Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Kitchen Daughter includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jael McHenry.The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
With the unexpected death of her parents, twenty-six-year-old Ginny Selvaggio finds that her safe, sheltered existence has completely shattered. Painfully shy and unsure of adulthood, Ginny seeks comfort in the only place that has ever brought her peace: the kitchen.
But the kitchen has its own surprises in store for Ginny. The scent of her Nonna’s rich, peppery soup summons the spirit of Nonna, and she leaves Ginny with a cryptic warning. Suddenly, Ginny is forced to untangle hidden family secrets, all while dealing with her domineering sister Amanda. Ginny comes to realizes that the ghosts of her loved ones can be beckoned back to her kitchen by cooking from their recipes. But she must decide if she has the courage to face the truths they will reveal about her family—and about herself.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Ginny undergoes a great transformation through the course of the novel. Compare the early version of Ginny with the woman she is by the end. Do you feel she has changed? In what ways?
2. “Food has power. Nonna knew that. Ma did too. I know it now. And though it can’t save me, it might help me, in some way.” (p. 45) Do you agree with Ginny that food has power? What did food and the kitchen do for Ginny? Is there something you turn to such as cooking, cleaning, or organizing as a means of coping with your emotions? Or is there a place you go to (as Ginny goes to the kitchen) that makes you feel safe?
3. Many times throughout the story, Amanda appears domineering and high-handed. But do you think Ginny is also quick to judge her sister? Did you relate more to one or the other? Why do you think Amanda feels she has to assume the role of the older sister?
4. Ginny observes, “They say you learn by doing, but you don’t have to. If you only learn from your own experience, you’re limited.” (p. 38) If Ginny had applied this advice outside of the kitchen, do you think she might have had an easier time relating to her sister? Do you agree with her observation, or do you think avoiding mistakes others have made is a different way of limiting yourself?
5. Discussing Elena’s death, David remarks that it might have been better if he had never met her. He says, “I wouldn’t have ever loved her, and that would’ve been my loss, but how bad is a loss you don’t know about? You can’t mourn all the people you could’ve loved but didn’t. You mourn the ones you loved and lost.” (p. 245) Do you agree with his statement? Why or why not?
6. Gert warns Ginny not to summon the spirit of Elena, but Ginny doesn’t listen. Would you have done the same? Why or why not? If you were in David’s shoes, would you want to see the spirit of someone you loved? If Elena had appeared the first time Ginny cooked her dish, do you feel things might have ended differently?
7. Do you think Ginny asked the right questions of the spirits she summoned? What would you have asked if you were in her place?
8. How did you feel about the way Amanda tricked Ginny into going to see Dr. Stewart? Do you think Ginny would have gone to see someone eventually, if Amanda hadn’t forced her? Is it a situation where the end justifies the means? Why do you think communication between the two sisters was so difficult?
9. Along with the kitchen, Ginny often turns to the Normal Book to calm herself. She tells David, “See? Normal means a lot of things to a lot of people. You’re normal. Don’t worry. It’s okay.” (p. 269) Do you agree with her? Do you think normal is a term that has a single definition, or not? Do you think we try too hard to label people as one thing or another?
10. The theme of appearance, in opposition to reality, is central to the book. What are some of the obvious, and not so obvious, examples of this idea? What does Ginny come to understand about the way things appear versus the way they truly are?
11. Ginny’s father hid a very important secret from his family. Do you feel he was right to keep both his and Ginny’s condition a secret from Ginny and Amanda? Do you think by trying to protect her, he ultimately did her a greater disservice?
12. The title of the novel is The Kitchen Daughter. Discuss the significance in relation to the story. What does the kitchen teach Ginny? How does trust, both in and out of the kitchen, play a part in Ginny’s shifting perspectives?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Ginny has certain recipes that specifically conjure certain family members. Prepare and bring a dish special to you to the meeting—if the scent could bring a ghost back, who would it be? What’s the story behind the dish?
