Eating Authors: Matthew Kressel

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Matthew Kressel

I am officially declaring today to be “Normal Day,” because I’m a bit worn out from the previous handful of days that were crazy/wonderful/frenetic/heartwarming/exhausting, and I could, you know, benefit from a day of relative normalcy. So yeah, I’m going to relax a bit today, go to the DayJob, do some fairly typical research work, grab my usual lunch, and so on. Normal Day.

Please note, however, that today is very much not Normal Day for today’s EATING AUTHOR guest, Matthew Kressel . Matt’s first novel, (which is also the first book of his planned Worldmender Trilogy) is King of Shards comes out tomorrow. So yeah, nothing typical or ordinary about today for him.

If you don’t know his name, you should. His short fiction has showed up on the Locus recommended reading list and been nominated repeatedly for the Nebula award. His editorial work with the small press Senses Five has garnered him a World Fantasy award. And he’s also currently the co-host (alongside Ellen Datlow) of the Fantastic Fiction monthly reading series in New York City, which features some of the best and brightest speculative fiction to be found.

I have been waiting with no little impatience to read Matt at book-length since word first leaked that he’d sold a novel. That waiting comes to an end tomorrow. Tomorrow will not be a Normal Day.

LMS: Welcome, Matt. I know you’ve given this some serious thought, so please, tell me about your most memorable meal.

MK: One of the best meals I’ve ever had was this past summer in Woodstock, New York.

My wife and I, newly married, hiked to the top of the Overlook Mountain, where the old Overlook Hotel, built in 1833, had once stood. No, not that Overlook Hotel, the one from The Shining, but the one perched some 3,000 feet above Woodstock, New York. Technically the hotel is called the Overlook Mountain House. And while its concrete skeleton still stands, the hotel proper burned down not once, nor twice, but three times in its more than a century of existence. The last time was in the 1960s. Now, poisonous rattlesnakes nest in the foundation, and prominent signs emblazoned with skull-and-crossbones warn the wayward hiker not to enter the property. Trees and mushrooms sprout from the dirt floor of the abandoned hotel where guests once danced, drank, slept and made love.

The woods surrounding the hotel were eerily quiet as we crept past, as if the spirits of the hotel guests, long dead, were listening to us. More than once my wife had to warn me away from the foundation, because I had ventured too close in order to snap photos. Even though I had read the warning sings, something pulled me closer. Perhaps it was the beauty of the gothic, the allure of the morbid, the stone facade covered with leaf and mold. Thankfully my wife had more sense about her. She stopped me just before I would have stepped off a ledge and fallen twenty feet to an area likely swarming with snakes.

As we walked past the Overlook Mountain House, it seemed not too different from the one in King and Kubrick’s nightmare vision. It didn’t help our nerves that my cellphone suddenly bugged out when I tried to snap some photos — the screen lost its horizontal hold like those old TV sets, something it’s never done before or since. We heard distant rumbles on the mountain, which at first we attributed to passing airplanes. But we soon realized it was an approaching lightning storm. We had to get off the mountain and get off quick, but our car was two miles down the steep hill.

King of Shards

We booked it, double-time, as the clouds grew steadily darker. We made it to the car as the first drops began to fall. Rainbows of Tibetan prayer flags at the Buddhist monastery across the road swayed in the rising wind as we started the engine. The twisting roads grew wet and slick as we drove down the mountain. By the time we returned to Woodstock proper, the storm had rolled in full-strength. Torrents of rain fell as if God was angry at the world again. The streets quickly flooded. People yelped and ran indoors. We were hungry, tired, dripping, and our nerves frayed. So when we passed a sign promising an organic brunch at a restaurant called Oriole9, we followed it like a beacon of light in the darkness.

A short corridor gave us and several others respite from the rain. A long chalkboard covered one wall, an art project asking the viewer to complete the sentence: “Before I die I want to _______.” One person had written, “Jump out of an airplane.” Another had said, “Travel the world.” Another wrote, “Understand Quantum Mechanics.” Because of the rain, there was a wait to be seated. As time marched on our stomachs rumbled. After a while, a group behind us said, “Before I die I’d like to eat lunch.”

At last, we were seated. My wife and I chose the mushroom omelet and coffee. The coffee came mercifully quick. It was organic, strong, dark, and so tasty my wife later ended up buying a pound of beans. After another wait, our omelets came out in a heavy black pan. The waitress warned us not to touch the metal before dancing off. Egg and cheese stared up at us from our plates, but we saw no obvious mushrooms hiding within. Oh well, we were too hungry to fuss over our missing fungus. We took a bite and tasted something meaty, chewy.

I said to my wife, “I think there’s chicken in my omelet.”

She nodded. “Mine too. But is it chicken? Or salmon?”

We both tried another piece. The substance had the consistency of tender chicken or baked salmon, maybe somewhere in between. Soft and tender.

I tasted it again. Definitely weird. Neither chicken, nor salmon, but of a meat-like texture. And it was good. Damn good. In fact, mixed with the eggs and cheese, the omelet was delicious. Just the right blend of salt, protein, and fat I crave in a meal. However, this wasn’t what we had ordered. When the waitress passed I asked if perhaps we had received the wrong order.

“Excuse me,” I said, “We were curious. What is–“

It’s called chicken of the woods,” the waitress said, smiling because she must have been asked this question all the time. “It’s a giant mushroom.”

My wife and I did a collective, “Ohhhhhhh.”

So our missing fungus wasn’t missing after all! Of course we replied, “It tastes like chicken!” To her credit the waitress was still smiling.

Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as “chicken of the woods”, “chicken fungus”, or “chicken mushroom”, is a shelf fungus, those beautiful, occasionally horrid growths on the base of trees. Alive, it resembles layers of fresh pancakes, autumn-red sea coral, or giant moth wings stacked in rows. Fungal brackets — clumps of laetiporus sulphureus — can weigh up to one hundred pounds. A strange fungus indeed. There might have been some growing in the snake-infested foundation of the Overlook Mountain House.

We devoured the omelet, finishing our sides of organic greens, which were fresh and flavorful. I looked up at my wife and we stared at each other. A flash of recognition passed between us, something subliminal.

“That was delicious,” I said.

“Very,” she replied.

“Should we get another?” I said.

“I am full,” she said.

“Me too,” I said. “But still…”

She stared at me. “Yes?

“It was good,” I said. “Maybe…”

We stared at each other some more. We were just married. Would it be so bad to eat — as the Hobbits call it — second breakfast? Our eyes turned to the line of folks waiting to be seated, who in turn were eyeing our table of empty plates.

“Maybe we should go,” she said. “People are waiting. We can always come back.”

I frowned. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

And so we paid our check and reluctantly rose from our seat at Oriole9. As we passed the giant chalkboard in the corridor outside, I said to my wife, “Before I die I’d like to have another chicken of the woods mushroom omelet.” She smiled.

Outside, the sun had come out. A rainbow bent brightly above Overlook Mountain. Nature had conspired to show us chicken of the woods. What else did she have up her sleeve? Alas, we didn’t return to Oriole9 before we left Woodstock. Our schedule didn’t allow it. But ever since, that singularly delicious breakfast has been on my mind, drawing me closer like the ruins of the old Overlook Hotel. I will return.

Thanks, Matt. I’m pretty convinced that if you were to return you’d find no sign of this restaurant. I’ve been to such phantom, “Brigadoonish” venues before.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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