Eating Authors: Richard Chwedyk

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Categories: Plugs

Welcome back to another installment of asking authors about their favorite meals. This feature was inspired by my protagonist, the Amazing Conroy, who in addition to being a stage hypnotist is also very much a foodie.

Today we break bread with Richard Chwedyk. He’s a Chicago-based short fiction writer who regularly publishes in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I encourage you to track down the issues with his work. He won the 2002 Nebula for his brilliant novella “Bronte’s Egg,” which lives on in the page of the Nebula Awards Showcase 2004, and in 2007 I shared a ToC with him (my first Hadley Rille Books appearance) in Visual Journeys.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2004 Richard Chwedyk Visual Journeys

LMS: So tell me, what’s your best, most memorable meal?

RC: The best meal I’ve ever had, eh?

In Chicago we have a show on the local public channel called “Check, Please!” I’ve called it “Community access cable for rich yuppies.” Annoying folks sit around and talk about some restaurant they’ve been to together, with some requisite footage shot at the establishment (a jolly chef making a saute pan filled with chopped-up vegetables do the shimmy over leaping flames; a wait staffer delivering an oversized plate to a table of slathering gourmet wannabes, the contents of said plate being narrower than the width of a White Castle slider but taller than the John Hancock Building, consisting of several layers of meat separated by, perhaps, several of the above-mentioned jostled veggies). The effect of the conversation is supposed to be that we are impressed by how much these momentary celebrities know about food, but the impression I get, rightly or wrongly, is that these people don’t know a thing about food — they only know the lingo. They read the magazines, the restaurant reviews, watch the cable TV shows. They know what they’re supposed to say and how to say it, but of food they really know nothing. They’re perhaps slightly better equipped to address their subject than your average newspaper critic whose only preparation for his or her task is to pick up the current catchphrases and ape them until everyone but the critic himself is aggravated beyond the limits of sanity.

All of this being a preface to my saying: if you ever hear me go on about food in a similar manner you must shoot me — must! — and show no pity. Right between the eyes, please.

Me, I don’t know a damn thing about food, really, though I’ve had my share of memorable meals, at the low end of the scale and at as high an end as the wages of a writer/teacher/itinerant newspaperperson can attain. My favorite meal in Paris was at a place called Chez Francis in Montmartre, but for the life of me I can’t tell you a thing I ordered — it wasn’t a place for tourists; it was a local hangout for longtime Parisians who knew every song about their town and sang them en semble, the whole restaurant, staff and customers, accompanied by a young woman with an accordion. It was the most magical night my wife and I ever experienced dining out.

Dining at a private home, I remember fondly being invited to Mary Ann Mohanraj’s place when she lived in Greek Town on the Near West Side of Chicago. The other guests were Delphyne Woods (my longtime friend), Gary K. Wolfe, Faren Miller, and Charles N. Brown. I remember that the Sri Lankan dishes Mary Ann prepared were absolutely delightful, but I cannot add another detail about what those dishes were. All I remember is talking to Charles about Benjamin Britten and whether the “War Requiem” or “Peter Grimes” was his best-known piece.

My wife Pam and I are not great entertainers. We hardly cook at home anymore. But I do remember the first time we invited her parents to dinner when we lived in a tiny hovel on Briar Street in what’s now the Lake View neighborhood. Our building was considered the “honorary slum” of a fairly posh street. You couldn’t be much poorer than we were (maybe only as poor as we are now). Pam made a very simple Orange Chicken dish. We ate at a card table. We sat on folding chairs. As simple as the fare was, and the setting, my future in-laws were the most gracious guests anyone could desire and Pam’s happiness (not to mention relief) was enough to compensate for any shortcomings.

Chicago has myriad feederies. I doubt any other city has as extensive a variety of ethnic cuisines. Nearby Madison, Wisconsin, has L’Etoile, a miracle of a French restaurant to which I want my taste buds sent after my demise.

