Edible Plants and the Character Mr. Payne

Esther Kang Suh

Esther Suh’s guest blog reminds us that there are edible flowers that we can enjoy, provided that we learn about them and make knowledgeable choices.  She points out that as Mr. Payne mentors protagonist, Grace Willis, in The Black Alabaster Box he teaches her to identify edible wild plants. 

I like Mr. Payne a lot. When he first came into the story to help Grace along the way, there was something about him that I knew I wasn’t capturing. I kept asking myself, “Who is he?”  Grace, thinks he is a kind man, “never too busy to say hello, even to a young girl,” (p.18).  I knew he had been an army scout. Initially, I thought he was Wagon Captain. But one of the things I have learned–from my daughter’s background in theater–is that if you are going to deal with a character, you need to know/create their backstory. It may never enter into the script/story, but if it isn’t there, characterization will be shallow.

I kept searching for Jim Payne’s backstory. Then it came to me. He couldn’t have been Wagon Captain. “Before the wagon train set out from Kansas City, the men elected a Wagon Captain. Daddy thought Jim Payne would be good. But some of the men didn’t feel right voting for a Free Negro.” (p.18) Grace doesn’t understand. She asks her father why the men didn’t feel right about Mr. Payne when she likes and trusts him. “Daddy said some things were hard to understand, even for grown-ups, and he hoped it would be different in California” (p.18).  

Black Seminole Army Scouts, image in the public domain

Was Jim Payne’s backstory plausible? I knew it was pretty unlikely for a group of people from different parts of the Eastern U.S. going to California in 1856 to elect a black man their Wagon Captain. But might he have been an army scout?

There were black scouts who served the army with distinction. For example, a little later than Mr. Payne, in the 1870s, four Black Seminoles were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Black Seminoles were descendents/children of slaves who escaped to Florida and married Seminole Indians. The U.S. proposed to relocate the Seminoles to Indian Territory in the mid-1800s. Passage of the Fugative Slave Law of 1850 made life dangerous for escaped slaves and their children, even in Indian Territory. If an enslaved mother escaped to a free state, she and any children she bore were considered slaves. They could be captured and returned to their “owners.” Many Black Seminoles moved on to Mexico to escape the possibility of being returned to slavery.  Read more about them at these two websites:  https://www.nps.gov/amis/learn/historyculture/seminole.htm https://www.blackpast.org/tree/U.S./Indian+Wars

            There were also the famous Buffalo Soldiers following the Civil War. An all black cavalry and infantry units, they made a name for themselves in the American West. Their role is surrounded by myth and legend. If you’re into unpacking myth and legend, you’ll find this article by military historian Frank N. Schubert a fascinating read: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/myth-buffalo-soldiers/. Another resource is https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/buffalo-soldiers#section_1

            I was satisfied that Jim Payne was settled in his place in the story. Without his help, Grace Willis would never have survived in her break for freedom after she was kidnapped. I hope you’ll read the book. It isn’t just for kids! And I’d love to hear from you if you do.

Follow me on Instagram: @fgschoonmaker


Spice Up Your Diet With Edible Flowers: Guest Blog by Esther Suh

Reading The Black Alabaster Box by Frances Schoonmaker sparked a greater interest in me to learn more specific information about wildflowers. Her book makes specific references to wildflowers, like white anemone, purple phlox, and yellow primroses, blooming untamed along the Santa Fe Trail. Some wildflowers served to supplement the diet of travelers moving west in covered wagons. She ties it in beautifully by using Mr. Payne’s character, a retired Army scout, to teach the main character Grace Willis how to find, identify, and eat edible flowers. He tells her, “Mother nature can take good care of you, if you know what to look for” (p. 47). 


Personally, wildflowers top my list of favorite things next to chocolate and coffee. My first experience appreciating wildflowers started in middle school when I found a single bloom stretching out of a tiny crack in the walkway. Out of nowhere did it appear and flourish in that unlikely circumstance.

I’ve also come to admire wildflowers, in particular edible flowers, for the kinds of healthy and flavorful dishes you can make with them. Growing up in a traditional Korean home, eating edible flowers was the norm; I thought everyone ate like this too. Our diet mainly consisted of rice served with side dishes comprised of different kinds of roots, vegetables, and leaves: pickled mustard leaves, marinated Perilla leaves, marinated Bellflower roots, steamed squash leaves, blanched Fernbrakes (although there’s debate about its toxicity levels), and Chrysanthemums, etc. Others like ginseng, which boasts a plethora of health benefits, are rare and expensive. 

My parent’s harvest of Bellflower root in summer of 2018
The roots are marinated with garlic, chili pepper, scallions, and fish sauce.

Above is Fernbrake that is soaked in water, blanched, and/or sauteed to eat with rice.

