For famous writer Susan Branch, Martha’s Vineyard has been wonderfully fertile ground.
Susan Branch clearly remembers her early, fairy tale impressions of Martha’s Vineyard. Wanting to heal her newly broken heart as far away from her native California as possible, Branch landed almost 3,000 miles away and found safety and solace watching the ocean defend the island like a moat protects a castle.
Slowly but surely, Branch found a new home, a new love, and a new career as a cookbook author and illustrator in which she celebrates what makes her happy—family, food, home, and nature. Now, almost 30 years later, Branch’s appreciation for life’s unassuming delights resonates with readers worldwide who cherish her lovely handwritten and watercolor-adorned cookbooks and calendars as well as a successful line of quilting fabrics and other charming products for the home.
Her tales, gleaned from growing up as the oldest of eight children and enjoying life’s simple pleasures, foster a kinship with readers who sense Branch’s uplifting personality on each page. Her newest cookbook, tentatively titled Pancakes, comes out next year. Pancakes will include recipes for everything from the title food to apricot jam to camping breakfast ideas and all the accompanying stories and watercolors Branch’s readers love so much.
Threading through Branch’s work, including The Heart of the Home, Vineyard Seasons, Summer, Autumn, and Girlfriends Forever, is her gratitude for where she has arrived in her life. “This is a dream come true for me,” she says of her career. “I work hard, but I love it so much, it doesn’t seem so hard.”
Home and family are crucial to Branch. She saw how hard her mom, Patricia Stewart, worked to create traditions for her family, many of which centered around food and how it was served. One of Branch’s goals has always been to acknowledge the often overlooked pleasures of home—of baking a delicious apple pie, of hanging quilts out to catch the spring air, or of the fleeting excitement of Christmas morning.
Her books are not all about perfection and elegance (although she appreciates that), but about bringing a sense of fun and a sense of grace to the unpredictability of life and doing a lot of that through food—think picnics on the beach or hot chocolate and warm cookies when the first snowflakes start swirling.
“From day one, I have liked to help,” said Branch of her style. “When my mom had Easter baskets for us, I had Easter baskets for her and my dad.” Branch said she and her mom, who had her at 17, joke that they played dolls together with real babies. “I thought nothing was better,” said Branch. Branch’s mother, who lives in California, wanted only to have a comfortable and comforting home for her crew, and she created the simple, wholesome pleasures Branch so adores as an adult. But growing up, Branch also noticed that the hard work of raising a family didn’t produce many pats on the back.
Readers see Branch like an encouraging girlfriend who cheers them on. “I wanted women to feel great about what they did,” says the writer of the basis of her inspirations. And her recipes are the kind families love. “All I make is comfort food,” jokes Branch. “I like sugar, flour, butter, eggs. I can handle that. I want recipes to be so good that they are family favorites and good enough to serve to company.”
For all her appreciation of comfort, Branch’s peace is hard earned. She had visited Martha’s Vineyard only once before moving, but was intrigued by island life. “I had a yearning to try it,” she said. “I came out here for three months. Within two weeks I knew.”
Still, moving from California to New England was not easy. “It was like boot camp,” recalls Branch with a laugh. “I didn’t know how to dress for the snow!” Branch missed her family and friends in California, but used her isolation to her advantage. “There is nothing like loneliness for accomplishment,” she says.
ranch, who did not pick up watercolors until after she turned 30, painted almost daily at first. Her girlfriends encouraged her to combine her watercolors with her cooking, a suggestion that made Branch laugh. But on a whim, she made something the size of a book page. Pleased with the result, she made cold calls and sent them to a publishing house thinking if they were rejected she could frame the prints and use them for Christmas presents. They were accepted, and Branch’s new career took wing.
Current technology like Facebook (with a Friends of Susan Branch page) enhances Branch’s affinity for a simple life and new connections. Her blog, a burgeoning project found at her website www.susanbranch.com, lets her expand on things like recipes, travels, or even favorite old movies.
“A blog is natural for me,” said Branch. “I have kept diaries all my life—I started when I was 10.” Branch’s diaries are remarkably similar to her books—one diary from a trip to England includes memories, stories, illustrations, and pictures and is thick with mementos of travel—a pressed flower, a four-leaf clover, tickets to events.
For years, Branch’s fan mail has cheered her, but the blog allows her to interact with the people who support her on a more immediate basis. “The blog is where we can all talk to each other,” said Branch, noting that readers from New Zealand, England, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and even Africa follow her blog. “I have gotten mail over the years, but there is no way to connect [readers] to each other,” said Branch. “Now they can read and talk to each other. And I get to talk back to them. It makes that word community a true thing.”
All Branch’s recipes are rigorously tested in the sunlight-filled kitchen of her 1849 home. From her vantage point at the counter or sink, she can watch the birds as they visit her well-stocked feeders and sing to her as she works. Despite Branch’s easy-going manner, she perfects each recipe. “Cute is nice, but without good recipes, no one will buy book two,” said Branch about her precise, careful methods.
Two months before her first book was published, Branch met Joe Hall, former general manager of the Black Dog Tavern. They had their first date two months after the book landed on store shelves, and they have been together ever since. For a while they split their time between the two coasts, but the excitement of the changing seasons, the deep friendships they have nurtured on the island, and the soul-deep feeling of belonging keep them on the island year round now. “I felt more at home here,” Branch says.
“Nothing is an accident,” says the writer. “One thing leads to another. When people used to ask me what I wanted to do, it drove me crazy because I never had an answer. I had to get something under my belt first. Follow your heart along the way and sooner or later, it will all meld together.”
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer from the Boston area.
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