Inventing a Theme: Brunching in the Pickle Palace

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

I first encountered Sunshine Flagg in a weekly meet-up of women interested in tech, social media, and app development, while attempting to “network” as I “job hunted.” We bonded over Buffy the Vampire Slayer and homemade pickles.

Sunshine had just moved to Louisville from New York, where she’d worked as a baker, chef, and restaurateur. Her wheelhouse was Asian dishes (upon tasting her ramen, most people achieve enlightenment), but she’d done everything from cupcakes to molecular gastronomy, and gained my undying admiration when she mentioned she’d once baked a cake for the Dresden Dolls that was shaped like a giant pink octopus. Her latest project was bread and butter pickles.

I hate bread and butter pickles, but these were transcendent: paragons of pickle-kind. From that fateful gift of fermented vegetables onward, we were fast friends. Eventually, we even moved in together. And then…the magic happened.

Our house—which we dubbed The Pickle Palace—was in the back half of a disastrous duplex ridden with health hazards. Navigating the basement stairs was taking your life in your hands. The dishwasher flooded the kitchen. The washer flooded the basement. The grout in the DIY shower had long ago gone rotten, and I strongly suspected there was water leaking between the wobbly tiles, slowly destroying the structural integrity of the floor.

But the kitchen was enormous, and opened onto a screened porch surrounded by honeysuckle bushes and a tall privacy fence. I kept my potted plants outside in the summer, training the passionflowers to shade the huge wrought iron table.

Here was where we hosted our brunches.

I don’t remember when we started doing this. I don’t remember what the first theme was. But I think it was Sunshine’s idea—she wanted to have family-style meals in our house, invite our friends to drop in whenever they could and eat casseroles and Spanish tortilla and drink wine and chat. We were both pretty new to the city, and I think feeling a little lonely. We were trying to find a place with the things we loved—food and friends and laughter—and decided to make it ourselves.

It started small, when the weather was still cold, which meant we ate leaning on the kitchen island, or sitting on the musty sofas our landlord had left for us. As the brunches went on, and the weather warmed up, things got more elaborate and moved outside.

We hosted an all-donut brunch. Devilled egg beignet with bacon sugar. Sufganiyoh. Chinese five-spice duck breast bao buns. Apple fritters. A copious amount of wine.

To irreverently celebrate Passover and Easter and the Equinox simultaneously, we dyed eggs and donned sundresses, busted out Sunshine’s ke’ara, and made a seder brunch. Dessert was Pharaoh’s Lament cocktails and marshmallow whoopee pies.

At the Lost Generation brunch, we served potatoes boulangère, a freshly-baked French sourdough loaf, pâté, and many Deaths in the Afternoon. Because Sunshine and I couldn’t agree on which absinthe to buy, we brought home two bottles and strongly encouraged our guests to participate in a blind tasting. Nobody went home earlier than 7 pm.

Then, there was the ramen brunch. This brunch was the be-all, end-all of our brunches. A brunch that will be spoken of in story and song in the post-apocalypse, as our descendants crouch around their fires beneath twisted rubble and whisper tales of the long-ago. Pork belly and chicken char siu, homemade broth and tare. Rice noodles, egg noodles, squid ink noodles, gluten free noodles made with sweet potato. Quail and chicken eggs. Spicy pickled lotus root. Black rice coconut pudding. Soju, sake, beer.

For all its shoddy insulation and black mold, the Pickle Palace became a warm, welcoming, and very nerdy place. Even when we weren’t hosting brunch, Sunshine and I spent time in the kitchen and on the porch, cooking and eating together. We snuck roast turkey on sourdough into the theatre for a double-feature Age of Ultron and Maleficent. We threw a costume party for my birthday and mixed Avengers-themed cocktails. She dressed as the Bene Gesserit reverend mother and totally outclassed my demon horns and flower crown.

When I signed with an agent, and then sold my debut novel Amberlough, she brought home a bottle of Prosecco wrapped in pink cellophane and made a plate of lox and capers, because every occasion in our house was an occasion for good food and drink.

Time passed. We left the Pickle Palace. I moved to Sunshine’s old stomping grounds—New York City!—but I got back to Louisville once in a while and when I did, we brunched. As my book release approached, I asked her a favor: would she be interested in helping me create a menu based on the food of Amberlough? Because there was a lot of food in the book.

She went one better: she’d help create the menu and recipes, and she’d also serve the menu at the international dining club she’d started: The Culture Club Presents. So I sent her a list of every food that occurs in the novel, and we winnowed it down to—what else?—an Amberlough-themed brunch. Pumpernickel buns with honey and pistachio, sweet and spicy pork skewers, barley fritters stuffed with eel, shirred eggs, and a sparkling celery-cucumber cocktail.

Then, as luck would have it, I flew back to Louisville for Thanksgiving and got to attend the Culture Club Presents: A Sneak Peek Into the World of Amberlough. And believe me, getting to eat food you invented in your head, cooked by one of your bestest friends? It’s one of the most delicious things you can do.

Top image: “Little Cooks” by The SixthLeafClover

amberlough-thumbnailLara Elena Donnelly is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, as well as the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, where she now volunteers as on-site staff and publicity coordinator. In her meager spare time she cooks, draws, sings, and swing dances. After an idyllic, small-town Ohio childhood, spent time in Louisville, Kentucky. She currently resides in Harlem, in a tower named after Ella Fitzgerald. Her novel Amberlough is available from Tor Books.

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