“Never let anyone tell you magic doesn’t exist or that fairies aren’t real. It isn’t cynicism that will change the world. Do your best to believe in yourself, and even if you don’t, keep trying to and never give up. If all else fails, use your imagination and pretend.” ~ Susan Branch (Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams)
Though I’ve been a Susan Branchfan for decades, until I read her 3-part illustrated memoir I knew only a little about her personal life or how she started painting, writing, and publishing.
It was love at first sight when I discovered her greeting cards, calendars and illustrated cookbooks back in the late 80’s — I just couldn’t get enough of her beautiful handwritten recipes and inspirational quotes, the cozy, quaint watercolors of old fashioned baskets, bowls, and quilts, those scrumptious fruits, veggies, cakes and pies. Oh, the checkered floors! The Laura Ashley hats and exquisite floral borders! That iconic vintage stove! I wanted to inhabit the world of her homemade books; they were charming, unique, and most important, personal.
You may remember how much I adored A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside (review here). It convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Susan was even more of a kindred spirit with her love of Beatrix Potter, the Yorkshire Dales, afternoon tea, the Cotswolds, Emma Bridgewater, and the Queen!
But it wasn’t until I read the prequels to A Fine Romance — The Fairy Tale Girland Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams (both based on her diaries) — that I gained a true appreciation for how this self-taught artist built her career from scratch, how the first seeds were actually planted in childhood, and how she’s been able to effectively elevate the various facets of homemaking (cooking, sewing, gardening, interior decorating) to a fine art.
1. This lovely poster featuring the words of 14th century Persian poet Hafez by Katie Daisy is available at The Wheatfield Etsy Shop. A nice thought to keep in mind during these crazy times. 🙂
2. Speaking of poets, Kelly Ramsdell Fineman’s very first chapbook, The Universe Comes Knocking (Maverick Duck Press, 2015) will be officially released this Friday, March 13th! There’s a Launch Party at the Daily Grind (48 High Street) in Mount Holly, New Jersey at 7 p.m. Admission is free and there’ll be an open reading afterwards. Check it out if you live in the area! You can read the title poem here. Congratulations, Kelly!
3. It’s no secret we’re big fans of dumplings and dim sum here at Alphabet Soup. LOVE this definitive Guide to Chinese Dumplingscompiled by The Cleaver Quarterly at Lucky Peach. There are cute drawings, mouthwatering descriptions, and interesting historical and cultural tidbits about each type, and they’re grouped according to how they’re cooked: Steamed, Pan-Fried, Deep-Fried, and Boiled. Happy to see pepeiao from Hawai’i on the list, and I learned about a lot of different varieties I didn’t even know existed. Yum! Pass the har gow!
4. It’s also no secret that I like toys (who, me?), so I was happy to stumble upon Zard Apuya’s site recently. Originally from Guam, he now lives in San Francisco where he’s busy designing vinyl toys and pursuing a graduate degree in Business Administration. Check out a few of his charming “kid at art” creations (some available for purchase):
5. Food memoirs are probably my favorite genre to read for pleasure. Here’s a nice list of “The 50 Best Food Memoirs” at AbeBooks. Since I’ve only read 6 of these so far, I’d better get busy!
We learned how Frances and Ginger opened Washington, D.C.’s, first independent, high-end sweet shop featuring decadent delights from all over the world. We met some of their most memorable customers and marveled at how they launched their writing careers on a rented Selectric typewriter in the store’s tiny backroom.
Most important, we reinforced our staunch belief that writers and chocolate naturally go together — the creamy, dreamy combination seems to create magic in its wake, forging lifelong friendships, steeling sisterly bonds, and inspiring award-winning books.
You may also remember that Chocolate Chocolate was my hands-down favorite food memoir of 2011. I gave everyone I could think of a copy for Christmas, and I gave my brother’s family a copy when I visited them in Hawai’i last November.
Well. My 13-year-old niece Julia absolutely loved the book and shared it with her friends. Going to Chocolate Chocolate and meeting Frances and Ginger was at the top of her must-do list when she visited us in Virginia recently.
Though they live in the D.C. area, and I’ve been a fan of their children’s books for many years, I only got to actually meet them this past September at a Fall for the Book Festival event. I was surprised to learn that Frances is seven years older than Ginger. It’s obvious that chocolate is not only a great livelihood, but the secret to eternal youth and beauty!
Between them, they’ve published eight works of fiction (for adults and children), much of it celebrating their Korean American heritage and family history. My Freedom Trip (Boyds Mills Press, 1998), their first children’s book, garnered a bevy of accolades, including the IRA Children’s Book Award and the IRA-CBC Teacher’s Choice Award. It’s about their mother’s escape from North to South Korea during the Korean War. The Have a Good Day Cafe was inspired by a Korean family with a food cart whom they saw every day on their way to work at the chocolate shop, and I’m always hungry to reread Where On Earth is My Bagel?, my first introduction to their work.
