Eating Authors: Karen Heuler

No Comments » Written on August 9th, 2021 by
Categories: Plugs
Karen Heuler

All good things come to an end, and I very much believe the ten years of EATING AUTHORS has been a very good thing. And it’s not exactly ending. I reserve the right to post the occasional author meal when inspiration hits, but yes, the weekly Monday morning posts end with this installment.

For those of you following me on Twitter, I’ll continue to post the Throw Back Thursday links to episodes three years in the past. I suppose that will continue for… three years. And of course all 500+ episodes are available on the master list which has a link on the my website.

The intention behind this series has been to give readers a glimpse at the writers behind the books. Ten years ago I imagined that authors might reveal something personal, even profound, when asked to talk about a meal that lingered in their memory. I still think that’s the case and I’m gobsmacked that so many people were willing to share those memories. If you’ve enjoyed them, my one request would be that you share the love by posting a review (or two). Authors appreciate that kind of thing.

All of which leads us, as you knew it surely must, to this week’s guest. Karen Heuler wrote her first book at the tender age of eleven and insists the manuscript is lost to us. Since then she’s bounced around between a wide range of jobs (more than a few in the publishing arena), wrote both short stories and novels, won an O. Henry award and numerous finalist kudos for such things as the Shirley Jackson award and Bellwether Prize. I think it’s fair to say that being a writer is her best destiny.

Next year the good folks at Angry Robot will be publishing her latest novel, The Splendid City. The equally fine (but less angry and robotic) folks at Wildside Press recently re-released her story collection, The Inner City.

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

KH: I went to the Galapagos and the Amazon thirty years ago, having made a few reservations here and there at the small tourist lodges— no electricity, some with no running water, etc.— after going on a very modest boat (8 passengers) through the Galapagos. My plane to Ecuador landed on the day that the U.S. state department warned all American travelers to avoid Ecuador because of terrorists. For my first night in Ecuador, I had a reservation at a small hotel which sent a bus to meet the plane. I was the only passenger on the bus.

The Inner City

I’m a vegetarian, so I had brought packages of powdered beans with me and hoped for the best. Pickings were slim, and I soon ran out of beans. On the boat, I was able to bargain my serving of fish for someone else’s rice or vegetables.

The Galapagos were wonderful—whether it was swimming with seals, watching the sea lions splash, penguins popping up unexpectedly, or walking down the trails past the blue-footed boobies. It was spectacularly weird. There were all sorts of surprises, even without the animal life. The boat’s toilet flushed by using a hand pump, and I overpumped once and it exploded. But we motored on.

The other passengers and I would point at things surfacing in the water and shout out the name of the wrong animal. Sharks for penguins, cormorants for seals.

After the Galapagos, I made my way (bus, car, canoe) to a tourist lodge in Ecuador’s Oriente, which had only three other tourists. It was great, because I had a guide all to myself and we canoed the river and visited small villages with raised huts. He told me about the giant snakes that lived in the river bends and could rise up and grab us.

Glorious Plague

There are mestizo villages along the river (one street running down to the water) with a few essential shops (plastic buckets; rice). Nothing for me. I traveled from a lodge in Ecuador to a lodge in Peru.

It was bargain time again, trading where I could in order to get enough to eat.

Somewhere along the trip I saw a tourist munching a bag of corn nuts. The image lingered and I began to lust after those corn nuts. From then on, whenever I ended up near one of those little shops, I would search fruitlessly for them.

I was hungry a lot of the time and those corn nuts represented some American salty goodness, a satisfaction that was out of my reach. They became an obsession for weeks afterwards as I scrambled to find enough to eat. There were fewer and fewer tourists to try to exchange foods with.

Finally, I left Peru on a boat going down the Amazon. It didn’t have many passengers, but it had the biggest spider I’ve ever seen (I’d seen a lot of large spiders by then), and we ended up in Manaus, Brazil. A really large city! With restaurants! I found one that had — of all things — cream of mushroom soup on the menu, and it was Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. I ordered it, and then I ordered it again. It was the most delicious meal I’ve ever had. Something to eat, something familiar, and while of course I knew it wasn’t local or exotic, it was delicious and out of place, as I was. I’ve never forgotten it. Every spoonful was superb. I’ve had great vegetarian meals before and after, but nothing that so magnificent or reassuring.

When Things Get Dark

There was a lot I hated about Manaus, which was poor and disheartening. I met some young travelers who were going to stay at a hut with a local family across the river. The hut had a hole in one section of the floor for a toilet, and when I looked down, I could see a few fat frogs. I instantly remembered reading about such a thing in, I think a Peter Matthiessen book — frogs staking out the toilet to eat the flies that were drawn there.

That hut also had the second biggest spider I’ve ever seen. Three spiders, in fact, lined up on the wall like family portraits.

I went back to Manaus. And then I found a store that sold corn nuts!
I’ve never really liked corn nuts, and I didn’t then, either, but I ate them all. I’ve never had them again, I’ve never longed for them again, but every once in a while, I heat up a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, and I think how good, how very good it is.

Thanks, Karen. I really wish I could think of something pithy and inspiring to say about Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom, or perhaps a remark about the global reach of American purveyors of soup, or even a tie-in to my novella Soup of the Moment. But I can’t. All I can think of are Grace Drayton’s Campbell Soup kids and the slogan mmmmm mmmmm good.

NB: links to authors and books here are included as part of an Amazon Affiliate account. If you follow any of them and ultimately make a purchase Amazon rewards me with a few pennies of every dollar.


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