Eating Authors: Daniel Polansky

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Daniel Polansky

Timing, as has been observed, is everything. It’s also exceedingly relativistic and has been known to bleed a bit along the edges. Case in point: this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, Daniel Polansky, and I just last week saw a collaborative story published over at Tor.com. The reason behind that collaboration was the realization of some editors that both Daniel and I had books coming out featuring anthropomorphic animals (his novel, The Builders, was released last week, a couple days before our collaboration appeared). So, naturally, we should write something together. And, not surprisingly, it involved food (as well as talking animals).

Daniel’s also the author of the popular Low Town trilogy and the more recent Empty Throne duology. And while neither series contains talking animals, you should still check them out all the same.

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

DP: Brazilians are the friendliest people in the world. Traveling alone in any corner of the world people will take pity on you, show kindness, and offer aid, but the Brazilians are on another level. During the few months I wondered through that beloved country I found it impossible to keep to any sort of schedule; every party or gathering ended with some newfound friend asking me to their grandmother’s house in the country, or insisting that they take off work for a few days to show me some hidden gem on the coast of Bahia.

The Builders

This was how I found myself spending a few weeks on the cattle farm of a casual acquaintance in the vast area south of the Amazon called the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetlands in the world. The farm was as close to the middle of nowhere as might be found in this age of GSP satellites, six hours on a dirt road from the nearest town (in the dry season, that is – I was told when the rains come it could day a full twenty-four hours). When we arrived the first night the hands were in an uproar – there had been an accident, one of the vaqueros – hard men, short and dark, born to the saddle, as their fathers and grandfathers had been – had badly cut his hand and needed medical attention. My host, whose barely conversational English offered my only means of communication, informed me he was to drive the cowboy back to distant civilization, to get it treated, but that I should continue on to the farm. I traveled the rest of the way with the vaqueros, on the back of a rumbling flat bed track from some distant, pre-war era. The stars were very, very bright.

Those Above

Dinner awaited us. The day had been strange and tiring enough that I had forgotten my hunger until I caught the first waft of meat, and then it came roaring back. On the table in the great communal eating hall were slabs of meat – skirt steak and stewed shank, rib cuts of all kind, cow in every conceivable variety, plus rice and beans, a simple salad, fresh baked rolls, and for desert dulce de leche, which is sweet milk slowly heated until it takes on the consistency of molasses. The beef came from Bos indicus, distinct from Bos taurus, which are the more commonly consumed variety in North America and throughout Europe. They carry their fat differently, in ripples outside of their flesh rather than marbled through it (I learned a lot about cows over the course of the next few weeks, most of my host’s English being related to it.) I’m not sure if it was this distinction, or that the meat was so desperately fresh (the butchery was fifty feet from the main house and got frequent use) or if it was the uniqueness of of the situation but I cannot remember ever enjoying meat so much, not before or since. As a confirmed carnivore (this week’s announcement that red meat causes cancer was celebrated by a sausage platter at a hipster hot dog spot), it was divine.

Low Town

The menu remained more or less unchanged for the next few weeks that I worked on the ranch. Of course, my duties were not the duties of the cowboys– I can’t ride or rope and I was, happily, not at any point called upon to castrate a steer. But I mended fences and brought salt to the far pastures, and sometimes I would help them with separating the herd, a dull task which was interrupted only to pass around a horn of cold matte, then back into the coral. Before evening fell we would be saved by the loud ring of the triangle, quit our tasks and stroll to the dining room, take a seat around the big, rough-hewn wooden table, piling meat atop our trays. The vaqueros would eat endless cups of dulce de leche –cowboys love sweets – and ask me questions about America that I was unable to answer in my halting, barely extant Portuguese. I would douse my rice and beans (and steak, obviously) in homemade hot sauce, chiles left to stew in rough vinegar, and they would stare on in disbelief, my host laughing. Afterward we would sit on the porch and the cowboys would roll thumb-width cigarettes with newsprint and pitch black tobacco, black as the night which fell around us. The generator shut off promptly at eight and the dark would descend heavy over the unbroken greenery, every bit of it alive, caiman in stagnant pools, capybara humping along with their awkward gait, giant anteaters dragging their strange, misshapen bodies through the fields, the occasional cry of a jaguar, happily left unseen. Occasionally someone would burp. Eventually I would get the energy to stumble to bed, fall asleep deeply, wake up the next day and eat my weight in cow.

It was not haute cusiine by any stretch of the imagination, only honest food after an honest day of labor (a rare claim indeed for a writer.) Still, it has remained in my memory during the long years since, and if in taste alone it could not perhaps compare with the little brasserie a female companion took me to on a journey through Paris, or the mussels Portuguese I devoured in Bruges – well, taste alone isn’t everything.

Thanks, Daniel. And so, to no one’s surprise (or at least, no one who read our shorty story last week), it all comes down to meat.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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One Response to “Eating Authors: Daniel Polansky”

Thanks, Daniel — what a great experience!


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