But they had the most fun collaborating on Chocolate Chocolate, which actually reads like fiction. I was curious about the chocolate-writing connection, how these soul mates write together, and what it was like creating their first memoir. Of course I also called upon their chocoholic expertise for advice on how to treat several chronic writer-specific “maladies.”
So many writers I’ve talked to say chocolate inspires their best work. Is it part of your normal writing routine?
We were chocoholics before it was a word; we nibble chocolate all day. Literally. In fact, Ginger starts off her mornings with two House Truffles. Who needs coffee?
Do you think it’s made you better writers (if so, how)?
Chocolate enhances all aspects of our lives, so, yes. Not only does it make us better writers, but better daughters, sisters, friends, and mates. And of course, chocolate makes Ginger a better mother. She’s taught her son, Justin, that the true meaning of life is… CHOCOLATE.
Is there any one particular kind of chocolate that got you through this book?
Actually, there were 19 decadent pieces of chocolate that got us through our book, which spans twenty-five years behind the candy counter. Each chapter is dedicated to a chocolate piece of the times. Flip to Chapter 11: The Bouchon – Tiered cognac-flavored ganache crème fraiche, and hazelnut praline, sprinkled with edible gold flecks. Or jump ahead to Chapter 14: Our House Truffle – A blend of dark European chocolate truffle center enrobed in Valrhona milk chocolate, and dusted in earthy cocoa powder. And even though some of the bonbons no longer exist – like the Half-Moon Buttercream Dream – their memory sustains us.
You have a very interesting way of collaborating on books – never discussing things in person, always through a written exchange of scenes, chapters, etc., with notes, reactions, and suggestions. Why do you think this works so well?
Well, if we were to sit down with the plan to collaborate, we’d end up talking about customers, chocolate, family, etc. We’d never knock out a single word. The truth is . . . we don’t question or analyze our co-authoring process; we just accept it and if we’re lucky, the words and pages will flow.
What personal strengths as writers did each of you bring to your Chocolate Chocolate collaboration?
We always say that Francie’s the poet and Ginger’s the architect. But there’s a little bit of poetry and design in both of us.
Penning “Chocolate Chocolate” was a unique journey for us. While our previous works were fictional, writing our memoir meant digging into our pasts and revealing personal aspects of our lives. Our main strength was perseverance; not only did the project go through many drafts, we had enough material to write ten books. Deciding what scenes and characters were staying and going was difficult. They were all close to our hearts and part of our story.
Memoir is the art of remembering, a fascinating study of how the mind works. Though you are soul mates, you are also individuals with unique perceptions and powers of recall. How did you compromise when you remembered the same incident in different ways?
If the conflicting memory was minor, we compromised by using one of our versions. But, alas, sometimes a charming story had to be left out of our book.
Example: One bewitching night, while ‘Just the Way You Look Tonight’ was playing on the radio, a woman browsing the chocolates was singing along to the song. Soon a man walked in and, before long, he was singing along, too. Like magnets, they moved towards each other, eyes locked, singing “When the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you…” There was something so magical in that moment.
When the song was over and chocolates purchased, the two left the shop and parted ways without so much as a glance back. Their enchanting duet should’ve been included in our book, but there was one problem. Both of us swear we were there with our shop manager Koomo when only one of us actually was. Not even Koomo can remember! We chalked it up to both of us retelling and reliving the story thousands of times over that our imaginations changed the memory. [Btw, we’ve put together a Reading Group Guide which we can email to readers, including ‘Scenes from the Cutting Floor’]
What was the most challenging part of writing this memoir?
We sold the memoir based on a proposal, meaning it wasn’t yet written and we had strict deadlines, which was stressful given the fact that we had our sweet shop to run. During holidays, we had to put the project down for weeks at a time, then return to it – sometimes it took days to get back into the groove.
Were there any particular tools or methods you found particularly helpful for jogging your memory or fleshing out all the details?
For us, there are no methods or formula for writing and we suppose we can say the same for our memories. For the most part, our memories are as vivid of our opening day in 1984 to our closing day on October 28, 2008 at 6pm, and everything in between.
Did you keep any of those early customer vignettes you wrote on that rented IBM Selectric typewriter?
Many of the vignettes were saved, actually tucked away unbeknownst to us that they would find their way into a book, immortalizing customers and friends.
I was impressed by the interesting points of view you employed in the memoir: a first person plural “we” alternating with “Ginger” and “Francie” third persons. I know you have individual styles as writers, so how were you able to create one beautifully blended, consistent voice and seamless style throughout?
We’re sisters and soul mates who have lived together or near each other our entire lives – creating the first-person plural came naturally to us.
As a result of working on this project, did you learn anything new or surprising about each other?
Not really – but it was almost entertaining to see ourselves “on paper”, and remember ourselves when we were so young.
