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November 07, 2010

Barbara O'Neal Guest Blogs

Nancy Martin sez, "I fell in love with Barbara O'Neal's books because they're a wonderfully sensuous blend of romance and . . . food.  Her characters are earthy and vivid, with deep emotions, wit and drama.  You feel their yearning and their hunger. I think TLC readers are going to fall for Barbara's books just as hard as I did. I can't wait to pick up her newest, HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE." 

Surprise! I Actually Do Know How to Cook

By Barbara O’Neal       Barbara O'Neal

I have now written more than seven books with food (and dogs) front and center. My family still asks me, “When did you learn to cook?”

 This is exasperating because I have been feeding them for years.  Decades.  I have won prizes for my breads and baked goods (and they’ve seen the ribbons).  Nearly every one of my family members can cite a favorite food that is one of my dishes, fajitas or corn chowder or the chocolate chip cake I make from one of my mother’s recipes.  My sister once said that one of her favorite places to be when she has a troubled heart is my kitchen.  That suggests a bit of healing energy, eh? 

 But here’s the thing: for years, I didn’t know this about myself. I was the moon orbiting the sun of my ex-husband.  He is a very big personality, full of jokes and anecdotes and nicknames for everyone in the universe (this is one of those great stokes of charismatic genius I’ve observed over the years: give everybody their own name and they feel seen and loved).  He is a good cook, but his repertoire is small: Sunday breakfast, pork chops (I had to teach him to make gravy), and barbeque.  Oh, and Ram’s Ass Kicking Apple Pie, which is so good I actually begged him to let me put it in a book and it became a book club favorite.

 When Ram cooked, it was always a Production.  He liked things just so. Special apron, special music, special tools, like the green bottle he used to roll out his biscuits, and his secret ingredients, like coffee in the barbeque sauce and gingersnaps in the apple pie.  Like chefs who make things so very complicated in restaurant kitchens, there was a lot of drama in Ram’s cooking.

 My kitchen skills were more down to earth. I can cook for 60 in a room the size of a closet, and they will all leave not only satisfied, but really happy. I can cook for a family for a month on $200 and never ever resort to white flour or junk meat.  I’m an organic, hippie kind of cook with a special passion for breads and vegetables and especially soup.  I can also create high end dishes with French flair, don’t get me wrong, and I swear my duck tamales (created for The Lost Recipe for Happiness) sealed the deal with my beloved Christopher Robin.   I write the recipes for all of my books, and it’s quite an undertaking, requiring all the skills of discernment and intuition you might imagine.  

 But here is the difference between me and most male cooks: I don’t need glory to do it.

 At my little metaphysical church in the Rockies, we’re all asked to do a volunteer job.  Mine is leading the fellowship committee, which feeds everybody after the services, a job I took on because I moved 50 miles north of my family and couldn’t cook for them anymore, or at least not very often.   It’s a big job, and I need a crew to help.  It’s often difficult to fill the positions because, as people say to me, over and over, “It’s kind of a thankless job, isn’t it?”  By which they mean that it’s women’s work, invisible. 

 And yes, I suppose if you want glory, providing coffee and food for the entire congregation might be considered thankless.   People file by and fill their plates and coffee cups and then….they go sit down and talk to each other.  Sometimes for a long time.  The better the food, the longer they linger.  When they talk to each other, they are building community ties, and they have support for whatever trials they might face, and they have a place to celebrate their joys.  I am invisible.  The food is largely invisible. 

 And yet, an old man, a little down on his luck, shows up every Sunday with his equally weary wife.  They drink gallons of coffee and come a little early so they can pick the best of the pastries.  One day he showed me his finger, burned badly on an engine he was trying to repair.  All he needed was to be seen, that sore finger tsked over.  So I shook my head as I filled his plate with extra cookies. 

 Easy.  Invisible.  Holding up the pillars of the world. 

 My ex found glory in his big showy dishes, but mostly because he cooked for special occasions and Sunday mornings.  The rest of the time, the hot breakfasts I cooked for my children every morning of their lives until they turned into teenage vampires and snarled at sunlight, the dinners of chicken and tacos and krautburgers that were on the table every single night (where we sat down together to eat, my mother’s injunction, and a worthy one), the afternoon “teas” of cookies and hot tea that I served after school sometimes where only the invisible pillars holding up health and habit and happiness.   (I consider it a great victory that both of my sons are extremely thoughtful eaters—one is a vegetarian, the other so anti-junk food that he puts me to shame.)   Daily cooking is women’s work. 

