Stop and Smell the Butter


We were baking cookies, my four-year-old Aaron and I, and I had been rhapsodizing the properties of unbleached flour—its honest color (“One of my favorite colors in the whole world!” I had said), its silken texture. I felt success—as a teacher, a cook, a parent—when Aaron said, “Mama! Mama! Smell the butter! Smell the butter! Mmm!” Perched on his stepstool, wooden spoon in hand, Aaron hovered over a saucepan of half-melted butter, breathing in its sweet fumes. His little hand on my head commanded me to do the same. If he retains only one lesson that I teach him, let it be this one, I thought. Let him go through life not only knowing what to do with melted butter, but how to stop and smell it, too.

—Cooking journal entry, December 26, 1994

I started keeping a cooking journal because I watched my mother struggle to recreate my grandmother’s recipes after she died (my mom never could get her pizza right!) and wanted to spare my family the same—rather boldly assuming they’d want to cook my recipes, of course. I began writing little essays and drawing pictures alongside the recipes. A friend saw my journal and urged me to publish it. I found a potential publisher, who told me my journal was charming but there wasn’t a market because I was a nobody. Well, I thought, I’ll just have to become somebody!

Taking a cue from Moonlight Chronicles author and illustrator Dan Price, who gathered handwritten newsletters of his travels into a book, I created my first issue of Stop and Smell the Butter in the summer of 2002. Putting pen to paper, I wrote and illustrated essays and recipes, using Wite-Out here and there, sometimes trashing a page and starting over, but mostly working with, and living with, my mistakes, which I still do today. While I occasionally write out an essay ahead of time, most of the content is straight from my head onto the page, in ink.

It feels important to me to be my authentic, imperfect self on the page, even if it means I sometimes slip from my positive-outlook aspirations. I cringe over my bad illustrations or clumsy phrasing, or chastise myself for sounding self-centered and whiny, but I put it out there nonetheless because being real is part of Stop and Smell the Butter’s charm. Maybe all of its charm. It’s also part of my creative process—the challenge of thinking simultaneously about an essay and its illustration as I approach the blank page, and living with my creative choices.

Since I started publishing in 2002, I’ve taken a few hiatuses, times when I felt I’d run out of steam and the effort started feeling forced. I always come back to it, not because readers miss it—although they do—but because I miss it. Creating it makes me slow down, look around, and appreciate how very lucky I am.

Stop and Smell the Butter had been on hiatus for two years when my husband and I moved to Three Oaks full-time in 2016, after being weekenders since 2012. I had fallen in love with this village and its eclectic cast of characters. For years I had fantasized about living a simpler life out in the country. Three Oaks made me realize it wasn’t the country I was craving, but community. Here, we found the simpler life I longed for and a sense of community stronger than any we’d ever been a part of in the past. This place, where I can be who I am, prompted me to relaunch Stop and Smell the Butter and stamp it “Homegrown in Three Oaks, MI.”