Cooking the Books: The Roundtable
By Fran Wilde
26 November 2012
Recently, four professional science fiction, fantasy, YA, and horror authors gathered to talk food and science fiction. The discussion quickly expanded until the far reaches of haute cuisine, both imaginary and real, had been explored—and all participants felt more than a bit nauseated. If you'd like to learn Nalo Hopkinson's secret to mixing flavors, or where Elizabeth Bear discovered what silkworm pupae taste like; if you're curious which food Scott Lynch deems "most disgusting" (warning: here be maggots), or why Gregory Frost recommends against eating kudzu fresh from the highway; if you want to explore the ways food strengthens worldbuilding in fiction or how bad food reveals character, then grab a fistful of antacid and bring a sturdy constitution. Cooking the Books: The Roundtable is about to commence.
- Elizabeth Bear, award-winning author of Range of Ghosts (Tor, 2012), the New Amsterdam series (Subterranean Press), and more.
- Gregory Frost, author of YA duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet (Del Rey) and more.
- Nalo Hopkinson, award-winning author of The Chaos (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2012) and Sister Mine (Grand Central, 2013) and more.
- Scott Lynch, author of Republic of Thieves (Gollancz, 2012), the latest in the Gentleman Bastard sequence (Gollancz), and more.
- Fran Wilde, moderator.
FW—Welcome to you all, and thank you for joining Cooking the Books to talk about food and fiction. What, in your opinion, is the most memorable meal in modern fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, or related genres?
GF—The most memorable meal in fiction for me is in a related genre, sort of. Because it's Anthony Burgess, but it's not science fiction.
It's a novel of his called Tremor of Intent (W.W. Norton, 1966). You'll see why this is memorable. It's a parody of James Bond novels, of Ian Fleming, and there's a sequence in the middle of the book that's specifically a parody of the Chemin de Fer sequence in Casino Royale between Bond and Le Chiffre. In that sequence, Burgess' spy/hero, whose real name is Denis Hillier, but who is operating under the false name of Yager, has a duel with the villain tycoon Theodorescu. The two of them, instead of playing cards, have a duel aboard a luxury ship by ordering food and trying to outeat one another, with all these people sitting around watching them. So they just keep ordering these dishes and it goes on and on. Someone in the audience watching them has a coronary. It just keeps going and they're both sweating as they try to get down the Dom Pérignon champagne. The duel goes on for pages and pages. Needless to say I still remember it forty-plus years later. Here's a little taste of it:
"'And now, talking of choosing—' Theodorescu beckoned. The chief steward himself came across, a soft-looking ginger-moustached man. Hillier and Theodorescu ordered ahead alternately. Hillier: filets of sole Queen Elizabeth, with sauce blonde; Theodorescu: shellfish tart with sauce Newburg; Hillier: soufflé au foie gras and to be generous with the Madeira; Theodorescu: avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce. 'And,' said Theodorescu, 'more champagne.'"
NH—I've seen the nonfiction science fiction version of that, I think. It was at a WisCon where Kelly Link and Bart Anderson had a wasabi eating contest.
EB—Bart's got her on size, but I think Kelly wins that one on stubborn.
GF—She must have been glowing in the dark by the time they were done that.
NH—They sat across from each other with this Styrofoam container of wasabi between them on the floor and stared deeply into each other's eyes, forking it up with their hands because they had no tools. Putting larger and larger spoonfuls of it in their mouths.
NH—It was a lot of fun to watch.
EB—Before we entirely depart from James Bond—I was going to say reality," but then I reconsidered—There was something Holly Black said on Twitter recently regarding re-reading all of the James Bond novels as research for her Curse Workers series. She said that the books are 30% travelogue, 30% food, 30% violence, and 10% male gaze. I thought that was profound.
GF—He was showing off the good life.
NH—I have a novel due on Friday and it's pretty much all that's in my mind right now. So when I thought about the question, a poem came to mind that I'm riffing on for the novel, "Goblin Market." Which is 30% food and 70% lesbian incest.
