Eating Authors: Sarah A. Hoyt

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Sarah A. Hoyt

It’s time to check in with another edition of Eating Authors, and our guest this week is Sarah A. Hoyt, whom I’ve known since shortly before her first novel Ill Met by Moonlight came out (I wrote a review in Klingon!), back when we both had stories in the pages of Absolute Magnitude. Since those bygone days, Sarah has exploded across genres and popularity. She’s been a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and last year won the Prometheus Award for her SF novel Darkship Thieves.

Sarah has nearly as many identities as Dr. Elizabeth Penrose. Fans of her work also know her as Elise Hyatt (author of such mysteries as Dipped, Stripped, and Dead), Sarah D’Almeida (author of the popular Musketeer mysteries, beginning with Death of a Musketeer), Laurien Gardner (one of several authors sharing the house name for historical romances, she used it to write Plain Jane), and soon as Sarah Marques (for a new series of Vampire Musketeer novels, beginning with Sword & Blood.

LMS: Sarah, I’ve been after you for months, and you finally surrendered to my invtiation (and it only took post-con exhaustion and an ear infection) to share your most memorable meal with the readers here. Let’s not delay a moment longer.

SAH: It is probably ironic that someone like me, who read Rex Stout at least in part for the food; someone who came at cooking late (when I got married I had no clue how pasta went from in-package-hard to in-plate-soft. Let’s say my first attempts at cooking were a voyage of discovery) and is incapable to make an omelet without buying the right pan and making sure it’s at the right temperature, has such a simple, almost anti-climatic story of “best meal ever.”

The funniest part about it is that the best-meal-ever came the day after our most disappointing meal ever.

The year was 1990 and for the first time in our six years of marriage, my husband Dan and I had both the time – he took a paid sabbatical – and the money (see the paid part) to go on vacation. We went to Portugal, because I grew up there (and lived there till 22) and because my family still lives there. However, in the way of such protracted stays with family, it grew old, so we left my family – in the North, outside Porto – and went to Algarve, a large touristy beach area in the extreme South of Portugal for two weeks.

We didn’t have that much money, so we borrowed a friend’s flat. The friend, knowing we wanted to explore local cuisine, left us a long list of what she considered the best restaurants in the area. We dutifully went down the list one at a time, saving the one she’d said was superlative and also very expensive for our anniversary.

The place had ambience, I’ll give it that, at least if by ambience one means lights so low one can barely see the food and tables set with floor-length brocaded table clothes. The setting itself looked like it was slumming from serving as a reception room for one of the more decadently lavish Roman emperors. There were marble columns and niches with statues, all the splendor just slightly short of Las Vegas-garish. Table settings and serving were elaborate. It was sort of like attending a dinner party in the regency with the advantage that – unlike in the regency – most of the food wasn’t set at the end of the table, where you couldn’t reach it. Instead, the servers, after taking our orders, brought out a little cart, from which they served us. We literally had a server behind each chair which added grandeur and also a sense of creepiness to the meal.

But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that from the moment we tasted the seafood soup and looked at each other, we knew the place was overpriced. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what the quality of the tablecloth or how oppressive the service, if the soup tastes like it came out of a can and was micro-waved. The rest of the meal followed the same pattern. There was nothing exactly offensive about the taste. There was nothing good either. When you’re eating in surroundings that would make the royal family feel as though they were – perhaps – overdoing it a little, you expect at least one of the dishes to stand out and not taste exactly like “just warmed some pre-packaged myself.”

Needless to say we felt both guilty at how much money we’d spent, and slightly sorry that we’d spent our anniversary at such an underwhelming place. Though, of course, on the off chance the other didn’t feel exactly the same way, we didn’t voice our disappointment. We spent the next day exploring the area just as we had the days before. With one difference. We didn’t consult the restaurant list and we didn’t talk about where to go for dinner – which had suddenly become a touchy subject.

Ill Met by Moonlight

Darkship Thieves
Sword & Blood

But we still had to eat.

As we were walking back from the beach, we noticed a setup on the broad sidewalk overlooking the ocean.

It could have been a group of locals grilling fish and having a private party. There was one of those “event tents” that you can rent in the US, a bunch of foldable tables and chairs, with no table cloth, and a very large grill. Two men manned the grill and the smell of freshly grilled seafood filled the area.

We were hungry, and this little blackboard with prices let on that the food was for sale, even if this “restaurant” didn’t have so much as a name, and might very well not have a license either.

The food smelled appetizing and we were sore about spending so much the night before. I don’t remember which one of us said “Should we?” but the other just said “sure.” I think that at the back of our heads both of us expected it to be borderline terrible, but it was food and it avoided us going back and consulting the list that had already led us astray once.

So we sat down at a plastic table. Immediately, things differed from our expectations. The table was very clean, so someone had wiped it down carefully after the last costumers. Also, our server took our order almost immediately. I ordered the squid (yes, I’m weird. Also, I grew up in Portugal) and my husband ordered the tuna (fresh, of course.)

The food arrived almost instantly. On my plate was possibly the largest squid I’ve ever seen out of a horror movie, with grill marks on either side. As you can imagine – since large almost always means tough in squid – I had a sinking sensation at the size. But my husband’s portion was equally large and looked like a decent slice of fish, so I decided to grin and bear it. This was made harder because at first glance, the side dishes also left something to be desired. Positioned on either side of Cthulhu’s younger brother were untidy piles respectively of cubed cucumber and tomato (on one side) and cubed boiled vegetables on the other.

I thought that we were definitely getting what we paid for, even as the server put a little cruet of oil and vinegar on the table to use on the vegetables.

And then I took a bite. How to explain it? I took chemistry in high school and I know that it’s possible to take substances, add them together and get something that transcends the parts.

But it’s still hard to believe that vegetables and hastily grilled seafood, plus oil and vinegar could be that good.

You see, the squid wasn’t tough. It was also… buttery with hints of garlic and cooked just enough not to be raw, but not so much it acquired a rubbery texture. As I looked up in surprise, I met my husband’s eyes. And he looked just as surprised and just as happy.

We did laugh about it that night – about how the high class place had disappointed and how the cheap place turned out to be excellent.

It wasn’t a fluke, either. We ate all our other meals there for a week, and we got to listen to the owners/operators – a bunch of students on vacation – and their philosophy of running a restaurant.

You know those commercials that start with “take the freshest ingredients”? They really did. Every morning at the crack of dawn, they met the fishing boats (which is why their menu changed every day) and they picked as carefully as a housewife with a demanding family and a limited budget. Then they went by the local farmers to pick up the just-picked vegetables.

The result was that combination that can’t be faked, of something fresh enough to retain its taste and cooked as little as possible to make it palatable.

I don’t know if the little improvised restaurant is still there – perhaps run by the original operators’ children now? – or even if it was ever supposed to be there in the sense that the authorities had given it a permit and everything. For a variety of time/money reasons, we haven’t gone back at that time of year since.

We did bring back from that trip a little cruet for oil and vinegar, and we’ve tried several times to replicate the tomato and cucumber mix – sometimes with success.

I don’t want to know if it’s still there, to be honest. I want to hold on to this dream that one day we’ll have the time and money to go on vacation, and we’ll walk towards the beach and find the little restaurant.

I’m going to order the tuna.

Sarah, I’ve stumbled across this dream restaurant — or its distant cousin – on the streets of New Orleans. Kin to a place that was once on Montserrat (according to Walter Jon Williams’s entry many Mondays ago). And you know, I think they all serve tuna.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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