Eating Authors: William Ledbetter

No Comments » Written on July 16th, 2018 by
Categories: News
William Ledbetter

I’ve been busily preparing for the publication of the translation of a historic work into the Klingon language. The timing has been tricky because I wanted to have it done in time for the 25th annual Klingon Language Conference that begins on Thursday in Indianapolis. It’s going to be tight, but the plan now is for the printed proof to meet me in Indiana and it should all work out.

As exciting (to some) as that may be, it doesn’t make for a very good segue for introducing this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, William Ledbetter. On the other hand, complaining about not having a good segue isn’t a bad segue, and so here we are.

Bill is a card-carrying geek of the space technology variety. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, and is also a graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy workshop.

He mainly writes short fiction. It’s something he does very well (and he has a Nebula Award to prove it), but this blog generally only features authors who are publishing books, and that typically means novels (and more recently novellas). Bill found a loophole in that his first novel, Level Five comes out tomorrow as an audiobook, or as the fine folks at Audible like to call it, an “audible original.”

If you’re not already familiar with his work, this link will serve as a good introduction to it. Check it out, it’s free!

LMS: Welcome, Bill. Talk to me about your most memorable meal.

WL: I’ve had a good life that has been filled with amazing meals shared with fun and interesting people, so narrowing those down for this blog was difficult, but one recent dinner seems to have so many memorable elements that it begged for the honor.

Just before WorldCon last year, I received an email from my friend, writer and editor extraordinaire Eric Choi, inviting me to attend a dinner while in Helsinki. I knew Eric wouldn’t steer us wrong, because he’d set us up with some excellent Chinese cuisine while in Toronto for the International Space Development Conference a few years earlier, and he has a lot of interesting friends, so I eagerly accepted. We went to a Viking themed restaurant called Viikinkiravintola Harald which was only a couple blocks from the central train station. If you are a serious food critic, looking for the finest cuisine in Helsinki, you might be disappointed, because this place is set up to entertain tourists, but I am not so serious about my food and really enjoyed it.

Level Five

Between my own plate and stealing tastes from my wife Denise’s plate, I tried things like reindeer tenderloin in lingonberry and butter sauce (lingonberries are very popular there,) beaver sausage, artichoke mashed potatoes and beer with tar in it (tar in food is very popular here too). Others at the table had things like tarred Baltic herring, cold-smoked salmon, smoked duck, lamb stew, tarred lingonberries, potato cake, fried fennel and cabbage and even tar-flavored ice cream served with tar and caramel sauce. Our host Eric Choi split “The Game Sword of Mimir the Giant” with Ian McDonald which had reindeer tenderloin, wild boar, partridge and vegetables skewered on a sword!

Of course the best part of any big dinner like this is the people. We had a good mix of scientists, writers, artists and various other disciplines, from at least a half-dozen countries, which made for some great stories and a lot of laughter. I sat next to Tony Pi, whom I had previously never met. As one might imagine from reading his work, he’s a fun and interesting guy. In addition to those already mentioned we were joined by Rodney Branch, Gillian Clinton, Asmus Koefoed, Cenk Gökçe, Yves Meynard, Geoff Landis, Mary Turzillo, Chelsea Merriman, Trica Tynan, Julie Novakova and Karen Rylander.

Thanks, Bill. That sounds like the kind of Worldcon meals my wife likes to organize (though yours was on a much bigger scale. And yeah, I had some tar liqueur while in Helsinki. What’s up with that?

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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Eating Authors: Dyrk Ashton

No Comments » Written on July 9th, 2018 by
Categories: Plugs
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Dyrk Ashton

Here in the greater Philadelphia area, the first week of July has been stupidly hot, with multiple days hitting 99°. Being the delicate flower that I am, at times like these I cower inside my air conditioned home. Which surely is why my A/C opted like Elvis to leave the building on the hottest day of the year. We went without for a day and a half before we could effect repairs, the digital thermostat taunting me with the news that it was 89° inside the house.

There’s not much to do in such situations but distract yourself with thoughts of cooler and happier times, which is what led me to thinking about the last time I last saw Dyrk Ashton, this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest. It was back in January, in Detroit, at one of the best conventions I know of. It’s always a challenge to fly into Michigan that time of year, but this trip went smoothly, and I enjoyed hours of conversation with Dyrk in the hotel’s bar. It was only months later that I came to learn he’d knocked around Hollywood as an actor in an array of films he insists no one has ever seen (including the role of a “truck zombie” in Night of the Living Dead), before returning to his native Ohio and traded his life experience for a doctorate in film studies and a teaching gig at a university. When he tired of that, he noted that brick and mortar schools were so very 20th century and took his teaching online.