"Goblin Market" has the most amazing descriptions of fruit you've never heard of, and fruit you have heard of, and then it smooshes them all over the protagonist. So. Big fun. For an example, I will have to Google; it's not that much in my head. Besides, a lot of the fruit is from places I didn't grow up, so the names of fruit aren't sticking with me very well. So hold on.
NH—Ah, here we go:
Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries—
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather.
Hungry? I am.
GF—We can talk about Michaela Roessner's two books, The Stars Dispose (Tor, 1997) and The Stars Compel (Tor, 2000). Those are historical fantasies from the household of Catherine de Medici that are all told from the point of view of the cook.
EB—And the cook's apprentice, right?
GF—She did a lot of research for those.
EB—I'm now thinking of a book that I read in high school or college that had several medieval repasts in it in glorious detail. From soup to subtlety, basically. It's Witchdame (Berkley, 1955) by Kathleen Sky. There's one great scene in this book, told from the point of view of the king's older daughter by his first wife. The king has remarried and his new wife is pregnant, so you have the usual dynastic politics going on.
At one point, they bring out a subtlety—a dessert—that's a marzipan replica of the castle. The daughter, as everyone is starting to serve out the dessert, reaches out with her eating dagger and lops off the marzipan replica of the new queen's head. She pops it into her mouth. She realizes it's really too big to fit, but she's committed. She's not going to let on, so she has to gag this thing down so as not to ruin her grand gesture.
SL—My first example is not really up there in terms of food because the food isn't the point. It's the banquet scene from Dune (Chilton Books, 1965), by Frank Herbert. In this scene, you have a marvelously exotic cuisine presented, but description of the cuisine is really not the point. The point is about how everyone at the table is trying to undermine and/or kill everybody else at the table. It's a very striking scene in that you have so much action in the rest of the novel, and yet so much emotional dagger-pulling goes on in this very refined, stately, restrained, dinner table environment. Which is why I think that scene resonates with so many people long after they forget the rest of the book.
The other book that I'd cite is a personal inspiration. Kage Baker's Anvil of the World (Tor, 2003). This is a cycle of three linked novellas that follows a caravan trudging across a fantasy landscape on assorted errands. One of the caravaneers is an elderly woman named Smith who has sort of a dark past, but at the present she's on her way to a cooking competition. A really, really big cooking competition. She's practicing at stops along the way and making these ever-more ridiculously elaborate dishes whenever she can. That's where I found my interest in fictional cuisine.
FW—How characters eat food is as important as what they eat, isn't it?
GF—Absolutely. The Burgess story that I mentioned inspired a short story I wrote some years ago called "The Girlfriends of Dorian Gray." That story is about a glutton who has a magical object that allows him to eat all he wants while whoever happens to be serving as his current fiancée gains all the weight. There's this long list of all the dishes he's devouring and savoring. And he's doing so quite evilly because the woman sitting across the table from him is eating saltines and water because she's desperately trying to lose weight and there's nothing she can do because he's got that power and she doesn't realize it.
EB—I'm pretty sure there are people who have that power.
Okay, my problem with this question is "most memorable meal." It's the superlative thing that I'm having issues with, because I can think of a dozen that are narratively interesting, or memorable, or useful in different ways.
I'm not going to talk about a dozen, but I was just thinking of Karen Lord's recent book Redemption in Indigo (Small Beer Press, 2010). In that book, the protagonist is also a chef, and a very good cook. She's the best cook in her village. But she is married to a glutton. You'd think this would be a match made in heaven, except that he doesn't care how what he eats tastes. It's a very dysfunctional relationship, as you can imagine.
NH—There's also Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (Anchor, 2004). Not so much the meals as what she does with fast food. I remember particularly the ChickieNobs—which are lumps of living chicken protein. Multiple chickens, in fact, genetically combined with mouths but no beaks, and no bones. You feed the mouths, and when it's time to prepare the food for McDonald's, you just chop them up. I found that hilarious.
