Eating Authors: Kelly Swails

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Kelly Swails

The middle of March is a strange time. Locally, we seem to be grappling with a daily question of whether spring has arrived early (as in 80 degree weather this past Friday) or winter is hanging in there (40 degree low Saturday night). If you’re a basketball fan (and I’m not), there’s the whole March Madness coming up. And if you’re a science fiction author, then you’re painfully aware that we’re midway through both voting for the Nebula Awards and submitting nominations for the Hugos. Speaking as someone who’s been nominated for the former and is hoping that translates into a nomination for the latter too, March is a time of no small anxiety.

Fortunately, EATING AUTHORS is here to provide some much needed distraction, and so let me introduce you to this week’s guest, Kelly Swails, a writer who last January transformed from the writer of a couple dozen short stories into a novelist with the release of This May Go on Your Permanent Record from Silence in the Library Publishing. The premise is a premiere novel’s dream, including computer hacking, super smart youth, and plans for world domination. Best of all, it’s only the first in a promised series!

LMS: Welcome, Kelly. Talk to me about your most memorable meal.

KS: This is one of the hardest essays I’ve had to write. I mean, come on—“what was your favorite meal?” I’ve had tens of thousands of meals! How can I narrow it down to just one? I could write about my love for stuffing at Thanksgiving, or the birthday cakes my mom made for me every year, or the stretch of meals, mostly comprised of salmon, that my husband and I ate during our honeymoon. I could tell you about college experiences: the first time I had an Alaskan waffle at four in the morning while drunk, debating the merits of Imo’s (St. Louis style) vs. Talayna’s (Chicago style) pizza, or eating fried ravioli for the first time.

Bottom line, I love food. Food is love. Eating is intertwined with emotion so intrinsically that the two can’t be teased apart, which makes it impossible for me to single out one meal. So instead I’m going to talk about one of my favorite food experiences in the world: baking with my father.

Some of my earliest memories are of my father in the kitchen. He enjoyed cooking of all kinds, but baking was his forte. He’d sling a towel over his right shoulder and whistle as he pulled the baking sheets from their spot in the cabinet. He specialized in the holy trinity of cookies, cakes, and pies, but he’d try anything at least once. Deep-fried cake doughnuts? Okay. Five loaves of bread? You bet. Raisin pie? Sure, why not. But his specialty, at least during my youth, was Christmas sugar cookies. They were perfect: dense enough to hold up to frosting, cake-like, with just a hint of vanilla flavor. They were sturdy and hardworking, much like him.

This May Go on Your Permanent Record

Cookie day was usually a day or two before Christmas. I’d be off school and dad would be off work. He usually made a double batch of sugar cookie dough, so he’d get started early in the afternoon. When I was young I’d hand him ingredients as he asked for them; when I got older, I’d help him measure flour and cream butter. My father was extraordinarily patient as he worked: the flour would be leveled off just so, the dough would be rolled out to the perfect thickness. That patience extended to me, too. If I put in too much flour or miscounted the eggs, he’d say, “that’s okay, Kel,” and he’d adjust for my mistakes.

He’d roll out the cookies and I’d cut the shapes. He’s dust the flour off—tap, tap, tap—before putting the santas and the bells and the reindeer on a cookie sheet. Once the first batches were cool, mom and I would decorate the cookies as dad continued to roll and cut and swap out the trays of baked cookies in the oven for raw ones.

The very last cookie sheet was always the batch for dad. He’d roll out the last bit of dough and cut out rounds with a drinking glass. The last odd shapes of dough would find their way onto the cookie sheet, too. He’d bake these just past overdone, almost to the edge of burnt. These cookies wouldn’t be soft or delicate. They were crunchy on the bottom, hard on the top, and the sugars caramelized. “Coffee dunkers,” my dad called them. I have a lot of great memories of my father in the kitchen, but watching him enjoy a black-bottomed sugar cookie with a cup of coffee after a full day of baking is one of my favorites.

My father is still alive, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to bake much anymore. While I can’t catch up with him over a batch of cinnamon rolls or one of his latest experiments, I can carry on his traditions. You’ve had surgery? Here, let me make a cake. Christmas Eve party? I’ll make some cupcakes. A dinner party invitation? That’s an opportunity to try my hand at French bread. It’s not even about my own sweet tooth. I bake to soothe my soul and feel close to my father. If I’ve had a bad day or a good day or there’s a reason to celebrate, I grab the measuring cups, sling a towel over my left shoulder, and get to work.

Thanks, Kelly, what a great memory (and not just in terms of meals). But it begs the question, what did you bake to celebrate the release of your novel?

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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