Hello, and welcome to another episode of EATING AUTHORS. I’m a bit tired, having just returned from a weekend visit to my graduate alma mater, Kansas State University, my first trip back there in twenty-four years. Wow. Talk about changes! But that’s not why you’re here, though it does provide a nice segue for introducing today’s featured author, none other than Kij Johnson.
I first met Kij in Lawrence, Kansas, when I was a participant in James Gunn’s two-week writers’ workshop. One of the highlights of that time was a wonderful dinner in the KU Faculty Club with Jim, Kij, Chris McKitterick, Frederik Pohl, and Betty Hull. I had pheasant-under-glass (because, you know, it was on the menu and I’d always wondered…).
Back in the day, I knew Kij for her enjoyable adaptations of Japanese mythology. More recently she’s overwhelmed the Science Fiction and Fantasy scene with one brilliant award-winning story after another. “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” won the 2008 World Fantasy Award and was a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, and Sturgeon (Kij withdrew from this last, because she’s one of the jurors), “Spar” won the 2009 Nebula Award, and was a finalist for the Hugo, Locus, and Sturgeon (and again, Kij withdrew), “Ponies” tied for the 2010 Nebula Award, and most recently “The Man Who Bridged The Mist” won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012 for Best Novella.
Her latest book, out just last month, is At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories, which reprints all those award-winning stories, and more. Go get a copy, right now!
LMS: Welcome, Kij. I’ve been trying to get you here for a good while now, to ask you to tell me about your most memorable meal. At last, it’s time!
KJ: Some decades ago, back before the very first dot-com crash, I had a full-time job as the wife of a promising software magnate. He came from the Bay area and had some experience as a sous chef there — and a lot of experience as an eater there, and a drinker of Napa reds, especially cabernets. I was a home-grown Iowa girl and my prior fine-dining experience was largely restricted to places that brought you a bib with your lobster. But I learned fast with him. We travelled a lot and ate in some really fine restaurants, but my heart still goes out to the Empress Hotel’s dining room one Christmas Eve in the mid ’80s.
The Empress is legendary, one of the Canada Pacific railway hotels built more than a century ago. They were fabulous, gorgeous false French chateaus strung crosscountry along the railway, dropped without alterations into whatever the local landscape offered: river valleys, the high plains, the mountains.The Empress is the westernmost of the railway hotels, facing directly into the Inner Harbor of Victoria, British Columbia. So: towering trees. Mountains. In the summer time blue skies that cannot be described. We loved that place and went there several times.
There were several families to juggle over each holiday, and one year we fled the whole issue and ended up in Victoria. It snowed while we were there, and I hung out the window of our room to watch people sweep clean the decks of the sailboats that filled the harbor. It was a last-minute thing, so we hadn’t really thought through dinner on Christmas night; but it was the Empress: there would be something worth eating. We dressed for dinner — I was wearing a midnight-blue velvet and taffeta dress; he wore a black suit and a silk tie so thick and luscious that I still remember the way it felt when I untied it, later that night — and walked downstairs.
And there was. The dining room was not full — I think perhaps people hadn’t been able to make it out because of the snow. It was a high-ceilinged room with dark walls and the tall windows uncurtained, open to the night and the snowflakes that tossed outside, catching the light. We were really young, much too young to have that sort of money, and affected, alas. We went old-school, classic, everything right out of a Richard and Frances Lockridge novel.
We started with BC oysters, which are small and strong-flavored: ate six of them and then six more. There may have been six after that; we were drinking champagne, 1977 Dom Perignon, which is clean and sharp as a new scalpel in sunlight, and talking, so who knows? The soup was a turtle-sherry consomme, transparent olive in color and strangely lovely: so delicious I wished there had been some way to chew it, to make it last longer. The flavor is still with me, almost thirty years later. Endive salad, the bitter coiling little leaves fresh after the complexity of the soup.
Filets, because that’s what you eat when you’re young and have money and it’s Christmas and you have slipped away from everyone who expects anything of you: blood-rare with bearnaise — not a favorite sauce of mine, but somehow the exact right thing that night. We had moved to burgundy by now. Were there vegetables? Potatoes? Oh, who can tell? The meat was tender enough to cut with my butter knife and tasted lighter than I had ever imagined beef could. Coffee and Hennessy cognac and chocolate tart and — because it was long ago and such things happened in the days of yore — cigarettes for me and a cigar for him.We stayed until they shut the restaurant down around us, and then went out to stand on the Empress’s front porch. The air was cold and very humid. My skin breathed warmth from the dining room.
It reads like a fantasy — all those status markers! — and that’s sort of what it was, actually. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing with ourselves or our lives. He had a lot of ambitions but I had none. I did not start writing until the next summer, when everything changed for me, and eventually for us.
Thanks, Kij, that was just remarkable. It wasn’t pheasant-under-glass, but still…
Next Monday: Another author and another meal!
Tags: Eating Authors