Meet Meredith Sayles Hughes

I recently had a chat with Meredith Sayles Hughes, author of TFCB’s Plants vs. Meats: The Health, History, and Ethics of What We Eat (new for Spring 2016). We talked about food, Meredith’s background, tips for aspiring writers, and more. Of this star-reviewed title, Booklist writes: “Hughes offers a compact but comprehensive guide to food production and consumption in the U.S. . . . [in this] admirably balanced. . .primer on ethical eating.” Here’s a selection from my Q+A conversation with Meredith. You can learn more about her and about food at her fabulous website, The Food Museum.

 1. How did you end up specializing in food?

It was totally inadvertent. We moved to Belgium from New York in 1973. There, I discovered the importance of the potato to northern Europeans, and then Tom the teacher, my husband, began a project with his fifth-grade students at the International School of Brussels that evolved into The Potato Museum. I was working as a freelance journalist, then as managing editor of the English-language newspaper there, and Macmillan Publishing asked us to write a book for kids, eventually called The Great Potato Book. Then the Smithsonian asked us to be part of a major food exhibition called “Seeds of Change.” Other food-related exhibitions followed, and for these, and for schools and libraries, we created and presented educational programs for kids and their families. Along with The Potato Museum, we did a ten-book series for Lerner Publishing Group in the late 1990s called Plants We Eat. Shortly after that, in 2000, we started The Food Museum website.

2. What is exciting to you about what’s happening in the world of food these days?

In the 1970s, Tom and I were food pioneers. I am pleased that there is a renewed focus on food: that kids want to both grow plants and cook them; that many people are trying to figure out how and what to eat; that quality matters; that new restaurants care about where they source their ingredients; and that growers’ markets are popping up everywhere. And, too, that places like the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans are thriving.

3. Did you have any particular mentors or role models who helped encourage you in your professional life? What suggestions do you offer to aspiring writers?

My parents were clever wordsmiths who read to me, and word play was common in our home. One of my earliest memories is of going to the library with my mom, and all through my life, I have made a beeline for the nearest library. As a kid, I recall the magical day I was encouraged to leave the children’s stacks for the rich bounty of the rest of the library. Even on vacation at the Jersey Shore with my husband’s family, I managed to snag a “visitor” library card. Let’s hear it for librarians! I think that life-long reading makes a writer. Plus curiosity, plus practice. Plus, study and travel abroad, if you can. The world is a fine teacher.

Meredith with her dog, Lillian Jane Russell

4. For teens who are exploring their own choices about foods and how to eat, what tips would you offer them about how to make their decisions?

We have choices, we have science. Ask people who seem fit, healthy, and on the ball what they eat. Google everything—you quickly will discover what sources are credible. Be on the alert for sites or studies subsidized by corporate interests with costly plans and products to sell. Avoid veganism, unless you really are good at choosing protein-rich foods.

5. What are some of your favorite books that you have read or are reading for pleasure?

A fan always of the books of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Carol Shields, plus A. A. Milne, and so many, many others. I also read nonfiction, including just recently, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, and funny memoirs like those of Nora Ephron. Reared on Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens, I read many mysteries, too, preferring those that really are whodunnits rather than creepy, crawly thrillers involving psychopaths. A childhood fan of comic books, I relish graphic novels such as Persepolis and Maus. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is another brilliant one. Poetry: anything by Billy Collins.