My first introduction to Melissa was last September when our novels were head to head in a contest for SheKnows "Book Club Pick of the Year", though I realized after reading that I should have found her long ago. Her novel The Love Goddess' Cooking School is clever, insightful and inspirational, much like Melissa herself. Read below as she shares a look into the story behind the story....
Inspiration by Melissa Senate
When my novel The Love Goddess’ Cooking School (about five very different people in an unusual Italian cooking class) was published, the two questions I was most often asked were: where did you come up with idea to add wishes and memories as ingredients in the recipes? And: How did you learn to cook Italian—and authentically write the cooking scenes/recipes—when you are neither Italian nor a cook (before writing the book, anyway)?
I wrote many a guest blog post about how my son’s 6th birthday wish, into a bowl of raw eggs, inspired much of the novel. And how my divorce forced me to learn how to cook (my ex-husband, who remains one of my best friends, was the family chef). But I never talked much about something that happened on a very cold winter day, almost exactly three years ago, that made my big country kitchen in my tiny Maine home the center of my life, where I started to cook, where my precious son and I got through a scary time, and where The Love Goddess’ Cooking School was conceived.
When I got divorced in 2007, I was suddenly the three-squares a day and snack preparer for my son. I had to learn to cook. Somehow. I tried to make his favorites from scratch—baked chicken tenders, but they were either tasteless or rubbery. I tried to make his beloved spaghetti—and who could mess that up—but overcooked it, every time along with, “Mommy, is the sauce supposed to be cold?” I tried, but then I pretty much gave up and relied on the perfection of the hot bars at Whole Foods. And pizza.
But going to Whole Foods and the pizzeria became impossible (or very difficult anyway). On that very cold winter day in February of 2008, I’d taken my then five-year-old, Max, to a pediatric orthopedist to find out why he’d been limping lately, why his leg kept hurting so bad that he’d scream out in pain and clutch his knee (after visits to his pediatrician and the ER revealed nothing). Why he walked lop-sided, as though one leg was shorter than the other. The diagnosis: Perthes Disease. There are much worse illnesses to befall a child. But I will tell you: Perthes Disease SUCKS. By the time he was diagnosed, his right hip—the top of the femur (the femoral head) where it fits into the hip socket—had crumbled and died—yes, died—and was being slowly reabsorbed by his body. Regeneration would take 2-3 years. Perthes Disease is a rare condition. No one knows the why. Or the how. But it mainly affects little boys—and small dogs.
The prescription: My active little dynamo, five year old kindergartener, confined to a wheelchair for five months. No weight bearing permitted on the right leg at all. At home traction 20 hours a day, for 3 weeks. A petri cast, which means both legs are casted from top of thigh to toes, with a two-foot metal bar between the ankles and one-foot bar between the knees, for three months. If after the five months, if the non-weight-bearing and casts did their job of keeping what was left of his hip in the socket, we wouldn’t have to talk surgery and pins. There would be learning to walk again. And a cumbersome hip brace for a year. No running for a year. Or jumping for two years (not easy for a 6-7 year old). Or contact sports , indefinitely. Between the ages of 5 ½ and 6 ½ , Max sat on a mat every day at recess at school, first in that crazy double-leg cast and then in the hip brace, and played with matchbox cars and Legos, not allowed to be on the playground at all in case he got knocked over. He couldn’t even play in the sandbox because the sand could erode the joints of the brace.
So, this was what was. When your child is confined to a wheelchair for a period of time and he CAN get up (just isn’t allowed to), you’re simply grateful that he can. It’s the gift of perspective. And so we made the best of this time—especially that very cold, snowy winter of 2008, by renting lots of movies. Saying yes to that Nintendo DS. Playing a lot of board games, card games, made up games. Talking. And cooking.
Thanks to that big country kitchen (which made it wheelchair-friendly) in my tiny house, we learned to cook together, Max and I. We’d flip through cookbooks, and anything that sounded good, we tried. He liked dishes that had the word alla in them. And so chicken alla Milanese, which I found in Marcella Hazan’s gem of a classic Italian cookbook, became a favorite since it was so easy to make, so kid-friendly. We perfected the timing of spaghetti, him wheeling around in his tiny wheelchair, his casted legs propped up, a big mixing bowl of sauce on his lap. We perfected that tomato sauce. And I perfected my Bolognese, which he discovered he loved. We cooked and cooked and cooked and tasted and ate and laughed and hugged. We ate by candle-light, as though we were at a fancy restaurant. We ate on trays in the living room while watching Monsters Inc and Over The Hedge, favorites of his.
Max and I were already very close, but we grew closer in that kitchen. He told me his secrets, about kindergarten, about how hard it was to learn to read, but that books about a comical fly (thank you, Tedd Arnold) made him want to. And never ONCE, not once, did he complain about the cast (which made sleeping, let alone turning over, so difficult) or the wheelchair or even that cumbersome brace—because children are magical creatures. (Every cliché about children being resilient? True, true and more true.) And then as we neared his 6th birthday, he made a wish into a bowl of eggs he was scrambling on his lap, his eyes closed, his little hands in prayer formation: “Please let Mommy say yes to getting me a pet mouse, rat, hamster or rabbit for my birthday.” I had no idea that his wish would end up being the basis of a novel about cooking (me, write a novel about cooking?), about Italian food, about people coming together in the kitchen, wishing, sharing, hoping, fearing, finding answers. But inspiration and books are magical like that. And yes, he did get two fancy pet rats, which he named Timmy and Jeffrey, for his birthday.
(In a happy P.S.: Max is now 8 years old and you’d never know by watching him race around that he has Perthes Disease. His legs and hip ache often, but it passes quickly with rest. He can run and jump and climb trees and go sledding and even take Aikido, which he loves. He’s restricted from organized/contact sports till he’s 12 or 13, but he’s a budding filmmaker and it turns out he loves to read. And cook. I was relieved to know that the winner of one of the Survivor seasons had Perthes as a kid, and he won a million bucks by running around an island. And actor Cameron Matthison also had Perthes and kicked up his heels on Dancing With The Stars and in a fun coincidence, was in the TV movie version of my first novel. Inspiring . . . like my son.
Bio: Melissa Senate is the author of 10 novels, including her latest The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, published this past October by Simon & Schuster. Melissa’s debut novel, See Jane Date, was made into a TV movie, and she’s also written two YAs and has published essays and stories in several anthologies. She lives on the coast of Maine with her son. Want to know more?
Follow Melissa on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MelissaSenate
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Visit her website: http://www.melissasenate.com/
Check out The Love Goddess’ Cooking School on Amazon!