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© Bella Stander


Lorraine Johnson-Coleman
Author of Larissa's BreadBook
(Rutledge Hill Press)

August/September 2001

by Bella Stander

Lorraine Johnson-Coleman loves bread. "Nothing smells like Southern bread," the NPR commentator and author of Just Plain Folks declares. And who could argue? So it seems only natural that when Johnson-Coleman wanted to tell stories of the many ethnic groups that are at home in the South, she should do so by focusing on bread. She got the idea a couple of years ago, when she was showing a "diehard New Yorker" friend around her current hometown of Savannah, Ga. (Johnson-Coleman grew up in New York City, but often visited her grandparents in Farmville, N.C., and lived long enough in central Virginia to give birth to one of her four children at UVa hospital).

"As I was showing my friend the beauty of Savannah," recalls Johnson-Coleman, "I was trying to dispel the notion of the South as just black and white. I told her, 'What you're missing is that there are Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Mexican Americans-and they've all been here two or three hundred years.'" Right then she decided to write a book that shows how "different cultures of people brought their own traditions to the South and mingled them." Later that day, after biting into some cornbread-every bit as inspirational as Proust's Madeleine-Johnson-Coleman realized that "the best way to see the story of immigrant cultures is through bread." She listed all the breads she could think of, then divided them according to their cultural origin. She came up with a bake sale as a unifying concept: "Ten ladies who bake their bread and tell their stories and those of the women who came before them." The result, illustrated by Katherine Sandoz, is Larissa's BreadBook: Baking Bread & Telling Tales with Women of the American South, published by Rutledge Hill Press.

Johnson-Coleman calls Larissa's BreadBook "very well-researched fiction." A technophobe-"I can't even send a fax"-she writes in longhand on a yellow legal pad. She read "about ten history books" on each particular culture in the South, "then I created those women. I just become whoever I want to be!" She also "became" her daughter, Larissa, who collects tales and recipes from elderly women of various ethnic backgrounds as she helps them bake breads for a sale at her middle school. "As I developed each character, I included anecdotes above the recipes because I wanted to make the book that much more personal, intimate and realistic. It's one thing to give a recipe; it's another thing to say what that recipe means to you."

The 160 recipes in Larissa's BreadBook, some of which had never been written down, were culled from family members and friends. Johnson-Coleman even followed an elderly relative around, measuring exactly how much of an ingredient was in "a splash of this" or a "couple handfuls of that." Thus she was able to capture recipes for old-time favorites, such as shortening bread and sweet potato muffins, that are disappearing from the culinary landscape.

"For generations women bonded with their mothers in the kitchen, and I don't see that happening much anymore," says the author. "I'm hoping that this will inspire mothers to bake with their daughters or sons because the recipes are just that easy." Johnson-Coleman's keynote address at a recent meeting of the International Reading Association must have been inspiring, for the crowd of some 14,000 gave her a five-minute standing ovation. But a good bread will keep you on your feet too, she says. "Biscuits are walking food. One will carry you through the rest of the afternoon." As a recent convert to buttermilk biscuits, this reporter can only nod in agreement, for her mouth is stuffed full.

© 2001 Bella Stander

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