2. Check out author Jael McHenry’s SIMMER blog at simmerblog.typepad.com. Pick a recipe or two to try after you’ve finished discussing the book!
3. Compare this novel to other novels that share themes of food and self-discovery such as Julie and Julia or Under the Tuscan Sun. How are they similar? How are they different? If The Kitchen Daughter was made into a movie, who would you cast?
4. Research Asperger’s Syndrome and autism and have each member present an interesting fact. Are you surprised by what you learn?
5. Do you have an item that is to you what the Normal Book is to Ginny? Have each member bring their “Normal Book” to the bookclub and discuss!
A CONVERSATION WITH JAEL McHENRY
What inspired you to write The Kitchen Daughter? What was the experience of writing a novel like for you?
When I started writing the book, I had just moved to Philadelphia, and I lived just a few blocks away from the Italian Market, which is this amazing area with fruit and vegetable stands, and Italian stores full of pasta and salumi and cheeses. I’d always enjoyed cooking, but at that particular point in my life I really started to get serious about expanding my skills and trying new things, and shopping at the Italian Market gave me great ingredients to play with. The more time I spent there, the more I was amazed by the great sense of tradition and identity. There are these Italian families that have been running shops there for generations, and that really spoke to me, the connection between food and family.
So I started developing this character who loves food and loves cooking, but is completely closed off from the world, a young woman who just can’t connect to people. Because food is such a wonderful way to connect, I wanted to create this conundrum, this person who doesn’t use it to connect, has never used it to connect. And she couldn’t just be shy or nervous. She needed to have a real obstacle, not just something she could “get over” by the end of the book. That’s where the Asperger’s came in.
As for the writing process, the first draft came very quickly—it took only a few months to write—but there was a lot of rewriting and reshaping to find the core of the story I really wanted to tell. It wasn’t easy, but I’m so happy with the result.
How has being both a columnist and a food blogger impacted your fiction writing? Are there any particular websites you draw comfort or inspiration from, as Ginny does from Kitcherati?
I think the more you write, the better you get, and you develop skills in one type of writing that you can apply to another. For instance, for the Internet, your writing needs to be crisp and sharp and digestible. If people have trouble following your point, they’ll just go click on something else. My natural fiction style is to write long, flowing compound sentences, but I knew that wasn’t how Ginny would think—you have to watch out for things like that in first-person narrative—so my online writing experience came in handy when developing her voice. It’s short. Almost fragmented.
As for websites, there are definitely blogs and sites I go to almost every day. Serious Eats and eGullet, I think they’re mentioned in the novel, I visit them a lot. They’re interactive and discussion-oriented. Among the blogs, my personal favorite for inspiration is Smitten Kitchen. Her photography is just achingly gorgeous.
There are great descriptions of meal preparations in the book, and you yourself are an enthusiastic cook. What is your favorite dish? Is there a story behind it, or a particular memory it conjures?
I have a whole lot of favorites! Nearly all of them are family recipes, so they’re important to me because of who made them and where they came from. Pierogi from the Ukrainian branch of the family, Cornish pasties (not pastries, pasties, pronounced like “past” not “paste”, they’re meat pies with potatoes and rutabaga in a flaky crust) from the English side, rum cake and bourbon balls at Christmas, Grandma’s butterhorn rolls, the list goes on and on. Because my background and Ginny’s are different, it didn’t make sense to use many of my own family recipes in the book, but I did sneak one in there: the biscuits with sausage gravy are a McHenry classic. Either my mom or my dad will make them at least once whenever the family gets together. I grew up on that gravy. Ooh, and potato puffs. That’s what I used to have for my birthday when I was a kid, fondue and potato puffs, which are mashed potatoes mixed with cream puff dough and then fried. Incredible. And now I’m hungry.
