Writing With Food: A Culinary Journey

I am passionate about food.

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s read my books. The Kushiel’s Legacy series is rife with food references, so much so that I’ve been asked on numerous occasions if I’d consider writing a cookbook. The answer, by the way, is “no,” because while I like to think at this point I’m a fairly skilled home cook, writing recipes is a very specific skill set. (Pssst! But I would consider collaborating!)

According to family lore, my career as a budding gourmand began on a trip to California to visit my grandparents when I was two years old, and my Grandpa Deke fed me artichokes and oysters; presumably not at the same time. Honestly, I can’t remember anything about that trip except being scared out of my wits on the Alice in Wonderland ride at Disneyland—but I do love artichokes and oysters to this day. In fact, it is on my bucket list to discover how many oysters I can eat before I make myself sick. Not kidding, you guys.

No one else in my family cared for oysters, but artichokes remained a special treat when I was growing up. They were fancy. They took forever to steam and serving them required individual ramekins of melted butter. Eating them was a ritual—plucking the leaves one by one, layer by layer, scraping the pulp with your teeth until you got to the innermost cone where the leaves were too thin and translucent to scrape. Carving out the thistly choke, feasting on the buttery grey-green gem of the heart.

My mom was a fairly skilled home cook who hated cooking. That last part isn’t entirely true—what she hated was the inevitable drudgery of having to plan and prepare meals day after day after day for a insufficiently appreciative family, a fact that was communicated to us in no uncertain terms. As a result, I eschewed cooking for at least the first decade of my adult life. But I ate out in restaurants as often as I could afford to do so, even though it meant buying most of my wardrobe in thrift shops.

I can’t say there was one single transformative dish, like Julia Child’s famous encounter with sole meunière, that took my love of food to the next level. It was a cumulative effect. There was that perfectly executed salmon with dill sauce that most restaurants now would probably disdain as terribly dull and old-fashioned (unless old-fashioned is their shtick, which is a distinct possibility). There was that house-made country terrine platter with capers and mustard and currant sauce before the term “house-made” was a thing.

During the summer I spent on the island of Crete, in the village where we lived there was a family-owned taverna that didn’t have a name. The father worked over an outdoor grill in one corner of the terrace. I still daydream about their grilled octopus. That simple yet exquisite dish led me to commit a rare culinary anachronism in my alternate historical writing. In Kushiel’s Mercy, Imriel arrives on the island of Cythera. Looking for a grounding detail, I thought about my favorite meals in Greece. Consequently, my oft-beleaguered young hero enjoys a rare moment of respite with a luncheon of grilled octopus accompanied by potatoes cooked in olive oil.

Potatoes, oops.

A week or two before the book was released, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized, “Ohmigod, we haven’t discovered the New World yet, potatoes couldn’t possibly exist in this scenario!” Too late. I never actually did correct that reference. By the time the opportunity to proof the paperback edition rolled around, I was kind of amused by it and decided to let it stay so I could use it as a trivia question.

Almost everything I’ve written has at least one food reference in it. I think I’ve mostly managed to avoid the dreaded Stew Trope identified by Diana Wynne Jones in her classic The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which notes that stew, generally identified as “thick” and “savory”, is the staple food of fantasy fiction despite the length of required cooking time, which does cut into one’s questing and world-saving schedule.

My current release Starless is light on food references, at least for me. For the first third of the book my protagonist Khai and his brethren at the Fortress of the Winds mainly subsist on a diet of… oh, crap, it is stew! Goat and squash stew; though to be fair, it’s before the questing part of the narrative, so cooking time isn’t an issue. I feel as though goat meat, stewed or otherwise, which is one of the most commonly consumed red meats in the world, is underrepresented in fantasy fiction. One of my favorite scenes in Miranda and Caliban features a slaughtered goat. Okay, that sounds weird even as I write it, and it’s certainly not an upbeat scene, but it’s true.

I had a memorable real-world experience with goat meat that took place at an interesting literary crossroads. The patriarch of a family of longtime friends with a summer home in Macatawa, Michigan, is an avid and curious grill-master—as well as a retired surgeon and the highly respected author of a seminal book on forensic neuropathology. One member of a neighboring family, Tom Doyle, will be known to Tor Books readers as the author of the American Craft series. And Macatawa itself, a community of densely clustered seasonal homes nestled along narrow, winding hilly roads above the shores of Lake Michigan—there’s a castle in the vicinity, too—is where L. Frank Baum spent his summers and is widely believed to be the inspiration for the setting of The Wizard of Oz.

Oh, and of course, I was there.

It was an idyllic setting in which the presence of the carcass of a large suckling goat skinned and splayed and lashed crucifixion-style to an Argentinian-inspired metal grill and slow-roasting over coals over the course of many hours was… disconcerting. Beach-goers following the purported yellow brick road and descending the hill in their flip-flops, trunks, and bikinis, lugging their towels and coolers and beach chairs, definitely looked askance at that goat, for which I cannot blame them in the slightest.

When I rifle through my many culinary memories and the experiences those memories invoke—of fellowship, travel, adventure—I’m amazed at breadth and depth of the delicious food I’ve been privileged to enjoy. Hand-pulled noodles in China; soup dumplings in New York’s Chinatown. Roasted bone marrow. Fried grasshoppers. Oil-cured olives in Provence eaten on a terrace in the soft lavender twilight. A five course New Catalan tasting menu in Barcelona. Handmade street tacos in Mexico City filled with squash blossoms and huitlacoche. Fresh sea urchin at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Oysters with a yuzu granita in Chicago. That madeleine at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco that made me understand Marcel Proust’s obsession.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

I know not everyone is as passionate about food as I am, so I try not to go overboard in my writing. But details that invoke any of the five senses are part of what creates an immersive experience for the reader. So for as long as I continue to write, there will be food references sprinkled throughout my storytelling—just the right amount, hopefully; the perfectly balanced level of seasoning. And I will continue to pursue my own culinary adventures.

Bon appétit!

Originally published June 2018.

Jacqueline Carey is the author of the New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, Miranda and Caliban, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, postmodern fables “Santa Olivia” and “Saints Astray,” and the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy series. Her latest novel, Starless, is available from Tor Books. Carey lives in western Michigan.


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