It wasn’t always easy for Peggy Wolff to get some 30 accomplished writers with Midwest ties to contribute essays on food that wouldn’t overlap for a book she eventually titled, “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food.”
Take Jacquelyn Mitchard, no stranger to Madison area readers. When Mitchard got Wolff’s note asking for a contribution, she wrote back, “Sure, I’ll do this.”
She decided to do a piece on canning tomatoes. Wolff, the editor, was pleased. Some time later, Mitchard alerted Wolff that the essay had detoured into a story about a German restaurant where Mitchard had worked as a waitress. Her brother was a busboy in the same place.
Fine, Wolff said.
Mitchard eventually sent in a piece about pie.
Which was a problem. It seemed everyone wanted to write about pie. Wolff already had two stories about pie, and had been forced to turn down Gale Gand, a nationally celebrated pastry chef, when she suggested pie as a subject.
Gand eventually wrote about a master cheese maker in Indiana.
Mitchard contributed a piece on sweet corn, which mentions the Peck’s produce stands of local repute.
The bottom line for Wolff, who stayed the course and kept the various authorial egos from bubbling over onto the stove, is a book that’s a hit. Three weeks after its early November publication by the University of Nebraska Press, “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie” had sold out. A second printing was ordered.
“It’s the little anthology that could,” Wolff said by phone last week from the Chicago area, where she was raised, and where she returned after a stint in California working on documentary films.
The book’s prize ingredient is the range of perspectives of the writers, who include the novelist Elizabeth Berg; the short story master Thom Jones; former New York Times food writer Molly O’Neill; and even Chicago civic treasure Harry Mark Petrakis, a novelist who turned 90 earlier this year.
A reviewer in the Chicago Tribune, perhaps expecting to find little beyond paeans to pie (ahem) and Fourth of July hot dogs, was pleased to discover humor and irony mixed in. He especially liked Jones’ essay on working on the assembly line for General Mills in West Chicago. At one point a rumor infiltrated the line that a subversive note has been found by a consumer in a Betty Crocker box: “HELP! SLAVE CHAINED TO THE CORNFLAKES LINE. CALL THE NATIONAL GUARD.”
“I’m not sure Wolff ever intended to veer from misty-eyed recollections into the Coen Brothers’ Midwest,” wrote the reviewer, Christopher Borrelli, “but, again and again, in bits and pieces, then entire entries, it’s what she got.”
Wolff herself contributed an essay to the book on Door County fish boils, which she said have exploded in popularity, the theatrics of the preparation turning them into a kind of spectator sport.
“If you haven’t been to a fish boil,” Wolff said, “you haven’t been to Door.”
The genesis of “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie” was an assignment in a writing class that Wolff took a decade ago at Northwestern University. The instructor gave the students a daunting task: start a book.
Wolff had been passionate about food since at least the summer of 1970. During a summer job at a mining lodge in the Cascade Mountains, she turned the tourists’ heads with a grilled cheese sandwich that incorporated bacon and slices of tomatoes and onions. Their appreciation led them to share bits about their lives. It would be years before Wolff started writing, but she remembered that connection between meals and stories.
At Northwestern, Wolff, who enjoyed writing profiles, suggested a book that would feature eight or nine individuals — farmers, chefs — in the business of food. Later, a former New York book editor suggested a tweak. Wolff should write the introduction, and an essay, while serving as general editor for a collection of food writing by a variety of authors.
By then Wolff had been writing food articles for the Chicago Tribune — she’s a frequent contributor — and became convinced that the Midwest’s longtime reputation for producing unremarkable food was out of date and in need of revision. “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie” began to take shape.
Not all the writers Wolff approached said yes. She knew where Scott Turow lived in the Chicago area, and put a note in his mailbox asking if he might contribute.
“How’s that for grass roots?” Wolff said.
Turow declined with regrets — too busy — but others embraced the idea. O’Neill, the former New York Times writer relocated to her native Ohio, contributed a piece on the thriving Columbus food scene, then spent four days in November helping Wolff with the book launch. Berg wrote a piece about missing her aunt’s meatloaf — it’s really about missing the days when families actually sat down together for dinner — and in March will join Wolff in San Francisco at an event promoting the book.
Petrakis, at 90, wrote about the Greek diner he and a friend started decades ago in Chicago, an exercise that convinced him he needed to do something other than feed people for a living. The experience was calamitous. Why, Petrakis noted, one time he even threw a pie in someone’s face.
See, everyone wants to write about pie.