Loretta Ichord’s fondest childhood memories revolve around food. Sitting at the dining table with her mother’s large Italian family was as much about the delicious food as it was about the cultural experience and warmth of family. Perhaps because of her pleasant mealtime memories, food continues to be a main focus of Ichord’s life. “I’m a foodie!” she says. “I’m an avid cook and love to try new recipes.” Traveling for pleasure or for research for a new book, Ichord delights in visiting new restaurants and trying the regional food. “Eating is part of my research!”
Ichord has always been a writer. In college, her creative writing teacher read her pieces aloud to the class. “But I was very young and interested in boys at the time. I didn’t pursue it.” She pauses. “It’s my one big regret.”
Initially, she thought she wanted to write for food magazines like Bon Appetit, but a light bulb turned on when she received a mailing from the Institute of Children’s Literature advertising a course in children’s writing. Although she didn’t sign up for the course, she enrolled in writing classes at a local junior college and began attending writing conferences.
Armed with her natural curiosity and her drive to write for children, Ichord mined an article for Cobblestone magazine’s Ulysses S. Grant issue from her visit to the Gettysburg battlefield. She piqued her editor’s interest with a detailed proposal about the food Union soldiers ate during the Civil War, including such delicacies as wormy hardtack and Union bean soup. Although Ichord didn’t know it at the time, this article was the start of a unique niche in the world of children’s publishing: the cooking-history book.
During a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Ichord imagined herself sweating in front of one of the stone fireplaces in the intense humidity of a Tidewater summer. “I started to wonder how American cooking began,” she says. “The era really grabbed me.” Originally Ichord submitted Hasty Pudding, Johnnycakes, and Other Good Stuff: Cooking in Colonial America (Millbrook Press, 1998) as a cookbook with 40 recipes and several notes to the editor about the time period and the difficulties colonial women faced in the kitchen. The editor loved the quirky historical information that would become a trademark of Ichord’s books, and suggested changing the format of the book from cookbook to cooking-history book.Hasty Pudding now includes several pages of historical text sprinkled with 14 colonial recipes. But the revision wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
Ichord struggled with the new format, finding just the right balance of history and recipes. Her biggest problem? Trimming the manuscript to a manageable size. She uncovered a wealth of historical facts that she had a difficult time parting with. Additionally, Ichord says, “Recipe writing is exacting.” The directions had to be clear for children (who generally have no experience in the kitchen) without being boring or wordy.
With the publication of Skillet Bread, Sourdough, and Vinegar Pie: Cooking in Pioneer Days(Millbrook Press, 2003), Ichord takes her readers from the colonial kitchen to the pioneer kitchen—or more accurately the pioneer campfire. Both of Ichord’s books are popular with school children because she arrives dressed as either a pioneer woman or a colonial woman and cooks with the kids while simultaneously giving them a slice of history.
Ichord’s publisher recognized the uniqueness of her books and created the Cooking Through Time series for her. Two additional books, slated for 2006 and 2007, respectively, are Pasta, Fried Rice, and Matzoh Balls: Immigrant Cooking in America and Double Cheeseburgers, Quiche, and Vegetarian Burritos: American Cooking into the 21st Century.
Before starting a new book, Ichord considers what she’d like to know about her topic. Research takes several forms: books from the juvenile and adult sections of the library, food websites, and experts in the field. She also travels, preferring to look at her setting. “I visit museums and historical sites and talk to people,” she says. Ichord excels at finding juicy tidbits of information that kids love—a skill that she attributes to extracting the tiniest morsels of information from her sons when they were teenagers.
Ichord and her husband are former cattle ranchers turned almond farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Prior to writing for children full-time, Ichord’s occupation as a registered dental assistant led to the publication of Toothworms and Spider Juice: An Illustrated History of Dentistry (Millbrook Press, 2000), a sometimes gross, but always fascinating compilation of facts, fables and folklore on dentistry.
In her next cooking-history book, Ichord plans to branch out to different civilizations. At the same time, she’d like to break into fiction. “I love writing and plan to do it forever!”, she says.