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June 2013 Issue

Party of Five

Food writer Robin Davis’ new book shares stories of finding faith, following love and feeding a family.
You might assume that writer Robin Davis’ latest book, Recipe for Joy, is just another food memoir; a breezy hop from culinary milestone to culinary milestone leading to her current post as the food editor for the The Columbus Dispatch.

You’d be only partially right.

Because before you get to the food, you must first follow Davis’ journey as she loses her mother at age 22 to alcoholism, followed by her father when she was just 36 to pancreatic cancer. And you must simultaneously learn the story of how the man who would eventually become her husband, and his three children, lose their wife and mother after a four-year battle with cancer.

It’s an emotional eater’s worst nightmare.

Fortunately for Davis, her now-husband Ken and her three stepchildren, Ben, Molly and Sarah, the story ends happily with lessons learned about family, faith and, of course, food. Ohio Magazine contributor Jenny Pavlasek caught up with Davis to discuss the evolution of Recipe for Joy and how returning to Ohio, falling in love and becoming a wife and stepmother has shaped her life’s work in ways she never dreamed possible. 

OM: When I picked up your book, I was expecting insider details from your jobs as a food editor at Bon Appetit magazine in Los Angeles and as the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. I didn’t expect to need a box of tissues. What prompted you to write such an honest version of your story?

Davis: Originally the book was going to be little vignettes about family meals, but it grew from there. As I would write my stories my agent would read them and say, “I want to know more about what your life was like. How did you step into the role of wife and stepmother all at once?” That’s how it morphed into a memoir, and from there, a faith-based memoir.

OM: You say that there were three things you swore you would never do: move back to Ohio, get married and join an organized religion. But here you are.

Davis: Ten years ago, had any of my friends in California told me “you’re going to marry a widower with three children,” I would have laughed hysterically. Marriage wasn’t part of my vocabulary, I had turned away from my religion after I lost my mother, and I had left Ohio and consumed myself with building my career.

OM: You “met” your husband Ken at a University of Dayton alumni dinner. But as the evening unfolded, you realized you already knew each other.

Davis: I’d lost touch with almost all of my friends from college. But when we got there, I saw Ken, and he looked familiar. We started talking, trying to figure out where our paths had crossed. It turns out that my best friend in college had dated (and is now married to) one of his housemates. That started the conversation, but we had even more in common. Grace (Ken’s wife) had died almost a year before — exactly four days after my father died. Losing a spouse and losing a parent are different, but in many ways, grief is grief. I don’t remember talking to anyone else that night. And when it was time to go, I gave Ken my phone number — something I’d never done before. But I felt a connection to him. I wanted to continue our conversation.

OM: Did you know at that moment that everything was going to change?

Davis: It was a process. I knew [being with Ken] was something I couldn’t just play around with in the periphery. If I was going to do this relationship, I had to do it 100 percent — even though I had no idea what I was doing.

OM: Jumping into the role as stepmother — or “mother on earth” as you say in the book — to three children who had lost their mother seems impossible to imagine, especially when you hadn’t had much experience with kids. Did food help bridge some of the gaps? 

Davis: When I first started cooking for Ken, I didn’t have the job at the Dispatch. I would buy day-boat scallops, go to the farmers market to buy fresh corn, then make an elaborate lunch because I could spend all morning doing it. Of course, none of those things were things I could have made for the kids. They were always very polite, but they were never going to eat that. I still wanted to try new things — and at first I really took it personally when they didn’t like something. I had to get over that. So it probably took us two or three months to really find a balance. I wasn’t willing to give up on Brussels sprouts — and now they always want to eat them when they’re home [from college] in the winter.

OM: I enjoyed the story of how when Ben’s prom plans fell through, you saved the day by cooking dinner for him and his friends at the Dispatch test kitchen in the North Market. I’m sure having a stepmom who is a known commodity in the local food scene has its perks.

Davis: I do think there was some of that. They would tell their friends “Robin is making this tonight — you have to come over.” There were some bragging rights — which I loved, clearly.

OM: Of course, there were some pretty challenging times, too. You talk a great deal in the book about your need to be “perfect” — a perfect wife, a perfect stepmother and perfect in your career. And you talk about how this caused you to struggle sometimes. 

Davis: It took an enormous amount of self-examination to write this book, in ways that weren’t always comfortable. I think we paint a picture of ourselves that we like and can live with — but readers can tell if you’re not being authentic. And eventually, as I talk about in the book, the cracks start to show.

OM: Do you ever have any regrets about leaving the California food scene?

Davis: It’s a very competitive, opinionated scene in San Francisco, and to me it felt like there was no room for teaching or growing or learning — you either know or you don’t. When I first came to Columbus, I felt like there was so much potential, and we’ve seen it in everything that has happened, from Jeni’s ice cream to food trucks. I think Columbus has an amazing food scene and I’m glad to be in it. Ohio is great that way. I never once thought that I had made a mistake in terms of food. I do wish arugula was a little easier to get, though.

OM: What message do you want readers to walk away with?

Davis: I hope they finish the book with a sense of hope. That they recognize that the people you meet and when you meet them bring something to your life — whether they’re there for a minute or a lifetime. And the sense that, no matter what you’re doing, it’s enough. That one is hard for me to say, even now.

For more information about Robin Davis and Recipe for Joy, visit

Warm Goat Cheese Salad
Courtesy of Robin Davis | Serves 6

Davis writes in Recipe for Joy that this is one of husband Ken’s favorite salads, and when he eats it, he says she’s spoiled him for eating in restaurants for life. On weeknights, she simplifies the recipe by serving mixed greens with the same dressing, but substituting chopped apples and crumbled goat cheese for the toppings.

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey or sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, or a combination
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs such as thyme or parsley (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Nonstick cooking spray
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
1 cup soft fresh bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 logs (6 ounces each) fresh goat cheese, each cut into 6 rounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
10 cups mixed baby greens
1/2 cup dried cranberries, raisins or dried cherries

To make the dressing:
Whisk the mustard, honey or sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper and herbs (optional) in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil until combined.

To make salad:
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Mist with cooking spray.
2. Whisk egg and water in a shallow bowl. Combine bread crumbs and thyme in another shallow bowl.
3. Season goat cheese lightly with salt and pepper. Dip in egg mixture, then in bread crumb mixture, coating completely. Arrange on baking sheet.
4. Bake just until bread crumbs are golden brown and cheese is soft but not melted, 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Toss greens with some of the dressing. Arrange on six salad plates. Top each with two goat cheese rounds. Sprinkle with dried fruit. Drizzle with remaining dressing and serve immediately. 
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