On the second anniversary of the pandemic, I thought it best to highlight a little book by a Kansas pie maker and diner owner offering a slice of hope for challenging times.
I’ve never visited the Ladybird Diner in Lawrence (it’s now on my wish list), but I was drawn to it through a beautifully written Facebook post in October 2020:
“I don’t want to miss fall,” the post reads, “I want to find context for this cool air, create meals that reach across decades to tether me to these lengthening shadows, find all the things that will prompt a memory that makes sense of brisk mornings and always forgetting my sweater in the afternoon.”
This prompted me to seek out “Ladybird, Collected,” a slim, but heart-filled volume of short essays written by Ladybird Diner’s owner, Meghan Heriford.
“It seems like it should be unremarkable. It’s just a little diner,” begins one essay. “ … I don’t always have the presence to do it but when I really pay attention I am amazed by the scope of the panorama across a day. So much to see. So many moments to tuck away in the little internal diary I keep. Notes from a tiny diner in a moderately sized town in the middle of America.”
Describing a limestone wall in her diner, Heriford likens its layers to the experiences within Ladybird: “With the wall as my muse, when I choose to I can see the billions of very small moments in the diner that have settled as they passed to form something solid.”
“Ladybird, Collected,” is a book layering those beautifully intimate, journal-like observations, from Heriford’s own history to raising her family, daily life, community, the challenges and joys of running a small business, and meeting and rising above the shadows of the pandemic.
The book contains a number of lovingly rendered portraits of the people in Heriford’s life: her children, her devoted staff and her customers and those in need whom she has fed, documented over a six-year period, beginning when she opened her diner in 2014 through the first months of the pandemic in 2020. That is when she shut down operations, like many businesses, but kept the place — and the community — running by turning her establishment into a food pantry, offering free boxes of grocery staples and free sack lunches to those in need. The sales of Heriford’s book, published in the fall of 2020, helped fund her community food program and the thousands of meals she provided.
In her book, Heriford shares her Kansas beginnings and return after living in other places: “I’m lucky enough to have been born in my place. It was gifted to me, this recognition, and it ensures that in this often disregarded flyover state, I see a wild place, an adventurous place, sturdy geological treasures and fragile ecological exchanges, but mostly I just feel home. It is where I found my heart, and a place big enough to hold it.”
Her heart was also found at the little diner she opened. The name she chose for it honors former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who advocated programs to beautify cities and highways and was quoted as saying, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” Heriford writes in one essay about her diner’s namesake: “She believed in changing the landscape. She believed that blight had unquantified fallout. She believed that beauty had far-reaching consequences.”
The Ladybird Diner “was born of and bloomed around” pie (one of the biggest customer draws), and Heriford explains its appeal in her essay “Why Pie?”: “Pie is never going to be as pretty as its more postured peers Cake or Tart,” she writes. “But even on a bad day, even when I’ve plated a piece of pie I’m not particularly proud of … I can always count on people to taste the effort.”
“… Pie fixes a lot of things,” she continues, “Pie doesn’t fix everything, especially the really broken things. It’s just here to remind you that you are loved and worthy of comfort.”
In her essay “Soup and Sandwiches” Heriford writes of her work during the early pandemic, with thoughts to which many of us can relate: “I keep saying soup and sandwiches will see us through this, and I’m pretty sure I believe it. Soup and sandwiches until I can hug my mom again; soup and sandwiches until I can let my son back into the house; soup and sandwiches until I wear mascara again; until I can be who I was and cultivate my life as I once did, with lots of contact.”
Heriford’s book offers inspiration about doing instead of just waiting. While calling herself a “terrible capitalist,” choosing community over commerce, Heriford’s message is that what matters most is making a difference, writing: “But this: I was told I could get something to eat here is a feeling I wish I could keep under glass to look at when I’m old because someday I’m going sit down and when that time comes I won’t need knees but I will need this work to have mattered.”
Ladybird Diner (www.ladybirddiner.com) is located at 721 Massachusetts Street, Lawrence. “Ladybird, Collected” can be purchased on the diner’s website or at The Raven Book Store (www.ravenbookstore.com), 809 Massachusetts Street, Lawrence.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Ladybird’s Coconut Cream Pie Recipe