My mother taught me that certain edible flowers, roots, stems, and leaves can also be useful to heal various ailments: stomach pains, skin irritations, bladder issues, muscular pain, coughs, or any other complaints. It is prepared several ways depending on its purpose: dried, steamed, boiled, or mashed into paste. She tried teaching me when I was a teenager, but as a cranky teenager, I usually rolled my eyes and wished that we didn’t have to cook up a remedy (no pun intended); couldn’t we just go to the medicine aisle at the store and pick something up instead? It seemed very old fashioned and embarrassing. However, as I matured over the years, I began to cultivate an appreciation for what I gleaned from watching and listening to her.

I’m familiar with the edible flowers I grew up eating, but it’s hard to fathom that some common flowers growing outside can be safely consumed for taste and/or nutritional benefits. Everyday flowers like roses, dandelions, and lavender can be eaten or used to enhance flavors. 

These are times I wish I could consult an expert about edible flowers: instead of guessing, this person could advise on how to locate, identify, learn its background and characteristics, and safely taste. I’m dreaming; those kinds of experiences and meeting an expert like that are far and few in between. 

I scoured the internet for answers and information. The search results, as expected, were substantial. Pictures usually accompanied the vast amount of information about these flowers, but to the unaccustomed eye, some are difficult to distinguish from similar looking ones. This makes me a little paranoid thinking that maybe I’ll eat something I’m not supposed to. But I realize that learning more about it and comparing what I see with pictures on websites and books nurtures confidence.   

The next step in my adventure is to venture out, learn more, and see what kinds of foods I can prepare using edible flowers. Once again, I’m amazed at nature’s bounty: it provides so much beauty to see and experience, as well as opening up new ways to cook and eat with flowers.      

You can find Esther’s blog at https://singlikewildflowers.com

Check out these informative websites about edible flowers: 

  • www.whatscookingAmerica.com
  • known as “America’s most trusted culinary resources since 1997” 
  • The website lists 36 kinds of edible flowers broken down into three categories: fruit flowers (4); herb flowers (24); vegetable flowers (11).
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/edible-flowers
  • 11 Edible Flowers With Potential Health Benefits
  • I found this website to be straightforward and easy to read for beginners. It provides a picture, a brief description about it, and a short summary of how to eat it. 

One last thing: Be sure to check that the flower is free of pesticides and you know the specific flower is indeed edible. Esther Suh

When you’re having fun…

The expression is, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” It is one I’ve heard all my life. But where did it come from? That isn’t at all clear.

Its all a part of the The Game of Life–played at our house over the holidays.

For example, I found this at https://www.dictionary.com/browse/time-flies: Time passes quickly, as in It’s midnight already? Time flies when you’re having fun, or I guess it’s ten years since I last saw you—how time flies.  This idiom was first recorded about 1800 but Shakespeare used a similar phrase, “the swiftest hours, as they flew,” as did AlexanderPope, “swift fly the years.”

Others sources trace the expression to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) and fugit irreparabile tempus. “Time irretrievably is flying. Another version is, ‘We cannot stop time in its tracks.’ The shorter Tempus fugit is taken from the longer Fugit irreparabile tempus itself a slightly shortened form of a line from Virgil’s Georgics.” See https://wordinfo.info/unit/4031/page:1

All that is to say that time has been flying past and lots of things happening. Most of them good, some of them challenging, not so great, and others sad. But time keeps moving forward. It was October when I last blogged.

In addition to completing the manuscript for Book 3 of The Last Crystal Trilogy I’ve been promoting The Black Alabaster Box. I’ve asked Esther Suh blogger, Mother, photographer, parent of a “heart child” and educator to write a guest blog about edible plants.

If you’ve read The Black Alabaster box, you know that edible wild plants play an important role in Grace’s survival. Esther’s photographs and knowledge of flowers are one of many features that have made hers a popular blog. Edible wild plants become important in Book 3 as well. I look forward to hearing from Esther soon–you’ll see why she is uniquely prepared to be a guest. .

Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?

Gingerbread.jpg

Thursday was the book launch for The Black Alabaster Box. I read the SCBWI website  for children’s book authors and illustrators. I talked to authors. I hadn’t done a launch before.  When my academic books were published, I put the title on my vita, and the publisher did the rest. So all this launch and publicity, and marketing business is new territory.

One of the best bits of advice I had was: have fun. It turned out to be more fun than I expected! I suppose I was worried that the program wouldn’t work or I’d stumble over myself when I read from the first two chapters, or people wouldn’t like the gingerbread cookies after I spent a day making them. But once all the balloons were up and it got under way, it was all fun. Sarah VanTiem was a brilliant emcee. She led an interesting conversation with Katie Schmidt, whose class at Rodgers Forge Elementary School piloted the book last year. I didn’t trip over my own tongue and Jack VandenHengel’s “On the Santa Fe Trail,” and “Tumbling’ Tumble Weeds” (with guitar) had everybody so into it that by the time he got to “Red River Valley” people were singing along. It was really fun. And people ate gingerbread cookies much more delicately than either Ruby or Junior in the book–you’ll have to read chapter two for that story.

“Can you have a launch without gingerbread cookies?” Silly question isn’t it? So many people commented on them, though, that I thought I’d share the recipe. They were an important part of my launch! Here it is, my version of an old recipe.

