Ladee Hubbard, THE RIB KING

Ladee Hubbard, THE RIB KING

“I do a lot of research and then try to forget it so I can be a little bit more instinctual when I’m writing.” Ladee Hubbard talks with Zibby about weaving fact with fiction, and how her latest novel, The Rib King, speaks to the current cultural moment.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ladee. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, The Rib King.

Ladee Hubbard: It’s great. Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I’ve been really excited about this. Can you tell listeners, please, what The Rib King is about?

Ladee: A very brief synopsis would be it’s about an African American man. He’s a groundskeeper. It’s 1914. He invents a meat sauce that becomes a national sensation. It’s very popular. It’s distributed all over the country. He spends the rest of his life touring the country giving cooking demonstrations as the Rib King.

Zibby: Amazing. Was this based on a recipe of yours? Where did this come from? No? Do you cook?

Ladee: I don’t. Actually, I have quite a few food allergies. Someone was saying maybe it’s a weird manifestation of my relationship with food that I would want to write about someone that invented a meat sauce. I was really interested in food as a commodity back then. It’s more about the circulation of the product that he creates.

Zibby: I love how you set the whole thing up and show us so clearly what daily life is like in this household. Literally, you’re right there on the bus going home with August and traveling and seeing his coworker’s house. It’s just so vivid. How he is so loyal to his job that he would want to run back in when he saw something amiss and that pride of taking ownership of your job very seriously, you go from that to everything else that ends up happening. It’s amazing how you painted that picture. How did you go back and recreate — that’s such a certain time and place, and the bus stops. It looks like you were looking at an old picture that was weathered and you were like, I’m going to write — was that what it was? Tell me about it.

Ladee: In part, yeah. I looked at a lot of pictures of the homes at the time and just a lot of images, a lot of books, a lot of research. It was actually really fascinating. It felt very necessary. There’s no city named in the book for where it takes place, but all the research was based in Chicago. Grounding it in a specific place when I was trying to write it was very important for me to understand the characters and just how they existed in space back then or to try to understand. It was a lot of research. There’s a scene in the first part where it talks about one of the maids putting a cloth over the light. It had to give a particular weight. Little things like that were very helpful to find out about in terms of trying to get a sense of where everybody was. It was a lot of research.

Zibby: Even when you talked about the effects of the introduction of electricity in their house and how the stains on the couches were suddenly so vivid and how for the people working in the house, electricity was not the best thing. You don’t think about that.

Ladee: Right. That was part of why that particular period of time was so interesting to me, thinking about all this new technology being introduced. Again, it also relates back to the availability of things like canned food. It wasn’t that long before the book takes place where accessing products like that would’ve been extremely difficult or a rare experience. That transition was very interesting to me, so thinking about going from not having electricity to when exactly it was actually something people had in their homes.

Zibby: I always think it would so neat. Then when these big technological things happen to us, you don’t realize in the moment that they’re going to be these huge shifts. I’m like, who’s going to use an iPad? That’s so stupid. I would never use that. Then all of a sudden, now I have kids all over the house on different iPads. Who would’ve thought?

Ladee: It’s amazing. I was thinking about my daughter. My oldest child is twenty. I have a son who’s eight. I still remember Isa, my daughter, playing on those little pretend computers, like Speak & Spell things. She was perfectly content with that. Now just from one child to the next, how much their relationship to all these new things that have happened, he would never play with that. He wants a real computer. It’s pretty amazing how fast things .

Zibby: We had that exact thing happen because my stepmother gave them a Speak & Spell for the holidays. They were like, oh, that’s nice. I was like, this is amazing. I used to use that. How awesome. on the bed loving it. They were like, back to Roblox.

Ladee: It’s pretty incredible.

Zibby: Then you think about the impact of something like this and how it changed society in such a major way. It’s crazy. Was this, by the way, something that used to happen? The family here, not adopted, but sort of took these boys as interns, if you will, in the kitchen staff and around the house and would just pick them from an orphanage and then sometimes shoot them back. Was this something that happened? Tell me about that.

