Novels with food taking center stage – also known as “foodie novels” – have grown in popularity, and no one does this genre better than Stacey Ballis. Stacey has written several novels for readers to savor and salivate over, and her most recent, Out To Lunch, doesn’t disappoint with a storyline that will capture your heart and food that will ensnare your appetite. From the first of Stacey Ballis’s novels I read, I was hooked, and now, I’m a dedicated reader, living in a state of constant anticipation of her next written work.
In Out To Lunch, Ballis creates a story that’s all about best friends, love and loss, and fantastic food. Jenna has lost her best friend, business partner, and proclaimed “sister by choice,” Aimee. Aimee was Jenna’s rock, in many ways the center of her universe, and Jenna is left trying to negotiate the world without her. But Aimee throws Jenna for a loop with her final request – to take financial custody of Wayne, the husband she left behind. Jenna was never fond of Wayne – his odd and limited culinary palate, his range of personality quirks – and she’s left wondering, “What was Aimee thinking?”
Jenna must now press forward and create a new life for herself in the absence of Aimee. Aimee is never far away, a constant presence in Jenna’s mind and the ever-present question, “What would Aimee do?” And she must learn to adapt to Wayne’s new presence in her life and playing the role of “guardian,” despite the objections of her new boyfriend.
Intermingled with the characters is an additional character – food. Whether it’s “a sandwich the size of Wyoming” or creamed spinach with a secret ingredient, food plays a vital role in the novel. Food connects the characters. Food takes on a role in the story like an additional friend – always there at the right moment, always comforting, and radiates the unique personalities of others in the novel. Each novel ends with recipes that tie in with the story. I love these, no only because I love a great recipe, but because I feel connected to the creations of the characters.
Stacey Ballis is masterful in the way she makes the reader want to cry and grab a chocolate bar in the same moment. I had an opportunity to ask her some questions about Out To Lunch, her own love for food, and her writing:
In ‘Out To Lunch,’ Jenna must contend with a number of obstacles – the death of her best friend, the new “guardianship” role she’s given with her best friend’s husband, a new relationship that she’s unsure of. How did you find inspiration for Jenna?
I always like to write women who have a real sense of complexity, and most importantly, strength. In Jenna’s case, I wanted to explore the kind of woman who is so self-reliant, that when something comes along that really pushes her to her brink, she finds herself a little paralyzed by that strength. I think we all know someone who is everyone else’s rock and as a result, doesn’t feel able to lean on anyone else. I knew that someone like that would really need to have a lot thrown at her all at once to force her to re-evaluate the way she engaged with the world, and for her to begin to recognize that sometimes your greatest show of strength is to know when to lean on the people who love you.
What does food signify in the relationship between Jenna and Wayne in ‘Out To Lunch?’ Do you feel, like I did, that Wayne’s willingness to expand his culinary palate, to move beyond his few go-to dishes, also tied into the growing friendship developing between he and Jenna?
With Wayne, I needed a way to fully underscore why Jenna was so instantaneously put off by him, and why they never really came to bond with each other despite proximity and their connection through Aimee. Making him not just not a foodie, but essentially the anti-foodie, with strict regulations for what he will and won’t eat, making him a problem child in the food arena was an easy way to show the chasm between him and Jenna. But what we begin to know about Wayne is that he is fiercely loyal and a truly good friend. He recognizes that if he is going to fill any of the space in Jenna’s life that is left by their mutual loss of Aimee, one of the ways to do that is through food.
In your foodie novels, your leading ladies work in the food industry. Jenna in ‘Out To Lunch’ has a background in catering. Alana, in the accompanying novel, ‘Off The Menu,’ is an executive culinary assistant. In ‘Good Enough To Eat,’ the main character, Melanie, operates a gourmet take-out cafe. These women give the nonprofessional cook or baker a look into the work of the full-time chef. Where did you get your information to so intimately describe these women’s working lives? Do you have a background in the food industry?
I do not have a background in the food industry, I’m just a passionate home cook and eater. Growing up, my grandmother tested recipes for cookbooks and had a small catering business, and I do have many friends who are chefs, so I have a window into that world that I hope is believable. I did some television work a while back as a regular on-air contributor to the first season of the Rachael Ray talkshow, and so I got a sense of how that comes together from my time on their set.
Food plays a central role in many of your novels. What is the importance of food in your writing? And expanding, is food – cooking, baking, creating – an important part of your own life?
For me, there are always two extra characters in my books – Chicago and food! I’ve always felt that food is more than just fuel. It is sustenance for the soul, it can be an expression of love or concern, it can help you heal, it is what we turn to in both celebration and for comfort. In my personal life it is a great passion. My husband and I love to cook together and to entertain our friends and family. I’m the one in my circle of friends who gets out the soup pot when someone is sick, or the cake tins when there has been a breakup. I love to help friends rediscover the recipes from their youth that they thought couldn’t be recreated. And I really love flipping the script for people who thought they didn’t like certain things but in fact had just never tasted a decent version! In my books, I hope the use of food underscores all of those things, while also showing how it can be a fulfilling career.
Each of your novels contains recipes in the back that tie into the storyline. Where do these recipes originate from – friends, family, your own kitchen? And what inspires the recipes you choose to include?
Unless they are attributed to another source, the recipes are mine. Usually the food is very organic in the story, I don’t pre-plan it. I write the scene and whatever food seems the most logical for that moment is what comes out and then I go to my recipe files to find the recipe or to the kitchen to invent one!
You have a blog, The Polymath Chronicles. Why is writing outlet important to you, in addition to your novels?
My blog was originally a place to connect to my readers in a more immediate way, and to underscore the foodie nature of my work by posting recipes and entertaining tips. But it has expanded to be a place that I write about the things that are happening in my life, the issues that are important to me. I only write one novel a year, so the blog gives me a chance to have an ongoing dialogue with my readers.
What’s coming up next for you? I hear that another novel and a digital cookbook are in the works!
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder
- 5 tablespoons cornstarch
- Pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
- 1 quart half-and-half
- 3.5 ounces dark chocolate, 80 to 90 percent cacao chocolate, chopped
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift dry ingredients. In a large saucepan, pour in the half-and-half and whisk in dry ingredients. Cook over medium heat, whisking until pudding starts to bubble and thicken, about 4 minutes. Remove from heart and stir in chocolate and vanilla. Whisk until chocolate is fully melted and incorporated. Pour into six ramekins and chill until set. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream. (I served my pudding with slivered almonds. That’s how I roll.)