Eating Authors: Brian Niemeier (Campbell Award nominee)

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In just under twelve months, thousands of people will converge on Kansas City, and while they’ll doubtless consume vast quantities of barbecue, that won’t be their main reason for the trip. No, they’ll be showing up for MidAmeriCon II (also known as the WorldCon), a wondrous celebration that for many is the highlight of the convention year. And a regular feature of the convention is the Hugo Award ceremony, which includes the coveted John W. Campbell (not a Hugo) Award for Best New Writer.

Long time viewers of this blog know that, as a former Campbell nominee myself, I am a sucker for this award. Which is why each year I reach out to the nominees and invite them to come on down and share the tale of their most memorable meal. Alas, the pickings are a bit slim this year. Of the four nominees, Sebastien de Castell has already graced this space with a meal (back on July 27th of last year), Andy Weir sent his regrets as he’s swamped with books, TV pilots, and screenplays, and Pierce Brown never responded to my queries. This leaves Alyssa Wong (who will be featured here next week) and today’s EATING AUTHOR guest, Brian Niemeier.

LMS: Welcome, Brian. Congratulations on the nomination. So, what’s the story behind your most memorable meal?

BN: I had few friends in grade school, and I only stayed close friends with one of them all the way through high school, college, and into adulthood.

My friend grew up in a Victorian house located in a once upscale neighborhood where I’d now advise against taking a late night stroll. Nevertheless, the house remained a lively hub for the family’s extensive social circle.

Any given holiday, and the days bracketing it, saw the old house’s rooms — small by today’s standards yet numerous thanks to their arrangement in three narrow stories — filled with family, friends, and anyone the first two groups cared to bring.

There was always good company, but the main draw was the food.

Souldancer

My friend’s mother is a wonderworker in the kitchen. I’m convinced that she missed her calling by not running a restaurant. Though in a way, that’s what she did every New Year’s Eve, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Let’s put it this way: she made turducken for several years running. Though exquisite, it wasn’t my best meal ever.

The house’s most enduring quality was the way it acted as a sort of people magnet. Even after my friend and his siblings all grew up and moved out; after he and I went to colleges several states apart, somehow we always found ourselves back at the old house for one of his family’s three annual Thanksgiving dinners, for breakfast the day of some cousin’s wedding, or for a Memorial Day cookout on the back deck.

My best meal wasn’t one of those, either.

On one long-lost evening some years ago–it’s awful that I don’t recall exactly when; probably just an ordinary Friday or Saturday night, since the place was practically empty–my buddy and I wound up at his folks’ big dining room table. Maybe we were on break from school. More likely, it was after graduation and he was crashing there between moves.

We must have sat at that scratched, stained, thoroughly loved table for hours, just talking. The subject of our conversation escapes me. I’m sure, in hindsight, that it was important.

Around two or three AM, my friend’s uncle, who was also living there at the time, came down the back stairs and started puttering around in the kitchen. We let him be until rich, spicy aromas began wafting out of the kitchen. Then our rumbling stomachs compelled us to go and see what he was up to..

Nethereal

My friend’s uncle was the kind of free spirit who drifted through life working menial jobs when he wasn’t following the dwindling lineup of 60s rock bands that still toured regularly. I remember his broomstick-thin frame bent over the counter; iron grey hair spilling into his eyes, as he deftly sliced the steak, bell peppers, and onions leftover from the family’s fajita dinner.

Seeing us enter, he set my friend and me to work on the meat and veggies while he raided the pantry.

I’m still not clear on all the ingredients my friend’s uncle used. I do know that he emerged with rice wine vinegar, cooking sherry, fish sauce, and two packets of beef ramen.

When the leftovers had been combined in a boiling pot with the ingredients listed above, as well as others lost to lax observation and faulty memory, my friend’s uncle joined us back at the table, where he shared his savory concoction.

Disclaimer: the improvised bachelor chow that my friend’s uncle prepared was not the most delicious meal I’ve ever tasted, nor was it the most satisfying. It was novel, and tasted better than it had a right to, but only combined with firsthand accounts of Rolling Stones shows and my friend’s commentary (he’s the most musically skilled person I’ve ever known), was it the best meal I can remember having.

Thanks, Brian. I think I know where to get most of those ingredients, but my local market doesn’t stock eye-witness testimonies from rock concerts. More’s the pity.

Next Monday: Another Campbell Award nominee and another meal!

#SFWApro

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