Friday, April 18, 2014

FOODFIC: The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

I love carnival food. Who doesn’t? My favorite is the fries; they have that inexplicable something* that is somehow conjured up by every unique traveling show, yet can be found nowhere else on Earth.

Maybe it’s magic.

Now don’t tell me you don’t believe; real magic is in fact the heart (if not the stomach) of this story. Magic that hides in plain sight by masquerading as trickery.

There is Celia, billed by the night circus as an illusionist, but who actually can alter reality; her show might involve tossing a coat into the air only to have the silk fold in on itself to form the shape of a raven and then fly away.

Marco’s similar, if arguably lesser, ability enables him to manipulate perception – closer to what we think of as stage magic, yet he needs no diversionary tactics since he can truly manipulate what one sees.

Unfortunately, their magical prowess doesn’t equate to psychic ability and the two don’t know that they’re actually being pitted against each other in a contest to the death – the arena for which being the circus that they travel within.

So there’s magic and mystery and romance, yet I can’t help but circle back to my favorite question: What are they serving at this magically real venue? More magic hidden in plain sight, of course! There are fantastically delicious cinnamon things – layers of pastry and cinnamon and sugar all rolled into a twist and covered in icing, as well as spiced cocoa with clouds of extra whipped cream on top. Completely expected carnival foods made exceptional with magic, but still believably real. The only hints at the unusual are the chocolate mice (not at all like the Harry Potter frogs) and the edible paper featuring detailed illustrations that match their respective flavors, which frankly doesn’t sound at all appetizing to me.

And therein lies perhaps the truth of it all: we think we want the bizarre, but we really just want the best-ever version of the usual. We have to be able to relate to it in order to accept it; we need to believe that we are seeing and tasting the exceptional but normal, because admitting that it’s supernatural, might make it suddenly untrue. As in, It can’t be magic, because then it wouldn’t be really happening. Since nobody wants that, we have to deny the magic in order to enjoy it. See? I need them to serve me magical food out of a real-looking fake kitchen cart so that I can savor the flavors without letting doubt and disbelief sour the taste. ;)

*Probably oil that’s been sitting in a fryer for 50 years and would be labeled toxic by a health inspector if one could ever catch up with the show. But I wouldn’t have it any other way; some secrets are better left unexamined. ;)

Friday, April 11, 2014

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Ksenia Anske, Author of Siren Suicides

Darling Shelley invited me to guest post on her blog about food. Food my characters eat. Curiously, in my first trilogy, SIREN SUICIDES, there is hardly any talk of food except human souls, which is what sirens sing out of people, for, well, nourishment. But in my second novel ROSEHEAD a 12 year old American girl, Lilith Bloom, and her talking whippet Panther, travel from Boston to Berlin for a family reunion, and there they pig out on hearty German food, which is partially inspired by my own memories of traveling from Moscow to Berlin (I was 11) and marveling at the abundance of food unlike what I have ever seen in my life, considering the fact that while I devoured fat German sausages,  most Russians had to get food by coupons.

Upon arriving for the first time for breakfast, Lilith approached it uncertainly:

She expected breakfast to be the usual American fare, but what she saw made her gasp with glee. The table offered all kinds of jam, marmalade, syrup, and nugat-crème; plates of rolls, bowls of yoghurt, and trays of freshly made waffles that issued a delicious smell. 

In contrast to this, Panther tells Lilith that he eats mastiffs for breakfast, as a joke. You see, there is a vicious mastiff in the mansion, and, of course, there is an immediate rivalry between the two, although later Panther primarily eats raw steak, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, because both Lilith and Panther very much like Holmes and Watson, investigate the cause for the rose garden surrounding the mansion to behave strangely, and suspect it to be carnivorous, there are also many instances when Lilith is close to losing her breakfast, although she never does. She often skips lunch, her and her dog, traversing in the midst of foul smelling greenery, hoping to find the cause for both the stink and the noises the flowers produce. If it were me, I certainly would prefer to do said activity on an empty stomach.

There remains the case of dinners. On most days, exhausted and scratched all over (remember, this is a rose garden we're talking about), Lilith and Panther usually came back to the mansion to eat dinner, and, funny enough, Lilith requested breakfast for dinner, nostalgic of American food:

Can I please have breakfast for dinner?” She said to the housekeeper. “I’d like an omelet with cheese, American style, with bacon, sausage and blueberry pancakes on the side. Oh, and a bowl of steak for Panther.” 