Ladee: Yeah, apprenticeships.

Zibby: Apprenticeships. Thank you for the word.

Ladee: I don’t know what the term would be, but people that were arrested, juveniles, for delinquency and didn’t have parents and things like that. That was pretty variable from state to state at that time. I did do research for that as well. I do research, and it’s the basis of it. I do not always stick to the facts and the things as specifically. That’s part of why I didn’t set it in an actual place, because it’s not really about a specific place. I wanted to have enough knowledge that I felt like it was a world I could inhabit both as a reader and a writer, but I didn’t really want to be confined by the facts. Do you know what I mean?

Zibby: I do.

Ladee: Sometimes too, especially when you’re talking about what the law was at that time, the execution of things can be a lot messier anyway. Certain things that maybe were supposed to happen, we all know from the present, do not actually happen that way all the time.

Zibby: As a fiction writer, that’s okay. You can take some liberties.

Ladee: For me, that’s part of why I like historical fiction. It’s really interesting because I think you have a greater freedom to try to explore maybe deeper truths about what’s going on and the connections between things as opposed to just remaining in dialogue with a set of facts. I do a lot of research and then try to forget it so I can be a little bit more instinctual when I’m writing it.

Zibby: I think sometimes it’s clear, not in your book, but occasionally in books where you read a fact that somebody puts in and it kind of jolts you out of the narrative because you’re like, we didn’t need to know that, necessarily. Clearly, the author knew this and wanted to show that she knew this or he knew this. This song or this shop or whatever, and you’re like, but that didn’t further your scene, so this just jolted me out. It’s almost like it can be too much when you put in facts.

Ladee: I know for me, if I focus too much on that, then you sort of feel like you have to explain what you’re doing with those facts by getting into the background and all of that. That really wasn’t what the book was about. I tried to use the facts to the extent that they pushed the book forward in the way I wanted to go. That’s really inhabiting the moment for me. Do you know what I mean?

Zibby: A hundred percent. That’s great. Once you do all your research, then do you start writing, or do you do it in tandem? How long did this whole process even take you?

Ladee: For this book, it’s interesting because I actually wrote my dissertation years before on the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. When I wrote it, I was thinking about completely different things. A lot of the information certainly about commodities and stuff like that came from the research I was doing for the dissertation. That’s why I was aware of that time period. My dissertation was actually in part about tourism. It was a completely different subject, not completely different, but very different subject. It just made me aware of that time period.

Zibby: In a way, you’ve made all of us tourists in a different time period. You have. That’s how you’ve done it. You’re like, all right, you’re coming along on the ride with me. We’re all going to be tourists right here.

Ladee: That’s an interesting way to think about it, through time and space.

Zibby: There you go. Now your PhD is justified.

Ladee: Exactly, all that research I did.

Zibby: It all makes sense. The writing part itself, how long did that part take when you sat down to make it into a story?

Ladee: A very long time because I started the character, the Rib King, that’s what he becomes, appears or is mentioned many times in my previous novel, The Talented Ribkins. That’s a contemporary book. He’s the family patriarch, so they reference him. All of his descendants reference him at one point or another. They don’t really know that much about his real life. It’s sort of family lore. The only image they actually have of him is the label of a can or these ads he appeared in. He represented very specific things in that book in terms of the idea of family and tradition and how that becomes a very willful act, claiming tradition. The reason he’s evoked by all the characters, he comes up when they’re trying to justify something they’re doing. It becomes, this is how we behave in the world. This is because of this example, but they’re actually really sort of making it up to a certain extent. It was about totally different things. In any event, to make our short story long, I started writing about the character or it manifested itself in my mind a very long time ago before the first book came out, so probably around 2013, actually. In general, I do a lot of background writing. For that book, I just knew their whole family history by the time that book was finished. I did some preliminary writing back then, 2013, 2014.

