Eating Authors: Lev Grossman

No Comments » Written on July 11th, 2011 by
Categories: Plugs

Welcome to round TWO of the special Campbell Award Nominee addition of our regular Monday feature in which I ask authors about their favorite meals. It’s not enough that only one of this group will come away with the coveted John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer plaque (not a Hugo), but I’m making them wax rhapsodic about good eats.

Today it’s Lev Grossman’s turn. Lev is a journalist turned novelist. Somewhere in there he also found time to be a book reviewer, for which The New York Times said he was “among this country’s smartest and most reliable critics.” That praise notwithstanding, he’s been busy writing modern-day fantasies such as The Magicians, as well as the forthcoming The Magician King.

The Magicians Lev Grossman The Magician King

LMS: You know the drill, Lev, what’s your best, most memorable meal?

LG: All right. Here goes. As it happens I can not only tell you the most memorable meal I ever ate, I can tell you the most memorable bite I ever took.

I didn’t grow up in a foody household. My father is from the midwest and prefers diner food. Ketchup on everything. My mom is English, and although she did in fact overcome her national handicap and become a highly skillful cook, food was just never very important to her. I think it’s partly that, as an ardent first-wave feminist, she felt that working in the kitchen was too symbolic of women’s oppression by the patriarchy. Which, fair enough.

So while they ran a very cultured household, they never considered food to be a form of culture. It was something to be gotten out of the way. And when I married for the first time, I married a woman who wasn’t interested in food either, and didn’t cook.

But over time I began to suspect that I was interested in food. I liked cooking, though I was awful at it. I liked to eat in restaurants alone, and think about what was going on in the kitchen, and what was in the dishes, and how they were made, and where the ingredients came from. But I was a bit ashamed of it. It wasn’t how I was raised. I pushed it all away as not interesting, or respectable, or worthwhile.

Until one day, I couldn’t anymore. I enrolled in a cooking class, just to see if I could learn, and because, dammit, I wanted to. This was at a local restaurant, where you cooked alongside the chefs in the kitchen. One night we were making scallops with a Bearnaise sauce. Well, I’d never had scallops before, or not that I could remember, and I’d never had Bearnaise sauce either. It’s a tricky sauce to make if, like me, you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re liable to curdle something or break your emulsion or what-have-you. I curdled and broke pretty much everything I could. But eventually I got it together.

And I sauteed my scallop, which was a nice fat dayboat scallop. When it was ready the chef (her name was Chef Abby) said to me, listen, don’t even bother to plate this up. I’ll tell you the best way to eat it: just stick a fork in the scallop, right out of the pan, stick it in the Bearnaise, then stick it in your mouth. You won’t be sorry.

Reader, I wasn’t. Scallops with bearnaise sauce is just one of those perfect, eternal dishes. The sweetness of the scallop balances with the citrusy tartness of the Bearnaise, and both are mellowed and enveloped by the creamy butteriness of the egg and butter, and all that is supported on the pleasantly fleshy matrix of the scallop. As I took that bite, billions of neurons fired in my brain that had never fired before, neurons that had been waiting their whole life to fire. I think I dropped the fork and put my hands on my face while I tried to process what was happening.

That scallop changed a lot of things for me. All at once, in that one bite, I realized that I cared about cooking, and food, and that was OK. Food is important. I realized I wanted to be happy, and nobody was going to tell me what I should or shouldn’t enjoy.

A lot of things happened in the wake of that scallop. Bad things at first: for example, I ended my first marriage. But very good things have happened too. Now I’m married again, to a woman who loves food as much as I do (and cooks way better than I do). We live in a big house which we fitted out with a kitchen that takes up a third of the whole first floor. We cook together every night, with our children whenever possible, and it’s wonderful.

I highly recommend that dish, scallops with bearnaise sauce. Just proceed with caution. It could change your life.

= = = = =

Lev, it’s like we’re the same person (except I didn’t go to Harvard and Yale). My first wife was raised all meat and potatoes, but my second wife trained as a chef. She’s the one that introduced me to the joys of scallops, so I can certainly appreciate your most memorable bite.

Hmm, actually, for your sake, let’s hope we’re not the same person, cuz in my year I lost the Campbell.

Next Monday: Yet another of this year’s Campbell Award nominees and, of course, another mouth-watering meal!


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