First came the story, then came the Capitol Hill Southern-food restaurant. The Wandering Goose (Sasquatch Books) is a tale inspired by real-life love and loss. Written and printed as a keepsake children’s book, it’s one of those rare titles that manages to speak to both kids and adults. Earnhardt wrote the text in an inspired flurry a couple of years before opening her restaurant of the same name in 2012. Maybe you’ve read excerpts from it printed on The Wandering Goose’s tabletops between bites of fried chicken and Sea Island peas.
It’s equally surprising and refreshing that Earnhardt, the former Volunteer Park Cafe co-owner known for baking what are arguably the city’s best biscuits, would publish a “true” fairy tale before a cookbook. In the narrative, Bug meets Goose and the pair fall into a fast friendship, then love. Eventually Goose senses a need to wander, and everything changes. The text is simple and compelling enough for young readers, but peel back the layers and you’ll be gripped by a thick sense of nostalgia. The story of falling in and out and back into love is your story, or at least it very well could be: partnering with someone, mourning the loss after their departure, then gaining a greater resolve to begin again.
The North Carolina–raised Earnhardt met her real-live Goose the year after tragically losing her 3-month-old daughter Evelyn to SIDS. “My marriage was collapsing and I was extremely lonely and empty,” she relates. “Goose helped me to find beauty again.” After spending a season writing Goose, Earnhardt met her fiancé during the planning of the restaurant—he was her contractor. The pair reside in Columbia City and are raising five kids, three from Earnhardt’s previous marriage.
The pages are dreamily illustrated by Seattle-based graphic designer Frida Clements. Like the text, the visuals hover between understated and lush. Descriptions and drawings of edibles fill the book, with Bug and Goose talking for “endless hours” in a garden full of “thumb-ripe watermelons,” “fresh spearmint,” and “crunchy French carrots.”
Here, Earnhardt talks more about her book, balancing work and home life, and how food links those worlds.
SW: Did you plan to name your restaurant The Wandering Goose before or after writing the story?
Earnhardt: After. My friend Annie and I were thinking of names, and she had read the story and she kept coming back to that name. Finally she said, “Heather, you just have to call it The Wandering Goose. It’s your story and it fits. It makes the most sense.”
You’ve written that you opened the restaurant “out of everything beautiful.” Does the notion of failure become bigger with The Wandering Goose. since it’s attached to such a personal story and now a book?
The restaurant is very personal to me. It’s my home, my life, my children’s life, so yes, the fear is greater. But I’m driven to succeed not for the notoriety or my name. It’s much more personal than that. (I have to pay my investor back first and foremost.) What matters most to me is what kind of person I am to my children, my employees, my vendors, and my customers. People matter more to me above anything else.
Have you been able to find space for your family and yourself while clocking long hours as a businessperson and chef?
My schedule includes early morning hours, so I’m almost always home to make dinner for my kids. I designed the business based on my family. A lot of people wanted me to open every night for dinner, as opposed to just Friday night. But I have soccer games and basketball practices and piles and piles of laundry and dishes and cleaning and on and on, so I need to be home for them. It’s important to me that my children see a mother that can work hard, but still see me on the sidelines at their games.
Is baking still comforting to you, or does it feel too much like work?
Even after all of these years baking, I continue to enjoy it. No matter what is going on in my life, if I can’t manage to get anything at all done, I can always make a big ol’ layer cake or a batch of buttermilk biscuits and feel grounded again.
Has your Wandering Goose wandered into the restaurant? Has he read the book?
Yes, the Goose has come in. We are still friends. He has read parts of it.
Who should read the book?
Anyone that has ever been in love or experienced a loss. Which is everyone.