Eating Authors: Richard Baker

No Comments » Written on February 5th, 2018 by
Categories: Plugs
Richard Baker

February has begun, which means it’s time to settle into 2018 and get on with it. I’m preparing this post two days earlier than you’re reading it, which means it’s quite possible that I’ve been killed by last night’s riots or celebrations, depending on how the Super Ball went. Though, as I’m not in Philadelphia proper, the odds are pretty good that any chaos won’t reach me (but my DayJob venue may have been burned to the ground). What can I say? Philly’s sportsfans are an exuberant bunch.

From football games I need to segue to role playing games, because this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest is none other than Richard Baker. If you grew up playing D&D (or AD&D for those who came along a bit later), then you’ve probably been swept up in his work for Forgotten Realms, Planetscape, Ravenloft, and many other Dungeons & Dragons adventures and source books. Not to mention his work with Alternity and Axis & Allies.

You might think that’s enough, but Rich wasn’t content to stop there. No, he’s also written numerous novels set in the Forgotten Realms universe and beyond. Last November he branched out with an original science fiction novel. Valiant Dust, volume one of his proposed Breaker of Empires series, has been described as an action-packed military SF adventure that combines the best of Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington. Right? Got you attention there, didn’t I? So, go read his most memorable meal and than go forth and read this book!

LMS: Welcome, Rich. Assuming you haven’t succumbed to the Superbowl, please talk to me about your most memorable meal.

RB: My most memorable meal? That’s a tough one! I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to partake of many wonderful meals—family celebrations, visits to outstanding restaurants, romantic dates with my wife—but to my surprise choosing a single standout is turning out to be pretty hard. I can’t really point to any brushes with celebrity or greatness at the dinner table. I’m sure that, for some readers, gatherings of Forgotten Realms authors or noted game designers would be considered pretty memorable, but to be honest, most of these folks are friends and colleagues. They’re good company, but I just don’t recall any of these occasions as the sort of once-in-a-lifetime experience you’d expect for your most memorable meal.

So let’s try a different kind of memorable—say, a disaster. And that definitely suggests a very memorable meal. The place: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The time: the last night of GenCon, 1992 or so. The restaurant: Let’s just say it’s a Chinese restaurant not far from the downtown convention center.

Valiant Dust

GenCon in the early ‘90s was a very busy show for me and my colleagues at TSR, Inc. We routinely worked 12- and 14-hour days to cover everything we knew we needed to do for the show, so by Saturday night we were pretty well punch-drunk from sheer fatigue. Back in those days, our spouses often took a few days off from their own jobs and pitched in to help out—my wife Kim actually helped out with the costume contest for a couple of years, for no other reason than the fact that she was at the show and she was willing to lend a hand.

Anyway, on this particular Saturday night, Kim and I join a large group of friends and co-workers heading out for a late dinner: Thomas Reid and his wife Teresa, David Wise and his wife Sue, and a couple of Thomas’s buddies from back home. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others, because I know our party was at least a dozen or so. My apologies to those I’m overlooking now.

Well, the restaurant is also at the end of their rope. They’ve been swamped by convention crowds for three straight days, they’re running out of popular entrees, their staff is beat too, and they’re tired of loud, obnoxious gamers storming the place in giant parties and staying way past normal dining hours. (Every year it seemed that GenCon ambushed this place; you’d think that after a year or two they would have started to watch the calendar and get ready, but they never did.)

Dinner starts off badly with mixed-up drink orders and several trips back and forth to the kitchen as one by one we learn that something we ordered is no longer available. We’re tired and hungry and really we just want something to eat . . . but instead of being cranky about it, we go through this weird transformation of misery into comedy. Each misplaced drink, each dropped order, just strikes us as funnier and funnier, until we’re laughing out loud at each mistake our servers make or new “we don’t have that now” announcement. It’s like we’re now seeing our dining experience as a brilliantly performed parody of a bad meal in a Chinese restaurant, and it strikes us as hilarious. I know, it sounds kind of callous now, but like I said, we’re silly with fatigue and we just don’t care anymore.

Prince of Ravens

At one point, Thomas’s friend Jerry tells an absolutely hilarious story about his experience living in Alaska. It goes like this: one cold winter morning Jerry and his family wake up, look outside, and notice that their swing set is missing—gone altogether. Puzzled, they bundle up and go outside to investigate. There’s no sign of the swing set, but drag marks in the snow lead off into the woods. They follow the tracks, wondering who in the hell would drag off a backyard swing set, and half a mile on they encounter a bull moose with the whole damned swing set entangled in its antlers. A moose just walked off with their swing set, because they live in Alaska and stuff like that just happens there. Well, we all think this is pretty funny, and we have a great laugh about it.

Then dinner is served.

I have no idea what I ordered, but I can tell you what Dave Wise got. He ordered the Volcano Chicken with Lava Sauce. None of us, not even Dave, have any idea what this will turn out to be, so we’re all watching with some interest. The waiter sets before Dave a wooden plank with a big metal spike on it—and on the spike is impaled a whole roast chicken, butt-end down, headless neck up. If you were a medieval warlord trying to scare other chickens away from your lands, that’s exactly how you would display a chicken as a gruesome warning to the rest of its feathered kind. Well, we all think this is about the funniest thing we’ve ever seen. (Punch-drunk with fatigue, remember?)

Then the waiter upends a bottle of brandy over the chicken, and the mystery of the Lava Sauce is revealed. This is some sort of chicken flambé! Well, you don’t usually see that in Chinese restaurants, but why the hell not? The only problem is that the waiter doesn’t have any matches or a lighter handy. He pats through every pocket he has, then wanders off to find something with which to set fire to the chicken. The whole time, the brandy is continuing to soak into the chicken. Minutes later, he finally returns, and ignites the chicken.

It goes up like a bonfire.

The Last Mythal

Seriously, flames two feet tall leap from the impaled poultry on the wooden plank (which fortunately had been removed to a serving tray beside the table, and not left sitting directly in front of Dave Wise). I think the waiter might have lost his eyebrows, but I couldn’t say for sure because I didn’t really make an effort to study his eyebrows for later comparison before the whole presentation began. Needless to say, this is hilarious to us, and we’re just about falling out of our chairs with laughter. And the best part is that the waiter has no idea how to extinguish the Volcano Chicken, because once you let the brandy soak into whatever you’re trying to flambé, it’s not just going to burn off the surface—you’ve made the chicken itself into a fuel source for the fire.

I think the waiter picked up the serving tray, flaming chicken and all, and hurried back into the kitchen to deal with the problem there. Amazingly enough, he brought the now very crisped chicken back to the table and served it to Dave anyway. Dave reported that it was the booziest dish he’d ever eaten and not really edible, which I suppose is about what you’d expect from this whole poultry auto-da-fé. But I’m sure that heretical chickens throughout Wisconsin got the message loud and clear, and watched their step after that.

Great food, no. Scintillating conversation or glamorous company, not really. Memorable? Hell yes.

Thanks, Rich. Though, I think you should have known you were tempting fate ordering something called “Volcano Chicken” during a gaming convention. This is why we have saving throws!

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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