Bonnie Jo Campbell is the bestselling author of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (W.W. Norton), Once Upon a River, and American Salvage, among other works. She was a National Book Award finalist, NBCC Award finalist, and a Guggenheim Fellow. The Guardian named her one of the top ten writers of rural noir fiction. She rides a variety of bicycles and donkeys around Kalamazoo Michigan and teaches at Pacific U. Low Res MFA program.
Here, she talks pie flights (what a dream!!), not eating at night, some interesting food peculiarities, and at least two desserts at the end of her life.
On her all-time favorite meal:
My husband, whose papa was British, sometimes makes a big meal of roast beef (maybe a rib roast) with roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. I love this meal, though it’s not really what I want to eat (I’m very happy to have those things on the table to supplement my salad and roasted vegetables though). Once my husband cooked me a soufflé, and that is something I want to eat all the time, but he said it was pretty stressful making it, and I hate to ask him to make it again. Our family’s traditional Thanksgiving meal, which I usually cook, is another good one because everything tastes the same way it did when my old granny used to make it, and it has cranberries—I could eat a bucket of cranberry sauce, and I don’t mean the kind shaped like the can or the kind with other things in it—and then there’s pie. Have I mentioned to you how much I like pie? And that there is a restaurant a hour from here in Fennville, Michigan, where you can get pie flights and try five different kinds?
My favorite recent restaurant meal was this summer at Hunan Garden, where I’ve recently discovered they have a Chinese menu with things like frog legs and intestines. From this menu, I ordered the fish hot-pot, which the waiter assured me was the hottest dish they made. The husband and I had scored one of three outdoor tables, and so we sat looking out onto the parking lot, and with my first bite of hot-pot, I began to cry from the heat, and my mouth began to swell up, and I kept eating and crying for about forty-five minutes (I’m a slow eater) and so felt cleansed by the time we left. Though I was diagnosed with an ulcer a few weeks later, I disagree with my mother and sister that these two things were related.
Maybe my favorite meals have been picnics, with the standard fare: wine, cheese, good salami, olives and chocolate, avocado and fruit maybe. In particular, we had a great picnic this year on the ferry boat between Charlevoix and Beaver Island, which happens to be the largest island in Lake Michigan and which was once controlled by a Mormon who called himself King Strang and pillaged the mainland on a regular basis and forced folks to convert to the Church of Latter Day Saints. At another picnic, at a rest stop on US-131 heading toward Traverse City, we had a wonderful picnic that involved cooked beets and goat cheese, though my husband did not eat the beets or the goat cheese.
In truth, most every meal is wonderful, even my oatmeal with berries and yogurt. I could go on.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
In the summer, we eat all meals on our screen porch under the tin roof, and we watch through the hedge who comes up and down our dead-end dirt road—in summer and fall our light is filtered through the oaks, basswoods, and shagbark hickories. In the colder months, like now, when the sky is not overcast, the light makes it past the bare branches through the south-facing picture window, and through the slatted blinds and onto our big, cluttered dining room table. During the weekdays, lunch is the favorite meal because I’m eating with my darling Christopher, while dinner is usually just me. In either case, dinner light is from the late sun setting over the minimum-security prison to the west—our next-door neighbors are 70-80 sex offenders—and also from a little oil lantern we always burn (less fussy than a candle). After dinner, when I’m alone, I tend to carry the little lantern around to the kitchen and to the table in my office where I write because it makes me feel less lonely.
On snacking while writing:
I drink tea. If I ever started eating while I was writing, then I would always eat while I was writing. Same with smoking.
On her go-to late-night snack:
I don’t eat after dinner, which I generally take between seven and eight. Haven’t eaten at night since about 1988, at about the same time I gave up studying mathematics. My husband has always worked a job where gets home at midnight, though, and I enjoy cooking dinner for him at night. Writing for other people doesn’t always work out well, but cooking for them is great. Cooking can be a way to give people what they really want, and that is joyful. My husband hates tomatoes and most vegetables, and I never try to trick him or force him to eat anything he doesn’t want. Not eating at night has helped me sleep better.
On her food quirks:
All my food habits are eccentric, and I have a lot of anxiety, so I have to be careful, but I always keep food with me when I leave the house, usually carrots and pumpkin seeds. Unless I forget. If I am driving or biking down the road and suddenly realize I have no food, then I need to take action and get some. My dear Grandpa used to say that I was the only girl he knew who took a snack to the grocery store. The truth is that I am always hungry and filled with desire throughout my day, day after day. I hesitate to share most of my peculiarities, but I’ll admit that it takes me almost an hour to eat a meal, and when I am alone, I eat in silence, without reading. Left to my own devices, I eat the same thing every day and I am always astounded at how good my lunch porridge and my dinner salad tastes, especially when the former has blueberries and cranberries and when the latter has avocado and cheese on it. Sometimes, though, when I lose my mind, I just need to eat a whole block of tofu. Sometimes I need to drink some maple syrup. The times in my life when I’ve had to change my regular eating habits or miss meals have been traumatic. I’m always a wreck during my book tours, because literary events always take place at dinnertime.
On her final meal request:
My last meal, right before my execution, which I hope involves a firing squad rather than lethal injection—the lethal injection would undoubtedly make me nauseous—I would like to have a nice dinner with my husband on a balcony, perhaps, or at a café table at the edge of the parking lot. Assuming that the both of us were being executed, we would eat very different things. He would probably want a burger. I’d love some beautifully cooked scallops, not fashionably translucent, but cooked (barely) all the way through. Some roasted winter squash would be nice with pine nuts, and some salad with cheese and avocado. If the execution were going to be later in the evening, I would absolutely drink too much red wine. If my execution were scheduled for the morning, I’d probably take it easy on the wine. Dessert would be something like crème Brule, if crème Brule could be made with lemon. And I’d like two of them. At least two desserts.