Eating Authors: Thomas K. Carpenter

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Thomas K. Carpenter

Welcome to the last EATING AUTHORS post of 2017. It’s been a turbulent year, on so many levels, but we’ve made it. I like to think having a weekly retreat into the lives and meals of all of the authors who have stopped by here has in some small way been of service. Thanks for your continued interest, for reading their works, and for supporting speculative fiction (and meals!) throughout the year.

We close out the year with this week’s guest, Thomas K. Carpenter. He’s something of a full service SFF author. Tom writes everything from YA dystopia to historical fantasy, from steampunk to post-cyberpunk, and has been known to wander off into alternate history as well. Seriously, whatever your tastes are, Tom has a book for you. Whether it’s a hundred different halls of magic or the library at Alexandria or every aspect of your life coming down to points in a game, he’ll keep you turning the pages.

LMS: Welcome, Tom. Tell me about your most memorable meal.

TKC: Golden Dandelion Tempura Blooms can cure loneliness.

You may not know this, but it’s true.

Fires of Alexandria

When I was twenty-five, I took a job with Toyota and they sent me to Japan for six weeks. Not to an exciting metropolis like the Godzilla-less Tokyo, or even the more subdued Nagoya with its dancing Elvis park (skinny-greaser Elvis rather than sequined Vegas Elvis), but the rural town of Tahara in the Aichi prefecture. A place, that I’m sure, literally nothing has happened. Ever.

Adding to my Lost in Translation experience was that I’d just gotten engaged before I left, and my fiancée had barely moved into our apartment. Between my curiosity challenged co-workers and the lack of fine dining outside of a three-story McDonald’s, I was getting stir-crazy, so I left for Kyoto one weekend—alone.

The city of Kyoto is filled with shrines. Small shrines, big shrines. Shrines that felt like they’d been built for giants. I got up early in the morning and moved from shrine to shrine. I would either sit and bask in the noisy silence of the city, or wander around the pathways between the sea-wave rocks. When I had enough, I would walk to the next shrine.

I recall a certain dislocation that carried me through the day. I was thousands of miles away from my fiancée wishing either she was with me, or I was back home, but mostly that she was with me, so we could enjoy the city together.

You can walk a long time when you’re trying to fill a hole.

Trials of Magic

Eventually, I had to eat, and at this point, even after a couple of weeks in Japan, I was still intimidated about trying new things. It wasn’t the food that scared me, I’m an adventurous eater, but the worry that I would make some horrible faux-pas, thus reinforcing the horrible image of Americans abroad.

But eventually, I found a little restaurant, no bigger than a counter and two booths, and run by a father and son. The father spoke only Japanese, while the son could piece together enough English that I wasn’t going to embarrass myself. They specialized in tempura. I ordered what essentially was the chef’s choice meal.

I was served tempura, one piece at a time. The batter was so light it was almost translucent and with a slight peppery flavor. It served mostly as a crisp outer shell.

I ate nothing twice.

Each piece came with its own dipping sauce: sea salt, or squeezed lemon, or ginger soy. The father would craft my bite of food, while the son would explain how I was meant to eat it. We started off easy—shrimp in lemon squeezings, asparagus in chunky pepper—hitting the foods people think of when they hear tempura. Then we moved onto non-traditional tempura items like crispy shrimp shells, or leafy chard.

Revolutionary Magic

Between the servings, I chatted with the son. He had questions about America, while I had questions about Japan. The father would chime in, translated through his son, and we had a round robin conversation.

The final serving of the meal was a golden dandelion tempura bloom. I’d never thought of a flower bud as something to eat, but it was delightful.

When I was finished, I bid them farewell (which included lots of awkward bowing on my part, since I hadn’t yet learned the rules) and went in search of some green tea mochi ball ice cream. It’d grown dark during our meal, and bright lanterns lit the pathways. Sometime afterwards, I realized I wasn’t lonely any more. I still missed my fiancée, but at least for the time being, I wasn’t lonely, and I’d gotten over intruding into strange restaurants. For the rest of the trip, I ate like a local and had many more interesting conversations.

P.S. – About five years later, I had the opportunity to take my wife to Kyoto to visit the temples. I couldn’t find that tempura shop, but that didn’t stop us from having a lot of great meals.

Thanks, Tom. I’ve always loved tempura. For me, it’s one of the few “bottom up” taste experiences left in the world.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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