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Words of comfort

Two Dragonwagon books back in print by Becca Martin-Brown | September 22, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

Food is universally acknowledged as comfort. And for many people, that sense of home and familiarity can also be found in cookbooks — even if some of those who treasure them rarely cook.

Of course, for children — at least the fortunate ones — that reassurance that all is well most often comes from their parents.

And in a completely serendipitous circumstance, those two worlds have aligned with the rerelease of two books by Fayetteville author Crescent Dragonwagon. Although best known in Northwest Arkansas as a food influencer — and founder of the first farm-to-table restaurant in the region, Dairy Hollow House — Dragonwagon has also published more than 50 books for readers of all ages. Her “Half a Moon and One Whole Star” won the Coretta Scott King Award; “Home Place” received the Golden Kite Award; and “All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep” was recipient of the Parents’ Choice Award.

“Will It Be Okay?” dates back to 1977, and “Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook” was first released 30 years ago. Both are new again this summer, published by Cameron Kids and the University of Arkansas Press, respectively.

Dragonwagon — yes, it is her real name, legally changed to be so when she was very young — talks here about her life when she was 24 and wrote “Will It Be Okay?”; how “Soup & Bread” came into being; and the ensuing and unique journey to her current happy home in the Washington-Willow Historic District of Fayetteville with husband Mark Graff.

‘WILL It Be OKay’

“Will It Be Okay?” came about, Dragon-wagon says, at a time in her life when she was “confused,” like most 24-year-olds.

“You’re presenting as an adult, but you’re not. You really don’t know yourself. Though I had already begun my work as a writer and been published, I was insecure, full of self-doubt and fears.”

That summer, the summer of 1976, Dragonwagon attended an “international study group, focused on philosophy and spirituality” in Austin, Texas. It was, she says, “wondrous, elevating … made me think about life, identity, death, in ways that were wholly different and new to me, deeply reassuring, and very clear and logical. Yet it also felt like recognition, like, ‘Oh, yes! Of course!’ — like part of me had known this all along without knowing I knew.”

The second “life-altering” event was “on a practice called ‘Dialoguing,’ developed by the late Ira Progoff, a therapist. It was a method for self-understanding.

“So these two experiences, at a time that I was very shaky, put me in the groove of accepting and working with having questions and fears, and having those addressed and answered relationally … and then, learning to answer them for myself. I remain deeply grateful for what I received that summer of ’76. And so that is how ‘Will It Be Okay?’ began.”

The book came back into focus during the pandemic, when Dragonwagon and Graff were, like everyone else, “wringing our hands, and asking, what can we do to make it better in some tiny way?”

“Well, at that time I thought, if there are problems in a family, and everybody’s locked in one place together, any fracture’s going to be exacerbated,” Dragonwagon says. “So Mark and I began doing [children’s] stories on Facebook Live nightly. The first book I chose to read aloud was ‘Will It Be Okay?’ because it is reassuring, and deals with real fears.

“When I finished reading it aloud that first night, I thought, I wonder if this book could have another life. I edited it a bit and sent it off.

“It got rejected by a couple of presses, but Cameron for Kids fell in love with it,” she says.

Asked about changes in the rerelease, Dragonwagon says: “That first edition [in 1977] had nice, tender illustrations, very sweet, but a little sentimental to my taste, because that child is really wrestling with deep fear, and you couldn’t see the emotions in her face clearly enough, I felt. The new pictures in the 2022 edition, by Jessica Love, totally get the little girl’s feelings, and I’m thrilled with them.”

‘SOUP & BREAD’

“Soup & Bread” celebrates a time in Dragonwagon’s life when she was married to her first great love, Ned Shank, and they were proprietors of Dairy Hollow House, a country inn/bed and breakfast in Eureka Springs. Its restaurant was, she says, “a precursor of what we now call ‘farm to table,’” and their food was “getting a lot of national attention.”

“Workman Publishing had an editor named Suzanne Rafer, who worked exclusively on cookbooks, and she was interested in the inn,” Dragonwagon remembers. “She came down and spent a few days with us, wanting to see how an inn cookbook might be focused. She noticed that not only were the inn’s soups and breads really delicious, but that as a civilian at home I often ate soup and bread, a little salad on the side. And she said, ‘Why, don’t we do a soup and bread cookbook?’ I thought that was great!