Much like “women’s fiction,” which has to be so labeled I think so that it won’t interfere with the big, important, glorious work of the literary (mostly male) set who seem oddly worried by the quiet, desperately important stories contained in books about families and connections and women’s lives and choices.  

But just as I don’t mind cooking for sixty in a closet and sending them all away satisfied; just as I loved making French toast for two sleepy middle schoolers, just as I love being there, quietly and steadily, for an old man who burned his finger, I love writing novels for the woman who is cooking invisible meals and needs something to read that has meaning in her world.  I love writing books that offer her a hand she can hold in the evening when she’s exhausted, writing a book that will lift her spirits and maybe give her a reason to get together with her friends and drink some wine.  

It might be womens’ work, but it’s mine. 

How to Bake a Perfect Life goes on sale December 21.  How to Bake a Perfect Life: A Novel






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To this day my mom insists she can't cook and yet supper arrived on the table every day at 5 o'clock when my dad got home from work. Sunday dinners included pineapple upside down cake after a lovely roasted chicken dinner. Breakfast happened, lunches were made. While I was in Grade 11 & 12 my mom went back to college and me being the responsible child rushed home from school to get dinner on the table in time for my dad's arrival. Two years of this taught me that cooking for a family is indeed thankless. I was also blessed with a father who could and did cook and bake so it wasn't always woman's work at our house.
When I moved out of the house I got a call from my younger brother asking me if I liked living on my own, when I said I did and I wasn't moving back, he informed me that he missed me because mom only cooked 'gruel'.
Turns out it was only thankless while I was doing it.
36 years later I still cook and bake but it is just for me and I appreciate the work I do every day. And the books I like to read are mostly written by women so to all of you Thanks!

Oh, Barbara, you just cheered me up and also enlightened me about a big chunk of my life, which I don't exactly remember signing on for, which came with the territory of having children. I just love this blog. I haven't felt so comforted since I discovered the writing of -- wait, I'll be right back. I've forgotten her name.

I must buy your books.

MFK Fisher. That's who I was thinking of. She got me into my own kitchen decades after I'd fled my mother's.

I've been cooking since I was a kid--my mother hated it. Sometimes, in the day to day routine I forget how much I truly do enjoy it. Thanks for the reminder.

I just know this bunch will love your books, Barbara. I spent a couple of weeks this summer---uhm----devouring them when I was----of all things-----dieting! They're delightful, thoughtful, evocative, poignant. I found your work spiritually restorative. Thank you.

I loved this blog. Thank you, particularly for the shout out to all the "church basement ladies" who do fellowship week after week, funeral after funeral, wedding after wedding. The heart of every church is, I think, in the kitchen.

Barbara, I loved this post! I can't wait to read your books. You have completely cheered me up this morning. Why I needed to be cheered up after getting an extra hour of sleep last night, I don't know. But cheering up, I needed, and thanks to you, I just got it. I'm so excited to go and find your books today.

oh my - I loved reading this post!
A lovely way to start my Sunday - Thank You.
And I'm grateful to Nancy for the "introduction," 'cause Barbara O'Neal books are now at the tippy top of my "gotta read" list.
and Harley - I adore MFK Fisher also.

Ah, Barbara, you have described my very life. I still cook, even though it's just me and my husband, and he doesn't realize how good he has it.

My mother always worked, and she also always had a meal on the table, even though it was usually a truly slapdash affair: baked beans with mashed potatoes and mac 'n cheese, and a slice of fried liver, all on the same plate. She loved to bake from scratch, though: carrot cakes made with mounds of shredded carrots, delectable German sweet chocolate cakes, and M&M cookies. My dad, though, taught me to cook the basics, like Swiss steak, biscuits, and stuffed pork chops (which I've never made, but could if I had to).

If you want your kids to truly appreciate all you did for them, do what I did a couple years ago: create a family cookbook with all their favorite recipes. I added them to a CD for each of my three daughters, and handed it over with a 3-ring binder, plastic sleeves, and card stock on which to print out the recipes they particularly wanted to have. My youngest daughter is a diehard cook, a graduate student with little extra cash, and she printed out all of the recipes. And then she makes yummy meals and posts photos of them--arranged on my old dishes that I gave her--on Facebook. Does her mom's heart good, I tell ya.

