Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Juliet's Appetite for Living

I have an astonishing ability to eat just about anything. I'm not sure that's a good thing -- and recent pictures of me demonstrate that it's really NOT-- but it did make me a successful anthropologist. Nothing like giving chili-sprinkled fried grasshoppers a go to ingratiate yourself with the local population in a small village in Mexico. Or gnawing on gelatinous chicken feet in a dim sum restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown. Or actually asking to try seal meat while in a Yup'ik village.

After all, how can you understand the flavor of a culture without trying its food?

The other day I was in bar with a bunch of other mystery writers (why are we so often found in bars?) and a young man was talking about his stay in Sweden, where he was offered a fish dish that is considered a great delicacy. He knew he was in trouble when the family's young daughter ran outside to throw up the moment they broke the seal on the jar. It seems that they prepare the fish with a variety of spices, then let it putrefy in the ground for a year or so until it reaches its prime.
(About the picture at left: I'm sure they weren't eating clownfish, but isn't it cute?)

When Bouchercon (the big mystery conference) was up in Anchorage a couple of years ago, I took part in the Authors in the Bush program, which sends authors out to remote areas of the state. I flew on a bush plane out to a Yu'pik village right on the Bering Strait. Hooper Bay is still almost entirely native, and its people survive primarily by using traditional means of hunting and gathering. I was speaking at the school and asked the children about their family hunting trips, and one girl told me her favorite thing to eat was "mouse food."

At first I thought she was referring to "moss food" or some such, but I was wrong: she was talking about the stash of food mice build up all summer, carrying home grains and roots and berries in their mouths and tucking them away for the winter. Apparently it makes for quite a delicacy (though it seems cruel to steal the mouse's stash, they leave half for the mouse to eat). I was just as glad there wasn't any available for me to try -- the seal meat was about as far as I could take this whole adventurous gourmand thing.

(For more info on the trip, and pictures, check out my artloversmysteries blog here.)

I wrote my first mystery series with my sister, who doesn't like to cook, so our protagonist Annie Kincaid does great take-out -- which is pretty easy to do in the Bay Area: Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, name it, it's available. The possibilities are endless.

But now that I'm writing a new series on my own, my protagonist --who happens to be a witch-- loves to cook. Like me, she observes that cooking is a kind of everyday magic. You can infuse your cooking with love and caring...there's a reason that the first thing you do when someone visits your home is to offer them food and drink. It's a way to show your affection and respect...or is that my food-loving parents speaking?

I grew up in a family that adored food, and cooking. Life revolved around the kitchen, where my mother whipped up her own mother's southern dishes --gumbo and cornbread were my favorites-- and my father honed dishes he invented during years of cooking at resorts in the Adirondacks and Santa Fe--including the unforgettable "Lawes steak" and "Lawes spaghetti".

These are indelible parts of my childhood memories now, as much --or more-- food for the soul as for the body.


Sophie Littlefield said...

All I can say is, it's a good thing we *were* in the bar when Julie was describing all this to me, because I just kept drinking to steady my nerves and soothe my horrified stomach....she's a stronger woman than me!

Unknown said...

you are a braver woman than i--although my food horizons have expanded greatly i have managed to avoid seriously unique food :) said...

Oh oh, I'm beginning to worry about traveling together next week ... my idea of gourmet is to put a slice of tomato in the grilled cheese! I envy people who are brave enough to try "ethnic" food and actually enjoy it!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Don't worry...I'm not about to impose this sort of thing on innocent bystanders! And Camille, I love tomato in the grilled cheese. ;-)

Karen Olson said...

The Swede was probably describing lutefisk, which is a traditional fish: it's cod soaked in lye. It has the consistency of jello or vaseline. My people have written songs about lutefisk, and everyone talks about how awful it is but it's always on the Christmas buffet table!

L.G.C. Smith said...

Karen, I think this stuff Julie's talking about from Sweden is something worse than lutefisk. (One of my grandmothers was Norwegian.) I saw it on that "Bizarre Foods..." show. In Iceland, I think. The fish was fermented for an ungodly time, and it wasn't something Lutherans put on the table at Christmas time. It would clear a church in no time flat.

Julie, this is why I veered away from anthropology toward linguistics -- I was afraid of really strange food. Having lived in a few fieldwork-type settings as a kid, I knew the potential. You are a brave woman. When I taught at the tribal college on the Rosebud reservation, I had to consider the weird food dangers of various events. Dog soup. Raw buffalo liver. There weren't a lot of weird foods there, but those two were reason enough to avoid certain things.

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