Zibby: Meanwhile, you’ve been working on this family and this, essentially, like a series, if you will, for almost a decade. Yet in the middle of all this, now in news and the world, all these things are happening with exactly what you’re talking about with the commodification or appropriation, even, of using imagery to sell products like Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima and how everybody is now coming off of these packages. What do you think about that? There’s been a lot of different takes on that. I’ve heard that the families are not exactly pleased that they’re going to lose that income source from having the pictures on those products.

Ladee: Were they receiving income from that? I didn’t even know that.

Zibby: That’s what I heard.

Ladee: For which product?

Zibby: I should have researched this. This is from my husband. He read that at least for one of the products, I don’t know if it was Uncle Ben’s or Aunt Jemima, that they had been receiving dividends of sorts from having it be part of their family and that now with the picture and the label being changed and everything they were going to stop receiving that money. They were like, wait, you’re doing this to help us, but you’re hurting us. That’s what I heard.

Ladee: I don’t know as much about Uncle Ben, which I know was later. Uncle Ben, I believe, came out in 1940s. Maybe it was earlier. I don’t know. Aunt Jemima is not a real person. That was also fictious. It was actually introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. That was an intersection of that research. It was a fictious character. It was originally portrayed by a woman named Nancy Green. She performed Aunt Jemima. It’s been performed through a series of — she’s not a real person. I don’t think Aunt Jemima was ever a real person. The other one that I know about is the Cream of Wheat man, Rastus. A lot of people don’t know he has a name, but it is Rastus. So far as I understand, I think the image proceeded — at a certain point, there was a story that he was based on an actual person, but the image actually proceeds the story, so I’m not sure who would be receiving dividends.

Zibby: I will do some digging into this. Should I go get him? I’ll go get him.

Ladee: Oh, no. I know there’s not a real Aunt Jemima. I knew his name, but I think I would say it wrong. I know that supposedly the Cream of Wheat man in that picture was based on a real person, but I’m not sure. I don’t know if anyone’s actually been receiving money for the use of these images.

Zibby: Let’s put that point aside in case I’m a hundred percent wrong, which is totally possible, and talk about even the fact that the images are coming off. What do you think about that? Let’s just talk about that.

Ladee: That was pretty wild to have the book come out the year that they’re supposed to be retired, after, in Rastus’s case, more than a hundred years. For me, it was interesting for personal reasons because part of the reason why I wrote the book had to do with things that were going on in the country around 2013, 2014. There’s a plot. Part of the reason Mr. Sitwell, the man who becomes the Rib King, is such a loyal servant is because he’s very concerned about these three boys that are working in the house. He doesn’t want them to wind up with no jobs. He’s doing all he can to keep the house stable. There’s only so much he can do, of course, but to keep the house stable because he sees it as a safe place for them to be, for him to be, and for the employees of this family to be. He doesn’t want them all to wind up without jobs. His primary preoccupation is these three boys. That was very much inspired by, at that time, there was a lot of talk about the vulnerability of African American children to racial violence. Specifically, I was thinking about the reactions to Trevor Martin, what happened with him and the emergence of Black Lives Matter as a slogan or a hashtag. That also, just the circumstances that there were all these protests last summer and that as a result of that you would have this specific response to images that have been in place for a hundred years. Now we need to deal with this. We recognize that there is a problem or that they speak to a wider context. There’s clearly a problem that needs to be dealt with.

The whole thing for me personally in terms of what inspired the book in the wider context of things going on when the book was being published was very interesting to me. I was responding really to — it’s almost like the opposite. The relationship between the two, for me, was being manifest as the book. I was really struck by, as much as things have changed over a hundred years, that there are so many things that have not changed. In terms of the level of anxiety or worry about the safety of your children due to these external things that are going on and has nothing, really, to do with who your children actually are, that’s part of why I wrote that. It was in response to a contemporary context that was manifesting itself by a fixation on these images, on Cream of Wheat and Aunt Jemima. They’re just there. It’s a through line that people don’t really pay attention to. For me personally, it was very interesting that the dynamics that inspired, in large part, writing the book would sort of have this opposite manifestation around the time the book was being published. Does that make sense?

