Words and Photos by Antonio. Interview conducted on May 2nd, 2015.
Marcella Kriebel is a Washington, D.C. based illustrator and author who has a passion for cooking, drawing the endless varieties of foods, and sharing recipes learned during her excursions in Latin America.
Marcella, whose book Mi Comida Latina is in its third edition, did not envision making her living as a full-time artist. Born in Forestgrove, Oregon, she attended Willamette University, graduated with a degree in studio art and anthropology, and eventually moved to D.C. after securing an internship at the Smithsonian Institute’s American Art Museum, in the exhibition department. That placement led to a contract to work on exhibit installations for a variety of museums around the country, surrounded by art and seeing the shows comes to life.
Two years later, she was laid off. Despite the tremendous disappointment, she decided to channel her energy into a book idea which he had been thinking about but, up until that point, didn’t have the time to pursue. After the success of her Kickstarter campaign, which raised three-times the money she had anticipated, she realized that her passion could also be her breadwinners.
Marcella Kribel discusses the process of writing her first book Mi Comida Latina, how she turned tragedy into triumph, and why cooking is essential to learning.
Q: What inspired you to write and illustrate Mi Comida Latina?
MARCELLA: I moved here in 2009 to intern at the Smithsonian. I was an intern at the exhibitions department at the American Art Museum. I did that and I loved it, and it was incredible. I got a job after that as a contractor for exhibit installation, for all kinds of museums.
“I got laid off from that job after two years and that’s when the book idea that was sitting, germinating, came to life”
I was a roadie for a travel exhibit, essentially. I would go to a city, take down exhibits, set it up again, wait four months, go back to that city and so on and so forth. It was amazing because I got to be around art and learn stuff too, anthropologically, being behind the scenes of really cool exhibits. I got laid off from that job after two years and that’s when the book idea that was sitting, germinating, came to life.
I was on unemployment, so I had time to devote to really doing all the art work and refining all those journal entries and stuff. I went to my aunt’s house in San Miguel, Mexico, hunkered down for six weeks and started it.
In November of that year, I launched the Kickstarter campaign. Throughout that time, it was a really hard time emotionally because you get laid off and you feel like you’re worthless, like oh my god, I thought I meant something to this company. That was really hard for me, and it was a small company.
“My book was a labor of love, it was super meticulous. I hand-lettered everything”
I didn’t know where this project would take me. It’s like you and the podcast – you just wanted to do it. My book was a labor of love, it was super meticulous. I hand-lettered everything, and then when I had to edit something, it was letter-by-letter re-arranging stuff in Photoshop. That’s what the editing process was like.
That was my year, that was a game-changer. The Kickstarter was a tremendous success. That’s when I thought that I should give this creative thing a shot, full-time, because my book was so great. I decided not to go to grad school for exhibit design, which is where I was headed, as an exhibit installation technician. I figured I’d do the physical stuff, and then get into the design world. I decided not to go to grad school and pursue what you now see.
^ Marcella at Union Market DC.
Q: Why did you focus on cooking, specifically in Latin America?
MARCELLA: I double-majored in school studio art and cultural anthropology, with a Latin American focus. A lot of that started in language. I was taking Spanish classes, and communication is a powerful tool: being able to talk with others in another culture.
“I grew up cooking and found that was an amazing way for me to connect with others”
That’s where this focus in Latin American travel came from. I wanted to keep going with Spanish and continue learning from a linguistic standpoint. Culturally, and artistically, it’s also very fascinating too. I was studying abroad in Ecuador, and I started cooking with people there. I grew up cooking and found that was an amazing way for me to connect with others.
Walking into a kitchen, I was very inquisitive of what people were doing. That was a great way to learn about people and their cultural histories, their rituals, and their family. It’s like with any project-based thing.
I made that a point, after my study abroad experience, to cook with people, whenever I traveled. Since I was really working on my Spanish, Latin America was where I was going. I’ve been to many countries, now in Central and South America and Mexico several times. My aunt lives in Mexico, so whenever I visit her, it’s like going back to a village of familiar faces, and catching up with people I haven’t seen in two years’ time – getting back in the kitchen and cooking and learning from them.
“When people start talking about the way they do stuff – and everything they do is for a reason – they appreciate sharing that knowledge”
Most of the time, people are very appreciative that I take the time to ask them questions. When people start talking about the way they do stuff – and everything they do is for a reason – they appreciate sharing that knowledge.
The cookbook came out of my notes. I was writing everything down, doing little thumbnails in the margin. It was 2012 when I formally started the process, taking my notes and sketchbook and everything, from my years of travel. I refined it, translated all that Spanish back into English, because I wanted to share these recipes with my family and friends, primarily English speakers in the U.S. Taking that aesthetic, that journal, sketchbook style and doing this distinctive, but very personal approach to cooking, and celebrating it through art.
Q: When you took notes of these recipes, did you modify them in any way?
MARCELLA: Yes I did because a lot of times when I was cooking with people, they would show me a handful, a physical ‘this is how much you need.’ To make salsa, you need ‘this’ much in terms of tomatoes. I had to go back and had to actually measure, using teaspoons and cups and all that, to accurately interpret what these recipes were.