The digital academic life agrees with him, and has even allowed him time to write. The result is his Paternus universe, the second book of which, Wrath of Gods, comes out tomorrow.

LMS: Welcome, Dyrk. Whats been your most memorable meal?

DA: Wow. I have had so many incredible meals it’s hard to choose. Reading through the posts from other authors, I saw that most of them describe meals they had while traveling, and realized – it’s the same for me. I’ve had amazing and memorable meals here in the States, including homecooked dinners with family (my mother’s meatloaf with potatoes and carrots is to die for), but they tend to run together in my mind.

The ones that really stand out as individual experiences are indeed those I had while traveling. An unbelievable steak in Rosarito, Mexico while on a trip with a friend celebrating our birthdays, which are only a day apart. A cut of seared grouper with roasted red-skin potatoes and Caribbean slaw in a dockside café while on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra. A simple bowl of lamb stew at a bar in a small town in Ireland. Maybe a half-dozen others come to mind. So difficult!

Paternus

For my humble addition to Eating Authors, though, I think I’ll go with the grouper. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it. I can feel the warm sea breeze, smell the briny air, hear the waves lapping against the dock… Ahem, okay.

For those who aren’t familiar, Culebra is a small Puerto Rican island only a few miles long, east of the main island, San Juan. It’s a wonderful place to get away to, with beautiful beaches but relatively unknown to tourists, mostly because there are no large resorts. A friend of mine owns a house there that sits on a hill. From his pool patio you can see St. Thomas. I have been there over a half-dozen times, but about six years ago I went down on a mission. My buddy had a sailboat he wanted to sail to St. Thomas for repairs and some renovation, the plan being to then sell it, and he needed someone to sail along with him. When he asked if I’d go along, I hummed and hawed – Not. Of course I leapt at the chance and bought my ticket immediately.

Wrath of Gods

After I arrived and had been there a few days, however, he was called back to New York to take care of some business and family affairs. The sailing trip was off. I had nothing to complain about. I would have the house to myself, in the Caribbean. And so it was for the rest of my stay.

One night I decided to drive into Dewey for dinner – the one and only town on the island, and not very big at that. This was something I did regularly but this particular night I found myself at a small, open-air restaurant right on the water of Dewey Bay. It wasn’t a fancy place. Plastic tables, no table cloths, and plastic lawn chairs. There were only four other people there, all sitting together, so I easily got a table at the edge of the dock, where I could look down and see fish swimming not three feet away from my sandals.

The menu had a few regular dishes, but mostly it was a handwritten list of the several items they had for the day. Grouper is my favorite fish, so I immediately ordered that when I saw it. I also knew they caught their fish right off the island, and I was assured the grouper had been brought in only hours before.

Berserker

I’ve had grouper many times, but never prepared like this. Instead of a filet, it had been cut straight down through the spine, so it looked almost like a fat U-shaped steak, smaller at the ends. It was over an inch thick, and a sizable hunk of fish. My first thought was I’d never be able to eat it all. I was wrong.

It was served with roasted red-skin potatoes swimming in butter and a side of Caribbean style slaw, which is rather sweet. Those were absolutely delicious, but the grouper itself was heaven. I’m no chef, so I can’t tell you how it was prepared other than on a grill. It came apart easily with a fork, and the first bite nearly knocked me over in my chair.

It still had that marvelous grouper texture and flavor, but other than that, it tasted like fresh lobster. I’d never had grouper like that before. I had to force myself to slow down and enjoy it, and I ate every bite.

Later that night, while I swung in a hammock looking over the moonlit sea, I tried to work out some plot kinks in the novel I was working on. But all I could think about was grouper. Having dredged up this memory, I’m afraid it will be on my mind all week. Come to think of it, it has been awhile since I’ve been to Culebra…

Thanks, Dyrk, I had the pleasure of multiple meals of freshly caught island fish while in Puerto Rico last July. But sadly, no grouper. I’ll happily volunteer to accompany you next time you head to Culebra to rectify this oversight.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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Eating Authors: Ellison Cooper

No Comments » Written on July 2nd, 2018 by
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Ellison Cooper

This week’s EATING AUTHORS guest and I share an odd bond. She did her undergraduate studies at the same small and eccentric school where I spent my first years as a professor. Alas, I left a couple years before she arrived, but I know the magic of the place well and I’ve no doubt that it affected her in ways both subtle and profound.

Ellison Cooper has a doctorate in anthropology, so among other things she can say she’s conducted research on the island of Yap. That’s some serious and cool-sounding street cred. From archaeology to cultural neuroscience, the study of ancient religions to human rights, murder investigation to wilderness K9 search and rescue, her full resume reads like a better version of Indiana Jones. It was only a matter of time that she wrote a book, once she paused long enough to do so.

Her first novel,Caged, is being published by Minotaur Books, and comes out one week from tomorrow. It features an FBI neuroscientist protagonist, manufactured DNA, near-death experiences, and psychopomps. What’s not to love? If we’re fortunate, it’s just the first of many more books to come.

LMS: Welcome, Ellison. I’m always especially excited to ask this question of anthropologists: What’s tour most memorable meal?

EC: This was a hard question because I’ve had so many amazing meals! But, rather than dwell on the amazing thiéboudienne (local fish and rice) I had in Bargny, Sénégal, or the unounet (coconut molasses candy) in Yap, Micronesia, I thought I would talk about the tomato I had once in Belize because it is honestly the most memorable food experience I’ve ever had.

Caged

When I was in graduate school, I lived way out in the jungles of Central America on a nature preserve right where Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize meet (called the Program For Belize, go if you ever get the chance!). Our camp was genuinely in the middle of nowhere, a two hour drive on rutted old logging roads from the nearest village. We lived in tents without electricity or running water while we were scouting and mapping lost Maya ruins. Because we were on a research grant, our budget only allowed us to make the long drive into town about once a month so we primarily lived on rice, dried beans, and canned veggies supplemented by the meat we (legally) hunted in the area. We would occasionally splurge on peanut butter and jelly or canned tuna, but that was it.

In the summer of ’97, I lived in that camp continuously for six months before I hopped on the back of the monthly truck heading into town. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some beans and rice, and I didn’t even realize how much I’d missed fresh fruits and veggies until a local woman approached our truck in town. She held a basket of fresh tomatoes and, on a whim, I decided to buy one.

The tomato was warm and still kind of covered with dirt, and I remember biting into it and literally gasping at the vivid taste. I swooned so long that I wasn’t able to catch the woman and buy more! Something about sitting on the hot metal of that truck in the scorching Belize sunshine, covered in road dust and months of jungle muck, eating that warm tomato just seared itself in my memory. Which is why a tomato is the most memorable meal of my life.

Thanks, Ellison. You know, I’ve spent my entire life defending the proposition that tomatoes are evil (not tomato sauce, mind you, pulverizing the fruit purifies it), but you almost convince me there might be exceptions. Almost.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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Eating Authors: R. J. Theodore

No Comments » Written on June 25th, 2018 by
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Rekka Jay

Back in May during the Nebula Awards Conference, I was sitting in the hospitality suite and chatting with a small press publisher and a couple of her authors. One of them, Rekka Jay, writes under the ambiguous pseudonym of R. J. Theodore.

There was an energy about Rekka that convinced me then and there I had to ask her alter ego to come by EATING AUTHORS and I’m very glad she accepted, not least because I truly believe you need to read her stuff!

Her first novel, Flotsam, came out in March from Parvus Press, and introduces us to the complex world of Periodot. This is my favorite kind of worldbuilding. It’s lush with races and cultures. Also aliens. And alchemy. Did I mention the airships? There’s a kitchen sink in there too, I’m sure, but Rekka makes it all work. Most importantly though, this is not a standalone novel. The second book in the Periodot series, Salvage, is expected in the first quarter of 2019.

LMS: Welcome, R. J. What stands out as your most memorable meal?

RJT: “I don’t like chili,” I told the man who was already my best friend and, years later, would become my husband. That we went on to marry after I could say such a thing is probably a testament to the strength we’d already found in that new relationship. “My mom makes chili for my dad occasionally but it’s just not my thing.”

He looked up from the grocery list he was penning at the kitchen counter. “How does she make it?”

“I don’t know. It has beans and meat and veggies and stuff.” Eloquent as ever.

Flotsam

“Let me make you my chili. Trust me. If you don’t like it, I’ll order you a pizza.”

Jackpot. Challenge accepted. It was less about trusting him than about being certain of my declaration. I looked forward to my imminent Hawaiian pie.

But we never ordered the pizza. He was right. I was twenty years old and learned with some shock that I had missed the point of cooking. I knew it was a special and loving ritual but had developed the misconception that it was about the physical act of providing food for others. It is this, but it is more. Through cooking, my husband expressed who he was and where he came from. Through eating, I learned something about him that words would never encapsulate. It was not only that it was “not my mother’s chili” but that it was his. Not only that he was skilled at preparing food, but what it meant to him to prepare it for me.

This meal was eaten on the couch in our apartment, probably cradled in my lap, legs pretzel-crossed, while a movie played on the TV. A half-opened plastic sleeve of saltines positioned between us on the coffee table. No candlelight or linen napkins, just companionship and paper towels. I went back for a second helping.

The Bantam

I found later when I tried to follow his recipe, my chili does not turn out even remotely like his. I once might have been confused and frustrated by this and disparaged my own skill or comprehension but I could now understand. An individual flavors the dish with as much of who they are as what they put in it. How they chop. How they stir. How long they simmer. Such things and more are the fingerprints of a chef and cannot be forged.

The creation of a meal is a highly personal and artistic act, the modification of a lineage of lives and lessons. After this experience, human connection became, to me, the most important ingredient. One spoonful of chili opened my eyes to look for other people’s experience of the world, right down to the ingredients in and preparation of a recipe.

Thanks, R. J. I have to say, that’s some philosophically powerful chili. Just imagine if he’d made you something like, umm, Beef Wellington?

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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Eating Authors: Nick Wood

No Comments » Written on June 20th, 2018 by
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Nick Wood

[[a glitch in the software kept this from automagically posting when it was supposed to. Sorry about that. Just pretend everything you see below actually came out on Monday. -LMS]]

This past Tuesday was my last day at the DayJob where I have parked myself for the past seventeen years. The next day, I flew to China. In theory, I’m still there and this is posting automagically because I set it up before I got on the plane (according to a related theory, I’m flying home tomorrow). So, yes, lots and lots of change happening here, some of it scary, some of it exhilarating. Bottom line, I am committing myself to the proposition that I am now a full-time writer. I’ll keep you posted as to how that all works out.

Meantime, you came here to read about yet another author’s most memorable meal. And you’re in luck, because this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest is Nick Wood and his meal begins with murder!

Dun dun dun! Insert commercial break here.

Before we get to that, you should know that Nick has done a fair amount of travel himself, in a wide range of cultures and societies. He was born in Zambia, and lived there and in South Africa for more than three decades. He also worked extensively in New Zealand. Currently, he and his family reside in England where, when he’s not writing, Nick works as a Research Tutor on a Doctoral Training Course in Clinical Psych.

Nowadays, that writing tends more to short fiction, including stories set on the moon which reach both into the future and into the past.

LMS: Welcome, Nick. Talk to me about your most memorable meal.

NW: On a hot summer morning, I watched my most memorable meal be murdered in front of me.
Four men stood around, holding the cow’s upper thighs, one also holding the head, while a fifth man cut the mottled brown cow’s throat. They held her body up as her legs buckled, trying to keep her head steady enough to bleed mostly into the bucket placed beneath her neck, but some blood sprayed onto the grass in the paddock, where I stood nearby.

As the flies moved in, I moved out.

This was all happening on a farm near umGungundlovu (or Pietermaritzburg) in the kwaZulu Natal Midlands, South Africa, during the State of Emergency under apartheid in the late eighties. The farmhouse was rented home to (mostly white) local University students, who, like me, were doing postgrad studies and were opposed to the political status quo.

Azanian Bridges

Next to the farmstead was a local village headed up by an induna (traditional leader) and they were collecting the cow as part payment for work they had been doing on the farmer’s land. (We were not sure about the details of labour and their residential arrangements, but in the Western Cape/Cape Town where I had come from, local ‘coloured’ farm labourers had been paid via the ‘dop’ system. Essentially a bottle of wine to keep them happy and servile – and, needless to say, domestic violence and foetal alcohol syndrome were rife in those communities at the time.)

We had approached the induna about a party we were having that night, to tell him that if any of the villagers wanted to join us, they would be welcome. He had just laughed at us, as if we were crazy. The party itself was a subdued affair for the first couple of hours, the eighties Afro-fusion music good, but the food and company generally not keeping up with it.

And then there was a commotion down by the arch leading up onto the property – a dozen or so men and two women had arrived, some men carrying drums and guitars, the women carrying meat and mealie pap in Tupperware containers. I joined Chris, our own house ‘induna’, while he persuaded some of our current guests that the group of villagers had indeed been invited, and were to be made welcome.

The Stone Chameleon

Eventually, several of our white guests drove off in a huff and the villagers came into the house, offering us well cooked beef and pap – which is a Zulu maize meal, a variation with texture and look akin to, but not quite like, mashed potato.

I had to ask, though.

Yes, it was the cow we had seen being killed earlier – but she had been well cooked.

“Yum yum,” said one of the women, offering me a piece in foil, with a twinkle in her eye.

I took the warm piece of meat, hesitating for a moment.

But you know what – it was indeed ‘yum yum.’

The tape machine got switched off, as four of the villagers took up band positions with their instruments on the patio and started to play mbaqanga music.

People danced and ate – and danced and talked.

A cow has never tasted so good since then.

Thanks, Nick. I’ve sworn off beef for more than a year now, but I suspect if I were present at a cow’s demise, I’d feel obligated to have a taste if it were offered to me.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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Eating Authors: Bryan Camp

No Comments » Written on June 11th, 2018 by
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Bryan Camp

This week’s EATING AUTHORS guest lives in one of my favorite cities, New Orleans, and for that alone I would have him here. But better still, Bryan Camp writes about New Orleans. In fact, he started writing his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of the family car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. That book was released in mid-April, and it promises to be only the first volume of his Crescent City series.

Bryan’s has an MFA from the University of New Orleans and is also an alumnus of Clarion West.

And if you’re fortunate enough to be in the greater Baltimore area, you can catch him at the Charm City Spec reading series on July 28th.

LMS: Welcome, Bryan. You live in the city that’s given me some of the best meals of my life. What stands out for you?

BC: Being from New Orleans, I’ve had many memorable meals, at family dinner tables, in fancy, famous restaurants, in greasy spoon diners at 3 in the morning. Surprisingly, though, my most memorable meal was eaten in a little town named San Miguel de Allende, in the mountains of central Mexico.

While I was working towards an MFA at the University of New Orleans, I was also a full time teacher in LaPlace, about an hour’s commute from New Orleans. This drive (plus lesson plans and grading and writing IEP’s) made getting to evening classes on campus more than a little challenging. Fortunately for me, UNO offered a Low-Residency option, where the majority of my coursework would be offered online, and month-long, intensive semesters abroad fulfilling the in-residency requirement of the degree.

So that’s how I ended up spending a month or so of each summer for two years in Mexico. It also made me something of an aberration within the program: I didn’t know any of the New Orleans students, even though I lived there, and I was the only member of my online classes who lived in the same place as our instructors. My first semester there was a bewildering, anxious time. I was homesick and for-real-don’t-drink-the-water-I-thought-I-was-dying sick, struggling to work and struggling to acclimate and struggling to breathe in the mountains when I’m from a city that’s nestled comfortably below sea-level. My second semester was much better. For one, I was at the end of my program instead of the beginning, so I knew everyone, teachers and fellow students alike. For another, I was much, much more careful about the water. And, probably most importantly, I had family with me: my wife, Beth Anne, came for the whole month, and my dad, grandmother, and little brother came and stayed with us for the third week.

The City of Lost Fortunes

That summer I was taking a science fiction/fantasy writing course with the brilliant Jim Grimsley, and a New Orleans Literature class with Dr. Nancy Dixon, who has literally written the book on NOLA Lit, so the month was basically a microcosm of my ideal writing career. A week or so into class, Nancy announced that since we were all Low-Residency students, she wanted to make us a real New Orleans meal at the end of the semester, if she could find the ingredients. I raised my hand and, a little sheepishly, said, “I think we can help with that.”

My wife is a true New Orleanean, you see. Faced with the prospect of an entire month away from everything familiar to her, she’d packed an entire suitcase full of ingredients. I’m not talking about a couple of bottles of Tabasco and a package of chicory coffee. I’m talking boxes of Zatarains. Spices, seasoning, a couple of bags of red beans. Y’all, my wife, god bless her, brought beans to Mexico. I teased her about it, but as in all things, she was right and I was wrong.

There are things you can’t pack, though. Things that are integral to New Orleans cuisine, like bay leaves and okra. (Beth Anne and Nanc bonded over a long conversation about whether you could even call it gumbo if it didn’t have okra in it) Even though she didn’t speak much Spanish, Beth Anne scoured the open air markets and sniffed every dried herb in the little shop across from where we had classes until she found everything she needed. (Fun fact, there’s no translation for bay leaves because to the rest of the world they’re known as laurel leaves.)

I really don’t know what all else she went through to make it happen, but thanks to Beth Anne, the last day of class we met up at Nancy’s rented house so the class could get a taste of New Orleans. We brought a pan of stuffed bell peppers: cored, filled with dirty rice—rice cooked with ground beef and chicken gizzards—and then baked, a pot of chicken and sausage jambalaya: so aromatic that you could smell us down the block, so spicy that you needed at least one cerveza per bowl, and a jug of my dad’s sangria, which didn’t really have any connection to New Orleans, but was too damned good to leave at home. Nancy cooked red beans and rice, because how could you not, a gumbo with a roux as rich and as dark as chocolate (she even had potato salad to add to the bowl, which you won’t see anywhere outside the city, and a bread pudding with a rum sauce at least as potent as the sangria we brought. It was a feast. It was a celebration.

And for me, it was a little bit like being home.

Thanks, Bryan. Clearly, you are a holy man, bringing your cuisine to the less fortunate (i.e., everyone who is anywhere else). Do feel free to send me some too.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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Eating Authors: Peng Shepherd

No Comments » Written on June 4th, 2018 by
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Peng Shepherd

Ah, June. The month has always felt like a bit of a tease, thirty days when you think you have plenty of time to do whatever, but you blink and suddenly you’re out of time.

I have the feeling this is going to be a volatile month for me. Lots of changes and new possibilities are on the horizon. Ask me about them when we hit July, and maybe I’ll know how it worked out. Or not.

Speaking of changes and new possibilities, this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, Peng Shepherd, has her first book coming out tomorrow. Peng is a recent arrival in Philadelphia. We met on Twitter prior to her move, and as I have a soft spot for new and local authors, naturally I invited her to drop in and share her thoughts on a meal.

Peng was actually born in Phoenix, but she’s lived in L.A., Beijing, London, New York, and D.C. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing and won the Elizabeth George Foundation’s emerging writers grant.

If you’re in the area, you can also catch her live on June 12th at Galactic Philadelphia, where she’ll be reading.

LMS: Welcome, Peng. So, what’s your most memorable meal?

PS: My most memorable meal is the tiny bowl of macaroni I ate with my brother Zach in Tunis, Tunisia in January 2008—a simple lunch that turned into an almost supernatural quest.

We arrived in Tunis at night, and stumbled groggily out of our hostel into the roar and bustle of the medina early the next morning, hoping to find breakfast. Just down the road, a chef leaned out of his café and waved, smiling. He spoke no English, and none of the languages we speak are French or Arabic, so he didn’t spend much time explaining his menu. He simply plopped us down at a table, returned with two bowls of steaming hot macaroni and stewed lamb, and disappeared again.

The Book of M

Now, I know macaroni is nothing special. And lamb is also not exactly rare. So I understand what I’m about to say next sounds a little hyperbolic, but I kid you not: it was the best thing I’ve ever tasted. In my life.

Describing the ingredients will not do the meal justice. Yes, the noodles were firm yet chewy, the lamb rich and tender and falling from the bone the minute my spoon touched it, the harissa perfectly tempered to give a fiery kick but not overwhelm. But it was so much more than that. It was so delicious it was like sorcery. We devoured our servings as if starving to death, then mopped up the scraps with our baguettes, then licked the bowls until they gleamed. I felt possessed. The chef was so pleased he couldn’t stop laughing when he returned. Food-drunk, I kept murmuring “merci, merci,” prayer-like, as we drifted back out into the crisp sun.

A few hours later, after the cloud of our food coma had cleared, I turned to my brother as we browsed Souk En-Nhas’ glittering aisles and said, “I know we’re supposed to try new places, but I just want that macaroni again for dinner.”

“Me too,” he admitted eagerly.

It was settled. Except we couldn’t find the café again once we returned to our hostel.

We hadn’t thought to check the name or address on our first visit, so we couldn’t ask for directions to it. And we learned that half the cafés in the medina served some type of macaroni dish, so describing what we’d eaten to other shopkeepers wasn’t useful. All we had to go on were two photographs on my digital camera I’d taken while there: one that showed some of the café itself, and one of the macaroni. We used the one that showed the café as a guide: a yellow awning with red Arabic writing, green doors, and chili pepper tablecloths.

TITLE

Seven hours later, with the medina emptying for the evening and shops pulling down their rolling metal doors, we gave up—hungry, but not defeated. The center of Tunis’ medina is large and winding, but not impossibly so, we thought. We’d already walked the entirety of it several times over in those seven hours. Surely if we just kept circling, we’d find the macaroni again.

We repeated our mission every day for the next week.

With each failure, the hunt became more eerie. The first day, we had easily found the café just minutes after leaving our hostel, so it had to be within walking distance and on a main road, but the place was nowhere to be found, no matter how hard we looked. Three days in, I started showing every shopkeeper and passerby our picture of the café, sure one would recognize it. Most shook their heads, and some tried to point out places that seemed like a good match, but they were all dead ends. The café had completely vanished, as if it had never been there at all.

The experience reminds me a little of the world of my novel, The Book of M, which is all about memories, and a magic that changes reality itself as the characters begin to forget. Zach and I started to think that maybe we’d dreamed the whole thing up—that there was actually no such café, that we’d not actually eaten any macaroni. But my camera argued otherwise, the evidence trapped in its preview pane. Each night, we stared at the two images again, still hopelessly macaroni-less, and starting to question our sanity. The café had to be real. Didn’t it?

A few days later, we took a train to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said, and then another train deep into the desert, where we visited Gabes, Matmata, and the beautiful, austere Tamezret, but the macaroni still haunted us. We circled back to Tunis to continue our search.

On the last afternoon of our trip, hours before we had to check out of our hostel and head for the airport, we were combing a street we’d already walked at least twenty times, and knew by heart. Vendors shook their heads and chuckled. They’d seen us every day by then, and knew about our hopeless quest.

Then impossibly, right in front of us, all of a sudden there it was. The yellow awning, the green doors. Inside, the same chef was whistling happily behind the counter.

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“Macaroni!” We cried in unison as we ran. It was here! It was real! We were giddy with victory. “Macaroni! Macaroni!”

“Demain,” the chef shrugged, smiling.

“Macaroni!” We cried again.

“Demain,” he repeated, but we didn’t understand. Finally, he held up one finger. “Aujourd’hui,” he said, pointing at the ground, indicating something like “now” or “here”. “Demain,” he continued, looping his hand through the air and pointing to the side, like how one might indicate an animal somersaulting over a fence. “Aujourd’hui,” pointing down—“demain,” somersaulting over. It finally clicked that “aujourd’hui” meant “today.”

I froze.

If “aujourd’hui” meant “today,” then that could only mean that “demain” meant “tomorrow.”

We stared at the chef in horror. Zach might have sunk to his knees. At last, I pointed to myself, made the shape of a plane taking off with my hands, and added “aujourd’hui.” The chef looked stricken as well then, but there was nothing he could do. He didn’t have the ingredients, perhaps. There was no macaroni. The quest was over.

Once we returned home, I tried to make the dish myself, but it was never close to the same. I went to as many Middle Eastern and North African grocery stores as I could find to try different brands of ingredients, googled recipe variations, posted on forums, and even recorded evaluations of my attempts to keep track of what I’d tried and what I’d do differently next time. After several months of exhaustive experimentation, I finally gave up.

I haven’t been back to Tunisia since that trip, but I think about that macaroni at least once a month, without fail. It seems crazy—it was just pasta, tomato, harissa, and some lamb. I still don’t understand how it could be as delicious as it was, or how I could never recreate it, or how it was possible for the café to have vanished into thin air after our first taste, and reappeared only to say goodbye. Sometimes, it seems more like a dream than something that truly happened.

But like in my novel, as long as you remember it, then it’s real.

Thanks, Peng. This blog is full of accounts of such Brigadoon-like eateries. I’m still haunted by one in New Orleans I took three students to. But hey, at least you got to say goodbye to yours.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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photo credit: Rachel Crittenden

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Eating Authors: Henry Lien

No Comments » Written on May 28th, 2018 by
Categories: Plugs
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Henry Lien

Returning from a week away always carries a lot of doubling up of tasks as you get back up to speed. When that week away involves a conference filled with business meetings and new opportunities, the resulting follow up email always takes its toll. In actuality, I’m still not caught up, and because a portion of my brain is back at the Nebula Awards Conference (now nearly two weeks in the past), it seemed only appropriate to feature a fellow past Nebula Award nominee, which is why this week’s EATING AUTHOR guest is none other than Henry Lien. Henry received Nebula noms for best Novelette in 2014 for “Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters” and again in 2016 for “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society.”

Some of you may also be familiar with him by another name. In his guise as Emperor Stardust, he was the writer and producer of Radio SFWA (and seriously, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, pause right now and click that link!).

Henry is mostly known for his short fiction, having placed stories in F&SF, Asimov’s, and Analog. His first novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword, came out last month from Henry Holt. A sequel is already slated for release in 2019.

LMS: Welcome, Henry. Tell me about your most memorable meal.

HL: The scene is my father’s wedding banquet about fifteen years ago. I gave a speech in Mandarin about how meeting his new wife stunned my father with joy at a stage in life when he was hoping for only quiet; how she helped him become the person that he was always meant to be; and how with this union, my father’s good fortune, long delayed and deserved, had finally arrived. All were moved. It was an auspicious beginning to one of the most important days of my father’s life.

The main wedding party table included my father, his wife, my sister, and me, along with an 80 year old man who was sort of the revered patriarch of their Taiwanese-American community. My dad had even come to terms enough with my being gay to invite my then partner, although he was seated at a different table.

Shortly after the meal was served, I noticed that the patriarch was grabbing his chest. He was trying to cough out something stuck in his throat. People around him were uselessly patting his shoulder and telling him to drink water. 10 seconds passed. 20. 30. From the color on his face, it became clear to me that he was choking to death.

Peasprout Chen

I didn’t want this man to die, but I particularly didn’t want him to die at my father’s wedding banquet. That would have been universally agreed upon as a cursed omen for the marriage by my father’s somewhat old-fashioned and superstitious social circle.

One problem was that I couldn’t let anyone see me trying to save the patriarch because he would be mortified in front of his community. And I didn’t have time to eyeroll about antiquated notions of saving face, etc.

The bigger problem was that I never learned to do the Heimlich maneuver. And from the inaction of everyone else, neither had they. However, I had watched television as a kid. I rummaged deep in my memory and somewhere in there, some handsome actor playing a cop or fireman on some show that I watched when I was a hormonal gay teenager was instructing someone about pushing “in and up, in and up!”

I motioned my former partner over to our table. He saw from my face that something was very wrong and strode over. I whispered to him, “Unbutton your jacket and reach over the table as if you’re reaching for the wine to give a toast, so that your jacket covers this guy.” He did so.

I then went behind the patriarch, who was by that point in full panic. I reached around him and made a rock fist and covered it with a paper hand. I placed my hands below the man’s rib page. He felt as frail and delicate as a bird. I then pushed in and up. He was so light, I felt like I could have lifted him up with the motion.

Nothing happened. He was going blue. But if I pushed harder, I’d break his ribs.

I pushed harder, in and up. Still nothing.

Then one more time, in and up.

He then swatted my arms away, and made a sort of sound like when someone chokes awake on their own snore.

Then he ejected a medallion of beef out of his mouth as big as a hockey puck onto his plate. Whole and unchewed. He had tried to swallow the whole thing.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2015

Everyone at our immediate table of course saw what happened but thanks to my partner’s jacket, no one beyond our table saw anything. The patriarch was so embarrassed that he tried to make light of nearly dying. He took up his fork and knife and began to cut his medallion of beef, which was now sitting in the plate in a shallow pool of his collected saliva and mucous. The waiter took the plate away and came back with a plate of chicken breast. My memory is a little fuzzy about the details after the beef puck ejection, but I seem to recall that the chicken breast was brought out already cut into strips for him.

Afterward, my father thanked me emotionally for my quick action. He explained that the patriarch was a very successful businessman who had lifted himself out of stark poverty to great wealth. He was known to be generous with others, but very frugal with himself because he had known what starvation was. When he saw the generous cut of beef, he freaked out and tried to literally inhale it. I also think he might have been unaccustomed with having to carve up his own meal with a fork and knife, since Chinese food is not served that way, but was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Christmas came soon after that. I received a bottle of Hennessy XO cognac, in a complex luxe box. It was from the patriarch. And every Christmas thereafter, I received another bottle of XO. I didn’t drink cognac, but I would keep the bottles and savor their emotional flavor, since they were in one very real sense worth a man’s life.

Thanks, Henry. So, the going rate for saving the life of a patriarch is an annual bottle of cognac. This is good to know (not that I’m planning anything, just saying).

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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