Eating Authors: Ysabeau S. Wilce

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Ysabeau S. Wilce

Welcome to another installment of EATING AUTHORS. I’ve been away all weekend, finishing up a training which will allow me to use my powers of mind control to help people quit smoking (and you thought it was only good for getting Nebula nominations), which goes a long way to explaining why it’s about an hour before dawn and I’m awake and sitting in front of my computer writing this introduction. I know there are too many of you — a couple hundred thousand at least — who simply could not start your week without reading about an author and her most memorable meal. And so I’m here typing when I should be snug in bed and dreaming of world domination. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

Our guest this week is Ysabeau S. Wilce. Her many accomplishments include being a James Tiptree finalist, a nominee for a World Fantasy Award, and a winner of the Andre Norton Award. Ysabeau writes the adventures of Flora Fyrdraaca, a “girl of spirit,” who protags her way through a series of YA novels, each with some of the longest subtitles ever imagined. These books are a delightful romp, and had it not been for that Harry Potter fellow I have no doubt that Ysa would have two Nortons on her shelf. If by some quirk of the universe you haven’t read any of these books yet then drop everything and get one right now. I promise you, it’s like a visit to an ice cream parlor on a hot summer’s day.

LMS: Welcome, Ysa, thanks for being here. So, can you paint us a picture of your most memorable meal?

YSW: We left Phoenix, Arizona in the clear darkness of three in the morning, and some eleven hours later, arrived in a gloomy Fort Stockton, Texas.Good weather was not all we’d left behind.The purpose of the trip was to participate in Fort Stockon Museums’ annual Old Army days. Goodbye 2001, Hello 1878(ish)!

There were three of us: Private Q.T. Firebug, Mrs. Sergeant Jones, and me. Mrs. Sergeant Jones and I were the laundresses of Company C, 6th Cavalry, currently stationed at Fort Stockton, Texas. Private Firebug was our striker: he’d been caught slipping off post at night to visit the local hog ranch and assigned to haul our water and firewood as punishment.

Of course, none of us were any of these things:we were actually all volunteers from an Arizona museum, bringing our interpretive living history program to Fort Stockton. Mrs. Sergeant Jones and I were going to do a laundry demonstration and Private Firebug was going to talk to visitors about life as a US Army private in the 1870s. (“Forty miles a day on beans and hay, in the Regular Army-O!)

All three of us were old hands at living rough, 1870s style, for not enough of the actual Fort remained to allow us to do our program in-situ. Camping, 19th century style, was the plan. For some strange reason, we were quite enthusiastic about spending three days wearing woolen clothes, whalebone stays, sleeping in canvas tents, cooking over an open fire, putting aside all modern conveniences in the name of educating the public on what it was to follow the drum of the Old Army.

But most particularly we were excited by the weekend’s menu. In 1878, groceries in West Texas were pretty limited: various canned foods (peaches, deviled ham, oysters), soft bread if you were lucky, hard crackers if not; potatoes, maybe a few other root veggies; canned milk; beef, and bacon.

Bacon! Bacon! Bacon! One of the best things about living history events is that you can stuff yourself with bacon and never feel a twinge of guilt. The Army ate a lot of bacon (and it’s drunk uncle, salt pork, but that we eschewed.) And we were no farby reenactors. We were hardcore, so bring on that bacon! The rest of it—sleeping on the ground in canvas bedrolls, wearing forty pounds of clothes, drinking shrub, boiling laundry, that was good, too. But all you can eat bacon, well, you can’t beat that with a stick, as old Hard Ass Custer (did not) used to say.

Flora Segunda
Flora's Dare
Flora's Fury

But then the Texas gloom betrayed us, just as the US Army betrayed the Chiricahua Apaches in 1886. We’d barely gotten our canvas tents pitched, and laid out within our bedrolls, and were preparing to set up the fire, the cooking area, and our laundry tubs when it began to rain.

Now, of course, it rained in 1878, so it’s not as though the rain itself was going to ruin the event. We couldn’t do our laundry presentation , but we could still talk about laundry techniques, and cooking, and clothing, and guns, and etc. What was a little rain? Were we not hardcore?

But pouring rain meant no fire, and no fire meant no bacon.

It wasn’t pouring yet; just a thin drizzle. There was still hope. Private Firebug got his shovel and he started digging. He dug through that Texas dirt, getting wetter and muddier by the second until he had dug a fire pit so deep you could have buried a mule in it. Mrs. Sergeant Jones and I handed him firewood from the pile we had protected with a rubberized blanket. The wood was good solid hardwood: oak, I think, much much better than the thin smoky mesquite we were used to burning in Arizona. Some cotton wadding as tinder, a strike of a lucifer and up came a spark that Private Firebug fanned into flame with the brim of his absurd Andrews hat. By the time it actually started to pour, our fire pit was full of coals to about five feet, and it would have taken a Biblical deluge to put it out. I got out the frying pan and Private Firebug held the umbrella, sheltering me and the skillet from the wet.

We had bacon for supper. There’s nothing like standing in the rain, water dripping down the brim of your kepi, down the neck of your sack coat, the hem of your dress thick with mud, your boots thick with mud, numb with exhausting, your fingers pruning up, shoveling down bacon from a tin-plate.

Heaven!

The bacon alone, when set against our misery, would have probably made that meal the I’ve ever eaten, but the bacon had some help. I had packed an apple pie. An ordinary apple pie: apples, cinnamon, sugar, lemon juice, ordinary crust. Baked in a tin pie plate. To heat up the pie, I covered it with a tin plate and put it in the coals. By the time the pie was hot, it was good and smoked, the apples taken on the spicy tang of hickory wood, the crust woody with a slight tang of ashes. Add scalding hot coffee, creamy with sweetened condensed milk, and crackers fried in bacon grease and coffee, and we had a meal fit for a three star general. (Or U.S. Grant, that is.)

That night, while Mrs. Sergeant J and I slept in the barracks on iron Army issue cots and Private Firebug sat by the fire, wrapped in his rubberized poncho and kept the flames going. Thanks to his attention to duty (and umbrella), for the next three days we had bacon for breakfast, and dinner, and supper again, with more pie, more fried crackers, more thick coffee. The rain never stopped, we got soggier, but Private Firebug babied that fire pit as though it was his only child. By the time the event was over we were soggy, muddy, cold, tired, and sore, but between the three of us we’d eaten probably twenty pounds of bacon. Slightly watery bacon, but, still, hot greasy delicious salty bacon. The apple pie didn’t last as long, alas, but we had savored every bite.

I’ve had bacon since, in many different circumstances, and it’s all been good (except that precooked stuff from Costco that tastes like fish). I’ve had better coffee, probably, and, well, fried crackers are a sort of situational thing. In the field they are divine; at home, even the dog turns his nose up. But that apple pie. Never since have I been able to duplicate the divinity of that apple pie: the soft apples, the tangy cinnamon, the crisp crust and that smoky hickory flavor. It remains my platonic ideal of an apple pie, to which no other pie will ever measure up.

As for the fire, Private Firebug had to bury it to put the flames out. Water alone just steamed and sizzled. Maybe it’s still burning still, under all that Texas dirt. Maybe it too is dreaming of that apple pie. And bacon.

Thanks, Ysa. That was awesome. Is it wrong that I have this yearning for some vanilla ice cream to top everything off?

Next Monday: Another author and another meal (and maybe more bacon)!

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