Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Choosing the details

When Phyllis Root and I were working on our presentation for the Hamline University MFA residency earlier this month I realized how much I love old cookbooks, the ones that have little stories or recollections to go with the recipes.

Now comes a book, a history, based on the eating habits of people who lived in New York's tenements. 97 Orchard (Smithsonian Books HarperCollins) by Jane Ziegelman. The New York Times reviewer,Dwight Garner, says:

"'Ms. Ziegelman writes well about the types of culinary workers, once popular in and around these tenements, whose trades have vanished. These included “the German krauthobblers, or ‘cabbage-shavers,’ itinerant tradesmen who went door to door slicing cabbage for homemade sauerkraut,” she notes. There were also “the Italian dandelion pickers, women who scoured New York’s vacant lots for wild salad greens,” as well as urban goose farmers who raised poultry in basements and hallways."

Who could not be interested in a book that tells us about ininerant cabbage shavers or farmers who raised poultry in basements and hallways? Ms. Ziegelman has chosen details well.

When I was writing THE CHIRU OF HIGH TIBET the challenge was to choose details that would make a trek in a faraway place real for children who may not yet have traveled further than Grandma's house. I wanted to choose the kinds of details that children notice: details of weather and climate("so cold it takes the fleece of five sheep to keep one person warm"; "so dry the tallest tree is a shrub that would not reach a grown man's knee"). We all have to eat. I have long been a "foodie" and know that details of food take me straight to the place, so I also wanted to include in the book details of the food that the trekkers ate during their long walk.

But perhaps the most gripping detail--the reason why the story was so compelling to me--is at the center of the story. It's the detail of the secret place, the place where the chiru go to have their babies. We want to know where this is. We want to know if the trekkers will find it.

Some details we choose. Some details choose us--grab us by the arm, the writing arm, and say write me.

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