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Conversation with… Jane Yoken and Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Mother-daughter team writes Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts

Jane Yoken

Jane Yoken

Heidi E. Y. Stemple

Heidi E. Y. Stemple

By Stacey Dresner

In 2009, acclaimed author and storyteller Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi Stemple teamed up to write “Fairy Tale Feasts,” a fairy tale book/cookbook for families. Now the duo have written “Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook,” which combines Yolen’s renditions of Jewish folk tales with Stemples recipes for challah, matzo brei, pomegranate couscous, tzimmes chicken, rugelach, and colorfully illustrated by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin.
Yolen is the author of more than 300 books, including “Owl Moon” and “Devil’s Arithmetic.” Her books and stories have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award, among many others. Stemple, a frequent collaborator with her mother, is also the author of many children’s books, including “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” and “One If by Land.” They both recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about their new book.

Q: You wrote “Fairy Tale Feasts” in 2009. Obviously writing a similar book with Jewish folk tales only makes sense. How did it come about?
JANE: Heidi and I had already done “Fairy Tale Feasts,” to  pretty good results and our publisher—Interlink Books, which does a lot of cookbooks—was very pleased with the sales figures. One of Interlink’s best bookstore owners said, “Would they ever consider a Jewish cookbook in the same format?” Our publisher thought that a great idea since he’d already brought out an award-winning adult Jewish cookbook, and asked us. We grinned at one another, looked at our time constraints, and agreed.

Q: How did you choose which Jewish folk tales to include in this book?
JANE: The first pass was through my rather extensive folklore collections which takes up a great deal of my attic space. I was looking for stories that specifically mentioned food. You probably won’t be surprised at how many Jewish stories have food at the core! But second pass had to be stories in which the food was a significant moment in the tale. And the third pass was which wheat stories or honey stories or milk stories or chicken stories (etc.) were appropriate for child readers and might be fun to retell. And I also had to limit the number of Elijah stories to retell because he seemed to be in a great many food stories.

Q: Do you have a more of a fondness for the Jewish folk tales in this book, as opposed to the fairy tales in your first book?
JANE: Nope. I have special fondness for particular ones from each of the collections. In this book, I like best the story about dividing the chicken because of its cleverness, the one about the jars of honey because it’s about justice and is a mystery as well, and the one about challah because it is about the true meaning of prayer and love of God.

Q: Do you have a favorite tale or recipe in this book?
JANE: It’s always all about blintzes for me.

Q: You collaborated with your daughter Heidi, with her developing the recipes. How does the collaboration work in terms of how you choose both the tales and the recipes?
JANE: A lot of talking, a lot of tasting, a lot of revision. Just like life. Also living next door to one another helps. And no one ever goes home hungry or angry.

Q: Heidi, how did you come up with the recipes in the book? How long did it take to perfect the recipes?
HEIDI: There is a great tradition (in all families—Jewish or otherwise) of handing down recipes.  It’s the same for folklore, which is why this book (and its predecessor Fairy Tale Feasts) work so well.  But, in our family, my mother loves story telling but not cooking.  So, when it comes to recipes, I start from scratch (pun intended).  I did a lot of research and then got to cooking.  I would cook and taste test then tweak and cook again.  There was lots of eating in my house when I was working on the book.  My daughter Maddison, 17, and her boyfriend Brett and their friends all ate lots of interesting meals (imagine eating blintzes, kugel, and latkes for dinner all week).  The dancers at Amherst Ballet ate bags and bags of the cookies.  My daughter Glen, 29, and her fiance Jason also came over and ate a LOT.  Of all my taste testers, Jason was the best—he was always willing to drop by and eat whatever was leftover.  The book is dedicated to him.
As to how long it took to create this book—it took a long time.  A couple years.  I have to admit that I was very late on my deadline for this book.  Our editor was very patient with me.

Q: Are the recipes child-friendly?
HEIDI: The recipes in Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts are written to be made by a family.  It’s not a recipe book filled with simple recipes—they involve cutting and cooking so adult supervision is needed for many of the recipes.  But, in every recipe, jobs for even the littlest kitchen helpers can be found.

Q: Jane, what is it like collaborating with your daughter?
JANE: It is a total joy. We have written poems together, picture books together, nonfiction books together, and now two cookbooks. What’s not to like?

Q: Heidi, what is it like collaborating with your mother?
HEIDI: My mom and I have collaborated on about 20 books.  It’s a great joy to be able to work with her.  She is smart and hard working and a great mentor.  I like to think she will say the same of me.  Right now, we are actually collaborating with both my brothers on a new book.

Q: How does the collaboration work? Did she decide what tales to do and then you came up with a recipe to fit it?
HEIDI: We have a huge folktale collection in our library.  So, for this book, we went through all the Jewish literature and pulled as many stories with food elements.  Then we brainstormed about what recipes we would link to each tale.  The book had to be well rounded with every meal represented.  So, we dropped stories that didn’t lend to that and looked for more outside our personal library when we couldn’t find a story to correspond with a particular meal.  When we had a good list, we set to work separately—she retold the stories and I worked on the recipes. When she was done with the stories, I read the entire thing and, just like the recipes, I squeezed and changed, suggested, and retested the tales.  Then I sent them back and she did the same.  We both added bits to the side notes about the recipes and tales.  And, we ate a lot of food.

Q: Is this a children’s book or is it for the whole family? Explain.
JANE: It’s a cookbook for kids to explain to their parents, and for parents to read with their kids. It’s a cookbook where knives and fire are probably in the parent’s corner, but mixing and bowl-licking in the kids’. Except at our house where the kids are now grown and Heidi’s youngest is off to college next fall.

Q: JANE, What are you working on next?
JANE: Together we are working on a couple of picture books (including one series), some nonfiction proposals, and a possible middle grade novel.
By myself—I have a middle grade trilogy under contract with my son Adam, the first book of which will be out in the Fall.
With all three of my children, a book for National Geographic. And by myself, an adult collection of political poetry, several children’s poetry collections, a novel about the Holocaust, a picture boo about the Holocaust, a number of picture books. . .oh, the list goes on and on.

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