Thursday, March 23, 2017

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Merry Jones, Author of Child's Play



Don’t get it wrong: Child's Play is not a children’s book. Nor is it a book about games and toys, or the importance of either.

No, Child's Play is a dark and shadowy thriller that begins in an elementary school. And however slightly, food plays a part in the story.

Since the main character, Elle Harrison, is a second grade teacher, the first and foremost food item on the book’s menu is peanut butter sandwiches. Even though in reality, some classrooms forbid peanut butter due to student allergies, Logan Elementary is a fictional school. Peanut butter is the number one favorite sandwich of the kids who go there.

They also like ice cream. Ice cream man Duncan Girard parks his truck at the edge of the school yard. Kids line up there every day, eager for treats.

 Beyond ice cream and peanut butter, food plays an important part in depicting the characters in the book. For example, protagonist Elle. She is recently widowed, her house for sale. For her, food is a reminder of meals shared with her husband. Cooking and eating have become excruciatingly lonely. So she doesn’t cook, doesn’t even keep food in her house. When her friends come over, one complains that she has only stale crackers and a half empty jar of peanut butter in her pantry, only a hard block of cheese, mustard and mayo in the refrigerator.

Even if there’s not much food in Elle’s house, she has an abundant supply of wine. Pinot, Cabernet and, her favorite, Shiraz. Wine, she finds, eases her loneliness and softens her moods.

Unlike Elle who is indifferent to food, her friend Jen is continuously ravenous. She’s someone who never stops eating and never gains an ounce. Food is always on her mind, and usually in her mouth. If all she can find is a stale cracker and some peanut butter, then that’s what she’ll eat. Jen is married to a man with similar hunger, but his is aimed at accumulating wealth rather than calories. Jen enjoys the fruits of his efforts, but possibly not as much as she enjoys actual fruit.

Another of Elle’s friends, Susan, is the opposite of Elle when it comes to food. She is a cook, a nurturer, a mother. When Elle is upset about a colleague’s murder, Susan offers to bake banana bread. What could be more comforting than warm fresh-from-the-oven banana bread? When her friends get together, Susan always whips up a meal from whatever odds and ends she has on hand—like a last minute yummy frittata of eggs, onions, red pepper, tomato, mushrooms and cheeses. Even when she and her friends end up eating at Elle’s, Susan is in charge of food. After a traumatic day in the emergency room with Elle and Jen, Susan makes sure they are well fed on Chinese: General Tso’s chicken, Moo Shoo pork, shrimp and broccoli, and hot and sour soup.

In Child's Play, the relationships characters have with food reflect who they are and how they live. One character uses coffee as a friend, a crutch, an energy boost. Elle uses wine much the same way. Food shared makes a community, enhances the bonds of friendship. Food taken in solitude can reveal an insatiable neediness in Jen’s character, a reminder of loneliness in Elle’s.

Having said that, sometimes it’s not the characters relationships to food, but the food itself that offers meaning. For example, when against all advice, Elle goes to a deli with a convicted killer who’s suspected of serial murders, readers are clued in that he might not be such a bad guy. Why? Because he orders an ice cream soda.
  
I suppose, in reality, serial killers might drink ice cream sodas. But in my book, ice cream sodas are synonymous with honesty, decency and kindness. They scream innocence.

If he’d been guilty, the guy would never have ordered an ice cream soda. He’d have had to go with the Devil’s food cake.



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




You can find Merry here:




Friday, March 17, 2017

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Joni Parker, Author of Gossamer



In Gossamer, Lady Alex attempts a daring rescue of her grandmother and her friend who are being held hostage by rebel soldiers and uncovers a plot of betrayal and deception that reaches to the very pinnacle of power in Eledon.
 
But what are they eating, you ask?  I’ve never had anyone ask before.
 
Alex is one of those lucky people who can eat almost anything and doesn’t have to worry about her weight.  She’s as comfortable eating at the table of her cousin, Prince Darin, as she is around a campfire.  The menu for her lunch at the Prince’s table includes roasted squab and potatoes, pea soup, tomato salad, bread and butter as well as a piece of cake.  A girl needs her nourishment before embarking on a difficult mission.
 
Alex also depends upon her cousin to provide provisions for her mission.  She fills her backpack with a map and essential food items, enough to last for a few days—bread, cheese, dried meats, and fruits both dried and fresh.  She supplements her diet by foraging for food, finding sweetpods growing underground in caves.  In addition, she temporarily gains a new sidekick, the caretaker’s son, who shares his family’s leftover lamb slices and freshly baked bread with her.
 