GF—T.C. Boyle's short story "Sorry Fugu" is another bizarre short story about cooking. It's about somebody who writes about restaurants and chefs. Again, kind of an evil story.
FW—Well, fugu is the poison sushi—
GF—Exactly. You don't really want to eat a dish called "Sorry, Fugu."
EB—"It's my first attempt at this dish . . . "
SL—"I'm sorry you're paralyzed . . . "
EB—I was also thinking of George Martin's Tuf Voyaging (Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2003). His protagonist is a gourmand, and there's an awful lot of food in there. Actually, Martin writes a lot of gourmands. I just finished reading Fevre Dream (Bantam, 2004), where the protagonist is also a bit of a gourmand.
The protagonist in Tuf Voyaging has a seedship. He's the only sentient thing on this seedship, which he lives on with a whole bunch of cats. He goes from place to place solving people's food and economic woes with his genetic bounty. And, Scott, this would be a nightmare for you because this guy really likes mushrooms. So everywhere he goes, he's forcing this mushroom-based cuisine on people. . . .
SL—Yeah, no thanks. We'll stick with our cozy, post-apocalyptic shattered environment, thanks. There's plenty of dirt. MMMmmm dirt.
NH—It's tough to be able to think of good food in science fiction. I seem to be mostly impressed with the bad food. There's a fantasy story—I think it must be also by Michaela Roessner, and I believe it's in one of the fairy tale collections. It's actually about bulimia, so forgive me. But the character takes the food she has uneaten and hides it under her bed and it turns into her lover. In fact, the more it . . . develops . . . she manages to actually make this creature sound almost sexy, which is extraordinarily disturbing because it's essentially made of upchucked food. So there's another one.
EB—That's a little distressing.
GF—Funny you mention fairy tales though, because a lot of those were about food. People didn't say "I love you" so much in fairy tales. They cooked for their adored instead. Hansel and Gretel was a perversion of that trope: eating the house, and children being fattened up for dinner.
SL—Between this and the wasabi thing, I think this is going to be the food-related roundtable that destroys food for thousands of readers. This is what's going to usher in the science fictional future of tasteless food pills as a self-defense mechanism.
EB—Ironically, it's all going to be Nalo's fault.
FW—Let's talk about what drives writers to select different foods for their narratives. Do you think unpleasant food is a way to increase conflict in a story?
EB—Unpleasant food is funny.
The classic example of that is the Klingon episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ("A Matter of Honor"), where Riker eats Klingon food and is proud he's prepared so well for his mission aboard the Klingon ship. Then he actually gets on the Klingon ship and realizes that he's not prepared. At all. And it's hysterical. Bad food is funny. Other people eating bad food is funny.
GF—I suspect somewhere down the line of every science fiction show of the Star Trek space opera variety there is someone eating something before they find out what it is. That joke comes up over and over again. Then it turns out to be something so hideous that they immediately run off stage.
SL—It's an extremely useful tool for showing the fact that tastes differ. Age to age, country to country. Even person to person.
For instance, I discovered something I'm never going to touch for as long as I live. I will eat dirt before I will eat this. It's a Sicilian cheese called Casu Marzu. Maggot Cheese. It's extraordinary. It really is. You make this cheese out of either goats' milk or sheep's milk.
EB—It's a soft cheese. Very runny.
SL —Yes. Everyone is going to lose some weight after I finish with this description. It gets worse. This is fucking Cthulhu cheese: the dread cheese that sleeps the sleep of the eons. And then comes to destroy us all.
They take the fresh cheese and leave it out so that flies can put their eggs in it. Then they take these things and put them in the—whatever they call it—"the Satan insanity cheese shed" and they let the maggots have their way with the cheese for weeks while the cheese ages. So what you've essentially got at the center of the cheese is digested and re-digested, maggot-processed cheesy goop. And then they essentially eat the cheese while the maggots are still living. And they have coping strategies for dealing with the maggots.
EB—Because the maggots jump.
GF—I'd be in therapy for years.
