Five Food Questions: Jael McHenry, The Debut Novelist

It’s time for a new edition of Five Food Questions on The Best Food Blog Ever.  Short, sweet, and to the point, Five Food Questions is designed to provide insight into the culinary lifestyles of interesting and compelling people who may or may not be directly involved in the food world.  Today, my Five Food Questions subject is Jael McHenry, whose first book The Kitchen Daughter, about a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who discovers that she can summon the ghosts of dead relatives by cooking from their recipes, debuted this past Tuesday.

1. So, are you a writer who learned how to cook, or a cook that learned to write well? Which came first?

Both, maybe? Neither? I guess writing and cooking are two things I feel like I’ve always done. I was writing little poems in second grade, and baking cookies with my mom around the same time, and I’ve just kept working at both throughout my life. But The Kitchen Daughter is the first time I thought to combine the two. I wanted to write a character who was passionate about cooking but had never used it to connect with people – I feel like food plays this great role in connecting people, especially family, and a character who cooks just for the process of cooking and not for the end result was really intriguing to me.

2. The main character in The Kitchen Daughter cooks from heirloom recipes. Do you find yourself cooking more from family recipes passed down through the generations, or from cookbooks?

Cookbooks more often than family recipes, but I’m not a good recipe-follower. I’m always tweaking and substituting. Probably one of the reasons I cook more than I bake. I use family recipes for special occasions – pierogi, Cornish pasties, butterhorn rolls – and those, I never change. The rest of the time I’m often improvising in the kitchen, either with a recipe as a jumping-off point or just starting with the ingredients themselves as inspiration.

3. You used to live Philadelphia but now you live in NYC.  How do the food and dining scenes stack up against each other?

Oooh, that’s a loaded question. But there are things I love about both of them. I miss the BYOB scene in Philly – being able to walk into a place like Matyson or Mercato or a hundred other places with a bottle of wine you paid retail for – that just doesn’t exist here in NYC. There’s BYO here and there, but it’s not the same. In general, of course, New York has more of everything – more fine dining, more street food, more greenmarkets, more variety – and I have had a lot of incredible meals here in the past year. You can buy amazing ingredients in both places, and you can eat delicious food for $20 or $200 in both places. They’re two of the best places in the country for foodies to live.

4. What was the last thing you cooked?

I made some killer black bean enchiladas last week with a blend of smoked cheeses and chile colorado for my book club. Enchiladas are generally a fallback for me when I don’t know what else to make, but these, I would definitely make again on purpose. Smoked cheese is a brilliant invention.

5. Name your favorite guilty pleasure food.

Combos, no question. The cracker and cheddar (well, “cheddar”) kind.