Michelle Huneven is a Whiting Award-winning writer who studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as well as a James Beard Award-winning food journalist who spent time at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology. She leverages all this in her fifth novel, Search, which follows a food writer named Dana and her fellow members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation through the process of searching for a new minister. Huneven, who now teaches writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, answered our questions about the spiritual inquiries and delectable recipes of her latest novel.
Dana’s committee experience in Search has the ring of truth to it. How much of it comes from your personal history, and how did your experiences differ?
I was on a church search committee—if only for an assistant minister—and that is where I got the idea for Search. My writer’s antennae first quivered when I read the applications, which were full of personal narratives (Describe a mistake you’ve made in ministry and what you did about it. . . . Tell about your call to ministry). The applicants were so varied and so self-revealing—whether they meant to be or not.
Unlike Dana’s committee, we were an affable, tame group and quickly agreed on an applicant who seemed highly qualified. But someone had “heard something” about the applicant, so we did another round of reference-checking. I interviewed a reference who affirmed the applicant’s talents but also disclosed a pattern of ethical lapses too troubling to overlook. Even as I was shocked and disappointed by these revelations, a light went off: The vetting process had been like detective work. Uncovering the discrepancy between how a person self-presented and who they really were . . . now that seemed the stuff of novels.
Although my church search committee experience was congenial, I began collecting stories of other search committees (in both churches and academia) where factions, feuds and intractability flourished. It soon occurred to me that this intimate, small form of democracy was like a fractal of what was happening on the national level: the divisiveness and spleen, the dearth of middle ground.
“The vetting process had been like detective work. Uncovering the discrepancy between how a person self-presented and who they really were . . . now that seemed the stuff of novels.”
Why did you choose a Unitarian Universalist church as a backdrop for Search?
I am a UU, and that’s the denomination and church life that I know. We are known for being articulate, skeptical, contentious, open-minded and socially progressive. We follow no dogma or doctrine and embrace spiritual wisdom from all traditions; our congregations include Jewish people, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, atheists and many others. Social action is a major form of spiritual practice. Many of us would describe ourselves with that now-popular phrase, “spiritual not religious,” which is the fastest growing category of religious affiliation in the country.
How did your time at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology influence this book? Did you, like Dana, ever consider the ministry as a vocation?
In my 30s, I’d been supporting myself as a restaurant critic while trying to write a novel. I’d been working on that novel for more years than I’m willing to admit, and I was not getting anywhere. Like Dana, I yearned to do something more strenuous and meaningful with my life than write about what I put in my mouth.
The minister at my church was literary, erudite, funny and wide-ranging in his interests, and I thought I might like to do what he did. (Ministry and novel writing are among the few careers for generalists.) Also, I loved the sermon as a literary form almost as much as I loved the novel. So, off to seminary I went. Although the Claremont School of Theology was Methodist-affiliated, students from 31 denominations attended, including an African denomination of one. My study partner was a nun.
I loved every minute of my time there—the classes, the reading, the papers and preaching, the conversations, my colleagues, and professors. But about a year and a half in, as I sat in my Backgrounds of Contemporary Theology course, it came to me what I’d been doing wrong with the novel I’d been trying to write for so many years: I’d been starting it in the wrong place!
When school got out for the year, I went back to work on the old project, and by the fall, I was so deep into it, I put off finishing my divinity degree—and indeed, I never did complete it. I did, however, finish the novel, which was Round Rock. My second novel, Jamesland, was my first “church” novel, and Search, my fifth novel, is my second “church” novel. They share a character, and both make use of my seminary experience and, I hope, justify it. In Search, Dana actually gets my seminary years and, like me, never finishes. Like Dana, I have never lost my interest in ministers and ministry.
“Ministry and novel writing are among the few careers for generalists.”
Why did you decide to include recipes with the book? And how did you decide which recipes to include?
When I won a James Beard Award years ago, it was for the category “Feature Writing With Recipes.” The “With Recipes” clause always made me laugh. It seemed like both a pulled punch and the promise of a little bonus. That is, some might see the category as a lighter, perhaps slightly frivolous form of feature writing, while others might consider the recipes as a bonus, like a crackerjack prize. At any rate, the idea of a Novel “With Recipes” has also always amused and appealed to me.
Some recipes—like chicken fiesta and the whole wheat chocolate chip cookies—I knew I would include from the start, while other recipes made themselves known as the characters cooked and carried their dishes into committee meetings.
I had a lot of fun testing the recipes to get them right. How many fresh coconuts did I hurl on our concrete patio for the buko pie? Many! Enough to become an expert coconut cracker. And friends still speak reverently of the lamb nihari feast we held outside under heaters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that’s an interesting recipe—it’s not difficult, except that you must get out (and use) every single spice in your cabinet.
What link(s) do you find (or draw) between food and spirituality?
My husband, who is Jewish, likes to say, “Where two or more are gathered, food is served.” Eating together, breaking bread, communion, picnicking, coffee hour—here is where generosity, nourishment, conversation, conviviality and community occur, and connection is made. Food connects us to a vast web of labor and resources, not to mention growing cycles and the seasons. If you ever need a sense of “the interconnected web of which we are all a part,” consider how that cup of tea or apple or slice of bread reached your lips.
“Eating together, breaking bread, communion, picnicking, coffee hour—here is where generosity, nourishment, conversation, conviviality and community occur, and connection is made.”
Dana comes out squarely in favor of whole wheat chocolate chip cookies. And you? Do you prefer yours crunchy, chewy or cake-y?
Oh, I really do love those whole wheat chocolate chip cookies from Kim Boyce’s whole grain cookbook, Good to the Grain. Someone called them “adult cookies,” and maybe they are. They are certainly burly cookies. (I gave the recipe to a friend who had two adult sons living with her during the pandemic, and they nicknamed the cookies “The Burly Mofos.”) I admit, I use fancy muscovado for the brown sugar and excellent chocolate, so they are especially good. They are crunchy AND chewy, with all the buttery, grainy pleasures of whole wheat toast, plus some serious chocolate action.
But then, I’m a person who halves the sugar in most recipes and craves the bitterness in dark chocolate, marmalade and radicchio. Regular Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies are way too sweet and insubstantial for me, though of course I can’t stop mindlessly eating them once I start—they’re designed for that.
What do you hope readers will take away from Search?
Gosh. Ideally? A few hours of literary pleasure. And some choice recipes!
Photo of Michelle Huneven by Courtney Gregg.