SL—In some cases, they put the cheese in a paper bag, in some cases they have other barriers. Just proving that there's nothing people will not eat if they think it is an aphrodisiac.
You can YouTube documentaries on the stuff. You can see families sitting around, happily eating it. And it's perfectly normal to them. Whereas it strikes someone from my background as . . . well, being pretty close to worse than death. It's 100% real, there are people probably out there eating it while we speak . . . .
EB—I think I could eat a witchetty grub if presented with one nicely roasted, but that cheese is just beyond the pale.
SL—There's a marvelous quote from Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton (Knopf, 1990). The only science fiction book Crichton ever wrote. In it, his mathematician character Ian Malcolm is berating somebody else. Malcolm has this wonderful line: "Eating scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast is not human nature, it's just a tribal custom." That's—a good thing to play with when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. Sometimes simply being different is the point of the exercise. Sometimes pointing out that tea and crumpets is not a standard food item for a significant percentage of the population is in and of itself worthy of stressing.
EB—Colonialism did its best to fix that.
FW—I owe this next question to Bear, because this came up a couple months ago during our interview about food in Range of Ghosts, and she brought up Diana Wynne Jones.
Diana Wynne Jones, in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, has much to say about traditional narratives and food—most notably the power of waybread ("truly remarkable since those eating it are never hungry and absolutely never suffer from a deficiency disease [see SCURVY]") and the prevalence of stew ("an odd choice as a staple food since, on rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak.")
Let's talk about the prevalence of waybread, or journeycake, and stew and all those things that don't seem to relate to what we're talking about now. We've got all these incredible examples of weird food, and yet so many stories don't. What do you think influences writers to select these sorts of foods for their narratives?
NH—I grew up eating journeycake. But. The journeycake that we ate for breakfast, there's a lot that goes into preparing to make that—what we called jonnycake. And yes, that Diana Wynne Jones line about stew—I think that comes from writers who don't know how to cook.
SL—Right. A fantasy stew is always like "Well, I threw some rabbit in the water and boiled it for about ten minutes . . . hey! Stew!"
EB—I have made soup over a campfire and let me tell you, it's a pain in the butt.
NH—Steak is a lot easier.
GF—But it depends on what level of society you're dealing with. I was thinking about that and how, if you go back, first you had hearths—if you look at ancient etchings and drawings of fireplaces and cooking hearths. They had a hook for hanging a pot off it. It kind of makes sense to be cooking a stew. Something like True Grit (Simon and Schuster, 1968), Charles Portis at one point has a couple outlaws they're holed up in a cabin, and they're making a dish called softkey. Which is, according to Portis' narrator, some kind of Indian dish that you just keep throwing stuff into the pot. You don't ever stop cooking it, and it's always over the fire. In fact, the narrator of True Grit refuses to eat it because it's full of "trash," as she puts it. I wonder if that was just the normal way of getting by.
NH—There's a dish you can still get in Guyana, in South America called pepperpot. Guyana is in tropical jungle, but they've found a way to preserve their meat. The sauce that you cook this stuff in looks like molasses, it's distilled from cassava. It's a black gooey thing and they take a big pot and they put whatever the day's catch was in it. And as long as they bring the pot with the sauce in it to boiling once a day, it never goes bad. In fact, pepperpot is a dish that sits on the stove and doesn't need. You just boil it once a day. You have to keep stirring it because the meat that's on the bottom kind of disintegrates after a while. But it also gets very tender.
But that's the kind of thing you do when you are going to be in one place, not traveling. And I think that's what Diana Wynne Jones is talking about. You're on the road, you don't have a hearth with a cookpot—
GF—How do you make a stew then?
NH—You might make a soup . . .
GF—I think you're back to eating dirt . . .
FW—We've taken four authors and stranded them in the woods with two sticks—
GF—And they're eating dirt . . .
EB—I think Nalo could come up with something good to eat in any case.
NH—We're all good sources of protein and fat. Just sayin' . . .
