From the kitchen of the small Jamaica Plain apartment she shared with her mother and older brother, Sasha Martin discovered a passion for food and learning that helped her persevere through many obstacles. Martin, 35, returned to what she learned in her mother’s creative kitchen for comfort during time in foster homes, a family death, and many years living with long-term guardians.
When she was a young girl, Martin’s family scraped by on her mother’s seamstress wages. But they still cooked. When 5-year-old Sasha wanted to make Julia Child’s roast lamb recipe, they saved for months to buy the ingredients. When the family didn’t have the money for special meals, Martin’s mother asked her to draw the feasts of her imagination. “What she was doing was teaching me the difference between poverty of resources and poverty of spirit. That’s why I never felt poverty and was always so mystified as a girl as to why I can’t be with my mom,” Martin recalls.
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After a number of interventions by social services that left the children in foster care, Martin’s mother had decided to send Sasha and her brother, ages 10 and 12, to live permanently with family friends. From there, Martin’s journey took her to Europe to live with her guardians and ultimately as an adult, she found her mother again.
In her own home in Tulsa, Okla., where she now lives with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, Martin set up a creative kitchen. She also started the Global Table Adventure blog, for which she cooked a meal a week from every country in the world. From her troubled childhood to the present, Martin connects the dots in “Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness.”
Q. In the introduction you say this isn’t the book you set out to write.
A. I had an outline all about Global Table Adventure. My editor pushed back and said, “It’s not exactly a normal thing to obsessively cook a meal from every country in the world.” She just asked me to spend some time thinking about what was really going on with me. So, I went away and realized this whole cooking the world thing was about a passion for learning and interest in other cultures, but it was also this deep yearning for belonging. I kept coming back to my childhood and a lot of the challenges I faced. The happy-go-lucky food blogger book got tossed. I realized that I could never find my place in this world no matter how many countries I cooked if I didn’t make peace with my past.
Q. Describe your early memories in the kitchen.
A. My mom was a creative force, especially in the kitchen. There was no other place in our small apartment to come together. It was a place for my brother and me to play. There were no limitations on what we could do despite my mom being on welfare and being a single mother and all the challenges she had. We made things like a German sheet cake with 19 layers. That was our rainy day activity. I guess by doing these things with me she taught me to see beyond our circumstances.
Q. How did those experiences carry through to the rest of your life?
A. Cooking is my walking meditation. No matter how chaotic the day, when you get your hands into dough and knead it, some of that stuff falls away. That’s something that came directly from my mother. Later when I was separated from her for all those years, my new family provided me with a tremendous education, but they also shooed me from the kitchen because they wanted me to focus on my education. When I was faced with not cooking, I was very restless.
Q. When did you begin your project of cooking recipes from every country in the world?
A. My daughter was 7 months old and just beginning to eat solid food. I had a very picky husband who’d never had fresh spinach and had no idea what an eggplant was. I think it was also part of a crisis of motherhood. I was holding this little baby and thinking, oh my gosh, what kind of world will I give her? How will she grow up? It was a way for me to find my footing as a mother. It wasn’t just recipes. It was a way to keep learning and also a way to help me find that sense of belonging that I was looking for without realizing it.
Q. How did you decide on the title for the book?
A. It went through so many titles. “Life from Scratch “seemed to capture the idea that I kept having to build and build again. Sometimes people hear the title and think it’s about erasing the past and moving forward. I think it’s like when you’re working with ingredients. You have the flour and you have the sugar, and you have to decide what are you going to make with that.
Sasha Martin will talk about “Life from Scratch” on March 24 at 7 p.m. at Wellesley Books, 82 Central St., Wellesley, 781-431-1160. She will talk about and cook recipes from the book on March 25 at noon at Northeastern University’s Xhibition Kitchen, Stetson West Eatery, 11 Speare Place, Boston, 617-373-2530.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at [email protected]