Foxhole Pizza and Interstellar Quail: Cooking the Books with Joe and Gay Haldeman

Joe & Gay Haldeman [Photo: Sharon Tackaberry, 2011]

If you look carefully, you’ll find that diverse meals are served regularly and with gusto at Joe Haldeman’s fictional tables.

Haldeman is the author of award-winning novels including The Forever War (St. Martin’s Press, 1975), Forever Peace (Berkley 1997), Camouflage (Ace, 2004), and, most recently, Earthbound (Ace, 2011), the third book in the Marsbound trilogy.  He and his wife Gay are lifelong travelers and cooks. Haldeman’s cooking experience extends to some startling methodologies, as you’ll see below, and his books often take up cooking-related issues of scarcity, line of supply, and alien foods.


Let’s talk first about military cooking, both in your novels, and in your experience. 

Joe: I could tell you how we cooked a pizza in a foxhole once in Vietnam….

Please do.

Joe: Someone’s mother sent him a pizza kit: flour, tomato, maybe a small tin of parmesan, and meat sauce. We were in a deep bunker, and we dug out a hole in the side of the bunker. We put plastic explosive in there – enough to heat it as an oven.

(We would like to remind our readers: DO NOT Try This At Home.  Or Anywhere. Ever.)

Joe: When the dirt was red hot we put the pizza in there.  It cooked in about three minutes – surprised that it worked.

I’m amazed you lived to eat the pizza.

Joe: Plastic explosive burns very well. … As long as you don’t try to put it out by beating on it. We used it all the time for cooking up C-rations. The Army used as much plastic explosive for cooking as they did for blowing things up. It was easier than cooking with wet sticks in the jungle.

Now with modern MREs, I’ve heard troops complain that the internal heater doesn’t get the food hot enough.  Wouldn’t try to heat one with plastic explosive, though.

Recently, Lightspeed published “Four Short Novels.” In the fourth of these, “The Way of All Flesh,” your protagonist takes himself to the desert with crates of freeze-dried Kentucky Fried Chicken and fish and chips.  I can’t think of anything saltier – why did you select these foods in particular?

Joe: For humor. I asked myself what would be the least sensible thing for the story.

What is the least sensible thing you’ve eaten?

Joe: I’ll try anything.  I had to get my courage up to eat brains for the first time. A lot of people ate brains, before Mad Cow Disease was a concern.  My mother in law ate them.  Finally, in a Spanish restaurant I ordered them.

A good rule of thumb for situations like that is: Don’t think about what you’re eating.

That goes for your characters too.

Joe: Yes. Particularly for a couple of characters in “Sleeping Dogs,” which I wrote for Gateways, the Pohl anthology. In that story, a gourmand from Earth goes to a fake Italian restaurant on Seca and eats these slimy horrid things that are still alive.

He’s advised, “You don’t want to look at it while you’re eating it.”

Do you put food in your stories for particular reasons?

Joe: Often, if I put food in a story, it’s because I like how it tastes, or I like preparing it.

In The Hemingway Hoax (Avon, 1991), the prostitute Pansy is — among her other virtues — an extremely good American cook. I described what she cooked for this guy in great detail: a meal of baked squash and root vegetables.  It was something that I’d made myself. The guy in the story fell in love with Pansy partly because of her cooking.

When I went through my bibliography looking for food scenes, I was surprised at how many there were. But I’ve rarely written about a cook as a main character. Hmm.

Most of my novels have a scene or two about meals because food is important.

For example?

Joe: In Old Twentieth (Ace, 2005), the inhabitants of a starship cook a duck.  On this starship, they keep ducks for eggs, and only eat the duck when it is too old.  So it’s rare — a delicacy.  this is a ship of 800 people.  They need to decide who get to eat the duck.”

I did write one story about cooking and recipes: “Expedition with Recipes,” for Elemental: The Tsunami Relief Anthology (Tor, 2006).  “Expedition” is a post-apocalyptic story about how people live after the bomb, told through a collection of recipes.  The recipes include: ‘How to cook a rat.’ ‘How to cook cockroaches.’

