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A cookbook that figures to be hobbit-forming

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Stephanie Simmons talks about J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth with the same casual expertise you'd expect of someone who has spent quality time with hobbits, elves and shadowy magicians.

It has always been part of the East End native's charm. Growing up in the Hill District and Wilkinsburg in the '60s and early '70s, Simmons was far more interested in the genealogy of the Bagginses of Hobbiton than the black power rhetoric then popular among her friends and acquaintances.

While Angela Davis spoke to Simmons' political aspirations, Tolkien's massive epic of good and evil spoke to her soul. Teaching herself the history and language of Tolkien's fictional universe wasn't nearly as difficult as convincing her dashiki-wearing contemporaries that loving the books of a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature wasn't nearly the breach of racial protocol they assumed it was.

But Simmons continued to go her own way. At Edinboro State College in the '70s, the pre-med major fell in with a crowd that reinforced her intellectual and spiritual eclecticism. Along with a deepening of her understanding of Tolkien, Simmons explored phytoremediation, a branch of alternative agriculture that emphasizes the place of plants in cleansing the environment of toxins.

In her own way, Simmons was trying to reconcile her Native American and Celtic roots with the black activist part of her identity. As a result of her academic and spiritual juggling acts, Simmons graduated from Edinboro with a degree in cinematography, an outcome her parents neither anticipated nor approved. But Simmons was nothing if not defiant of expectation.

Two weeks ago, I ran into Simmons and her 13-year-old daughter, Areya, browsing at Borders Books in Monroeville. Areya, whose name means "beautiful" in Greek, was excited about a book illustrating Tolkien's characters.

Besides inheriting Stephanie's love of Middle-earth lore and her facility for speaking its languages, "Ray" also happens to be one of the best amateur golfers of her generation -- an accomplishment that fills her mom with enormous pride.

These days, Simmons is putting the finishing touches on a cookbook she was born to write.

"It's called 'Regional Cooking From Middle-earth: Recipes of the Third Age,' " she said, stroking her curly black hair.

When Simmons told me her cookbook was premised on a connection between, among other things, African-American regional cuisine and "The Lord of the Rings," I was astounded. Even she couldn't pull a rabbit that big out of her hat -- or so I thought.

"Well, regional recipes and their association with the peoples of Middle-earth are purely arbitrary," she admitted. "Still, they are reflections of the people of Earth because Middle-earth is our Earth, according to Tolkien. Proximity to water, mountains, forests, etc., would determine the types of food they would make and have access to," she said before launching into a recitation of the migratory nature and eating habits of hobbits and elves.

All I could do was admire her literary audacity. Stephanie Simmons has already persuaded the notoriously protective Tolkien Society to sign off on the idea, a minor miracle in itself.

Now she's looking for a publisher for what could be the most quixotic, high-concept cookbook ever. Though the idea may ultimately prove to be too much of a long shot, I like Stephanie Simmons' chances. A book that promotes Tolkien's literary humanism while serving up delicious regional recipes from African, Native American and Anglo traditions has an air of inevitability about it.

"Tolkien was never presented to me as some exclusive club," she said. "I've always seen him as someone who honored differences, explored cultures, appreciated nature and the Earth. He hated war and understood how conflict and absolute power corrupt absolutely. That's what 'The Lord of the Rings' is about. Everyone can understand [Tolkien's message] if given the chance."

Talking to Stephanie Simmons and her daughter about the universality of Tolkien's art was one of the most enjoyable -- and strangest -- conversations I've had in a long time. Her willingness to challenge deep-seated assumptions about a literary classic long attributed to a "dead white male" was inspiring.

In the end, Steph Simmons convinced me that the distance between ethnic group experiences -- no matter how nuanced -- and Middle-earth can be as long or as short as a reader's imagination allows.

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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