Kelly Writers House a yummy place

Philidelphia Inquirer
September 23, 2010

Food feeding creativity: Eleanor Kane, who graduated in '09 with a degree in English/creative writing, waits in the new kitchen for her chocolate chip cookies to bake. She's the daughter of Martha Wallace and Edward Kane, who donated money for the kitchen. Right, she puts cookies in the oven; also working are freshman English majors Hannah White (top), Sarah Schwab.
(TOM GRALISH/Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Photographer)

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The scent of warm chocolate wafts from the kitchen of a cottage comfortably set back from the street and edged with a wrought iron fence so typical of 1850s Philadelphia.

It is the fragrance of home, an aroma that calls one and all to the table. And not by accident, this scent suffuses Kelly Writers House (

"This house was originally a home," says cofounder and faculty director Al Filreis. "And as in any home, the kitchen is the most important room. Everything seems to happen in the kitchen."

Now in its 15th year nurturing poets and playwrights, novelists and nonfiction writers - not just from Penn but from all parts of the region - Kelly Writers House stands out on the University of Pennsylvania campus for its architecture, its programming, and its accent on home cooking.

And now, thanks to the generosity of Edward W. Kane (Class of 1971) and his wife Martha J. Wallace (a Penn State and Harvard Business School grad), the kitchen just had its first renovation in 15 years.

There's a new stove, microwave, and stainless steel double sink; the floors and cabinets are refinished, and a backsplash of recycled glass is coming.

But the homey atmosphere remains, along with an old oak table, plucked from the trash years ago but still exerting the odd gravitational pull so many kitchen tables seem to possess.

On Sept. 14, the Kane-Wallace kitchen was christened with a spread that featured empanadas; corn pudding (see recipe); salad greens; beet, leek, and Gorgonzola bruschetta; and an almond-based blancmange with fish (see recipe).

The kitchen here is central to the cause, says director Jessica Lowenthal, not only as an element of hospitality, but also because, in a subtle way, food feeds creativity.

Aroma informs us. It stirs the memory, calling to mind vivid pictures of people and places. And just as fervently, aroma permeates the present, creating an aura of warmth and setting the stage for positive interactions. Meals invite conversation, and breaking bread is a great equalizer.

So, while other departments at Penn (which shall remain nameless and blameless) may entertain visiting speakers with chips and some dip, Kelly Writers House always puts out a spread made in-house.

In fact, program coordinator Erin Gautsche is also, by choice, the kitchen maven.

Aside from helping to organize each semester's 150 or so programs (readings, film screenings, seminars, lectures, exhibits, radio broadcasts, and more) Gautsche routinely supervises work-study students and volunteers in the Writers House kitchen.

Many come to her as novice cooks, says Gautsche, who also writes the blog But they leave knowing the secret of her particular specialty, a delightfully spicy Chocolate-Chili Bread Pudding (see recipe).

Hundreds pass through the Writers House each week, Filreis says.

Students are fed and cared for. Undergrads collaborate in the upstairs rooms on print and Web-based literary projects such as the food guide Penn Appetit and the feminist F-Word.

Area grade schoolers visit on Fridays and Saturdays for writing games with Penn students. Thanksgiving dinners serve 60 or more - often international students who cannot leave the campus, and alienated or disaffected students who elect not to endure an evening with relatives.

The list of visiting writers features Susan Sontag, Art Spiegelman, Russell Banks, and Grace Paley.

"E.L. Doctorow sat in this dining room," Filreis says.

Kane, a venture capitalist who lives in Concord, Mass., says his first connection to the Writers House came through Paul Kelly, a 1962 Penn and 1964 Wharton School grad, who funded the renovations that made this old house ready for prime time. Both men were university trustees.

Kane's second connection is through daughter Eleanor. She chose Penn over Princeton, Ed Kane says, because the Writers House "smelled like home."

At home, mom Martha Wallace had a career in computer software, but whenever possible she had meals made from fresh ingredients on the dinner table.

"I wasn't a fanatic about it," Wallace says. "But I come from generations who cooked from scratch. My grandmother made her own ketchup.

"For my part," Wallace says, "I didn't make things from a box or buy prepared foods."

Ellie Kane, who majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing, worked for a year after graduation at the Writers House, where, in addition to recruiting prospective students, she perfected a recipe for chocolate chip cookies (see recipe). She's leaving soon for the Farm School in Athol, Mass., to pursue a career in agriculture and education.

In other words, she's becoming a farmer.