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For Marcel Proust, it was the memory of a spongy cookie—a madeleine—that launched the French author’s masterpiece, “Remembrance of Things Past.”
For Joan Peterson, it was an extraordinary custard tart.
Twenty-five years ago, Peterson founded Ginkgo Press in Madison, and there are now 14 country-specific titles in her “Eat Smart” guidebook series, which began with “Eat Smart in Brazil” in 1993.
The latest, “Eat Smart in Portugal,” written by Peterson and Ronnie Hess, in a sense brings Peterson full circle, because it was in a bakery in Lisbon that she got the idea to write food travel guides.
Travel had long been a passion for Joan and her husband, David Peterson. David taught theater and music at University of Wisconsin–Extension, wrote plays and musicals, and in the Vietnam War era his musicals were used to entertain American troops at military bases in the Caribbean and Pacific Rim.
“We spent four months in the Pacific and two in the Caribbean,” Joan says of those early military base trips. “We performed at night, so we had plenty of day time to look for food markets. We went market to market and found all sorts of food. We were totally foodies.”
Years later, 1992, they were in Portugal. Joan had begun carrying a spiral notebook with ideas for foods she wanted to try. She soon learned it was woefully inadequate. She didn’t know what she didn’t know.
“What put me over the top,” she says, “was a bakery near our hotel” in Lisbon.
She and David discovered a custard tart called pasteis de Belem, the recipe having originated with 19th century monks.
“It was so divine,” Joan says. “We pigged out. We’d get a dozen at a time. They were little, but still. I said, ‘I bet there are a lot of people in Portugal who don’t know about these. Why don’t I start a pamphlet?’”
A quarter century on, she says, “That was the epiphany.”
The next stop on their trip was Brazil, and it was there that Joan expanded her idea for a pamphlet into a series of books exploring a country’s culture through its food. “Eat Smart in Brazil” was published the following year.
In 1997, Joan’s daughter, Susan Chwae, joined Ginkgo Press doing graphic design and marketing, and eventually began leading culinary tours. Susan’s husband, Ed Chwae, is the talented sous chef at Merchant and Lucille in Madison.
Which makes the event Feb. 22 a true family affair, when Joan and Ronnie Hess introduce “Eat Smart in Portugal” with a five course/five wine dinner, with Ed preparing dishes from the book. It’s at vomFASS on University Avenue and advance sign-up is required.
If all this wasn’t enough, Peterson recently learned that her "Eat Smart" guides have been selected as the United States representative in the “series” category of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, which will be handed out in late May in Yangtai, China.
Joan, Susan and Ed will be making that trip.
There’s a name missing there—that of Joan’s husband, David Peterson, who died in October 2014, at 78. He and I were friendly acquaintances, and he was marvelous company. I especially remember one afternoon at a home west of Stoughton that David and I spent with the renown wood artist Skip Johnson. Those two were great friends. There was a lot of laughter that day. When Skip died, less than a year after our visit, his friends shot his ashes out of a cannon he had made for that purpose.
After talking to Joan last week, I thought about how she and David discovered that Portugal bakery, and those custard tarts, all those years ago. It made me want to go to Lisbon. Now there’s a book to help me once I’m there.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.