Gingerbread Cookies

1/3 cup shortening (part butter)                    ½ tsp. salt                                                                   1 cup dark brown sugar (packed)                   ½ tsp. allspice                                                        12 oz. jar of dark molasses                              1 tsp. ginger                                                           1/3 cup cold water                                               ¾ tsp. cloves                                                          6 cups sifted flour                                              1 tsp. cinnamon                                                      2 tsp. soda

Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add molasses and mix thoroughly. Stir in water. Sift together dry ingredients and stir in 1 cup at a time. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick. Chill dough at least 1 hour or overnight. Lightly grease cookie sheets. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut with cookie cutters and space about 1 inch apart. Decorate with sprinkles before baking (if you want to use sprinkles). Or, after baking, roll in powdered sugar while they are still hot or frost with powdered sugar icing when they are cool.

Bake 12-15 min. or until cookies are starting to brown on the edges.

GBCscutoutsStacks of GBCs

Mmmmm! Enjoy.

 

 

Continue reading “Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?”

Reviews that count

When I began work on The Alabaster Box my granddaughter, Amelia, was of enormous help. I tried chapters out on her and we talked through issues. It was like having a junior editor. I asked friends, Isaiah and his mother, Sarah VanTiem, if they would kindly read it once I had a good draft. Isaiah is a fourth grade student and I figured that if anybody could give me objective feedback, he could. Sarah is a poet and has a critical eye–just what I needed. When Isaiah said, “I really like your book,” when I saw him a week or two later, I was really pleased.

The next big trial came when Katie Schmidt read it to her fifth grade class at a public school. It was interesting to get feedback via Amelia as they progressed through it. They had good ideas, but best of all, they LIKED it–really LIKED it! It doesn’t get any better than that.

All this time while I am searching for an agent and not getting any enthusiasm, the kids are liking the book and wanting more. It was just the encouragement I needed. Somewhere out there is the sensible agent and publisher who will jump at the chance to support the book, because the kids already do. I got some wonderful thank you letters after I visited the class.  The boys and girls in Mrs. Schmidt’s class are the ones who should be getting the thank you. Below are some of their letters:   Letters for Blog2Okay, so you can’t see them that well. Zach says thanks for “letting us borrow your awesome book, ‘The Alabaster Box.’ Now I want to read the whole trilogy!”–even if I haven’t found a publisher by the time you finish The Red Abalone Shell, Zach, I’ll be sure you get the final book. It takes a long time to get a book into print. You shouldn’t have to wait that long.

Owen and Fisher say they hope the books get published–me too! Owen wrote, “Your first book was great and [I’ll] bet the second book and the third are even better.” Colin M. says, “your book held great things like the suspense, the adventure, and the excitement.” Sam says that the book, “got me more inspired to read more books this year.” That’s good, Sam. The world is full of wonderful books just waiting to be read.

Abby and Maddy both say they can’t wait to read my next books. Yea Abby and Maddy. That makes me feel great. Mary, who wasn’t one of the four who drew the chance to read one of the four manuscripts of The Red Abalone Shell that I left with the class, says that she can’t read it yet, “but I’m very excited to because I LOVED the first book.” So I hope you’ll like the second, Mary.

Colin K thought it was interesting and funny. Malena said that since a lot of students really liked The Alabaster Box it was nice for me to leave copies of the next book. I hope you like it Malena when you get to read it. Natasha says, “I really enjoyed your book and I thought it was AMAZING, I will definitely try to start reading the next one!”  I hope your turn comes soon, Natasha.

Caroline, who was one of the four who drew first chance to read The Red Abalone Shell says, “I love the second book so far it is really good!” Eve says, “I am so EXCITED to read the new book!! I can’t wait to figure out what is going to happen to James and Little Grace…I LOVED the first book a whole lot so you can imagine how exited I am to get to read one of the books.” [One of the four copies I left.]  Elise, who was also one of the four, says, “So far, The Red Abalone Shell is awesome! I also like The Alabaster Box! Caroline, Eve, and Elise, I’ll be very interested to hear your ideas as you finish the book.

From these excerpts, maybe you can see why I call this post “Reviews that count.” I treasure the excitement these girls and boys shared with me. But I also treasured their feedback. I took what they had to say very seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing and Reading THE ALABASTER BOX: An Invitation

Chapter 1: The Stokes Company

            “If it had been left up to Grace, they would have stayed home. But she didn’t get to choose. With land opening up in the West, her father and mother wanted go to California and start a medical school. So, sorry or not, she had to leave nearly everybody and everything she had ever known and loved in St. Louis, Missouri where she had lived her whole safe, comfortable life.”

This is the opening paragraph of The Alabaster Box.  Maybe you have a question for me. You may ask questions about the story or about writing the story. I’ll do my best to answer. You can also tell me what you liked and wanted more of as well as what didn’t work for you. You will see some comments below. You can enter your own comments or respond to somebody else’s comment. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will find the place to reply.

If you haven’t read the book, I hope this makes you curious enough to want to read it when it is published.