Your heroine Ginny suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, though she doesn’t realize it for the majority of the novel. What made you decide to write her this way? Was it difficult to delve into the mind of someone who sees the world in a very different way than most? What kind of research on Asperger’s was required to make her believable and multi-dimensional in your mind? Was there a reason you chose Asperger’s as opposed to another developmental condition?
As I said a little earlier, I knew from the beginning I wanted Ginny to be closed off from the world, to have an obstacle that kept her from connecting with people. At the time I was just becoming aware of Asperger’s syndrome—I’d met John Elder Robison, actually, that was part of it—and I wondered if it might fit the story. Then the more I found out about Asperger’s, the more I realized that I was already writing Ginny with many of the characteristics of someone on the autism spectrum. Then when I did more extensive research, including reading a lot of first-hand accounts, it became really important to me that Asperger’s be part of her identity and her story. When I was looking for an agent, actually, several of them told me the novel would be easier to sell without it, but I’m really glad I stuck to my guns.
Was it difficult? Absolutely! Writing in Ginny’s point of view was a huge challenge, because so many of the usual narrative techniques were just completely unavailable. She doesn’t look at people’s faces. She can’t read body language. She isn’t going to say “Amanda looked angry” or “I could tell he didn’t mean it” or any one of a thousand other things that would have been natural in some other character’s voice.
Since Asperger’s manifests differently in different people, I had to make choices about her particular instance, and what she was capable of, and how much she couldn’t do because of Asperger’s, and how much she couldn’t do just because she’d never tried, or been allowed to try. As part of the process, I read a lot of first-hand writing from people with Asperger’s, like Gavin Bollard’s “Life With Aspergers” blog, and a great book called Women From Another Planet?, which is a series of essays written by women with autism and Asperger’s, talking about love and work and family and all aspects of their lives. I learned as much as I could about the spectrum, and I picked a point on that spectrum for Ginny to inhabit, along with deciding on all her other characteristics—her sense of humor, her physical appearance, her family relationships, her fears and hopes and strengths, all that.
The book opens with the line: “Bad things come in threes.” Do you believe that’s true?
Honestly? I don’t. I believe we’re always trying to make order out of randomness, and that’s where that saying came from. But it’s something Ginny would believe, because she needs rules and patterns. So that was always the first sentence of the book. That came very early in the process. I always wanted to kick the book off with that contrast, that she lumps those three things together. Most of us would consider death the most traumatic thing possible. But for Ginny, being surrounded by strangers who are actively focusing on her, wanting to touch her and talk to her, that’s almost as traumatic.
Who or what inspired the recipes you chose for each spirit that Ginny brings to life?
The recipe inspiration came from all sorts of places. In some cases the characters drove the recipes, and sometimes it was the other way around. I wanted a Cuban character because I wanted to include a recipe for picadillo, and I read this fascinating interview with a Jewish—Cuban woman, and that’s how Gert came to be. Along the way the scene with the picadillo went away and Gert’s role evolved into something else, with the burial committee, helping bring Ginny out into the world. Most of the other stories are simpler. Elena is from Peru because my husband loves aji de gallina. The biscuits and gravy, like I said earlier, is a family recipe of mine. The 12-minute egg instructions are funny because I don’t actually cook eggs, I don’t like them, but I knew I’d heard somewhere that 12 minutes was the magic amount of time. Then I was talking with my mom about boiling eggs one day and she mentioned “12 minutes” and I thought, “Oh! Right. That’s where I heard it.”
What else is there? Right, the ribollita, the very first recipe. I wanted something simple, and it’s a simple peasant dish, so it would be comforting and she would have all the ingredients right there to make it. And the brownies, there are so many great brownie recipes out there but I really wanted my own that was unique to the book, and I absolutely love salt with chocolate. So I just started playing around. I wanted them dark and not too sweet and salty like tears. Luckily, my critique group was available to eat my experiments.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Are any of the characters in Kitchen Daughter based on people you know?
