This interview was originally published in Dead Darlings
Liz Hauck’s dad loved to eat. He also co-directed an agency that served teenagers in state care. Four years out of college, Liz suggested they start a cooking program at one of the group homes. When her dad died unexpectedly, she decided to push past her grief and attempt it on her own. Home Made: A Story of Grief, Groceries, Showing Up—and What We Make When We Make Dinner tells how one first, tentative dinner became a hundred, in a vivid and moving portrayal of a shared experience across class and race. I met Liz five years ago at a Boston reading of her early manuscript and jumped at the chance to interview her after The New York Times published a review of her recently launched book (Penguin Random House Dial Press, June 8, 2021). Our interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I must admit I was wary of how she would relate her experiences with often court-involved, mostly minority young men. She allayed my concerns in her book’s introduction:
“[This] sounds like…one of those ‘great white hope’ stories involving kids facing difficult circumstances and a white twentysomething bleeding heart with crazy hair and good intentions, the kind that ends with upbeat music and rehabilitation… But this is not one of those stories… This is one volunteer’s story about a little community service project and a lot of cheese. Salvation was never on the table.”
Cam: How did you decide with your dad to start a cooking program?
Liz: My dad really liked cooking shows, and he always had them on in the background while he was cooking… At the time, he and I were teaching [religious education] at our church. He enjoyed the banter with the teenagers he was teaching…and was trying to figure out how to have those kinds of interactions with the kids at the house. We were making dinner and there was a cooking show on. I asked whether they had a cooking skills program and joked it could be like his own cooking show.
Cam: But then he passed away.
Liz: Not long after that conversation he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a particularly aggressive kind of cancer. We knew it would be fast, but I certainly didn’t know it would be that fast [he died six months after his diagnosis].
“Grief is the ultimate marinade. You become more of whatever you were already: the lonely, lonelier; the angry, angrier; the restless, more restless.”
Cam: Once you decided to forge ahead, you had to figure out how to make the cooking program work on your own.
Liz: Yes, I definitely didn’t do it perfectly—there was a lot of improvisation… I had no orientation; I relied on other experiences volunteering and working with teenagers to inform the shape and expectations of the program… I’d done a lot of different volunteer projects… I’d been an AmeriCorps volunteer in a school where I taught and had a full extracurricular schedule: I ran a tutoring program, chaperoned a break-dancing club, camping trips, an art program, led a number of retreats. I learned that showing up is the most essential part.
Cam: What has the reception of the book been like?
Liz: After the NYT review, I started getting messages from strangers often about working with vulnerable populations. One was from a retired teacher who had started out as a case worker at a group home, changed careers, and wondered how things might have been different if she’d had better training and support in the early days… C.S. Lewis wrote, “We read to know that we’re not alone.” When you read something that taps into your own experience, reading becomes a different experience. And, it’s such a gift to get those messages from readers.
Cam: I enjoy print and audiobooks. I listened to Home Made while simultaneously reading the hardcover. I’ve listened to dozens of audiobooks and thought yours was excellent. When you described your father’s death, I choked up at the sadness in your voice. You captured your grief better than anyone else could. And I often laughed out loud at your self-effacing humor. I’ve read authors are generally advised not to narrate their books, yet you narrated yours. Brilliant choice. How did you make that decision?
Liz: My book has so much dialogue, I was nervous about someone trying to impersonate the kids’ voices. Fortunately. the producer suggested that I narrate and let me be part of the process. It was a really interesting experience to perform this story that I had crafted on the page— or, so many pages.
Cam: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Liz: Keep writing and find a community of writers. Find people you trust with whom you can exchange pages, and then find a bigger community. Here in Boston, for example, Grubstreet is a tremendous resource for writers at all levels. When we met, I suggested you attend The Muse & The Marketplace, their annual conference. It’s a community-building event with everyone from people thinking about writing a book to published writers talking about craft, sharing best practices, and talking about making and reading books. Grubstreet also offers excellent classes.
Cam: Your advice launched my path to serious writing. Since we met, I’ve written two novels, attended The Muse five times, and graduated Grubstreet’s Novel Generator and Incubator. And your book has given me profoundly more empathy for kids in care and helped me appreciate radical hospitality and what it means to be a volunteer. I think Home Made should be required reading for everyone who cares about young people navigating adversity and surviving homelessness. Thank you.
Liz: Thank you. If there’s one thing I hope people take away from my story it’s realizing that there are lots of ways that we can show up for our neighbors. Especially now, there is so much need to show up for each other in our re-opening, recovering communities.