Featured Mama Betsy Block

betsyblock1.jpgWelcome to Boston Mamas Rock! – where we’re giving a voice to fabulous local mamas from all walks of life. Read on for today’s interview with Betsy Block, mother of two and author of The Dinner Diaries, where Block chronicles the challenges of feeding a family. Then go ahead and nominate yourself or a friend!

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Betsy Block, author of The Dinner Diaries

Christine: Tell us a bit about your background Betsy. You’ve worked for catering companies and restaurants and now you write about food. Were you ever schooled in the food industry, or did you learn on the go?

Betsy: I’ve been cooking since I was a preteen, but I never went to culinary school. I learned on the job.

Christine: At one point in your career, you attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. What led you to Fletcher, and what inspired you to leave the program?

Betsy: I went to Fletcher to study international negotiation and mediation. I was invited to be part of a group at the Harvard Program on Negotiation and had some great experiences there, but I quickly realized that a career based on travel might not be the best choice if I was planning on having kids. Also, I had to admit that the Wednesday papers’ food sections held more appeal for me than their front pages. Those realizations, combined with my lifelong love of writing, just added up and boiled over one day.

By the way, I may not be using those mediation skills on an international level, but I assure you I still call on them every day at home – I just don’t get paid for it!

Christine: You’re now a successful writer, and your work has been published in national and local media. What was your first big gig, and how did it come about?

Betsy: I was as excited to get my first-ever assignment from a community newspaper (300 words on kids’ eyeglasses) as I was, many years later, to be contacted by a book editor. I’ve always been the tortoise, not the hare; my progress has been slow and steady.

betsyblock2.jpgChristine: You’ve now written your first book – The Dinner Diaries – and it offers a truly funny and informative look into the challenges of feeding a family. What was the inspiration for chronicling your family’s adventures (and misadventures)?

Betsy: Thank you for the compliment!

I started posting essays and recipes about food and family on my website, Mama Cooks, when my daughter was a year away from starting kindergarten. With no editor, deadlines, or sales staff to please I really had fun.

About a year after I started my website, a book editor found it and contacted me. The next week, a piece I’d written about Halloween ran on npr.org. Within a week I was working on The Dinner Diaries.

Christine: Reading your book, I was truly impressed by your commitment to trying new (not to mention local, organic, and humane) recipes with your admittedly picky eating family of two kids and husband. Others might give up in the face of the poor odds. How do you keep up your humor and motivation to keep trying new things? And with your family of picky eaters, what – if any – are your surefire success recipes?

Betsy: As my husband always says, it’s either laugh or cry. The good news is that even with picky eaters and food aversions and allergies and more, the four of us continue to branch out and try new healthy foods. Like any parenting issue, it’s all about communication: listening with respect, having open discussions, and applying a potent combination of gentle prodding and backing off as needed.

Surefire recipes that everyone will eat? That depends on the phase of the moon. But I can tell you that recently everyone ate this soup: I roasted a head of garlic in the toaster oven until soft (drizzle it with olive oil, wrap it in foil and bake at 350 for about 45 minutes), cut up a head of cauliflower, peeled and cut some potatoes. I threw the cauliflower, potatoes and garlic into a pot of vegetable stock with a bay leaf and simmered until the veggies were soft, pureed it until smooth, drizzled in some cream, added salt and pepper, and everyone ate it. Whether they will again remains to be seen, but you can do this soup with a multitude of variations: winter squash and sage; white beans and garlic; potatoes and leeks; sweet potato and ginger (maybe served with a side of cut-up limes); black bean and cumin; and on and on. Fresh herbs + stock + veggies + legumes = a fast, easy meal.

Christine: Obviously, your family is at the core of your content for The Dinner Diaries. How did they feel about the full personal disclosure? Did you have a sit down with them to discuss in advance? Was any material deemed off limits?

Betsy: I just tell them to be happy our last name isn’t Sedaris.

Christine: I think parents will really appreciate the honesty and humor translated in your writing. When I read about your son’s cavity count I was both impressed that you were willing to share that (I think many of us parents get kind of zipped up about stuff like that…) and was inspired to brush my daughter’s teeth more. Do you have a lot of parents tell you that your honesty has inspired household change? If so, have another favorite example?

Betsy: Again, thank you.

I guess cavity counts don’t bother me as much as suffering in silence. Fortunately, all that embarrassing full disclosure seems worthwhile when I have moms write to me from all over North America to say my book has inspired them to make changes. One family has a small apartment and didn’t want to take up space with a table, so they were eating dinners sort of catch-as-catch-can. After reading my book, they brought their dining room table up from the basement and they’re eating together again. Others are now using fish lists (including the one in my book). People have bought books I recommend. They’ve changed the amount of meat they eat. I can’t tell you how deeply gratifying it is to hear stories like this.

Christine: I’m assuming that writing is your primary gig, done at home. How do you balance working out of home with the demands of family? How do you set boundaries so you can get work done?

Betsy: Motherhood is hard whether you work full-time at a job, full-time as a mom, or try to balance both, as I do. My office is right off the dining room and the kids are in here all the time. I’m used to it – luckily I can write in five-minute increments – but the only reason I have a book is because we signed up for cable TV. Do as I say, not as I do.

Christine: What do you think has been the most challenging thing about being a freelancer? Any words of wisdom for other moms looking to become freelancers, and balance freelance work with motherhood?

Betsy: The most challenging thing about freelancing is the 95 percent (99 percent?) rejection rate. But I believe that if you have an undying passion (and natural talent) for writing, incredible persistence, endless patience, and self-motivation, anyone can have a successful writing career. It’s the perfect job for a mom because you’re your own boss, you make your own hours, and there’s no commute. Best of all, there’s no dress code.

Christine: We’ve talked all business up to now. Tell us about the favorite things you do to unwind or any hidden/unusual talents you may have.

Betsy: Unfortunately, I’m a great baker. I also like some really bad TV shows. But the enlightened side of me has started doing yoga and cooking more vegan meals.

Christine: And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a Boston mama?

Betsy: Although I do loathe the weather here, I can’t say enough about how much I love my community. I meet more smart, funny, thoughtful women (and their families) all the time. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Being a Boston mama rocks, but you already knew that.

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Know a fabulous local mama? Nominate yourself or someone else to be featured!