Eating Authors: Ferrett Steinmetz

2 comments Written on March 30th, 2015 by
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Ferrett Steinmetz

Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure to spend time with a number of Philadelphia authors who had gathered to celebrate some of their own. There was a wonderful blend of old guard and shiny newcomers, fans and pros, and a delightful array of out-of-towners from both north and south who made a brief book store event (and the party afterwards) feel like the good parts version of a convention.

Alas, all too quickly it was time to leave, and join the flow of traffic and road construction that eventually saw me to my front door, where I turned my attention to other things. Still, it was a great afternoon, and a wonderful reminder of what a blessing it is to be a part of such a community of brilliant and talented people. Thanks for that.

And speaking of brilliance and talent (he said, by way of segue), allow me to introduce this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, the incomparable Ferrett Steinmetz, whose first novel, Flex, came out earlier this month from Angry Robot.

One of the mixed blessings of the current state of our genre is that there are so many of us writing today, and more coming every day, that you just can’t keep track of all the things that, in a perfect world, you would get to read. I’m convinced that whoever figures out how to really monetize curation and reduce the signal-to-noise ratio is not only going to be instantly wealthy, but deserving of our eternal praise. Which is another way of saying that despite him being a past Nebula Award finalist, it’s all too possible you’ve never heard of Ferrett.

So here’s the thing I need to tell you about him. I don’t know Ferrett well — though we seem to know a lot of the same people, and these people, whom I respect, make me wish I knew him better — but there is something fresh and thrilling to his fiction, his voice, his slant on telling a story that had me sitting up and grinning when I learned he had a novel coming out. This is someone you should be reading because he will make you happy that you read. Seriously, it’s as simple as that. And I don’t know about you, but I want more books like that in my life.

LMS: Hey, Ferrett, thanks for being here. I can’t properly express how eager I am for you to reveal the particulars of your most memorable meal.

FS: I would be a much richer man if I was not so addicted to fine dining. Whenever I go to a new town, the first thing I do is to pull up a list of the best-ranked restaurants and then hit them in order. (Seriously, man, Yelp. Finest smartphone application ever.) So I will probably lose a fair amount of money when I go on my book tour in a few weeks, because I’ll be wandering afar in Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and San Francisco, and Lord knows I’ll be packing on the pounds.

(NOTE: Because I am a gourmand, I do not describe myself as chubby. I am, rather, Ferrett confit.)

So when I discuss the best meal I’ve ever had, should I talk about eating the gold-encrusted salad I had at the two-Michelin star restaurant Sixteen? Or the life-changing agnolotti I had at Joe Bastianich’s Babbo? Or even the greasiest, cheapest, most delicious egg-and-bacon sandwich you can get at Cleveland’s very own Old Fashion Hot Dogs, where you can stuff three people full of perfectly-grilled “dawgs” for under ten dollars?

No. The first fine meal I had was the greatest fine meal, and cannot be surpassed. Because of my Uncle Tommy.

Flex

My Uncle Tommy was the bravest man I knew, because he was the frailest. He was born with hemophilia, a disease where the blood doesn’t clot, and as such he was forever blossoming with bruises. He was in the hospital monthly. And those bruises ate away at his cartilage – at thirty, he had the arthritis of a ninety-year-old man. If you put your ear to his shoulder you could hear the dry bones rubbing up against each other, the sound of crumbling crackers.

Yet he never stopped. He’d grab his crutch and walk his way through the worst dens of New York, all but daring muggers to steal his wallet. They never did. That clear-eyed stare he gave them told them that he’d seen worse, and he was not impressed.

And yet he treasured me at the age of seventeen, awkward as I was. I had decided I was a metalhead, in all my 1980s glory, and so there I was: clad in the glory of a mullet, wearing stompy pleather boots (I couldn’t afford leather), wearing a Ronnie James Dio Jean jacket that featured a priest being thrown into a lake by a demon.

I was with my sorta-girlfriend at the time – hey, we’d kissed once, that was like dating, right? – who was a metalette in floofy hair and ripped jeans and God, all the curves. I loved her.

And we were walking through New York in search of dinner.