“And so it began. At that time that we were switching from typewriters to computers. That was rugged: I wound up rewriting that book in several forms. I worked really hard on it, writing in the days, plus testing recipes I wrote from their written form, cooking at the inn every night. By the time I finished writing the book, I couldn’t tell if it was good or not, I had worked so hard on it, was too close to it. But my feelings grew happy about it pretty quickly once it came out. I loved Paul Hoffman’s brilliant illustrations, too; they looked like woodcuts, and really got the feeling of the inn and Eureka and the Ozarks.

“‘Soup & Bread’s’ first edition had sold very, very well,” Dragon-wagon goes on. “Nearly a million copies! I really wanted it to have a new life. People kept tracking me down to ask where they could get a copy, since it was now out of print. For 10 years I kept trying to get Workman to reissue it. They wouldn’t do it. I did various proposals to other publishers. They also turned it down.

“Finally I gave up the idea of redoing it as a whole, and started thinking, who would be the right place to just do a slightly updated reprint/reissue? Perhaps with a new beginning, perhaps as a 30th anniversary edition? And so I sent it to the University of Arkansas Press. I had never been published by a university press before, and they were thrilled with the idea, and took it.

“I wrote a new introduction to it that’s very memoirish. It says what happened between the writing of the first and the reissue of the second, and follows some of the adventures from the inn and in my own life.”

IN BETWEEN

In the years in between the first edition of “Soup & Bread” and the second, Ned Shank was killed in a bicycle accident in Eureka Springs, Dragonwagon moved to Vermont, fell in love again and again lost that partner to death.

“You can’t have the high points without the low points,” she says realistically. “I also lost my mother, my father, [Eureka mentors] Elsie and Louis Freund, my aunt … many people dear to me. As one does, if one has the privilege of aging, you outlive some people who are dear to you. They’re irreplaceable.

“You kind of think your life is going to be a certain way, but it’s always surprising you. As I often say, anything can happen to anyone at any time, and that includes terrifying, terrible, unpredictable things. But it also includes the unpredictable wondrous things … I had the great good fortune to meet and fall in love with Mark Graff, and we have a very happy marriage, and we are living in Fayetteville.

“Our life, despite these very uncertain times, is very good. I deeply appreciate this phase of my life: It’s easier to recognize how lucky I am because there was so much loss. I really understand what a privilege it is to get to walk through time with someone I love — again! — and no one knows how long or short that time will be. But for sure, this is a late-life joy I didn’t expect to have happen again.

“And so both of those old books — it’s flat-out odd to have them both reissued at the same time. One book 30 years old, the other 45! And here I am about to turn 70. So it’s funny, peculiar, humbling, surprising. An honor. To have two reissues same year, different publishers and genres, everything coincidental with turning 70!

“The common thread is comfort, reassurance, resilience, nourishment, getting through anxious times,” Dragonwagon muses. “What is more comforting than the smell of bread baking in the oven, perhaps combined with the fragrance of a pot of beans or vegetable soup simmering on the stove?

“What’s more comforting than sitting on the lap of a larger person you love, who loves you, and being read aloud to?

“On the surface of it, the 30th anniversary ‘Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread’ is very different from ‘Will It Be Okay?’ One is for adults. One is for children. One is for cooks. One is for parents and grandparents, reading to their children. Or perhaps, since it’s a comforting book, sometimes people give it, you know, an older friend to an older friend, just like ‘I think this will cheer you up.’

“So that common thread? Reassurance, nourishment … that things happen in ‘Will It Be Okay?’ and in life. We don’t pretend that they’re not disturbing and upsetting and tough, but we also find a way to move through them, look at them. So there is commonality, but not one that I consciously created, only discovered later.”

FYI Crescent Dragonwagon Classes & Events

Sept. 23: Early bird registration opens for Tuesdays with Crescent (online workshop; more information at dragonwagon.com/workshop) Oct. 2: Fearless Writing Exploration, 4-6 p.m. (online class; more information at dragonwagon.com/class) Oct. 9: Procrastination Toasted, 1-3 p.m. (online class; more information at dragonwagon.com/class ) Nov. 7: Mount Sequoyah, Fayetteville (a two-week culinary writing program for veterans; more information at dragonwagon.com/special-groups ) Dec. 3: Bentonville Public Library, 10 a.m. (public event) Dec. 27-28: Third annual “Left Brain Planning for Right Brain People” (two-day online workshop; more information at dragonwagon.com/workshop)

Events in Little Rock, Conway, Eureka Springs, Chicago area, Nashville area, Huntsville, Ala., area, North and South Carolina, Atlanta, Seattle area, San Diego area, Madison, Wis., area, Ann Arbor, Mich., information and details soon at dragonwagon.com/calendar Information: [email protected]

Becca Martin-Brown can be reached at bmarti[email protected] .

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