Also, we watched "Babette's Feast" last night. Wow, talk about invisible!

Oh, Barbara. I feel like I just sat at your table with you and poured out my heart . . . and you heard me. And fed me. And helped make sense of my little slice of the universe. I spent yesterday making a huge pan of lasagna for dinner with friends and a big batch of soup for the church fundraiser. And it was an incredibly satisfying way to spend my morning. And in a few minutes I'm going to go make a puff pancake for my husband and me. And this afternoon I'll sneak off to tweak my last chapter.

Thanks for making me realize how important all this is.

I have often thought that the main difference between "man's" work and "woman's" work is that a man's stays done longer. Whether it's mowing the lawn, plowing a field, building a house, laying bricks, etc., the work stays done for at least a week. During that week, the woman has usually cooked at least 14 meals, washed a pyramid of dishes, mopped or swept the kitchen floor every day, made beds every morning, etc. etc. Not that both aren't necessary, but it's still too often true that "A man works from sun to sun; a woman's work is never done."

Big wave to a fellow church basement lady! (Rushing through as I get ready to haul the bags of groceries to church this very morning. )

Karen, I gave my children that cook book a couple of years ago, but...wait for it....I made it from their father's recipes! LOL. I didn't want them to get lost. Must do it from my own.

So many good posts here and I want to respond to each one. More later, friends. The hungry hoards await.

What a wonderful blog post!
Thanks so much for being here this morning.

Waves from Florida!

Harley - MFK Fisher popped into my head as I read this wonderful post. (Great minds think alike!)

As I am in the midst of a rotten cold, I am going to make some lentil soup today and a pot of kale and sausage soup tomorrow. Both will make me feel like I'll survive!

You're are a fabulous blogger, and I'll bet an equally fabulous cook. Can't wait for HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE!


I just finished reading Lady Luck's Map of Las Vegas also written by Barbara Samuel and I loved it. I downloaded No Place Like Home.
Now I cannot wait to read Barbara's newest novel.
Her writing is sumptuous.

This was lovely! Thank you.

Luckily for me, my husband, whose mother was a terrible cook, and my two sons all appreciate my cooking.

But what makes me happiest is that both of my sons now cook and do it well. They ask for recipes and often text me pictures of what they made: plated up and properly garnished. It makes me laugh every time. They both recognize that feeding people can be an act of love.

Wait, wait---How have I missed LADY LUCK'S MAP OF LAS VEGAS??? I must order!

I'm so pleased to find a few more Barbara fans among our regulars. I hope more of you will give her work a try--very soon.

Mary, did I give you my cold? I'm very sorry.

Judy, I want to know what a "puff pancake" is!

Nancy, it's the easiest breakfast ever--Put 2 T. butter in ovenproof skillet (8 inches or so) and place in oven. Preheat to 425 (so butter melts while oven is preheating). Meanwhile, beat 2 eggs, whisk in 1/3 c. flour, 1/2 c. milk. Add a dash or so of nutmeg and cinnamon. When oven is preheated, pour egg mixture into skillet. Throw in a handful (or 2) of fresh/frozen berries. Bake for 15-18 minutes. Top with syrup. Serves 2. Easily doubled or tripled.


Barbara, how wonderful.You "don't need the glory." You bring tears to my eyes. Thank you.

Margaret, update please! How are you? TLC'ers are eager to know. xo

I loved this post for all the same reasons. What i am struck by is the generosity in this group of folks who do so much good. Barbara, I will look for your books. I, too, cooked for years without much fanfare except from the other women who came to dinner. And, yes, my then husband wanted a brass band when he graced the kitchen. We didn't need the glory because we did what we needed to do. Although I am in my late sixties now, and don't cook as much as I did, or I keep it simple since it just for me. I hate to say this-no, I don't-I used the extra hour to finish a book. What a treat!

I love Barbara's mystical, comforting books no matter which name she's using. I'm so happy that you visited today.

Welcome! I can't wait to read your books!
I love to cook & bake and even tho it's just for myself now, hey I deserve the good stuff too! Last week I made chicken marsala, yesterday I used Paul Prudhomes recipe for bread pudding with bourbon sauce.
My neighbors are always glad to get a plate from me. I collect recipes from restaurants. Knowing I can make a whole pan of kick-ass lasagna for $19, I get really irked to see a restaurant charge $15 for one piece! I make big batch recipes & freeze in Gladware, always a variety.
I have a container of lemon semi freddo that keeps calling to me, but am trying to save it for bff. But it is SO yummy!

