When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, our local library was the Frederick Hild branch, a dark and beautiful building between Northcenter and Lincoln Square which had been erected during a frenzy of library building in the 1920s and ‘30s. The centerpiece of the library was the old stacks rising three stories up from the circulation desk inside the ominous iron and glass doors, up a short flight of stairs from the street. Hild Library looked like a library ought to look, and it smelled like a library ought to smell.
In those days I frequented that library after school many afternoons. The librarians always knew what I was coming for: books about ghosts; books about witches. Books about the paranormal and the unexplained. They put books aside for me, watched for the return of checked-out books I was waiting to get my hands on, and otherwise kept my habit well appeased.. Not an easy task, as it seemed my appetite for books was insatiable..
I remember very clearly asking one day, faced with so many selections, “How many can I check out at once?” And the librarian smiled: “As many as you can carry,” he said. And he held the door for me twenty minutes later, as I lumbered out, cradling a pile of almost two dozen books stacked from my palms to my chin, which I carried the six blocks home like a delicate and delicious birthday cake, ravenous.
That day, like most others, there was a book in my stack written by the incomparable author of “Gothic” young adult novels, John Bellairs. The Marshall, Michigan native enraptured me and a generation of soon-to-be “Goths”: lovers of all things dark and dreary, and preferably dead. For us, John Bellairs was the unquestioned leader of our musty, mysterious cult of kids—a cult bound together by a love of rain and storms, cemeteries, history and mystery and—most importantly—the cozy things that provided the necessary balm against them when it started to get dark outside: loved ones, pajamas, a warm bed, night lights…and food.
A big part of Bellairs’ world was — and is — that reliable coziness of comforting dishes. All of the characters sought it out after—or in the midst of—the terrors and tribulations of their epic battles of good against evil. From chocolate chip cookies and ooey gooey layer cakes to the perfect diner hamburger at the end of a long road trip, Bellairs introduced what were certainly some of his most comforting favorites from his own childhood into the often monstrous episodes his characters endured.
We gobbled them up . . . at least literarily.
From my armloads of ghost stories I went on to become a somewhat prolific chronicler of the unknown, starting out as a paranormal investigator as an undergraduate in the 1980s and going on to document the strange experiences of thousands in my Chicago Haunts book series and many other volumes. I absolutely credit John Bellairs with a huge chunk of my vocational call, for my writing, and with my love of all things cozy.
I first had the idea to create a collection of John Bellairs - inspired cookery almost thirty years ago, when my mother and I became immersed in literary cookbooks, inspired by the likes of similar books written by fans of Sherlock Holmes, the stories of Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter and so many others. I don’t think anyone can doubt that the stories of John Bellairs are custom made for such company.
The project got a great start, and I created a good twenty recipes, accompanied by text references, for what was to be a cookbook: “The House with a Cook in its Kitchen.” Alas, a robbery saw the loss of my computer and its hard drive. The disk I had saved the precious manuscript on was also lost.
The devastation was severe. I had put so much love into this effort, and as I was just starting out in the workforce and finishing graduate school, it all got pushed to the side. . . . for a very long time.
The other day, I was watching television with my elder daughter, now 19, when my eye caught a listing for the recent film release, “The House with a Clock in its Walls.” I had given the Bellairs books to her many years ago, but though—like millions—she loves Harry Potter, she somehow did not take to my beloved tomes of old. I decided to give it another try.
We watched the movie. She loved it.
It is my deep hope that future generations discover and delight in the stories and characters of John Bellairs, and the coziness that our world so badly needs today.
I hope you enjoy these writings and the recipes to come. Each week I will cook and write inspired by a scene from one of Bellairs’ books. I welcome —no, URGE— you to suggest scenes, dishes and menus. It would be my pleasure to concoct something at your request. These recipes and reminiscences are offered with the utmost respect and devotion to one of the most imaginative and comforting writers I’ve ever known. I hope that you enjoy them.
We will devour Bellairs’ stories together quite literally and not just literarily.
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With funerary fondness,