SL—There's a memorable sequence in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga (published between 1986-2010), in the very early pages, where two characters, after having a spaceship fight, find themselves stranded in a hostile alien jungle with nothing to eat for six weeks except a very large packet of blue cheese dressing and a very large packet of oatmeal.
SL—A very striking image.
EB—One of the things that I spend a great deal of my writing life doing is figuring out what people on starships might eat. Especially if you're going to be on a ship a long time, you're going to be growing your own food. You're going to need your own sources of fats and carbohydrates and proteins. I've wound up doing things like researching exactly what silkworm pupae taste like because I'm too much of a coward to go out and eat one. And there is this wonderful blog called Steve Don't Eat It, where this guy, Steve, eats things so you don't have to. Among the things that he has eaten are natto—fermented, putrefying soybeans—and silkworm pupae. Which is tremendously useful if you're going to be figuring out what protein sources might be in a very constrained environment with limited power availability.
NH—There's another blog called Eat the Invaders. Where the author advocates getting rid of invasive species through eating them. There are recipes for things it would not occur to you to try to eat, like kudzu.
EB—I actually have people eating kudzu on that same starship with the silkworm pupae.
NH—Mmm it's great stuff. There's also the Invasivore Cookbook. Which is about eating things that shouldn't really be growing there.
GF—I had a friend who, foolishly, after reading somewhere that kudzu was something you could eat, when it was growing everywhere in North Carolina, pulled over on the side of the road and picked a bunch of kudzu that was growing over trees and what have you. He took it home and boiled it up in a pot, thinking "it'll be like spinach." And tried to eat it. It was not a good plan.
FW—So basically, we've offered all the science fiction writers out there the tasteless-food-pill plan, or the here's-where-to-find-the-grossest-food-possible plan. Either follow these links on the Internet, or Scott will eventually find something and tell us all.
NH—Real food is where I tend to get inspiration because I don't think I can dream up anything stranger than what people actually eat. Talking about things that many people wouldn't eat, but actually have—mannish water. Also an aphrodisiac. Mannish water is a soup made with all the parts of the goat that you usually don't eat. The head, feet, the scrotum. Looks like hell on earth, but is actually quite tasty.
SL—Hoof and scrotum soup is something that got left on the cutting room floor when Tolkien did his first pass through The Hobbit.
EB—It's so full of gelatin, it's good for your hair and nails!
SL—Somewhere there's a manuscript where hoof and scrotum soup is crossed out and elvish waybread is written in its place.
NH—It's a delicacy. Okay, back to science fiction.
FW—I think this is a nice segue into how food helps expand narrative beyond Western cultures.
NH—I think of it as colonizing in reverse, which is poet Louise Bennett's term. Look what happened with curries in the UK. It's sort of the empire writing back.
I think it is a good way to do it, and yet I am suspicious because I am very leery of exoticizing my own cultures in people's eyes. And I can't control their reaction but it's not something I set out to do deliberately. But if I am writing food in science fiction in a world that is not at all human, part of the fun would be mixing things that I at least wouldn't think of putting together and making it sound like a dish that was normal in that place.
GF—I would concur. I think it is research like any other aspect of a story—trying to make it contextually appropriate for whatever you're creating.
NH—You can use it as worldbuilding in ways that might get the reader thinking about "these creatures in this story are humanoid, but how in the world are their taste buds constructed?"
EB—It's also a good way to establish differences between cultures in whatever you're writing. If you are moving your protagonists around the world, and since I'm working on epic fantasy right now, I am, you go to a different place and their cuisine is different. It's influenced by what they can grow, and what they have. I think that's trying not to be lazy about your worldbuilding and actually think stuff through rather than defaulting to what you saw in—well, for instance when the Pevensies go to Narnia and everyone's eating crumpets and tea. And only those bad "other" people put oil on their bread.
GF—Yes, but all of our coffee is passed through a civet cat's butt first before we grind it and drink it. So that's okay.
NH—I have to taste that stuff one day.
EB—Several of us were trying to convince people on Twitter that there was such a thing as civet chocolate.
