother. His adventures take him north to Boston, where he’s hidden by a black mariner and his family, and then to Maine, where he works as a cook in a tavern, but is still not safe. Cooking, and adapting the dishes he watched his mother make when he was a child, not only gives him a profession, but connects him to his past.
In Wintering Well, in 1819-1820, 12-year-old Will has always dreamed of being a farmer, like his brothers and father, but loses his leg in a farm accident. His sister
Cassie, blaming herself, vows to take care of him. Both of them, out of school and stuck at home, spend a difficult winter as Will heals and tries Cassie’s patience. Each chapter of this book begins with a journal entry from Cassie, and then tells Will’s story. Brothers and sisters of course, see the same events in different ways. So while Cassie bakes bread and prepares meals, Will focuses on all he cannot do. In the spring they move to Wiscasset, and horizons open for both of them – but more so for Will who, despite his disability, sees more possibilities for his life than Cassie, whose older sister tells her she must prepare for a life spent in her home, caring for her future husband and children. Again, food is a centerpiece in Wintering Well.
And in Finest Kind, set in 1838, finding food is a major theme. The Webber family has lost everything in the Panic of 1837. They’d been a wealthy family in Boston. Now the bank where Mr. Webber worked has failed, they’ve lost their home, and sold most of their fine furniture for little money. They’ve headed north to Maine, hearing “real men” can get jobs in a lumber mill there. Thirteen-year-old Jake, who’s been in private school in Boston, is left to care for his mother and severely disabled younger brother as his father finds he must live in a boarding house near the mill.
It’s early September, they have no food put away for winter, and they live in a small farmhouse with only a fireplace for heat and cooking. With the help of a young girl nearby who teaches Jake how to trap squirrels and dry apples for food, and an old woman who some say is a witch, but who knows how to live off the land, Jake does his best to learn what must be done to help his family survive the long Maine winter. And then he gets a job at the Lincoln County Jail, where he gets another look at his new world …
In my adult books, food is also important, although there I didn’t plan for life and death to be dependent on them. But some of my readers saw it differently. My main character, Maggie Summer, drinks Diet Coke, not coffee or tea. (I got tired of reading books where everyone was perpetually sitting down to drink coffee, and I drink tea, so I decided tea wouldn’t be Maggie’s drink of choice.) (Maggie also like Dry Sack sherry.)
Several years ago I was doing a signing in Boothbay Harbor when a woman came up to me. “I really enjoy your books, Ms Wait,” she said. “And I want you to continue writing for many years.”
“Thank you,” I answered. “I plan to do just that.”
“But I’m afraid you won’t be able to,” replied the woman, sadly. “”Because you’re going to die.”
I took a deep breath. The customer is always right, after all. This woman was a fan. “We all die sometime. But so far I’m lucky. I’m healthy.”
“Perhaps you think so,” she answered, sadly shaking her head. “But that diet soda you drink is killing you. Every day those chemicals are shortening your life.”
“Oh,” I smiled, much relieved that she didn’t intend to shorten my life herself, or that she didn’t know something I hadn’t heard. “You don’t have to worry about that! Maggie, the character in my Shadows Mysteries, drinks diet soda. I don’t.”
“Really?” She looked at me closely. “You don’t think I believe that, do you?”
“But it’s the truth, really,” I answered. “I don’t even like diet soda.”
The woman was quite concerned for me; in fact, that summer she sent me several letters on the subject. She also came to three more of my signings. So I responded in my next book in the series, Shadows at the Spring Show in the best way I could. I had Maggie’s secretary tell her she should stop drinking diet soda — and start eating more chocolate. It would be much healthier for her.
I haven’t heard from that fan recently!
On my website (http://www.leawait.com) I have a section (under “About Lea”) called “Cooking from the Books” where there are recipes from several of my books: Seth’s Cod Chowder from Stopping to Home; Mama’s Shrimp Pie from Seaward Born; Cassie’s Anadama Bread from Wintering Well; Maggie’s lasagna from Shadows on the Ivy; and Aunt Nettie’s Blueberry Cake with Lemon Sauce from Shadows of a Down East Summer. Feel free to check them out!
And, not to worry. Not one of them calls for diet soda as an ingredient.