Zibby: Enough. Yes, of course it makes sense. I’m joking with you.

Ladee: That’s the most you can hope for. Enough. That’s good.

Zibby: I’m joking. Yes, it makes perfect sense. Wait, can we go back to what you said at the very beginning about your own relationship with food and allergies? Tell me about that. What types of allergies? What is your relationship with food like that you would want it to play out on a national level inside this book?

Ladee: The book, in my conscious mind, was a very separate thing. Some people have pointed that out to me. I don’t eat red meat. I can’t eat wheat. I can’t eat dairy. So much that actually tastes good is off limits to me for the most part. In my conscious mind, that was a totally separate thing. It is kind of funny because there’s so much that actually tastes good that I can’t eat. I’m talking about delicious sauces and foods and stuff like that. It is kind of funny.

Zibby: Anytime I try to really watch it, I’m like, I should really just cut out wheat and dairy. You have a leg up. That’s probably why you’re so trim.

Ladee: It’s different if it’s a choice. I feel like maybe if I made a committed decision, like, I’m not going to eat these things for health or whatever, that would be different then all of a sudden you can’t eat these things. I don’t know. It’s very weird. I seem to develop a new allergy every time I have children. That’s sort of how they mark their — I don’t know what it is. Seriously, every time I have a child, I developed another food allergy, it seemed.

Zibby: I developed some food allergies after my third child. I was like, what do you mean I can’t eat strawberries? I eat a pack a day. I did this allergy test. They were like, you’re pretty much allergic to food. Your body is just rejecting everything. Here are the twelve things you can’t eat. I was like, what? Who’s allergic to carrots? It was the weirdest thing. I think mine, at least, seem to be going away. I don’t know if you’ve tested yours out. I kind of surreptitiously eat a piece of shrimp now and again. I’m like, I seem to be okay. It’s so stupid.

Ladee: That’s great. That’s interesting. That’s basically what happened to me.

Zibby: My taste for red meat — not that this is relevant, but I used to eat red meat. After I had my third child, I can no longer ever eat steak. The thought of any kind of meat like that turns my stomach. Whereas before, I had it on my wedding night. Who knows? These weird things that happen to our bodies.

Ladee: It is. It’s very strange. I should probably investigate more and probably know what the actual link is, but I don’t. It’s a notable thing for me. I’m not glad, but it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one that has this issue.

Zibby: Me too.

Ladee: Actually, I’ve heard it before. Other people have told me that happened to them as well.

Zibby: I wish I had developed an allergy to maybe — no, I don’t want to say that.

Ladee: Don’t say that.

Zibby: I won’t say that. I take it back. God, I take it back. I didn’t say it. It didn’t even all come out. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Ladee: Any advice for aspiring authors? Persistence, in my case certainly, is the key. Keep writing. I learned so much from writing. I learn so much every day still from writing, so to write consistently and to just be persistent, consistent and persistent. It’s a certain amount of work to believe that what you’re doing is important and valuable. Finding a way to hold onto a sense of that is really important as well. I don’t know if that’s helpful, but it is honest.

Zibby: It is helpful.

Ladee: It is honest. That’s the truth.

Zibby: You’re so funny. You’re clearly so bright. You have all these degrees. You’ve written all these books. You’re so great. Yet you’re always like, does that make sense? Is that okay? I’m like, you got it.

Ladee: I know. That’s just the way I talk.

Zibby: You’re a rockstar and you’re yet so timid about it. It’s funny. Anyway, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this fun half an hour that flew by for me. It was really nice to meet you.

Ladee: Wonderful. Thank you so much. It was nice talking to you as well.

Zibby: Congratulations on your book. I’m so excited about it.

Ladee: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Bye, Ladee.

Ladee: Bye.

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