In a lot of ways, everything about Ginny’s life is the opposite of mine. For one thing, I get along with my mother really well! Always have. So that relationship was hard to write, especially that big argument in the kitchen, because I just have no experience with that kind of tension. I did draw heavily on my life, but not in the way you’d think—it’s the places, not the people. That corner that Ginny lives on, right next to Pennsylvania Hospital—I lived on that corner. When Ginny looks up Broad Street and stares at City Hall, or she walks along Spruce or Pine looking for the antique bootscrapers next to the brownstone stairs, that’s the most of me you see in the novel. You’d think it’s the cooking, but I don’t even cook like Ginny cooks. I’ve never followed a recipe letter for letter in my life. (Well, not until I tested the ones I was going to put in the book.) I’m much more improvisational in the kitchen, and even when I do cook from a recipe, I’ll nearly always change something.
In many ways this is a sister story, as the complicated relationship between Ginny and Amanda is central to the development of the novel. Do you have a sister? If so, did you draw any parallels between your life and the relationship between Ginny and Amanda?
Again, kind of the opposite. No sister. I do have an older brother, but he is very cool (Hi, Derek!), and has never tried to run my life the way Amanda tries to run Ginny’s. Like the tense relationship between Ginny and her mother, the tense relationship between Ginny and Amanda is something I don’t have experience with. I had to stretch to get it right. But the circumstances of the story really drove it—if a person is used to taking care of things, it’s not unlikely that they’ll perceive a family member as one more thing that needs taking care of, especially in a time of crisis. Even though she’s the antagonist, on some level, Amanda’s right—can Ginny really take care of herself? How can anyone know for sure?—so I really enjoyed the complexity of that relationship, and I hope it drives a lot of good conversations between readers.
One of the most significant ideas in the book is the idea that there is no such thing as “normal.” Is that a mantra you live by? What gave you the idea for Ginny’s Normal Book?
You know, I do believe that. I enjoy reading advice columns, and that’s a true thing, the idea that people always want to know if their feelings or their husband’s behavior or their sister’s ultimatum is “normal.” And whether it’s “normal”, whether it happens to everyone else or not, that’s not important. What’s important is that it’s happening to you. The Normal Book grew out of that, the idea that the advice columnist is this judge of sorts, the stranger who people ask for a ruling. Across the excerpts of the Normal Book you’ll see a pretty wide range of where “normal” comes into play. I just felt like that would reassure Ginny, and it’s true, that “normal” to one person is “abnormal” to another and that’s why it’s a largely useless distinction.
Are you planning to return to Ginny and this cast of characters in your next book, or do you feel like their story is finished? If so, where do you think you’ll go next?
I’ve gotten really attached to Ginny, but I think the arc of this book is the crux of her story. These few months are where everything changes for her. So if I do explore more of this cast of characters, it would probably be in short stories and not a whole novel. Each of these people – David, Gert, Amanda, and certainly Ginny’s parents—has a rich history we only glimpse in this book, so I may come back and tell other parts of those stories someday. Right now I’m working on another novel with a first-person narrator and she is very unlike Ginny – bold, shifty, a born storyteller—so I’m exercising totally different writing muscles on that project. But it’s another story of transformation and magic, so I think readers who enjoyed The Kitchen Daughter will find some familiar ground in it.
Who are your writing influences and what are you currently reading?
I have three all-time favorite books: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and All About Braising by Molly Stevens. Of those three, Atwood has definitely had the most influence on my writing (though Stevens has had the most influence on my cooking, and as far as cookbooks go, AAB is remarkably well-written.) I’m always impressed with writers who find ways to break the rules. Both Atwood and Eugenides are brilliant at that.
What I’m reading right now, it’s the same type of thing—it’s Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad—it just amazes me when writers take a giant leap into the unknown and it somehow works. This book has a whole chapter in Powerpoint. Powerpoint! And it works, because it’s the character’s voice, it’s the character’s thought process, and the writer has done a brilliant job of making herself invisible. It sounds weird to aspire to invisibility, but that’s always my goal.