I fell for “Piechiatrist” Kate McDermott recently, even though I had known her casually for years. I had never thought about how she found her voice. Then, while reading the introduction to her gorgeous cookbook, Art of the Pie, I read that Joni Mitchell’s “Sisotowbell Lane” always put Kate in the right frame of mind to bake.
I hadn’t thought about that song for years. Suddenly I was back in high school, memorizing the lyrics, lying on my sister’s bed (where the record player lived). Back then, I thought Joni Mitchell’s words would explain my life to me.
Also back then, Kate McDermott lived an alternative lifestyle. Since then she’s become a travelling pie instructor, and wrote her first cookbook in her 60s. In Kate’s cookbook, she incorporates her life lessons, and found her voice.
And since its debut last October, Art of the Pie sells like hotcakes…I mean pies. Nominated for several national awards, the book’s initial print run of 30,000 was way too small and has been in reprint many times. While the book is beautifully designed and photographed, what struck me was Kate’s homey, grounding voice, guiding me not only on pie success but Important Life Lessons.
Here’s how Kate harnessed her life history and personal philosophy to create a cookbook that speaks directly from her heart:
Q. What I liked about the cookbook was your voice, that you were only trying to be you and not someone else, particularly someone younger.
A. It took me a while to figure out what people meant when they said “you have to find your voice.” As soon as I stopped thinking about that and wrote like I was just talking to you, it worked. I stopped thinking I had to sound a certain way. I just had to get out of the way. When I turned in my first draft, my wonderful editor said, “I can hear your voice.”
Q. You did not take the conventional route to a cookbook. How old were you when your first book came out?
A. I was 63. If someone told me, at the age I am now, that I would be a bestselling author, on a topic that is something I’ve done my entire life, I would have thought they were crazy.
Q. Before you taught pie making, you were also a teacher, but of music.
A. I was a professional accompanist playing piano and harpsichord, and a teacher. I was also a music coach. People would come if they were preparing for a recital.
Q. And you were living in a remote mountain cabin at one point, when you were married with a young child?
A. Yes. I lived in a 325-square foot cabin for nearly 5 years, with four people, near Port Angeles, WA, while we built a house. Then I moved to a treehouse, and I was there for a few years, just me and my son. The house was hung on 28 poles rammed into the earth. No part of the house ever touched the ground. I had a big garden, and I bartered and traded a lot.
Q. How do you think this history affected your voice and advice in the book?
A. What “living out” taught me was the important connection of family, and the beauty of the day to day, of small things. We had a small network of friends, and we were trying to scratch out a living creatively. Many of them are still my closest friends. That time taught me it doesn’t take a lot of glitzy stuff to be happy.
That philosophy comes through in the book, where readers can concentrate on just making a pie as a way of connecting with people. I want them to find beauty in the smallest things, like making a pie or baking bread.
Q. How did you know to add wisdom to the instructions, such as “Perfection isn’t the goal, finding beauty and peace through the process is the goal.” That went to the way you live your life.
A. I learned some of that teaching music to children. They were so concerned that they had played a wrong note. I’d say, “Don’t worry because there are lot more right ones to come.” We can get so easily stuck with this idea of perfection. It’s nice to have an ideal, but my pie is going to be the one that is right for me.
Q. Perfection is a big issue for a lot of food writers.
A. As a musician, I hear recordings that are perfect. And then I go to a concert, and I remember that there was a wrong note or someone was out of tune. Just as the pictures in a cookbook present this beautiful idea that may not be achievable for everyone.
Q. Perhaps this is why you tell people to be themselves, such as using Goodwill or yard sale bowls and cups to measure?
A. It’s whatever makes them authentic. What’s important to them.
Q. I love the “Rules of pie making and life” section. Why are important life lessons part of pie baking? Number 1, for example, is “Keep everything chilled, especially yourself.”
A. Stress can make you sick. I’ve had my share of stress. I need something on a daily basis that helps me to remember that most everything is transitory. And not to get too hung up on any one thing. Life will give us both peaks and valleys. We have to enjoy the peak completely, because it will not always be that way. When we’re in a valley, it’s not permanent.
Q. What did you learn about writing a cookbook that will help you with the next one?
A. My agent said to me, while I was waiting for the advance, to just “write write write, no matter what.” The thing is to keep moving along and keep working. I feel a lot more relaxed now. I can write another book. The first time around was, “Can I really do that?”
Q. Did you expect your book to sell like crazy?
A. I feel like Cinderella. I came late to the ball! In presales, my book broke the Amazon top 100 list.
And because of my mention of the website leaf lard by Fanny and Flo in my book, I got the best reward ever. Fanny emailed to say that she has now hired a single mother who lifted herself off public assistance, and a father who can provide for his family.
Q. How fantastic to help others through your book. Any last words?
A. I’m very grateful. And I’m not done yet.