They do, however, eat the typical German sausage, the bratwursts, and rostbratwursts, blutwursts, bockwursts, knckwursts, leberwursts, and, of course, potatoes, fried potatoes, potato salad,  potato pancakes and the like, with mustard. Well, now my mouth is watering from just writing this. Panther manages to steal the sausage right off Lilith's fork, all the while telling her (he is a talking dog, after all) that he would prefer squirrels, that he even dreams of squirrels:  

It was the most beautiful dream I’ve ever seen! I was chasing squirrels, a dozen fat juicy squirrels.” He rolled up his eyes. “Then I caught them, they tasted like— (He gets interrupted and sadly we never find out what exactly they tasted like.)

There are also macabre and grotesque references to unusual food images, like this one: 

Whatever happened to your beret?” Gabby asked suddenly. “I thought I saw you put it on this morning." 
Lilith inhaled, exhaled, and resorted to the only defense she had against her mother’s wrath. “Wild elephants ate it, mother. They thought it was a gigantic strawberry from Mars. In fact, the garden was full of them. Elephants, not strawberries. I’m dreadfully sorry we missed dinner. We watched them do a private ballet performance for us. In tutus. Right, Panther?” Panther raised his ears and flashed her a look that could only mean, Did you really say, elephants in tutus?

I think in all, I had fun writing in food choices into ROSEHEAD and playing with them. And now I will go make myself some German sausage, because all this writing about German food made me hungry. So thanks for reading, and bye. *opens the fridge*

Thanks for stopping by to share your food for thought, Ksenia!

 You can find Ksenia and her books here:

Friday, April 4, 2014

FOODFIC: Jinx - Sage Blackwood

The only problem with this book was me. Most specifically, my current stage of life, which revolves around small children.

I’m NOT saying this book isn’t for parents of small children, nor other adults, nor children. In fact, it has something for all of those people – wizards and witches, werewolves and trolls, new worlds and even new words (for me, at least!). *

No, what kind of grabbed my leg and wouldn’t let go was the stepfather/wizard/exchange-of-young-boy situation that launches the story. As a parent, I found it extremely difficult to witness even a fictional man selling a child to a stranger in the woods. And then the boy going home with said stranger had me practically yelling aloud, “Don’t go!”

That’s why I had to step outside of myself to continue reading; my personal concerns were blocking me from enjoying the story! When the stranger (later revealed as wizard) brought Jinx to his isolated home in the woods and served up what to the boy was a feast like he’d never before experienced (bread, cheese, pickles, jam, apple cider, and pumpkin pie), and my inner voice screamed, “It’s all a trick; he must be a pedophile**!” I had to silence it for good. (Okay, for 350 pages.)

Once I removed the mom-tinted glasses and went forth with the bright and clear eyes of a young reader, I loved every scene Blackwood showed me. Yes, I could just enjoy that hot cider without having it spoiled by the bitter taste of suspicion!

Better yet, I could see the world as Jinx did, with every person’s feelings expressed as colors and images around them. Turned out, Jinx had his own magic before he even met Simon the wizard – perhaps metaphoricizing the magic innate to every child that life/adults take away.
So the moral here is the same for people of all ages and stages: read this one as a child – better yet, with a child! – and just enjoy the magic. And the pumpkin pie. ;)

*Demesne. Look it up; I had to!
**Let me be clear: the wizard is NOT a pedophile, nor are there child molesters of any sort in this book.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Christa Polkinhorn, Author of the Family Portrait Series

One of the readers of my novels pointed out jokingly that my characters love food and wine and drink copious amounts of coffee. She is right! I enjoy reading food descriptions in novels and many of my characters like to eat and drink.

Food, the preparation and enjoyment of it, can be a powerful device in a novel. Eating is a very sensual thing and in our writing, we try to convey sensual experiences with words. We want our readers to be involved with the story and one way to do this is to let them perceive the world through the senses of the characters. Let them smell, hear, see, and taste. It brings the story to life and makes for much more interesting reading.

In addition, the way we eat, what we eat, like any other activity, can say something about the rest of our lives and hence, in a novel, about the lives of the characters we create. Here are a few examples of my novels where food plays a role in the Family Portrait trilogy.

The first book, An Uncommon Family, starts with six-year old Karla, eating an ice cream cone:

        Karla licked the crispy cone, trying to catch the sliding droplets before they hit the ground. The raspberry ice cream was a dark purple, her favorite color. … She turned around and peered through the window of the art shop, where her aunt was picking up two framed pictures. When she looked back at the sidewalk, her breath caught.
“Mama?” she whispered.
She saw the woman only from behind, but the bounce in her step, the long, reddish-blond hair flowing down her back, swaying left and right, the tall, slender figure—it must be her mother. She tossed the rest of the ice cream into the trashcan, got up, and ran after the woman.

The above “ice cream scene” encompasses one of the books main themes: Karla’s longing for her mother. When a young girl tosses her favorite ice cream cone into the trash to run after someone, that someone must be critical to her life. The child’s action startles us and we are eager to know what happens. Seeing a woman who reminds her of her mother turns the peaceful enjoyment of her sweet into a heartbreaking chase after a phantom. As we find out a little later, Karla’s mother is in fact dead and the child hasn’t been able to fully accept her loss yet.