FW—Well, coffee takes us back to Dune for a second. The Dune series has a number of scenes involving coffee preparation and elaborate coffee services. It struck me at the time I read it as off-note for a community under such strictures as the Fremen were to have elaborate coffee services. But when I finally got out in the world a little, I realized that in the greater world, people do this. Some nomadic cultures carry enormous coffee services and other things like it.
NH—Yes. And coffee you can do over the fire.
GF—But that's worldbuilding 101—your people are drinking coffee, where did it come from? You need to at least know those kinds of things, know the answers to those kinds of questions. Because they suggest the development of the culture and trade and markets. One question like that has all these ripple effects throughout the society—just like "do they have plumbing?"
EB—Because I'm writing something set in a Silk Road analogue, because they have trade, and it's a big deal, it's important to me to evoke. One way I've done that is through foods and spices and stuff that come from far away being readily available.
NH—There's a great book I've been reading called The Spice Route that talks about how trade in a lot of the spices that we think of as commonplace developed. For centuries, people didn't know not only where these things originated, but how they grew. There are all kinds of fantastical stories the merchants would make up about where these things came from. It's great for informing your worldbuilding, because you have to think about it. If they've got cinnamon, where did that come from?
GF—There's another great book for informing that kind of research called Tastes of Paradise (Vintage Books, 1993), by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. It's a social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants. It's really useful for research.
EB—For resource books, I recommend a book by Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner (Grove Press, 2010), where she takes a chicken dinner with rice and devotes a chapter to the source of every single ingredient in the meal. It's a very cool book and it really influenced my thinking on pre-modern economy.
Oh! While we're digressing, Scott just had something very cool happen to him regarding food and his book.
EB—The blogger? The food blogger?
SL—Oh yes! There's a food blogger named Chelsea, who is one of two authors of A Feast of Ice and Fire, which is a beautifully illustrated compendium of recipes taken from and based on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. And she's got this other blog in which she basically explores historical and fantastical recipes, some of them taken directly from the pages of books and some of them just inspired. There are Cinderella mice cakes and the photography is absolutely amazing. It's Food Through the Pages.
She went after the sausages and pears in oil from my first novel [ed.: The Lies of Locke Lamora (Bantam, 2006)] and did it up good and proper. Made it look very beautiful, very respectable. Even added a touch of vinegar to complement the oil. Restaurant quality presentation. It's very nice to see something that you basically pull out of your ass.
EB—And we're back to the civet coffee jokes.
SL—All the cuisine in the Gentleman Bastard books is more or less—and I say more or less because it's obviously extrapolated and screwed with and embiggened—but it generally follows medieval cookery to a certain extent. The pears and sausages and oil thing might have been a real dish, but I'm fairly certain I conjured it because it sounded good. So I'm pretty lucky that it doesn't taste horrible or kill people in combination.
GF—That's the secret of being a good chef. You can look at things in the kitchen and actually throw ingredients together that way and come up with surprising dishes.
NH—I find myself interested in the science of food that way. But in the kind of ad hoc way which you develop a mental library of what tastes good together. Cooks who don't measure, I think, access that library and think, "Well, how about we put the salted lemons with cauliflower?" because they have a sense of how that might work. And I'm interested in the science of cooking that way. I think it informs my writing. I'm always surprised when people don't recognize the science in cooking.
EB—Nalo, are you familiar with a book called The Flavor Bible? It's awesome. It's nothing but a compendium of which flavors are chemically complementary with one another. It has become my cooking bible.
FW—Any last words for our readers?
SL—Science Fiction and Food: Two great tastes that taste great together.
EB—I have to say that I've never eaten a cashew apple, but Nalo made me feel like I had.
GF—Yes but can she make you feel like you've eaten civet chocolate?
NH—In fact, I can, but I use that power only for good.
FW—Thank you all so much for joining the first-ever Cooking the Books Roundtable. This has been a fantastic conversation. You'll find your courtesy bags of Tums and Pepto-Bismol at the door.