Steven Raichlen


You’re best known as a food writer and host of PBS grilling shows. How did you come up with your first novel, Island Apart?

I’ve been a writer my whole adult life, and not just about food. (Among the more offbeat writing projects: I used to translate Marquis de Sade short stories for Playboy.) When we started building a house in the middle of the woods on Chappy, the words “Hermit of Chappaquiddick” (the original title of the book) popped into my head. It’s about a man who has severed all the ties that normally bind us to the world – family, friends, colleagues – and he resides in one of the rare places in North America where one could truly live completely off the land and off the grid. To make things interesting, I introduce an agent of change who will force the Hermit back to society – a New York book editor named Claire Doheny who is recovering from cancer. To get Claire to Chappaquiddick, I have her house-sit for a self-help guru friend named Elliott Feinblat with a mansion on North Neck Road. And to keep the plot simmering, I added a philandering ex-husband, a ruthless new boss, and a diffident daughter with hair issues and a kind-hearted biker boyfriend.

How much time do you spend on Chappaquiddick, and where do you spend the rest of the year?

Half the year on Chappy and half in Coconut Grove, Miami, with several months on the road for research.

Is any of the story autobiographical?


Well, I’m not the Hermit of Chappaquiddick (although to some degree all writers are hermits), and my wife, Barbara, hastens to add that she definitely isn’t the woman in the sex scenes. But we inhabit many of the worlds that Claire and the Hermit do: the backwoods of Chappaquiddick, for example, and the inner workings of a New York publishing house. The restaurant scenes recall my years as a restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. The wine descriptions flash back to a wine and spirits column I wrote for GQ. History is another passion (after college I won a Watson Fellowship to research medieval cooking in Europe), so I built one chapter (“A Disinhabited Island”) around seventeenth-century explorer Bartholomew Gosnold. As for the iconoclastic psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich (whose controversial career is one of the subplots), I was introduced to Chappy by a group of neo-Reichians from Cambridge. One of the major themes of the novel is how families are built not on blood ties but with love. I have been very fortunate in my life to have experienced that.

There’s a lot of cooking and food in the book, but no recipes. Did you cook the dishes you describe in the story or just make them up?

From the start, I knew there would be no recipes in Island Apart – I wanted the book to be judged as a novel, not a cookbook. But I knew that food and cooking would be a big part of the story. Hermits aren’t particularly loquacious, so I have Claire and the Hermit communicate through food. The dishes in the story are made up, but I cooked them in my head as I wrote about them. I tried to describe some of the dishes in sufficient detail that an experienced reader could cook them at home. (And people in book clubs do.)

Are you a forager like the Hermit?

Well, I go clamming and bay scalloping in Cape Pogue Bay, and we gather wild blueberries and sassafras along our driveway. One of my neighbors is a beekeeper, another hunts, and they certainly inspired the Hermit’s activities. To learn more about foraging on Chappaquiddick, I tromped the Island with a wild foods expert through the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury.

What else do you tend to do while you’re on the Vineyard?

Write. Boat. Guitar. Hang out at Chappy’s new farm, Slip Away (a reference to the Bob Dylan song “Shooting Star”). And generally leave Chappy as rarely as possible.


A freshly caught striper highlights this meal.

Tell us about the test kitchen you had built.

A large part of my writing involves cookbooks, so in 2012, we built a freestanding test kitchen, designed by Bruce MacNelly of MacNelly Cohen Architects in West Tisbury. This enables my staff to do the testing with me there to taste the results. The “burn area” – as we say in the barbecue business – has a variety of gas, charcoal, and wood-burning grills and smokers.

A number of restaurants and traditional Vineyard foods are mentioned in the book. What are your favorites?

For me, Martha’s Vineyard is the original slow food island. Like the Hermit, we eat as much local seafood as we can: swordfish, blues, Katama Bay oysters, Cape Pogue bay scallops – all of which figure in the story. When we eat out, we follow Claire to Rickard’s or Espresso Love for breakfast in Edgartown; Gio’s in Oak Bluffs or Larsen’s in Menemsha for lunch; the bar at Alchemy or Détente in Edgartown or West Tisbury’s State Road for dinner; and of course, to Scoops in Edgartown for peppermint ice cream before boarding the Chappy ferry back home. When our kids visit, we drive out to Cape Pogue for a grill-top clambake on the beach. But like my protagonists, we’re happiest when we cook and eat at home.

How did you decide which recipes from Island Apart to develop for the magazine?

I planned the sort of menu that I would want to eat – rich in colorful local foods that would be in season when the story runs. I picked dishes that represent different twists in the narrative: a cocktail served at a Thanksgiving dinner that brings all the major characters together for the first time on Chappaquiddick, the smoked clam dip Claire serves when she first meets the Hermit, a salad the Hermit prepares to show the full breadth of his knowledge of foraging. The striped bass is interesting, because it starts as a dish cooked in anger, but it ultimately brings the protagonists closer together. The pilaf honors one of the quirkier characters in the book, Reich biographer Ely Samuelson. The dessert offers a modern twist on a classic New England combination – apple pie with cheddar cheese.

More recipes from Island Apart are online at

The following recipes were published with this article:

Menu inspired by Island Apart

Katama Kirs

Smoked Clam, Mussel, and Mascarpone Dip with Grilled Bread

The Hermit’s Truly Locavore Salad

Striped Bass with Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa

Ely’s Quinoa Pilaf

Claire’s Apple Cheddar Cheese Pie