Later in the book, Karla tells her painting teacher and mentor, Jonas, about a dream that scared her and made her sad. Jonas knows just the thing that would bring some relief to Karla: comfort food or drink—a cup of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream—which he lovingly prepares.

        Jonas poured the milk into the mugs, shook the bottle of whipped cream, and squeezed a dollop out of it. “Try it.” He handed a mug to Karla.
 Karla took a sip and licked some of the whipped cream off the top. “Good,” she said.
 They sat on the couch in the living room, sipping hot chocolate. Karla put her mug down on the table and walked over to the wall to look at a photo of Eva. She stood in front of the picture, seemingly absorbed, then turned around. “She’s very pretty.”
 Jonas nodded. “Yes, she was beautiful.”
 Karla came back to the sofa and picked up her mug again. After she took another sip, she gazed at Jonas with her large dark eyes. “Do you dream about her sometimes?”
“Yes, quite often.”

The scene shows us something about Jonas’s kindness and love of his student, and it introduces us to his own heartbreak.

Other food scenes in the book provide information about the environment and the seasons in Switzerland. The scent of roasted chestnuts in the old town of Zurich, a restaurant that serves fondue in winter, or, in summer, the refreshing taste of ice-cold gazosa or lemonade.

In the second book, Love of a Stonemason, Karla invites Andreas, her new boyfriend, a stonemason and sculptor, for dinner. It is raining and Andreas builds a fire in the fireplace. The scent of burning wood and the smell of cooking mingle, creating a sensuous atmosphere which leads to their first lovemaking. In the morning, they wake up hungry and Karla prepares a rich breakfast of eggs, bacon, bread, butter, and jam.

        Andreas scraped up the leftover egg with a piece of bread and licked his fingers. “This is excellent, by the way.” He pointed at his plate. “I could get used to this.”
       “I’m glad you like it.” Karla was amused by his appetite.

Here we get a glimpse of Andreas’ character. He is a sensuous man, somewhat unpolished but compassionate. He enjoys food and Karla, who is a talented painter and an excellent cook, knows the saying, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and prepares some outstanding meals. Another dinner scene gives us some insight into the characters of Andreas’ family, when Karla meets his mother, his aunt and uncle for the first time.

        It was only now that Karla noticed a third person in the room, a thin, quiet, unassuming woman, probably in her fifties. Andreas introduced her as his mother. She greeted Karla with a shy smile. After saying hello, she seemed to disappear among the other people. Karla was amazed how little mother and son resembled each other.
        Aunt Maria had prepared a typical dish of the area for lunch—coniglio and polenta, rabbit stew with slices of corn mush fried in olive oil and topped with parmesan cheese—as well as vegetables and salad. It was a very tasty meal, but Karla, who by nature wasn’t a big eater, constantly had to stop Maria from putting more food on her plate.
Cara, you’re much too thin, you have to eat.” Uncle Alois tried to put another piece of meat on Karla’s plate.
“Leave her alone, for god’s sake,” Andreas finally intervened. “You know, Alois, not everybody can eat as much as you do. You could actually do with a little less yourself. You must be twice as fat as when I saw you last time.”
“Don’t be fresh, young man.” Uncle Alois grinned. “Here, have some more wine.”

In the above scene, we get to know the family by the way they behave at the table. We see Andreas’ unassuming mother, we witness his kindly aunt and boisterous uncle showing their old-fashioned hospitality and we experience the playful bantering between Andreas and his uncle and we realize that Karla despite her cooking skills is a slender woman and modest eater.

In Emilia, the third book of the trilogy, a meal at a grotto in the south of Switzerland (grotto is a special kind of country restaurant), Andreas and his children eat out, since Karla, the mother, was visiting her ailing father in Peru. The youngest child, Emilia, wants to eat her spaghetti the same way her older sister does, rolling the strands on her fork.

       He (Andreas) scrunched his forehead and glared at Emilia. “What are you doing? Stop playing with your food.”
 Emilia, who had been trying to roll spaghetti on her fork, which kept sliding off, looked at him with big eyes, which quickly filled with tears. She was obviously shocked at her father’s unusually harsh tone. So was Laura.

An otherwise loving father, Andreas also has a temper and the tension that has been building between him and his wife brings out his angry side. The conflict in the family is made even more obvious during a meal, which is normally a time of sharing and relaxation.

In all these examples food is used both as a way to enrich and enliven a story as well as showing underlying themes and giving us insight into the characters. 

Thank you for stopping by to share your food for thought, Christa!

 You can find Christa and her books here: