Friday, September 8, 2023

Q&A with Michaele Weissman


Photo by Adam Auel


Michaele Weissman is the author of the new memoir The Rye Bread Marriage: How I Found Happiness with a Partner I'll Never Understand. Her other books include God in a Cup. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: I had no intention of writing a memoir. I thought my fourth book would be like the third, a journalistic/culinary narrative, based on reportage. That book, a bird’s eye view of the high-end coffee business, for which I followed three young guys around the world is called God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee.


Hanging out hour and hour, day after day with the coffee guys, I came up with a lot of juicy, sometimes comic, material that told a larger picture. Narrative. I fell in love with narrative and wanted to continue writing in this genre.


The coffee guys lived and breathed coffee. My husband, a professor of electrical engineering, was a similar kind of foodie obsessive.


A refugee born in Latvia, John loves rye bread. For him Latvian rye bread is an artform and a religion. He eats it several times a day and is unable to leave home without a handy supply tucked in his backpack. His devotion strikes some – including, on occasion, me -- as inordinate. But here’s the thing: Sensible people don’t change the world, nor do they make the best literary subjects.


A couple of years after I published the coffee book, John co-founded a teeny company marketing Latvian sourdough rye bread, online and in gourmet stores. In foodie circles this bread, dark and dense, quite different from other rye breads on the market, made quite a splash. Ruth Reichl wrote about it in Gourmet. Marcus Samuels and other famous chefs served it in their restaurants.


Now when John and I entertained, which was often, Latvian rye bread was on the table front and center as a food and as a subject. Our friends, many of them foodies, made a very big fuss about John’s bread – I took note of that.


One night I had a dream in which the title of my next book revealed itself: The Rye Bread Marriage. I had no story, just the name.


In my view, travel is one of the benefits of the not-very-lucrative, and often frustrating literary life. The way I saw it, a book called The Rye Bread Marriage meant I would have to travel throughout Eastern Europe, meeting bakers and farmers, plunging into brave new worlds, exploring John’s roots and later exploring mine. Not one trip. Many trips.


It took a long time -- I mean years -- for this oddly named book to jell into a coherent narrative about rye bread, about marriage, about John and me. Along the way, I had to transform myself from a journalist grounded in the facts, and to some degree limited by traditional methods of storytelling, to a different kind of writer. A writer who took chances, who experimented, who worked on the level of the real, yes, but also on the level of the metaphoric.


Q: The writer Lauren Francis-Sharma said of the book, “I closed the last pages with tears in my eyes for the gift of these complex histories, this compelling love story--and a determination to find the best rye bread in town.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I am grateful to Lauren Francis-Sharma, herself the author of two works of historical fiction, for her praise and for understanding what I was up to.


Though The Rye Bread Marriage is a memoir about a marriage, and it is funny, the book is embedded in the history of rye bread in Eastern Europe, the history of the Latvian diaspora, and the culinary history of Jews and Latvians. All my work begins with the idea that the story begins long before the story begins.


This book and all my writing is also informed by my mid-life study of psychoanalysis, although, I am proud to say, you will never find shrink-y language in anything I write.


Returning to Lauren Francis-Sharma. She is pretty much my perfect reader: She understands the complexity of stories grounded in the past. She allows the culinary part of my story to whet her appetite, and she is moved to tears by a love story told with feeling, but without sentimentality.


Q: What do you think the book says about the connections between food and family history?


A: The Rye Bread Marriage is a 70,000 word meditation on food and family, as this phrase relates to the marriage of two very different people, with dissimilar but overlapping backgrounds: One born in Latvia, one born in America. One baptized as a Lutheran, although who calls himself a pagan. One who labels herself an American of Russian Jewish descent.


In Eastern Europe geography connected our families and it shaped their food preferences. The poor farm on which John’s mother grew up near Cesis in Latvia was only about 300 miles from the shtetl in Belarus where my Bubbe Hannah was born.


In the old country (and to some degree in the new) members of both our families had a hankering for sour and fermented foods—kosher pickles! sauerkraut, rye bread—and a fondness of blintzes filled with farmer’s cheese and topped with sour cherry jam. (Latvians call them blinis, which is Russian.)

John’s parents and mine grew up eating borscht—although my mother’s borscht was a vegetarian beet soup eaten cold, topped with chopped dill and a dollop of sour cream, while my mother in law’s borscht was a hot beet soup made with cabbage and stew meat, topped with sour cream—mixing milk and meat. No traditional Jewish cook or eater would dream of doing that.


Both Jews and Latvians then and now favored cucumbers and dill. They loved potatoes and preferred their vegetables overcooked. Their cuisines for the most part were bland, flavored with onion, garlic, a bit of caraway, not much else.