I'm finding that I can only read TLC about once a week these days, because of my work schedule . . . but what a lovely morning it is when I read four or five TLC posts (and alllllllll the comments) at once.

Kathy R. Sweeney, I love that you hug total strangers who don't always look like they'll reward you with appreciation.
Barbara, on Friday, I stopped at the laundry to pick up the linens for my office. I usually do them myself, but have been busy and tired and splurged to have them done. I spotted an older gentleman that I've seen at the laundry in the past, and we exchanged greetings. He said he was doing his 'woman's work', which I thought was a little odd, until he continued to say, "My work, well, it's man's work--I do it once and it stays done. But, the woman's work part of things, just has to be done over and over again." He kind of grinned ruefully and went back into the laundromat.

Loved the Election Antidote post . . . I was reflecting the other day, not very kindly, on the very bad feelings I have about the folks I label 'idiots' and the hubris and arrogance I see in them . . . and realized [again] how this way of thinking violates my stance of non-violence and compassion. Now, I occupy myself by figuring out what strategies of love, generosity, kindness, respect, etc., could drench those 'idiots' with sufficient positive energy to actually change their attitudes and actions. Not sure that it will work, but it is more amusing and better for my heart than focusing on anger and irritation.

Ooh, Judy, I'm definitely making that, and soon! Thanks for the recipe.

Barbara! No wonder your kids aren't validating your cooking skills. LOL

Karen, I make it just about every Saturday morning. And sometimes on Sunday too.

I have not read MFK Fisher--so excited to try her books! Thanks for the recommendation.

Karin, how wonderful that your children send you texts and pictures of the dishes they've made.

LIl & Rita, I can see how I might tend to cook less as time goes by. I tend to go in big bursts now, trying tons of new things, then not wanting to cook much at all.

What a wonderful group here!

What I LOVE about cooking is preparing the dishes - knowing that cutting up vegetables, or kneading bread, or sifting flour, all things done by millions of women for thousands of years - the colors, the smells, all a continuim that truly makes me a member of the brotherhood of women

What a beautiful tribute to women everywhere, Barbara. Thank you for being here today. I can't wait to pick up some of your books!

A wonderful post! I love reading fiction foodie books, especially yours. I'm cooking more lately and taking bigger chances. One of my favorite online sites is Allrecipes. I'm already looking forward to your next book.

Nancy, no my cold is from my husband. A sterling man in every respect but colds - he just can't keep them to himself.

But the lentil soup made me feel a bit more human, and he raved about it, so he can stay!

I wanted to post about how insightful and wise this post is -- and it is! -- but all the lovely insightful, wise ladies took all my intelligent comments. So, I'll just say, "What they said!"

However, this did remind me of a couple I once knew. Both went to cooking school, but one evening he said, in an oh-so-condescending tone, "Laura does what I call 'home cooking.'" I asked what he meant and he continued in the same superior tone, "Oh, you know, pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans." To which girlfriend Laura replied, "Yes, Tom is a better chef, but when he cooks he makes, like a steak and a sauce."

I thought, "That's it!" Men make a steak and expect nothing less than adulation. Women cook full meals every day and are lucky to get any credit at all.

Thank you, Barbara. I loved this post. Made my day.

My mom always had dinner ready when my dad got home from work and the day always started with a good breakfast. She, too, was the lady in charge of the church dinners, funeral spreads, and Rotary Club weekly luncheons at the church.

She was a good cook and unfortunately I have neither her ability nor her interest in cooking. Although I wish now that I had helped her make those delicious home-made rolls, donuts, and pies so I could try and duplicate them.

You are so correct in saying the women in charge of all those wonderful meals never get the recognition and praise but all the complaints if the coffee is cold or something doesn't taste just like someone else used to make it. However, I'm just as sure getting praise and recognition is not why you or my mom chose to do it but it sure is nice when people recognize the effort and talent required and let you know they appreciate it.

Even after my mom had passed the torch to someone else at the church she continued to make soup and things to help feed the "old folks" when she was in her 70's. She was always doing things for others until her health started declining - always without as one would say "tooting her own horn". Her motto was "give people their roses while they are alive".

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