Eating Authors: Dan Wells

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Dan Wells

Welcome to the third installment of our special Campbell Award Nominee addition of our regular Monday feature in which I ask authors about their favorite meals. All month it’s been my treat to query members of that select group of writers who are vying to be the one to walk home with the coveted John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer plaque (not a Hugo) at this year’s World Science Fiction Convention in Reno, NV.

This week, we hear from Dan Wells. Dan is the author of I Am Not A Serial Killer, as well as Mr. Monster, and the forthcoming I Don’t Want to Kill You. He’s also one quarter of the Hugo-nominated podcast Writing Excuses (along with Hugo-nominee Howard Tayler, former Campbell nominee Brandon Sanderson, and recent addition and Hugo-nominee Mary Robinette Kowal).

I Am Not A Serial Killer
Mr. Monster
I Don't Want to Kill You
LMS: Dan, you’re out of excuses, what’s your best, most memorable meal?

DW: When I graduated high school and moved out of my parents house, I lived in Mexico for two years, in the state of Chihuahua, which means “dry and sandy place” in Aztec; it’s a great description of the area, but I have no idea how it was eventually applied to a weird little dog breed. Anyway. The climate is very similar to that of the Western US, especially my home state of Utah, and that made it the perfect environment for growing green chiles. As anyone who’s ever been to Hatch, New Mexico will tell you, deserts grow REALLY good chiles.

When most Americans think of chiles they think of jalepenos, and maybe habaneros or serranos if they watch a lot of Food Network; they think of hot peppers, and yes, a lot of chiles are hot, but a lot of them are very mild and have a very different flavor. One of my favorites is called the Anaheim chile, or the chilaca, which is what we all called it in Mexico. Before we even get to the description of my favorite meal, let this be known: the smell of roasting chiles is the best smell in the entire world. They should use it in air fresheners, scented candles, and perfume, and I would buy it ALL. So my favorite meal begins at a friend’s house, a woman I adopted as my personal Mexican grandmother, and it begins with the smell of roasting Anaheim chiles. I was in heaven before the food was even cooked. Pro tip: everyone needs a Mexican grandmother.

When the chiles were roasted, my Mexican grandmother turned them into my favorite food in the world: chiles rellenos. A chile relleno is a pretty simple concept: you cut open a chile, fill it with cheese, dip it in egg, and fry it. In central and southern Mexico, and therefore in most Mexican restaurants in the US, chiles rellenos are served with a red sauce, but in the northern desert they’re served plain, with just chile, cheese, and egg, and of course beans and flour tortillas. Flour tortillas are a distinctly northern thing, native to Chihuahua, and I occasionally wonder if that’s the reason southern Mexico uses red sauce–they don’t have the awesome flour tortillas to go with their chiles rellenos, so they make up the difference the best they can. Corn tortillas are good, but the flour and the beans combine so well with the chile relleno it’s just transcendent. It’s the only way to eat them.

When the chiles were ready my Mexican grandmother brought them out on a wide platter, piled high and covered with a towel to keep them warm; the egg on the outside was golden, just on the edge of crisp while still being soft enough to melt in your mouth. The beans were fresh, mashed by hand; the flour tortillas were homemade and hot off the griddle. We poured ourselves glasses of ice-cold horchata, a kind of rice milk with cinnamon and vanilla, and dug into the pile like we were starving. Bite after bite, chile after chile, we ate and ate and ate until we thought we were going to burst. The best bite of a chile relleno is the last one, when you’ve eaten most of it away and you pick it up by the stem, biting off the last bits of chile and egg and sucking out the final bits of cheese; the base of the stem is soft and creamy, and it mingles with the cheese and holy crap I’m making myself hungry just thinking about it.

Every chile relleno I’ve ever eaten since that day is but a pale attempt to recapture the glory of that food. I’ve since taught myself how to make chiles rellenos of my own, and I do a passable job–at the very least, it fills my house with the scent of roasting chiles–but honestly, what I really need is a Mexican grandmother. Any awesome cooks out there looking for a gringo grandson?

Thanks, Dan, for that trip south of the border. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find my abuela.

Next Monday: Another Campbell Award nominee and another meal!

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