While members of both our families liked corned beef on rye bread, the Jewish sandwich I ate with my grandmother at the Carnegie Deli in New York was piled high with half a pound of meat, while the sandwich John consumed in his mother’s kitchen, in line with the Baltic tradition, consisted of a single slice of rye bread, topped by a single slice of meat, with a pretty garnish.


The most significant culinary difference between our families. Pork. My great grandparents – and even my grandparents –most likely went to their graves never having tasted pork—not even bacon!--while pork, in the form of sausage, ham, and pork chops is the favorite meat of many Latvians, including John. (In my assimilated family, these distinctions no longer stand.)


One of the topics I cover in the book is the difference between the Jewish rye bread my Bubbe bought in Brooklyn when I was a child and the Latvian rye bread John’s mother baked. Latvian sourdough rye in its classic form (John’s mother cheated a little) was made with 100 percent whole grain rye flour. No wheat at all. Jewish rye, on the other hand, contained more wheat flour than rye—60 percent wheat, 40 percent rye in its classic form.


What Jewish Americans called Jewish rye, however, turned out to be a misnomer.


The rye baker and scholar Stanley Ginsberg, author of The Jewish Baker, confirmed what had been my lurking suspicion: that in Belarus and in Latvia, the bread Jews and gentiles consumed was a replica of the 100 percent sourdough rye bread that John’s little company (Black Rooster Food) sells today. So called Jewish rye bread turned out to be an Americanized hybrid, not the bread of the shtetl.


The subject of food and family has an intimate aspect. I have often thought that marriages – maybe the best marriages – need to be about something. It could be classical music, or skiing, or religion.


In our case that something is food and hospitality. Rye bread fits within the larger frame of our family’s preoccupation with food – not just consumption but sharing food with friends and family. Our children share our preoccupation. All three have worked in the food business. Two of them owned restaurants at one time.


All four of our young grandchildren (even the littlest, not yet two) sit down to dinner with their families every evening. We are proud of that. All of these grandchildren, by the way, teethed on Latvian rye bread, and love what they call “Teti bread,” (Teti, the Latvian word for father) topped most often with peanut butter.


Q: What did your family members think of the book?


A: John has a sturdy ego, is a bit of a show-off, and is flattered by the book. He recognizes it as the love song it is. Moreover, he read the book many times prior to publication. Each time providing me with corrections and comments that I incorporated.


As to our children, meaning John’s two daughters from his first marriage, our son, and our daughter- and son-in-law. Prior to publication, I sent them all edited (online) versions of the manuscript, asking them to Google themselves. If they found any references that were erroneous or made them uncomfortable, I told them I would remove that material from the book. Based on their responses I made a couple of minor changes.


Both my stepdaughters tell me the book has helped them to better understand their dad. Our son has not yet read the book. I am a little disappointed. But I also respect his need for boundaries and distance.


The rest of my family – my sister, my niece, cousins -- all have been full of praise. If they are shocked by the level of disclosure – one of our friends has let it be known that in his view I shared too many intimate details – they have kept that criticism to themselves.


Very meaningful to me and very unexpectedly: Numerous Latvians, especially those who are the children of refugees, have told me that they love the book because it has enabled them to better understand their parents and, by extension, themselves. That means a lot.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on another memoir, or perhaps it will be a group of linked essays, that focuses on my life, most especially on issues related to growing up female when I did. One idea I am playing with is how reading novels (by midcentury male writers) ruined my life. In book number five, as in the last, food and family will feature prominently.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Writing The Rye Bread Marriage represents a kind of homecoming for me. In my early 30s (after co-authoring a book called A History of Women), I wrote dozens of first-person humor pieces for Cosmopolitan and other women’s magazines. (My career never has made much sense.)


A lot of this writing was very girly. My first piece for Cosmo was called “Growing Up Curly.” Because I had marriage on my mind, I often wrote about dating. For Cosmo I wrote a piece called “Eighteen years of dating.” (I was 32 at the time).


I was embarrassed by writing for women’s magazines. Embarrassed because I didn’t think the writer of A History of Women should write for sexist, unserious outlets. (One can debate if these magazines were sexist or feminist, or both.) I was embarrassed for another reason: I felt that my first-person humor writing was jejune. That’s the word with which I assailed myself. Jejune. Falsely cheerful. Lacking in depth.


When I married John and moved to Boston, I continued writing freelance but, for the most part, I turned down assignments having to do with my personal life.


I told myself I would return to first person writing – and to writing funny – when I was ready. It took a while, but eventually I did just that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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