Any funny or surprising reactions from the people you included in the book?
The obvious characters like our shop manager Koomo, Ginger’s husband Skip and our dear old friend Estelle totally love our portrayals of them. Why not?
They get treated like rock stars by customers and tourists who’ve read our book! One character (someone we knew early on but moved to Arizona many years ago) was thrilled to see himself in the memoir; his wife mailed us the book so we could autograph it for his birthday. Now we’ll be seeing him this Christmas when he comes to town.
Your favorite chapter?
The final chapter and Epilogue are special if not a bit heartbreaking to us. But each chapter is special to us in its own way, literally representing a chapter from our lives. You might say “Chocolate Chocolate” is our legacy.
JUST FOR FUN
Please describe each other in terms of chocolate.
Francie: Ginger’s a House Truffle – crack her shell and she’s a softie.
Ginger: Francie’s a Half-Moon Buttercream Dream – often sweet, all dreamy.
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between chocolate preferences and personality. Please share any insights and/or observations you’ve gleaned with regard to gender, age, occupations, etc., after 27 years as chocolate pushers. Do more women than men love chocolate?
Men, we learned long ago, love chocolate every bit as much as women. And chocolate knows no bounds: gender, age, occupation, mean nothing in our shop. When chocolate-gazing, customers grow young-at-heart. They giggle and swoon, and when you ask them for help, we often hear, “No, thanks, I’m just drooling.”
Recent studies have revealed chocolate’s numerous health benefits. Dr. Francie and Dr. Ginger, what specific chocolates would you recommend for the following writer specific “maladies”?
1. Writer’s Block – A big bag o’ assorted Purely Natural Chocolate-Covered Nuggets. A dozen varieties ranging from toffees to espresso beans to gourmet nuts to caramels, pop these and new ideas will pop into your brain. Guaranteed!
2. Stress and Anxiety – Dark Chocolate Almond Bark. The dark chocolate calms the nerves and the almonds offer necessary energy to combat stress.
3. Social Networkingitis – An assortment of chocolate bars, from the classic Neuhaus Milk Bar to Vosges Chocolate’s “Mo’ Bacon Bar” to the wild “Don’t Eat This” Ghost Chili Bar by Lillie Belle Farms. Hand these out and you’ll be the talk of the town.
4. Envy – Our House Truffle, which is only available at Chocolate Chocolate.
5. Loneliness and Isolation – Anything from our shop – break out the chocolate and, suddenly, you’re not alone in the world.
Thank you, doctors, I plan on following your advice to the letter! ☺ Finally, what are you working on now?
Ginger just completed a YA novel tentatively titled GhostWords about a teenage girl who through paranormal gifts unearths the secrets of her family roots in Korea. She is currently working on another supernatural YA novel.
Francie has completed a new novel, and is gathering thoughts for another work, inspired by the summer she was 21 and cocktail waitressed at DC’s most popular nightclub, the Bayou.
*I’d like to add that Frances and Ginger have also co-authored The Yummy Allergy Cookbook, inspired by Ginger’s son, who has severe food allergies. It will be released sometime in early 2013, published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press.
What will be your favorite gift book this holiday season? You already know mine☺. This heartwarming sweet indulgence will be enjoyed by everyone, chocoholics or not.
Thanks for visiting, Francie and Ginger!!
♥ Learn more about the Park Sisters’ books at their official website. Don’t forget to email them for a copy of their new Chocolate Chocolate Reading Group Guide. Can you imagine a better book club book — discussion enhanced with truffles, bonbons and bars?! Yum!
“We thanked our lucky stars for the books that made big splashes and made peace with the ones that didn’t. In the end, being authors offered us the same wealth as being shopkeepers: a whirlwind of life experiences to keep forever.” ~ Chocolate Chocolate, Chapter 16
“Imagine a little moon of chocolate, simple and smooth, even virtuous. A moon slowly melting onto your tongue, and every muscle instinctively melting with it. Imagine feeling so sated nothing could disappoint you ever again. That was the promise of a Half-Moon Buttercream Dream.” (Chocolate Chocolate, Chapter 4)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers and chocolate go together. Jane Austen had it for breakfast. Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Pepys touted its health benefits and restorative powers, and Roald Dahl always had a stash of chocolate bars on hand for dinner guests.
Most of us would agree that starting any business is a risky, difficult proposition at best. When Frances and Ginger opened Chocolate Chocolate (D.C.’s most popular gourmet sweet shop) back in 1984, they were in their 20’s, had no previous business experience, and were the only minority-owned, independent shop in the city. A shady contractor had left their shop in shambles, they struggled mightily to build a clientele, and at one point they even lost their lease — but their strong sisterly bond, fierce commitment to family, and steely work ethic enabled them to transform a small lobby space on the corner of a big office building into a nationally renowned, locally beloved chocolate boutique.