Margo Orlando Littell is the author of the novels The Distance from Four Points and Each Vagabond by Name, which won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal, was longlisted for the 2017 Tournament of Books, and was named one of fifteen great Appalachian novels by Bustle. She received her MFA from Columbia, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from southwestern Pennsylvania, she now lives in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @margolittell or her website.
Here, she talks about sacred Italian meals, good snack platters, and simple New Hampshire summer dinners outside.
On her all-time favorite meal:
My favorite meals are linked to either places or celebrations, and the rareness of these meals is what makes them so profound. One meal I look forward to every year is put together dish by dish at the summer festival of the Italian church in my Pennsylvania hometown. All the food is made from scratch by the church ladies in the months before the festival—homemade cavatelli and manicotti, pierogis, meatballs, pizza, sausage sandwiches on homemade rolls, fried dough. The cavatelli is especially popular, and people start lining up at that booth an hour before the festival starts. Last year I arranged my visit home specifically to coincide with the festival, and I was first in line. After procuring all the different foods from all the different booths, my husband and kids and I eat on a blanket next to the church parking lot. It’s always blazingly hot, and there isn’t any shade, but we stuff ourselves.
Another favorite meal is an Italian dish called scrippelles, served just once a year, during Lent. I’ve found this dish in the wild only twice—once at a restaurant in Manhattan, and once in a cookbook from an Italian club in Philadelphia. My mother once won a contest to appear on a Pittsburgh cooking show to demonstrate how to make this meal. Scrippelles are thin, savory crepes sprinkled with parmesan cheese and black pepper, tightly rolled, then laid in a bowl and covered with hot chicken broth. They are time-consuming to make (the crepes are made one by one and cooled on dish towels), and so delicious. For a while, I sometimes went a year or more without having scrippelles, since visits home didn’t always coincide with Lent. But my mother eventually agreed to make an exception to the when if we could finagle another opportunity to be together. One time she froze the scrippelles and brought them to me in New York, and we ate them in my tiny graduate school apartment.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
During the school year, while my kids are out of the house, the only meal I eat alone each day is lunch, and it’s not so much the light but the lightness that makes this time to myself enjoyable. I’ve worked or puttered all morning, and by noon my puppy is starting to pester me and I’m ravenously hungry, so it’s the right time for a break. The kitchen is bright and, if I’ve thought ahead, I’ll have cleared the breakfast chaos so the table is uncluttered and inviting. At this time of day the sun is as high as it will get, yet so much of the afternoon remains. I can still accomplish something, and I will. Just as soon as I eat. There’s a suspended quality to the light. The glow offers a chance to inhale and exhale, to briefly pause the day. I like listening to a podcast or audiobook while I eat. Someone else’s words, someone else’s voice in my ear.
On snacking while writing:
When I’m trying to write, I’m almost constantly eating. Nuts, chips, Cheez-Its, trail mix, popcorn, cheese sticks, and—depending on the season—Cadbury Mini Eggs, Girl Scout cookies, Christmas cookies, chocolate hearts. There’s always a cup of coffee on my desk, usually cold. When I’m actually writing, however, immersed in creating or revising, I don’t snack. I’m too deep in other worlds, listening too closely to my characters speaking. You can tell where I am with a project by the number of crumb-filled bowls on my desk at the end of the day. Productive day? Clean desk. Puttering, scrolling, flitting instead of pages? Snack bar.
On her go-to late-night snacks:
I like a substantial snack at night, and around 10:00 p.m. I or my husband will usually make a platter with whatever cheese, crackers, olives, salami, or pepperoni we have in the fridge. Our mutual love of a good snack platter will keep us together forever. My other favorite nighttime snack is a dip, preferably a hot dip like spinach, artichoke, or buffalo chicken, but a cold onion dip is good too, with some rippled potato chips or wheat crackers.
On her food quirks:
I’ve been ridiculed for my cheese-to-cracker ratio, but I’ve always maintained that the cracker is no more than the vehicle; if one cracker can sustain an entire wedge of camembert, so be it. I’m pretty picky about how my eggs are cooked—no runniness whatsoever, at all, not even a shimmer. When I first found out that “over-hard” was a thing you could specify, it made my diner ordering a lot less stressful.
On her final meal request:
Every summer, we spend time at a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire that’s been in my husband’s family for generations. It’s on a hundred acres and is the quietest, most wonderful place in the world. The pace of our day is different there than it is in ordinary life, and we eat dinner outside every night, before the sun fully sets. We light a fire in the fire pit and watch the shadows change over the fields. Bats swoop overhead and sometimes deer will appear by the treeline. The meals we make are simple—something on the grill, usually, or pasta. If we’re feeling festive, we boil lobsters or make very delicious steak frites. We drink wine while our kids run around barefoot in the grass. I’d be happy eating anything for my last meal as long as I could eat it in New Hampshire at dusk, sitting in a broken plastic chair, at the rusty old table we dragged out of the barn.