Mercy Watson: The Porcine Wonder Talks Toast

Dan Norman

I was recently introduced to a local celebrity, a friend of a friend, who said we’d have a lot in common. This sort of thing happens to all of us — sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t — but when the friend in question turns out to be a pig, one feels more than the usual amount of stranger aversion. What could we possibly have to talk about? Pretty much oink.

Of course, it never pays to make assumptions. I knew in one glance that Mercy Watson, the curly-tailed heroine of local author Kate DiCamillo’s charming children’s book series, would be a lifelong friend. It didn’t take us long to discover that we have but one thing in common: an uncommon love of hot, buttered toast. In these carbophobic times, one longs to meet a fellow traveler. Ah but for one frustrating moment it seemed we were doomed to sit, nose to snout, all our best adventures, our most glutenous hopes and dreams, ready to pour forth — yet silenced for lack of a common language.

Not surprisingly, Mercy, the porcine wonder, knows a pig-whisperer. Victoria Stewart was the playwright for Mercy Watson to the Rescue, which is playing at Children’s Theatre Company now through October 23. The play is a stirring roman á clef: Mercy heroically saves many lives, including those of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Watson, and makes unlikely allies of the fireman, animal control, and a rather curmudgeonly neighbor — all in the name of toast.

Here, in our brief discussion via Victoria Stewart, Mercy reveals a more contemplative side, gamely talking about literary heroes, the horrors of vegemite and lost toasters, and the upside of cold, dry toast.

HEAVY TABLE: How did you discover your love of toast — of all the tasty snacks?

MERCY WATSON: I used to eat pretty much anything I could find with my very sensitive snout, nuts, berries, mushrooms, grubs. But the Watsons introduced me to toast —  Mr. Watson likes a lumberjack special  — and it was love at first sight. The Watsons fell in love with me and I fell in love with toast.

Chef Chris vs. Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Chef Chris Olson fires some high-caliber rhetorical rounds at a highly visible target: The Splendid Table. An amuse bouche for his case: “The program as a whole is too soft. Cooking is one of the most visceral things that we do. It is inherently a destructive process. We take vegetables and manipulate them with knives and our hands and make them into different things. In order to eat a steak, an animal must die. There’s no guts behind the show.”

Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America

Lori Writer / Heavy Table
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

“In the isolated mountain villages of their Laotian homeland, cooking was… the stuff of tradition, not the written word. Good Hmong cooks learned from their elders which ingredients to use, and how much of each, by sight, feel, and taste.  Recipes were never written down and followed ‘to the letter.’ Cooking, like other Hmong arts and crafts, came ‘from the heart.'”

(From Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yangpublished this month by the University of Minnesota Press ($29.95; 248 pages, hardcover with color photos, available at Hmong ABC Bookstore at 298 University Ave. W in St. Paul).

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Sheng Yang, and her parents and four siblings, immigrated to the United States — first to Kentucky, then Oklahoma, and then, Oregon —  in 1979, when she was nine. Sami Scripter, married and tending to her growing family, was Sheng’s neighbor in Portland, OR. Sami worked as an educator at Sheng’s elementary school. Speaking to a small audience at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul on Thursday, Scripter recalls, “One year you didn’t know what Hmong was, and the next year a quarter of the children in school were Hmong.”

Yang says that over the years their “two families have become almost one.” Scripter adds, “We got to know each other the way neighbors know each other.” They gardened together in the Scripter’s backyard using seeds Sheng’s mother had carried from Laos and Thailand. Sami taught Sheng and her mother how to preserve raspberry jam.

As a sixth grader, to improve her English, Sheng lived with the Scripters, rooming with Sami’s daughter, Emily, in a bunk bed Don Scripter built for the two girls. “Sami learned to cook rice the Hmong way using an hourglass-shaped pot and woven basket steamer, and Sheng learned how to make… meatloaf, baked potatoes, and peach pie,” the authors write.