Now, I’d had good meals before, as Tommy loved to eat out, and he even dealt with my pain-in-the-ass insistence that no good meal could involve vegetables. Tommy was a man of good taste, and he refused to eat at a crappy restaurant. And my sorta-girlfriend refused to eat fish.

Finding a Venn diagram of a restaurant that would satisfy the three of us was pretty much impossible.

So we’d walked for two straight hours, pausing to read the restaurant’s menu, debating, one of us objecting. And Tommy, I should note, was not a well man. Walking for long distances on his hip (he would need a hip replacement surgery not five years from then) was agony. And yet he kept going, because he loved us.

But eventually, even my sainted Tommy lost his temper.

“All right!” he shouted. “This! Is! It! I don’t care what the next restaurant is, we are eating there! If they serve fried cockroaches, we are sitting down! If it’s all fish vegetable dishes, we are sitting down! Are we clear?”

“Yes sir,” we said, staring down at his battered crutch, shamed of what we did to the man.

Grumbing, Tommy yanked open the brass door to the next restaurant, crutch-sticked his way over the threshold, and…

Came face-to-face with the tuxedoed maitre’d.

The restaurant was golden – chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, bus boys in bright red uniforms, waiters bowing and presenting $200 bottles of wine wrapped in fine cloth. Fatcat bankers leaning back to draw a leisurely smoke on their cigars, dressed in fine suits…

And Tommy, dressed in his jeans and accountant’s button-down shirt.

And me, in my demon-flinging-a-priest jean jacket and mullet.

And my girlfriend, with her poofed-out skunkmetal hair.

The maitre’s fingers twitched on the reservation book, his eyebrows crinkling in not quite a polite frown. “Does sir have a reservation?” he asked.

And Tommy – God bless you, Tommy – stared at the waiter and fearlessly said three words that transformed my life:

“No. Whatcha got?”

They had, as it turns out, a table for three. Far in the back. But a table. And my girlfriend and I started to panic, this was too expensive, we were in over our heads, but Tommy made shushing gestures with his bony hands and said:

“Hey. I said the next restaurant no matter what, and I meant it. And food? It’s all about the appreciation. It would have been better if we’d shown up in nice garb, but if you’re polite and appreciative and kind, you’ll be surprised how many places will be happy to seat you.”

And he was right.

I do not remember what we ate at that meal. But I remember how it felt; I remember how kind the waiters were, how they never once judged us once they realized we were excited to eat here. I remember how exciting it was when they came by to sweep the crumbs off between courses with little brass sticks. I remember being delighted when they brought us tiny dishes of sherbert between courses – “To cleanse your palates,” the waiter said.

I remember feeling like there was a higher society, and that I was part of it, and that Tommy was the most wonderful man alive.

And in the end, my uncle demanded, as he always did, the sweetness of amaretto coffee. They served it to all three of us, possibly because they assumed if we were bold enough to set foot here then we must have been of drinking age, possibly because the waiters saw how our faces lit up at every course and decided to bend the rules just this once.

“Every fine meal,” Tommy told me, tipping the cup towards me, “Ends with a good coffee.”

The meal was, I later found out, the cost of two house payments. Tommy tossed his credit card on the table with nonchalance. And we wandered off, vowing to come back every year for our birthdays, dressed up right and proper, but…

We never found it again. We were too giddy to write the name down, and we had wandered for two hours through random portions of New York before we found it. Some days I wonder if it was a fairy dining room, a special restaurant that opened in one place at one time precisely for the people who needed it, and though I am in my heart a skeptic oh, how I want to believe.

But I do know this: since then, I’ve eaten at the best restaurants in New Orleans. In Italy. In Chicago. And, yes, New York. And at the end of every one of those goddamned meals, I order an amaretto coffee, and raise it high in a toast to my beloved and bold uncle, cut down by HIV and pancreatic cancer, and sip it while I thank him for everything he showed me.

I miss you, Tommy.

I always will.

Thanks, Ferrett. You’re one of the few people I know who share what I like to call the “phantom restaurant experience.” Mine was in New Orleans, twenty-some years ago. I wonder where all those establishments end up.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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2 comments “Eating Authors: Ferrett Steinmetz”

Fantastic!  I grinned *and* got teary eyed.  


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