Writing The Sandhills Book Project
A dispatch from Burwell, Nebraska:
A few weeks ago, I described the writing process to someone as a spectrum, one end being loneliness, the other end suicidal (Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace.) I try to remain somewhere in the middle, but the fact is, it’s a lonely endeavor until the deadline hits the horizon, and then the process nears mental off-the-rails territory. In the beginning of a large piece, I crawl deep inside my brain and second-guess every thought that comes out. When my butt is in the chair and my brain is helping my fingers make words that show up on the computer, thoughts begin traveling across the spectrum, beyond second-guessing and straight into self-esteem crippling, nervous breakdown territory. I can’t wait to get started, and the fact that a statement like that is not a joke is my writer’s curse-blessing.
I have been tasked with writing a book. People still write them! It’s a culinary history of the Nebraska Sandhills. The Nebraska what-hills? It’s a region, in my opinion, worthy of its own book about food history, and gratefully I have a publisher who agrees with me. Nebraska, if you’re not sure, is somewhere in the Great Plains. You may have driven through it once on I-80, which traverses the south of the state. The north contains Nebraska’s best-kept secret, the largest sand dune in North America, the remainder of an ancient lake bed. The way the grasses flow in the wind, it still feels like a sea.
The territory is extremely difficult to cultivate. It’s mostly sand held down by prairie grasses, so it can’t be mass-farmed. This is ranch land, and the people who have succeeded at that have the privilege of paying for it again, every year, with sweat. Here, there’s no kicking back and letting the business, or the kitchen, run. This is a bumper year for tomatoes in home gardens, so canners are furiously putting up salsas and pasta sauces to capture the bounty. I too, am working from here this month, in between harvests and Husker games, scouring this beautiful prairie, hearing stories and finding old recipes, photos and characters, memorializing oral histories of the Sandhills as told from the Plains kitchens. I can’t wait and am anxious for the progress to come.