“I had to go back and had to actually measure, using teaspoons and cups and all that, to accurately interpret what these recipes were”
Also, ingredients-wise, I definitely had to make some changes: aji amarillo – you can’t get that here fresh – and there’s a lot of recipes that require that. You can get it in a paste, but I’ll often just replace it with red pepper. I acknowledge what the tradition is, but when I make it here, sometimes it’s not possible to get that kind of stuff. So I do make the point to talk about different alternative sources.
Q: Now that the book is done, did you share the work with some of the families you had learned from? How did the dialogue continue?
MARCELLA: It’s still continuing. There have certainly been people I have lost touch with. I dated an Ecuadorian for five years; his family I still keep in contact with, and sent them a book with the first edition came out. The dialogue still continues and there’s a story behind all those recipes.
“Maintaining relationships is often really hard, but there are a handful of people that I still see whenever I return”
I have a tips and techniques section and there’s one page where I share how to cut an onion. That was taught to me by my ex-boyfriend’s dad, so there’s little tidbits like that I share, that bring me back to those times – very clear moments in my mind. Maintaining relationships is often really hard, but there are a handful of people that I still see whenever I return.
When I went to Mexico this past January, I didn’t even know who I was going to cook with and that’s kind of funny. Not knowing somebody and having to ask to cook with somebody, so you have to break the ice. It’s actually very easy to do it, when you share some genuine curiosity in their way of preparing food.
Q: What did you learn during the process of making the book?
MARCELLA: I learned as I went. The thing about making the book is that I knew I wanted to do it, no matter what, so I wasn’t going to wait around for a publisher. That’s often what people do. They go “okay well I wrote this book, and now I’m going to pitch now to a publisher.”
“I knew I wanted to do it, no matter what, so I wasn’t going to wait around for a publisher”
What I did was that I did a Kickstarter campaign to garner the funds necessary to print 150 books. The reality that happened was I raised over six times as much money. So I raised $31,000 which enabled me to print 1000 books the first time. That was a tremendous self-publishing success that doesn’t happen every day.
I’m tremendously lucky and thankful to those who saw my Kickstarter video and wanted to support. I treated it as a pre-order system, raised the money, and printed the book on my own. I sold out of that edition, re-printed it as a self-published thing, sold-out of that and this publisher called. The current edition is the same content plus forty pages and a revised introduction and an index and new cover. It’s the third edition.
Each time I print it, there are more differences, more recipes. Last summer was tough, I didn’t travel, but I was still doing this test-kitchen. I took a bunch of recipes I had on the back-burner, got the proportions right and added to those that third edition.
Q: Did you learn anything that you hadn’t expect to along the way?
MARCELLA: I knew I wanted to do an art book, but I didn’t know how much it was going to cost. Figuring out how to produce my own book: getting estimates from printers, and there are very few printers in the United States, that produce hardback, 100-pound paper books.
I had five estimates, and they wanted to know how long the book was. I didn’t know a signature was, which is how they bind the book, in four or eight pages. So I had to learn the technical stuff.
I’m an illustrator, so I can draw very well, but the book production was something I learned along the way. I didn’t have any idea what should be in a book contract. Talking with a literary agent about what needed to be in it, what was typical and perhaps unnecessary or missing.
“I’m not a writer – I’m definitely a foodie and an artist. I combined both of those interests equally in this book”
I’m not a writer – I’m definitely a foodie and an artist. I combined both of those interests equally in this book. It’s a bit ironic in my own mind that I’m considered an author, because it’s an art project. It’s about cooking, the physical aspect.
Q: Now that have your published art project, and are now a credited author, are you still working on revising newer editions. Do you have a totally different medium that you’re working on now?
MARCELLA: I want to stick with watercolor, pen and ink, and in my same style. I’m looking forward to doing a farmer’s market book. It’s a bit like an anthropological lens. I don’t know what the scope is going to be, looking at comparisons and contrasts between farmer’s markets, be it national or international, or Latin American – I’m not sure.
“The farmer’s market as a place for community and commerce and culture is just such an all-inclusive thing”
The farmer’s market as a place for community and commerce and culture is just such an all-inclusive thing. I want to study that, but in my own illustrative style, include some recipes, but do more of a visual depository, with some more case studies. I’ve already done some journal research of that theme, and I’m excited about it. There’s a lot of directions I could go.
It’s good to talk about it though, and it kinds of helps me. And with my portfolio, I love drawing fruits and vegetables, and that’s another thing from an artistic standpoint, so it’s totally up my alley.
Q: Where will you be in 5 days, 5 months and 5 years/
MARCELLA: In five days, I will be in New York City. In five months, I hope to be in Mexico. I’m going to do probably the holiday market in D.C., and then go to Mexico.
In five years, I want to have my second book out, and I want to do more commission work, and I hope to expand my portfolio. I love drawing food, but I like drawing a lot of other stuff. It’s interesting to dive deep in this food thing, because inspiration is endless: I haven’t drawn the types of olives yet, so I’ll do that, and I’ll draw mushrooms – there’s a lot of material in food, but I’m excited to expand. I hope to have a portfolio that includes other stuff, not just food.
Thanks Marcella for the wonderful interview! Visit her website to see prints available and purchase a signed copy of Mi Comida Latina. Like her Facebook page to see updates on her solo, opening July 9th!