Later in the story, she camps out in the wild with a group of handsome soldiers and they serve her supper: fresh caught fish grilled over a campfire with beans and bread on the side.  What else could a girl ask for?
      
At home, Alex eats whatever her grandmother cooks.  Lentil soup or fish.  It’s good, but her grandmother is hardly a gourmet cook.  Her argument with the King had left her on a strict budget, not enough to hire servants, especially a cook.  But Alex can handle it.  Her tastes are simple and she loves coney stew, her favorite dish of all time.

Gossamer is the third book in the Chronicles of Eledon series.  It can be read as a single entrĂ©e, but it’s better as part of a full meal deal.  The first book is called Spell Breaker and the second is The Blue Witch.  The fourth book, Noble Magic, is still in the kitchen being prepared.   

Bon Appetit!


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



You can find Joni here:




Thursday, March 9, 2017

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Pendred Noyce, Author of The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair



REFRESHMENT IN THE HOUSE OF WISDOM

In the House of Wisdom, the scholar and mathematician al-Kindi offers Ella and Shomari refreshment. The year is 841 CE, and the city is Baghdad, center of culture and government for the caliphate. The two time-traveling middle-schoolers are visiting to learn from the master about how to decode a secret message. Food puts them at ease.

The teenagers drink cardamom coffee and fruit juice. They nibble on apricots, nuts and dates from Persia as al-Kindi discusses his theories on the origin of the universe, the benefits of trade and the importance of religious tolerance. Finally, he shares his method to decode any substitution cipher. The food and conversation contrast with the menacing behavior of the guards who swarmed Ella and Shomari on their arrival.

In book six of Tumblehome Learning’s Galactic Academy of Science series, The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair, four friends work together to outwit the evil Dr. G, who is scheming to undermine the international science fair with cheating and “alternate facts.” The kids meet after school at each other’s houses to plan their approach to breaking the secret code Dr. G uses to send orders to his corrupt judges. Then one pair travels through time to gather information from cryptographers of the past – from Julius Caesar to Thomas Jefferson to Whitfield Diffie – while the other pair stays home to work on computer programs.

Food reflects culture and personality, and every G.A.S. book is multicultural as well as historical and scientific. In Coded Fair, the snacks served at the different kids’ houses tells us something about their culture and their parents. Shomari’s father serves the kids healthy cider and vegetables with vegetable dip, but his mother sneaks in later to offer them cupcakes. Anita’s mother serves sopapillas, but then on the spur of the moment invites everybody to stay and eat chicken casada with Anita’s large and fluid Dominican family.

Now if only we knew more about what Julius Caesar ate, or in the Italian Renaissance of the grumpy mathematician Gerolamo Cardano. Unfortunately, neither of those hosts was welcoming enough to offer food to his visitors. But on the way, we got interested enough in the history of food to explore it a lot further in book nine, The Contaminated Case of the Cooking Contest, which is all about food poisoning on a cruise ship.

Food. We should really put a lot more of it in children’s books!



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




You can find Penny here:





Thursday, March 2, 2017

FOODFIC: Please Welcome Pete Morin, Author of Half Irish



In 1993, I was fined a trivial sum by the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission for allowing a friend of mine to pay for my Osso Buco (and a few martinis as well). I had no idea at the time that would become the focal point of a novel I would write sixteen years later:

“What is ‘osso buco’?”
“Braised veal shank. It’s a northern Italian staple. Delicious.”

While the novel represented a radical fictionalization of events surrounding the federal indictment of that friend (he was just as generous to many others), the novel’s treatment of gastronomie is as true as I can tell it, as are the two following sequels, Full Irish and Half Irish.

I cannot say I did this consciously. The vast majority of Diary of a Small Fish I wrote merely as a scribe for a bunch of characters who evanesced in my imagination and dictated to me like I was paid a penny a word. Apparently, they liked food, too. This leads me to suspect that they are all alter egos, at least as it comes to the culinary arts.

But there in the opening chapter of Diary of a Small Fish, the first food reference: “a well-aged New York strip.” A staple of my upbringing.

Diary, Full Irish and Half Irish, follow the saga of Paul Forte, ex-politician, lawyer, griever of life’s losses, and gourmand, and his passionate love interest, Shannon McGonigle. Shannon was one of the grand jurors before whom Paul was compelled to testify against his friend. She intrigued him from the outset, but he was hooked on their first social meeting: a long afternoon of beer drinking and chain smoking (with a little fried calamari) at Boston’s venerable old institution, Brandy Pete’s. What hooked him? She drank Harpoon, an “ale with attitude. To match the mouth.”

