From Scratch: The Way of Susan Branch

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“Can’t we just make things the way we want them to be? Isn’t life like a choice? Like you decide what’s going to happen and then you just make them that way?”

– from Fairy Tale Girl (Part one of Branch’s memoir)

Susan Branch is a from-scratch woman. 

She’s built an extraordinary life doing things she loves, diving fearlessly into new pursuits, living simply in the material sense, but richly in the ideological.

But her life didn’t exactly start that way. She grew up in Southern California in the 1960s, and fully expected to follow a traditional path — go to school, get married, have children, and take care of them while her husband went to work. She wouldn’t have to work, just like her mother didn’t work (if you don’t take into consideration raising eight children, that is). But about four years after getting to the marriage marker on that road, loving her life, and thinking she had it made, she found herself heartbroken and disappointed. 

To get over it, she made a pretty wild decision, then packed up and moved 3,000 miles across the country. She left sunny California for a far-less-sunny Martha’s Vineyard that she’d only visited once.

She arrived on the Island, but didn’t quite know what to do next, even though she’d dreamed of living in New England since she was small. It was a big part of her family’s history; she’s from a Mayflower family, she obsessively read books like Little Women, Abigail Adams’ biography, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But the reality was that she didn’t know anyone, everything was new, and the only thing she really knew about the Island was that it had something to do with the Kennedys. She’d never even experienced winter before. 

And then she realized: She was not there to reinvent herself; what was in order was a full-on invention. 

“That’s the whole point of creativity — you have to make it up.”

– Susan Branch

So she decided to write a book. She’d never written one before and didn’t know where to begin, so she made it up, starting with what she did know. She’s a big believer in diaries. “They hold so much memory,” she says, and all it takes is “just a little note every day.” Her diaries, along with notes, thoughts, and observations, are loaded with doodles, leaves, bits of ribbon, photos, receipts, stickers, and even weather reports. They simply burst with memories, almost begging to be shared. 

So, back in that little house on Lambert’s Cove, when she had to figure out how to make a book, she turned to her diaries for content and for the layout. No one had written a book that way — she just made it up. Her own life, her own style, her own brand of creativity. 

Heart of the Home: Notes from a Vineyard Kitchen was born from that. That was 1986, and some say it’s the cookbook that put the Island on the “food map.” Vineyard Seasons followed two years later, then Christmas from the Heart of the Home in 1990. Susan has published a dozen more books to date, the last three of which, starting with 2013’s A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside, have been under her own imprint, Spring Street Studios.

She makes her books from scratch — literally. She still does what she did then: meticulously crafting each page by hand — hand-lettering every page, and painting decorative borders, titles, frames, and tiny little details like hearts and flowers with watercolors. She leaves space for photos or other graphics to paste directly on the page as she hand-letters recipes, thoughtful quotes, and stories. There’s no typesetting or page layout software; she prefers writing by hand. That way, she says, there’s nothing between her and her words, and she writes better. 

The visual effect is charming and sweet, and feels very personal. And when you start to read, it becomes even more so — a lot of the content still comes directly from her diaries. Despite what the hearts and flowers adorning the page seem to inform you about her style and sensibilities, she’s absolutely fearless when it comes to sharing deeply personal moments of her life, from the joyful to the painful, with her readers. 

Alongside this collection of cookbooks, lifestyle books, and memoirs, she’s developed a beloved brand with a huge and devoted audience — her e-newsletter goes out to over 65,000 inboxes monthly, and hundreds of thousands of people are inspired by her blog (see it at susanbranch.com). Her fans, the “Girlfriends,” will travel not just across state lines, but fly from foreign countries to attend her book signings and events. She has her own line of calendars, mugs, stickers, and even fabric. She’s been nominated for a James Beard Award. And she didn’t start this whirlwind career until she was 39 years old.

Artist, cook, designer, story teller, retailer, publisher, mentor: None of those titles were part of Susan’s original plan. But she’s created her best life by deciding you actually can make it the way you want. She believes people don’t realize how much control they have over their lives, and has some sage advice to offer: “Think of the best you can be … then be it! It’s the one thing you have power over.”

“…something old-fashioned and delicious that reminds everyone of their childhood.”

– from Fairy Tale Girl

Susan’s favorite foods are made from scratch — not particularly surprising, considering she’s a cookbook author. 

She started her cooking journey by diving in to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, acing the complicated recipes that took days to create and used a ton of ingredients. She calls that “full-sparkly” cooking, or the different and exciting recipes you make for a very special dinner or birthday. But then there’s what she calls “home and mom” cooking — recipes that only taste like they took three days, but are actually fast and easy. But don’t be fooled: It’s still important to her that food is elegant and delicious. She told me, “If you care about the people you’re cooking for, knock their socks off.” 

Beyond mere sustenance, she likes the idea of cooking, and of our mother’s and grandmother’s cooking, because “it’s part of our history. If you’re not cooking, you’re missing out on the giving thing.” And she keeps artifacts of that history with her, using the same pots she brought with her from California to the Island almost 40 years ago. Her favorite kitchen tools are finds from thrift and antique stores, but her most treasured is her grandmother’s wooden spoon — “I want DNA in my spoons!”

Susan’s cooking has always been from scratch, but after starting out with Julia Child’s recipes that took two or three days to make, her favorites soon became ones that require only two or three ingredients (recipes, she admits, she wouldn’t put in a book). “Grilled cheese can be transformative — when it’s all done with love!” 

“Mothers did it for us. I write so they are remembered.”

– Susan Branch

In all this, despite the hearts and flowers, runs a strong current of feminism, which is also, it turns out, made from scratch… there really was no other way. Feminism was very new when Susan came of age in the early 60s on the Central Coast of California. There weren’t a whole lot of people to learn it from. Everyone — women and men — was pretty much starting at zero. They had no teachers; they only had each other. 

So she and her contemporaries were the vanguard, navigating this strange, new world with new rules that not everyone was excited about or even understood. Young women were realizing they’d have to get a job. Older women were feeling like feminism made their lives stupid and irrelevant. Men were seeing, in Susan’s words, that “they were not women and they did not roar. And they did not like it.” 

But she eventually came to an understanding, for herself, at least: “Feminism is about choice: Want to stay home with your kids? OK. Want to get a job? OK! It’s about feeling free to do whichever you want — or even something else — and being OK with it.” Like so many other aspects of her life, she dug in and found what was meaningful for her and ran with it.

This philosophy is why every one of her books is an ode to her mother. To all women, really. To let them know that they matter, to let them know that the giving of themselves matters, to thank them. It’s one of the reasons she keeps writing — she knows women still need to hear that.

She also has a few more lessons to pass on: The world keeps coming at you. But you can come at it! Connections are everything. Honor the past. And good food is love.