Along with all the establishments you can find rated highly on yelp and such places, we have Manny’s Deli, Valois’ Cafeteria, Hackney’s, Hecky’s Barbecue, The Chicken Shack (not to be confused with Harold’s Chicken Shack, which is also fine), Ribs n’ Bibs, The Lucky Platter, Suzy’s Drive-In (on Montrose, home of the “Confused Chicken”) The Gale Street Inn, Red Apple Polish Buffets, Gulliver’s (the original one on Howard Street), Gene and Jude’s, The Village Inn in Skokie, Froggy’s in Highwood, The Green Bay Cafe, Little Ricky’s in Winnetka, Moody’s Pub, Mr. Beef, and who can forget Superdawg? — off the top of my head. Some pricey, some very affordable; some cheezy, some charming.

We are known to do a decent pizza or two.

For all of that, the best meal — the most memorable meal — I may ever have had was… wait for it… in a hospital.

I need to explain.

It was 1996. I was too young to be middle-aged and too old to be a hooligan. I was busy. Very busy. Working days and teaching nights. Then I volunteered to help out at the World Fantasy Convention, in Schaumburg that year. The next week was Windycon. My schedule was tighter than a Steampunk brassiere.

I got sick. I could tell I was sick because, along with the chills, uncontrollable shivering, and the dead mound of clay between my ears for most of my waking hours, I lost my appetite. I could barely finish a burger at a friend’s birthday dinner — but then it was at a Rainforest Cafe, the kind of place that’s dedicated to interrupting your meal with plaster rhinos and indoor monsoons. Maybe I wasn’t that sick.

I had a belief back then that the best cure for any late autumn/early winter virus or flu was a big bowl of cabbage borscht, followed by a corned beef on an onion roll, with potato pancake on the side (no, don’t hold the sour cream — extra sour cream, please!). Prefaced by a vodka martini. I’d get this meal at The Bagel, then located in Skokie (they started on the corner of Kedzie and Lawrence in 1950). This is a meal with healing powers. Trust me.

After a mind-numbing day pouring copy into edit holes at the chain of suburban weeklies I worked for, I stopped at The Bagel and awaited my cure.

I could barely finish any of it. I tasted nothing.

Sometimes the magic doesn’t work.

By Thursday of that week, I was in the Weiss Hospital ICU, hooked up to an intriguing variety of tubes. Viral lobar pneumonia in both lungs. I’ve never been known as a particularly healthy specimen, though I have a reputation for being as persistent as a weed, so this situation threw a real scare into my friends and family, not to mention my creditors.

I was too sick and fevered to be aware of my imminent peril, though that hooded gentleman polishing a scythe in the waiting room should have given me a hint. He’d held open the elevator door for me. On the TV across from my bed, the news programs were reporting the death of Cardinal Bernardin, who at the time was best known — after becoming aware of the incurability of his cancer — for devoting his life to teaching the world how to die with a modicum of dignity. I could do worse for company on the ferry ‘cross the Styx.

My first evening in the ICU, already hooked up to all the tubes doing their various duties, I was brought dinner. Spaghetti. Nothing special. Hospital food — a fare that legend tells us is responsible for more deaths than bubonic plague.

Spaghetti. With a thick red sauce that looked as if it came straight from the can with the picture on it of the guy in the toque and a little Hitler moustache. A couple of meatballs. Some bread. Some mooshy vegetables. If it had been brought on the kind of tray used by my old grade school, I might have believed my life was passing before my eyes.

I started to eat because… well, because. When you’re hooked up to a lot of tubes there isn’t a lot to do, except stare up at the TV. The spaghetti looked better than the TV, which isn’t saying much, but it was all I had.

It was… glorious. My taste buds came back to life. I reveled in the flavor, the texture. Or I may have hallucinated it. It may have been very good hospital food, or it may have been slop. But it tasted like life, and I cleaned the plate. If they had brought me two more of the same I would have devoured them too.

I remember it now because it puts me in a reflective mood. Many people have suffered worse illnesses, greater indignities, harder luck. There’s plenty of great food out there, and great people to prepare it. But in order to appreciate it, the minimum requirement is that you be alive. And if the repast of renown isn’t readily available, it doesn’t pay to be picky.

If it tastes like life, go for it.

= = = = =

Thanks, Richard. Truly words to live by. And you remind me of this amazing rib joint that I used to go to in Highland Park when I was teaching at Lake Forest College (a bit of a trek for you, but trust me, it’s worth it).

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!


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