After a trip to Sicily, freelance writer Mary Knight was inspired to combine her love of food, gardens, history and travel into a book.
But “The Sicilian Sorceress,” the first novel for the longtime Ocean Beach resident, is unexpected, in that it is a historical fiction book with time travel.
Knight said she decided to write the book five years ago after she visited Agrigento, Sicily, where she saw the Valley of the Temples and the Kolymbethra Garden with her friend Roberto Catalano, who lives there and “is like a brother,” she said. The seven partially restored ancient Greek temples have been standing for 2,500 years.
“Agrigento is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a flourishing city which sits on a plateau looking over the ocean with a gorgeous view,” Knight said. “When you get to the end of the Valley of the Temples, there are little steps going down into a valley, the Kolmybethra, that have been there thousands of years.”
Irrigated citrus groves and orchards in the area are known as gardens to highlight their beauty and usefulness. Kolymbethra Garden covers just under 15 acres.
“The garden, with its wild artichokes and capers and pathways lined with fig, olive, pomegranate and more, has remained in existence for over 2,400 years and is fed by an aqueduct equally as old,” Knight said.
As she toured the garden, she felt others also would enjoy learning of its often-overlooked but great historical and archaeological value.
“Agrigento earned a reputation for its prized wheat and booming economy, which rivaled Athens at the time. I felt I had to tell her story,” Knight added.
She based her book on the fantasy of being able to return to the area in ancient times — the book is set in 440 B.C. — and being the gardener there.
The book, which was published last year, goes back and forth in time as the main character, an art curator in San Francisco, finds herself in ancient Agrigento.
Knight combined several of her interests in the book, including her passions for gardening and cooking.
“I’ve always loved nature and plants,” she said. “About 10 years ago, I redesigned my backyard. I had two existing orange trees and planned an avocado, a fig, a pomegranate and a Meyer lemon. I put in three raised beds and decided to throw myself into it.”
Since then, she has added more trees and plants to her Mediterranean-style garden.
“It just brings me great joy. Every day I go out and talk to all my fruits and veggies,” she said. “It’s my little sanctuary back there.”
Knight said she has enjoyed cooking since she was a child.
“From the time I was very little, my mother and grandmother always told me I had talent and should pursue it,” she said. “I heeded their advice and at 22 got on a plane and went to Paris.”
With nowhere to stay and not speaking French, Knight nevertheless enrolled in École de Cuisine La Varenne, a well-known culinary school in Paris.
“I call myself a free spirit and it worked out great. The school had classes in both English and French and even found me roommates,” she said. “My roommates taught me to drink champagne and eat goat cheese.”
For the next five months, Knight was busy with classes during the day and hanging out with her two British roommates in the evenings. Since her roommates had jobs, they went separate ways on weekends.
Knight said she would get on a train and travel to another town or even to Germany or Amsterdam, staying in youth hostels along the way. She sometimes traveled with strangers who became friends.
“It was just a fun experience,” she said.
Once back in the United States, she was quickly hired by Pirets in Mission Hills, where she worked from 1979 to 1980.
“Pirets was owned by George and Piret Munger. It had a charcuterie, a pastry shop, a cookware store and taught cooking classes,” Knight said. “I loved making pastries and learning from the French chefs. When (Jacques) Pepin told me I made perfect eclairs, it kept me going.”
Knight went back overseas from 1986 to 1987, where she lived in Perth, Australia, cooking for a family who often took guests on their yacht for weekend trips.
“It was magical,” Knight said. “There was a bounty of food choices and fresh herbs and the seafood was deluxe. They gave me free rein. I love the people there. They were happy and knew how to live life.”
Knight’s recipes have been featured in magazines and newspapers. “The Sicilian Sorceress” includes a handful of recipes.
Though she started writing the book in 2018, she became even more serious about it in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Anybody can write a book — it’s dedicating the time to do it,” Knight said. “I have a writing partner, Jolie Tunnell, who was also writing a book, and we both decided to just write and get it done.
“We texted or called each other every day and helped each other out with things like plot lines and making suggestions. It can really encourage you to keep going forward.”
Still, the book “changed quite a bit from the beginning,” Knight said. After finishing the first draft, she added more complexities to the plot, took writing classes and had other people read and critique her work. She even returned to Agrigento to gather more research.
By 2021, she had finished the book, and she found an editor last year. She will discuss her book on Saturday at a meeting of the Culinary Historians of San Diego, for which she is a board member. She’ll focus her talk on the Kolymbethra Garden as the food basket of ancient Agrigento, Sicily.
With “The Sicilian Sorceress” now available, Knight has more books in the works. She said she and Tunnell plan to have drafts of their next works finished by the end of September.
Knight is focusing on a trilogy of books taking place in Sicily and focusing on crops important to the livelihood of the people there. The first will focus on wheat, the second on wines of the Edna region and the third on olive oils. There will be plenty of other elements as well.
Knight also plans to write a cookbook encompassing her time in France, Australia and more.
When not writing or traveling, Knight enjoys working in her garden and hanging out with Desi, her 4-year-old cattle dog mix.
“The Sicilian Sorceress” by Mary Knight (Self-published, 2022; 290 pages)
Mary Knight discusses ‘The Sicilian Sorceress’
When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday
Where: San Diego Central Library, 330 Park Blvd., Downtown
Elling writes for the U-T Community Press.