by Erin Evans
The subjects in Emita Brady Hill’s two books of interviews are as different as can be: people living in the Bronx in the 1970s and 80s, and women in the food industry in northern Michigan. The common thread here? She finds all of their stories immensely interesting.
Hill recently published Northern Harvest: Twenty Michigan Women in Food and Farming. Using an interview format, Hill discovers twenty unique stories of how women came to northern Michigan and became involved in food. Her subjects include farmers, owners of a CSA, restaurant owners, writers, teachers, and owners of homesteads. This book lets the reader hear each interviewee’s story in her own voice, from owner of a cherry orchard and North Star Organics Cheryl Kobernik to Barb Tholin, who started Edible Grande Traverse magazine, bringing the Edible magazine here.
Hill says that “the tremendous variety in how they got into what they are now doing” fascinated her.
While some of the women grew up in Traverse City, others come from all over the world, including France and Denmark, and all have different food backgrounds. While some were raised on farms or with parents who owned a store, others found their interest in food in other ways. Jennifer Welty, who started 9 Bean Rows Bakery with her husband, describes her first interest in food as the cartoon pig character—the baker—in her favorite Richard Scarry books.
Hill’s personal interest in northern Michigan goes back to the 1800s, when her mother’s family came here by train. She has pictures of several families who arrived over a century ago at the same lake in Michigan she now visits in the summer.
Hill’s mother became invested in northern Michigan because of her sister, who sent her postcards from Long Lake, near Traverse City. Tired of only seeing the beauty of her sister’s home through pictures, she decided to come here herself for a vacation, bringing her family with her. As a child, Hill visited here every summer.
“I’ve lived a lot of different places … but this is the constant,” says Hill, 84. “The roots are really very deep.”
As far as writing, she says, “I think I came out of the cradle writing.”
As a child, she says there were no televisions, smartphones, or computers to occupy her time, so she wrote. She recalls keeping diaries and journals as well as writing letters to people.
“You knew everybody’s handwriting,” she says.
Hill received her doctorate in Romance Language and Literature, specifically 18th century literature, from Harvard. She went on to teach for twenty years at Lehman College, City University of New York, in the Bronx. She has also held several other teaching positions.
She now lives in New York, but continues to visit Michigan in the summers. As an adult, she noticed the farmland here changing. For example, she says there were once many more dirt roads that are now paved. She became interested in the region’s transformation.
Hill’s daughter found her way into the food world as an adult and ran a cooking school in France with her husband. Naturally, this meant Hill met other food people through her daughter.
The idea for the book came to her after watching a film about food at the Michael Moore Film Festival, followed by a panel discussion. That’s when Hill first heard about Angela Macke’s local tea farm.
“A light went off in my head and I thought, ‘There must be a story here,’” Hill says. She then realized that she knew many women, particularly involved in food, who she suspected had interesting stories to tell. So began her oral history project which became Northern Harvest.
Hill already knew some of the women she interviewed through her daughter. The interviewees also often knew each other and told her of more people to talk to. In each interview, she asked only two questions. First, she asked whether they were born in the region or, if not, when they came here. Second, she wanted to know how each interviewee became interested in food. Then, she just let them talk, as she “wanted to get their story in their [own] words.”
“One of the personal delights of the book was getting to know people I didn’t know,” Hill says. This theme runs through all her writing projects. She finds people incredibly interesting and loves to hear their stories. Her first book, Bronx Faces and Voices: Sixteen Stories of Courage and Community, is a collection of interviews she did with people who stayed in the Bronx during the 1970s and 80s, when many others were leaving.
Hill began her next project before her inspiration to interview the women in Northern Harvest. She does some ballroom dancing herself, and, while trying to find a new teacher, she was fascinated to meet ballroom dancers from different backgrounds. She wondered why these individuals from all over the world—including Haiti and Ukraine—came to New York and began dancing.
“What interests me is the people,” Hill says.
She had done 28 interviews with ballroom dancers before taking a break a year ago to write this book. She took her interviews to the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center and says they were thrilled with her project, having never before done an oral history project of ballroom dancing. The library will preserve these interviews in their collection on the performing arts. She says she would love to turn them into a book.
As far as her advice when it comes to interviewing, Hill says it depends on whether you have an end result in mind and what that is. Personally, she never had a specific result planned during her interviews, focusing rather on hearing what the women had to say.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me getting to know these women, getting to know their stories, and getting to know this region,” says Hill.
Northern Harvest is available for purchase locally from Brilliant Books or Horizon books, or online from Wayne State University Press at wsupress.wayne.edu, Barnes & Noble at barnesandnoble.com, or from amazon.com. Erin Evans is a senior at Bellaire High School and in her second year of the Front Street Writers program. She works as an intern for the National Writers Series and writes a blog for www.frontstreetwriters.com. She plans to attend the University of Michigan in the fall, tentatively planning on a creative writing major.