The characters continued to insinuate their food tastes into pivotal scenes. After their relationship was consummated (in an edible paint scene), Paul and Shannon have post-argument sex in the kitchen (“fresh linguine, vine ripe tomatoes, olives and a half-duck, already roasted”), leading to what I still think is two of the best lines in any of my novels:


But Shannon is a resourceful woman, and she distracted me further with a deft raising of skirt and removal of underwear, and we used the prep table for a wholly unintended function which I suspect debilitated the structural soundness of its legs.

After such an experience, it is impossible to eat pasta and duck naked without giggling like a fool, and there is always the sense that the taste is just a little different.


Later on, as they share dinner in one of Boston’s iconic bistros (Hammersley’s), Paul and Shannon share some deeply personal observations about themselves, interrupted by the waiter:


Rinaldo showed up at the wrong time again, using cake and port as his weapons. But even he couldn’t break the spell. Shannon paid him no mind and he flounced off.

“We can never come back here again, you know.”

She flicked her fork into the cake, slipped it under a morsel of black gooiness and slid it between her lips. “He’ll get over it.”



There is also a lot of good booze in these novels. The 95 year-old mother of my friend sent me an email after reading Diary. She said, “if you drank as much as Paul, you’d never have finished the novel.”

Paul and Shannon’s adventures continue in Full Irish and Half Irish, as they gambol through the taverns, pubs and bistros of Ireland and Boston.

All of this focus on food and drink was not for everyone, of course. I received an unusually harsh 1 star review from a Goodreads reader, who complained:


It's kind of like the author couldn't decide whether he wanted to write a political thriller or just a really long story about rich people enjoying expensive food and wine (which he goes to staggering extremes to explain in every detail during almost every scene). I read books for interesting character and plot development, not to hear how often they eat fancy food and drink expensive alcohol.



Clearly, this reader grew up on canned hash.

There are reasons (I came to understand) why these characters dictated this singular focus on food. Paul is a man of unusual privilege and upbringing, stuck in a circumstance over which he has no control. Faced with the death of his father, the loss of his ex-wife and the prospect of prison, it would be understandable for him to resort to anger, self-pity, effrontery, as so many in his station might have. But Paul is a sensitive soul, full of observations about the human condition, and he faces his crucibles with a sense of humor and appreciation for the complexities of life. That his lover happens to be a child of a broken Southie family emphasizes that, despite Paul’s upper class upbringing, his soul is close to the street. Still, she is no fan of the cauldron of steamers (“smells like shit,” she says).

Food serves as a means of distinguishing his persona, of illustrating his sensitivity to taste, smell, his joy in the social aspects of food preparation and consumption. In one earlier scene of Diary, alone, drunk and bereft on Christmas Eve, Paul wanders into a Chinatown restaurant. It is late, and the restaurant is empty (as empty as his heart), except for the host family who are eating together before cleaning up to go home. He asks if they have any dim sum left. They make a place for him and the father instructs his children to bring Paul food. Chicken feet. The father gestures to the gray patches on Paul’s temples and says, “Your heart weak.” Paul learns from the man the miraculous properties of Chinese ingredients in the healing of the body and soul. At home late that night, he makes a chicken soup with ingredients gifted to him:


Perhaps it was the soup, but I muddled through Christmas day without once entertaining the thought of jumping off the roof. It’s so obvious why people do that sort of thing at this time of year.


Food brings people together, it induces and facilitates dialogue, it incorporates the milieu and provides scenery, attitude and mood. It is a rich source of metaphor. Like music, art, a hobby or skill, it provides the reader more than a glimpse into the souls of the characters.

I shall finish with two disparate examples of food’s ubiquity in the arts and humanities.

In Hilaire Belloc’s The Mercy of Allah (1922), as the protagonist travels through the countryside, he is offered food and drink by a local citizen. He observes, “the prospect of refreshment at the charges of another is an opportunity never to be neglected by men of clear commercial judgment.”

The other appears throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Frenzy, where Inspector Oxford and his wife discuss the serial murders as she serves him a continuing array of grotesque “gourmet” dishes, including pig feet (“Pieds du Porc”) and fish stew (head on). A comic counterpoint to the lurid details of sexual perversion.

And aside from its role in the plot, there are truths within food that transcend the banalities of daily life. As Raymond Hannah observes in the opening line of my short story, Club Dues, “Osso buco is a dish never to be interrupted.” He is 100% correct!


Diary of a Small Fish is available FREE! on Amazon. If you enjoy it,
you’ll enjoy the two sequels. Just don’t read any of them on an empty stomach.


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



You can find Pete here: