Eating Authors: James Alan Gardner

1 Comment » Written on July 27th, 2020 by
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James Alan Gardner

Happy birthday to me.

A few hours after this posts I expect to be online for a virtual birthday celebration. I hit sixty-one today, but the party is more of a celebration of the fact that I’m still around to check off another birthday after the rigors of the past year with its cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, endless scans and tests, innumerable visits with medical specialists, weeks of physical therapy, surgery, hospital stays, brutal side effects, convalescence, and ongoing recovery. I think ERB’s John Carter said it best: “I still live.” He got to go to Mars, me, I’m letting friends throw me a virtual party.

A few weeks back I was part of an online conversation discussing a Canadian SF convention and someone asked if I knew this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest James Alan Gardner. I recognized the name, but no, we’d never met. The next day I realized that I’d never read any of his books, and immediately went off to pick up a copy of Expendable, the first volume in his League of Peoples series.

I was blown away!

Light and fun and clever, James is a master of the very same style that I strive for in much of my own writing. I’ve been devouring his books since (I’m currently on number 7), and I immediately reached out to invite him to be a guest on the blog, and lo, here he is!

James attended Clarion West, took home the Grand Prize in the Writers of the Future contest as well as Canada’s Aurora Award and has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. In addition to writing and teaching science fiction and fantasy, he dabbles in mathematics and geology — none of which explains why he has been attempting to teach kung fu to a rabbit. I keep hoping it’s a metaphor, but who am I kidding?

Rabbits aside, go read his books, they’re absolutely delightful!

LMS: Welcome, James. Please tell me about your most memorable meal.

AJG: Canada celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1967, and many special projects were funded in the exuberance of that year. One of them was SOLE: Summer of Learning Experience, a program that offered small amounts of money to set up local education centers for teens across the province of Ontario. In my hometown of Simcoe, this took the form of a drop-in center in an old railway station that hadn’t been used in years. The director of the center described himself as lazy; instead of trying to organize a lot of activities on his own, he just put out a call to people around town. “Hey, if you have free time, why don’t you teach kids about something you love doing?”


Lots of people responded. There was a young guy who came in once a week and worked kids through the lengthy process of making themselves custom leather sandals. An older man led nature hikes every Sunday afternoon. A college art student on her summer vacation showed up most evenings to help people work on whatever kind of art they liked.

And it turned out that an older woman in town had studied as a Cordon Bleu chef in the 1930s. Times being what they were, no restaurant would hire a female chef, and she eventually just got married and became a housewife…but when she heard that SOLE was looking for people to teach things they loved, she leapt at the chance.

So every Thursday throughout the summer, she opened her house and her kitchen to teens who wanted to cook. Usually, there were six to eight of us. Our Cordon Bleu teacher planned the menu and bought the ingredients; we’d work on the meal all day, starting at 10:00 in the morning and finishing around 6:00; then the director of SOLE plus a few invited guests would arrive, and we’d all eat what we had cooked. The guests paid to cover the cost of all the ingredients, while the rest of us ate for free.

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault

I always felt that our teacher chose famous dishes for us to cook: things I’d actually heard of, like Quiche Lorraine, Coq au Vin, and Crêpes Suzette. On the other hand, maybe she just thought we should learn to cook the Cordon Bleu specialties, and those specialties were the most well-known…or perhaps, since Simcoe was an unsophisticated town, and the 1960s were a time when people seldom went out for dinner except to mom-and-pop restaurants, our teacher thought she needed to serve famous dishes if she wanted to attract guests who would, after all, be paying considerably more for their meal than they would at a hamburger joint.

At any rate, those dinners were amazing, both in terms of food quality — delicious things I’d never tasted before — and in the whole experience of cooking together all day with other kids, then spending a languid two hours at the table, and then (oh well) cleaning up as fast as we could. More than fifty years later, it’s hard to remember which dishes we cooked on which days… but let me pretend that the highlights of the summer all happened at the same meal.

So we started with French onion soup: so sweet, and of course, with croutons and grated cheese. I drove my mother crazy for years thereafter, insisting on shredding cheese into every kind of soup she ever cooked.

They Promised Me The Gun Wasn't Loaded

Coq au Vin: cooking with wine! Daring! Especially since all the cooking staff were under age. We were assured that every bit of alcohol boiled off during cooking, so we wouldn’t get in trouble by going home drunk… and might I say that the smell of chicken cooking in wine was far more appealing than my first actual taste of wine years later.

For dessert, we had the greatest Apple Strudel in the history of the world. I remember three of us working for hours on the pastry, gently pulling it wider, ever wider, with our hands, until it was so big we had to take it into the living room to finish stretching it out. Our teacher told us that good strudel pastry was supposed to be so thin, you could read a newspaper through it… and I think we nearly got there. We wrapped it over and over around a homemade apple filling, producing a sugary dessert where the pastry was as fine as tissue — one of the best things I’ve ever made in my life, in a kitchen or elsewhere.

So a memorable meal in the eating? Absolutely. But it was more memorable for the entire experience, and an awesome way to spend an entire summer. It sparked a love of cooking (and eating!) that I cherish to this day.

Thanks, James. I’m wondering what the weekly dinner guests thought of those meals (especially if their usual fare was limited to Simcoe’s mom-and-pop restaurants, and how they managed to return to more mundane meals once summer ended.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

NB: links to authors and books here are included as part of an Amazon Affiliate account. If you follow any of them and ultimately make a purchase Amazon rewards me with a few pennies of every dollar.

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