Eating Authors: Allen Steele

1 Comment » Written on December 5th, 2011 by
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Allen Steele

My guest this week is Hugo Award winner Allen Steele, whom I last saw in Reno when he, his wife, and I were all having breakfast on that fateful morning when would go on to win his third rocketship. What I find particularly endearing, is that two of the three have been for Best Novella.

Although he has his share of stand alone novels, Allen is probably best known for his Near Space series (including Orbital Decay, Clarke County, Space, Lunar Descent, Labyrinth of Night, and A King of Infinite Space) and his Coyote series (Coyote, Coyote Rising, Coyote Frontier, Coyote Horizon, and Coyote Destiny). Not surprisingly, Allen also excels at shorter lengths, and many of these stories have been gathered into collections such as Rude Astronauts, All-American Alien Boy, Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete “Near Space” Stories, American Beauty, and The Last Science Fiction Writer.

His latest novel, Hex, branches out from his Coyote Federation in an exciting new direction that will appeal to long-time fans as well as new readers. Trust me, it’s good stuff!

Hex

Coyote
The Last Science Fiction Writer

LMS: Allen, enjoyable though it was, that breakfast we shared in Reno can’t possibly be your most memorable meal. What was?

AS: It’s hard for me to pin down any one particular meal as being my favorite. I’m pretty much a meat-and-potatoes guy, so culinary details aren’t what I tend to recall. What makes a meal memorable for me are the circumstances in which I had it: where I was, who I was with, why I was there, and so forth.

Given that, I’ve had some interesting breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. That ones that stand out include the dinner I had with Theodore Sturgeon and Frank M. Robinson at a SF convention, the time I went to a Democratic Party fundraiser and had a conversation with Al Gore — still a Senator then, making his first presidential run — about boating in Tennessee, the lunch I had with a Secret Service agent who was on Ronald Reagan’s protection team, the breakfast I had with a Polish army general, and the first Thanksgiving dinner I had with my wife’s family, which began with her stepbrother tearing a leg off the turkey and eating it from the bone and ended with a screaming argument that dissolved into a food-fight. I suppose I could reminisce about the time I tried to make dinner for the prettiest girl in college (before I met Linda), but that’s a disaster I’d sooner forget, other than to say that a few days later she took up with another guy and left me heartbroken for … well, two or three weeks.

What really comes to mind, though, was the dinner I had on my 21st birthday.

On January 19, 1981, I was visiting Lukachuchi, Arizona. I was there because I’d joined a month-long January term road trip through the Southwest sponsored by my undergraduate alma mater. It was the first time I’d ever visited the American west, and over the past three weeks, we’d hiked through national parks in Colorado and Utah. Now we were in this small farm town located in the heart of the Navajo indian reservation.

Our group — ten kids, two instructors — were staying at the home of one Fred Harvey, a minister in the Native American Church. This was one of the few times that month we spent the night in a place where we had a roof over our heads; the rest of the trip, we slept in tents, and sometimes we didn’t even bother to put them up but instead slept under desert stars. The reservation had laws against roadside camping, though, so Fred let us spread out our sleeping bags on his living room floor and even allowed us to use the shower the next morning. Which was a real luxury; I think I bathed only a half-dozen times that month.

Fred learned that one of the group was having a birthday — not only that, but a 21st birthday, which meant that I was officially coming of age — and decided that this was cause for celebration. He and his family offered to prepare a feast in my honor, featuring true Native American cuisine. We accepted, naturally; any excuse to get away from the freeze-dried backpack food we’d been eating for the last few weeks. And then we found out what we were going to eating…

Goat stew.

And we’d slaughter the goat.

There was no way we could politely refuse, even though a vegetarian in the group was adamantly opposed to this. So we chipped in to buy a goat from a nearby ranch. Late that afternoon, the rancher arrived with a young male goat tied up in the back of his pickup truck. Fred’s wife had already stoked a fire in the backyard pit and had suspended a cast-iron pot above it, and a couple of girls in our group helped her cut up vegetables. Fred and his son led the goat to a stone-paved area near the fire pit and tied the goat to a stake. He asked me if he could borrow the big hunting knife I carried on my belt. When I gave it to him, he then asked if I wanted to kill the goat.

I took the knife back from him, walked over to the goat, looked it in the eye … and discovered that I just couldn’t do it. Maybe I was being a bit of a wimp, but I couldn’t kill something that I wanted to pet instead. Fred understood, so he did the job himself. I stood nearby while he knelt beside the goat, said a few words in Navajo (he later told us that he was thanking the goat for giving its life so that we could eat), and then, while his son held its horns, slit the goat’s throat. A couple of kids got sick and turned away, but I watched the killing, and the slaughter that followed. This was being done for me, after all, and I owed the goat that much.

I’d never had goat stew before, and I’ve never had it again since. I can honestly say, though, that it’s one of the very best things I’ve ever tasted. The meat was lean and tender, the carrots, russett potatoes, and red onions perfectly cooked, the broth rich without being too thick, and everything was seasoned just perfectly — wild sage was the main ingredient, as I recall. Fred’s whole family came over to dinner — his son brought his kids, and there were a few cousins and other relatives as well — and everyone except our resident vegan had a big bowl of the stew. I don’t recall what she had instead. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, probably.

When dinner was over, I underwent a Native American birthday ceremony. I sat cross-legged on the living room floor in front of an incense burner, and after Fred lit some mesquite twigs and told me to close my eyes, he danced around me, chanting in Navajo while occasionally brushing my face, shoulders, and head with an eagle feather. When he was done, he told me that I had become a man that day. Fred’s wife presented me with a lovely dreamcatcher she’d woven herself, and Fred gave me the feather he’d used during the ceremony. Both now hang in my office window.

On second thought … yeah, I’d have to say that this is the best dinner I’ve ever had. At the very least, I’ve had none other quite like it.

Thanks, Allen. Hard to imagine topping that kind of coming-of-age dinner.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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One Response to “Eating Authors: Allen Steele”

Wow. That is rather extraordinary. An amazing experience, both culinary and personal.


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