Eating Authors: C.S.E. Cooney

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C.S.E. Cooney

Without a doubt, the most frustrating aspect of my current convalescence is the daily reminder of how little I can actually get done. I can accept the weakness and fatigue — even when it’s to the point that the efforts involved in eating breakfast require an immediate postprandial nap — but the limitations imposed on me by brain fog (i.e., chemobrain) mean that most days I only have one or two hours when I can actually get work done. This has made it very difficult to hit deadlines and meet some professional obligations. Fortunately both my editors and my writing partners have been very understanding, more often than not responding to my apologies with notes of “Lawrence, don’t worry about it, just take care of yourself” which are both heartening and vexing because, again, I don’t want to be letting such kind people down.

Despite this, decisions I made a couple months ago (i.e., before my recent BMT) involving stream-lining my life still have me on track for my most productive year ever, recent medical adventures and the next few months of convalescence notwithstanding. We’ll see if it all works out as planned. Still, this has given me a greater appreciation for other authors who manage to do all the things, which is actually a pretty good segue to this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, World Fantasy Award-winner C.S.E. Cooney.

In addition to her extensive (and award-winning) writing credits, Claire is a formidable narrator, with more than 100 audiobooks to her credit. She’s also a singer/songwriter and has produced three albums (Alecto! Alecto!, Headless Bride, and Corbeau Blanc, Corbeau Noir) under the name Brimstone Rhine.

Her new short novel, The Twice-Drowned Saint: Being a Tale of Fabulous Gelethel, the Invisible Wonders Who Rule There, and the Apostates Who Try to Escape Its Walls, will be out soon as part of The Sinister Quartet, a collection of long-form fictions by four different authors, coming from Mythic Delirium. I wish I had a link for you, because I think you’re going to want to pick up a copy.

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

CSEC: Life is long and banquets there are aplenty, and since I’m what my best friend calls “food-motivated,” many of my most extravagant celebrations center around a feast. There was the dinner we ate at Atera — a two star Michelin restaurant — two days before our wedding. There was the time I made all my friends dress up as ghost psychics, and we dined on Bailey’s chocolate cake before playing the game Mysterium. But most recently, there was the VR dinner at the James Beard House.

Desdemona and the Deep

The occasion was, ostensibly, my birthday. My husband Carlos was going to take me to eat some fancy fine Italian food somewhere in New York City. But one day at our writing group, author Joel Derfner announced that he would soon be going to the Aerobanquets RMX, a “virtual and augmented reality art and dining experience in seven bites.” I saw the look on Carlos’s face — totally shining — and I said, “I want to go there for my birthday instead.”

We arrived at the James Beard House at about a quarter till one on a Sunday, eager to “eat a Dali painting,” as I think Joel had described it. We were given a choice of either champagne or seltzer in the lobby, and the hostess passed around what she called “the pedestal” or sometimes “the chalice.”

Bone Swans

It was a small object, the size of a tea cup, but velveted and flat on top. It had a little lip or divot on one end, and on the opposite side of that, a button such as one might find on a video game controller. She explained that while we had the VR headset on, we would see, at some point in each of the seven scenes we would be experiencing, something like this pedestal/chalice shape come floating toward us. We were to put our hands out and reach for it. We could orient our mouths to the lip by feeling where the button was on the back; the lip was always going to be opposite the button.

When the other couple who had signed up for our same experience slot arrived (there were four seats open every hour or so), we were given a short tour of celebrated chef James Beard’s house — which was also a school for chefs, and is now his foundation. Up three flights of stairs we trundled, and then into a small, unprepossessing room. We sat in chairs that swiveled. Each of us was given a different VR headset, which was hooked up to a different operating system. We’d all be seeing essentially the same scenes play out, but we could go through the scenes at our own pace.

The Witch in the Almond Tree

So much of that experience seems like a dream now. The vines and flowers unfurling all around me. The nebulae burning under my feet while a moon burned like a spotlight above me. The meat instruments that played discordant notes when we reached out to touch them: a ham hock guitar, a side-of-beef piano. My own hands — which were not at all like my hands — patterned in leaves or spots, reaching to pull the pedestal/chalice with its bite-sized bolus of food toward me, while the narrator said something calm about “the taste of your first regret.” The spices I associate with Indian cuisine — rose and pistachio and cardamom — and the different textural layers of the food: cool, warm, crunchy, silky, chewy, growing more complex as I chomped.

And last of all, a scene of sinking into a milk-white sea, or perhaps a cloud bank, while fallen colossi loomed all around me. All of us were sinking together, the giants and I, as that white wave rose up. I did not feel like I was drowning; it felt peaceful. But others confessed later to being uneasy, even mildly panicked. My husband was curious; he stood up from his chair to see if he could keep his chin above the milky wave. He did, but to do so meant he entered a space of blackness — where the credits came from as the show ended.

It wasn’t — in the end — quite as much like eating a Dali painting as I had hoped. But it was by far the weirdest, wildest, most wonderlandish meal I have ever eaten. And I’d do it again and bring all my friends — so long as VR was pleasurable, and not disorienting, to their senses.

Thanks, Claire. That sounds like a remarkable experience, surreal and delightful all at once. And, given the location, I have to believe the actual food, every “bite-sized bolus,” was pretty remarkable as well.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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