Eating Authors: Marie Brennan

1 Comment » Written on March 3rd, 2014 by
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Marie Brennan

I need to confess to a bit of apprehension as I type this week’s EATING AUTHOR post. The latest round of the season’s snowpocalypse is about to hit, and it makes me a bit uneasy as to whether this entry will post as planned. I suspect so, though I might not be able to access it myself if the power goes out again.

But let me put aside all such doom and gloom and tell you a bit about this week’s guest, Marie Brennan. She’s a self-described “former academic,” having left graduate school prior to completing her doctorate in folklore and anthropology to focus her energies on her writing instead. And with admirable results!

Marie writes fantasy. You might know her from her Doppelganger duology (Warrior and Witch), or from her Onyx Court series (beginning with Midnight Never Come. And it’s the kind of fantasy you’d expect from someone who’s put time in studying anthropology and folklore. There’s a verisimilitude to her work that other authors would kill for.

And that trait especially shows up in her latest work, the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which began with A Natural History of Dragons. The second book, The Tropic of Serpents, hits the stands tomorrow. Trust me, if you like dragons and natural history, you are going to love these books.

LMS: Welcome, Marie. What’s your most memorable meal to date?

MB: I almost want to cheat and say the best meal I remember having is the one I had last night. To celebrate my father’s birthday, my whole family went up to a resort in Sonoma Valley and spent the night there, having dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was absolutely amazing food, and being in company with my family made it all the better. But of course the reason that I remember it so vividly is that it was barely twenty-four hours before I wrote this entry! Who knows how much of it will stay with me in the long term. (The dessert, definitely. As they say on the interwebz, OMG.)

But instead I’ll cast my mind back to something less recent: my trip to Japan in the summer of 2011.

A Natural History of Dragons

I ate excellently my whole time there, so when I tell you that this particular meal stood out, you can put it into context. We spent much of our time in Kyoto, which is kind of a foodie city, and were being guided around by a friend who had lived there for a year and is also a foodie. After a few days, we started to joke that there was no restaurant in the entire city that she hadn’t either eaten at or read something about. She insisted this wasn’t true… so we started pointing at random restaurants while we wandered around and asking her about them. I’m not sure we ever caught her flat-footed, so I rest my case.

Anyway, the food. I love Japanese food in general: only a limited selection of sushi (because wasabi and I don’t get along), but teppanyaki, ramen, fried rice, donburi, okonomiyaki, udon, zaru soba, even the onigiri you get at convenience stores… I could keep going. I had two phenomenal ramen bowls while I was there, one at a Kyoto restaurant called Gogyo, the other Hakata-style ramen down in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu. Hakata-style = pork-fat broth that makes your arteries slam shut at the sight of it, but oh so good. Also a cold kitsune udon in Fushimi Inari — I mentioned we were there in summer, right? August, to be precise. And Kyoto is a tad on the humid side. Cold dishes were the saving of me, and I say that as a heat-loving creature.

Warrior

The crowning piece of the whole experience, though, was the kaiseki meal we had at Giro Giro. Kaiseki, for those who haven’t heard the term before, is an extended banquet of many tiny courses, each one a miniature work of art. You don’t order; you just show up and eat what they’re serving that night. This is usually bloody expensive, but Giro Giro is cheaper than most, apparently because it bills itself as “punk kaiseki” — much more flexible in its choice of ingredients, presentation, and so on. One of the chefs had the shapes of the Daimonji bonfires shaved into the sides of his head, so he at least fit the “punk” descriptor. (We were there just before Obon, the festival of the dead, and in Kyoto the culmination of the festival is the lighting of five enormous bonfires on the hills around the city, each one in a particular shape, such as a Chinese character.)

I could see the chef because we were sitting at a bar around the cooking area, in a room that I remember being about ten feet square, but was probably larger — if not by much. You couldn’t breathe without elbowing your neighbor, but that was all right. The meal was a leisurely one. One of the staff would lay a course in front of us, telling our friend — who is much more fluent in Japanese than I am — what we were being served. She translated for us as best she could, and then we would dig in, savoring the few bites as the fleeting beauties they were. After we had finished and appreciated the experience for a while, they would clear the dishes and lay the next course.

Midnight Never Come

My notes say there were eight courses all told, though my record is half in Japanese, and a bit vague in places were our friend didn’t know the words or hadn’t been able to hear the server properly. Ayu sushi with mugwort, daikon, kamocha squash with mint, and a shiso leaf — that was the first course. Then red miso with tomato, cucumber, and eel; seaweed soup with crab, hamo with kimchee, Japanese potato on something we weren’t sure of, zucchini with a cheese sauce, okra, and herring with green pepper; some kind of sashimi with another shiso leaf, wasabi, soy salt, and a different kind of shiso; karaage-style potato, curry fish, eggplant, uni gelatin sauce with yuba, and a really dried fish of some sort; roasted baby corn with bacon, red miso, mustard seeds, and coriander — at which point we paused for a citrus jelly to cleanse our palates. Then we were into the home stretch: macha soba with egg soup, tako and rice and grated mountain potato, and hamo sauce with Kyoto pickles; and finally an orange jelly with either a mint or shiso leaf (my notes aren’t clear), banana paste, and red bean ice cream.

The Tropic of Serpents

Half that stuff is not anything I would have chosen off the menu if given the choice… but there’s something to be said for giving yourself over to the adventure. I avoided the wasabi and the kimchee, but other than that, I think I ate everything. It sounds like a mountain of food, but as I said, each course was tiny, and the pace of serving meant you had time to let one thing settle before starting on the next. A kaiseki meal takes at least a couple of hours to get through, possibly more.

After a long day of walking around in the heat and the humidity, it was heaven. The food was delicious beyond my ability to describe it, and the experience as a whole was fascinating. I tend to inhale my food, so being restrained to a more leisurely pace was a good change. And the artistry of the whole thing… if I had pictures of the courses, I would share them, but unfortunately that was before I got in the habit of photographing special meals. If you ever have a chance to enjoy a kaiseki meal, whether at Giro Giro or elsewhere, I highly recommend it.

Thanks, Marie. I have to say, I’ve never heard of a kaiseki meal before. I’d have definitely been up for it when I was in Yokohama back in 2007. I can only hope I get another chance at it.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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