In Blood Brothers, there was a lot of pseudo-medieval cookery. I tried to be gross about that.  Eel, for instance.

Gay: Once, we saw people eating eel barbequed on a stick in Holland.  That wasn’t that gross.

Joe: No, but eel stew, or eels in eel broth? Gnagh.

In The Forever War, I had fun writing about cooking under primitive conditions.  It’s easy to write about because you don’t have to explain things so much.  People understand cooking over a fire.  When you start to go into cuisines, you risk losing your readers because the descriptions require too much detail, or it’s too gross.

But isn’t ‘gross’ or ‘unusual’ part of what makes writing about food so much fun?

Joe: Sure. In Mindbridge (St. Martin’s Press, 1977), the characters go to another planet where everyone loves to eat this slimy sea creature. They’re all eating it and our hero from Earth says ‘I don’t have to eat for a while.’  He does finally eat it, but he never likes it.

You know, I can’t do that, myself.  I have had things fed to me that I just could not swallow. Even in the States. At a sushi restaurant, my cousin ordered this horrible, slimy thing – I bit down and thought ‘this does not belong in my mouth.’

Gay: You can also evoke extreme responses when the form of the food is odd, or even when the name is odd.  When we returned from Australia, we told people we’d eaten Morton Bay Bugs.  Those are lobsters – or crawdads, but the reaction to the name, wow.

‘Gross’ and ‘foreign’ foods are very different concepts.  You both travel a lot.  How does trying new foods in places you visit help you connect to the place and the people there?

Gay:  When we traveled in Mexico, we came across a young girl walking a caiman – an alligator – on a leash. We chatted with her a while, and she asked if we would come for dinner to her house.  We went, though we were nervous, because the family was very poor. We brought a big cooler of drinks and fruits for the family. The mother greeted us, very nervous also. She had killed a chicken in our honor, which worried us. But the dishes came out and there was so much to eat: chicken stew, unborn chicken eggs over rice, sopa seca.

Then they brought out the chicken feet. They had cooked the feet. We looked at each other and went uh-oh, because we’d said to each other beforehand that we were going to eat whatever they served us.  So they brought these chicken feet out, and, to our relief, gave them to the baby to chew on.  Meanwhile, for dessert we had chicken in a sweet sauce.  At one point, one of us didn’t clear our plate, and they said,  ‘Oh you didn’t like it,’ and I realized: Everything counts.

Joe: When we travel, I’ll cook for our hosts, too. I’ll cook spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, or in Spain, I’ll cook my mother’s recipe for ‘boozy beef,’ which is beef stroganoff cooked with whisky. Once I made Greek avgolemono soup in Spain. In Sweden, we cooked boozy beef with brandy – the neighbors came over and knocked on the door to find out what smelled so good.

In novels like Earthbound, and The Forever War, you address issues of food scarcity.  Can you talk a little about that?

Joe: You have to understand the supply chains in the environment of your story.  Do they go out into their environment to get food? Do they go to the store?  To me, this becomes a way of expressing character and a way of making complications within the story.

When inventing an alien world – and it’s hard to tell someone else how to do this – you start with a person in an environment. In the course of describing the environment, you often include food, the preparation of food and its presentation.

If you’re writing about a starship, you look at the amount of surface area you need to do farming.  For feeding a thousand people on a starship, that surface area required is huge – even with hydroponics.  It’s also more problematic. The more delicate the plants, the more susceptible they are.

It’s interesting to look at military food.  A real-life nuclear submarine carries food for 80 people, for a certain length of time, in very constrained space.  But they can concentrate and freeze-dry food so much that, as long as they can make water, they can pack an awful lot of food aboard.

For Starbound, there’s a small ship with a crew of six people.  Their main problem is that they don’t know how many years they’ll be gone. So they have a fairly large pantry. I did calculations and looked at food stores on an atomic sub. Essentially, they could eat whatever they wanted –quail, for instance.   “Freeze-dried meat, just add water and hope.”

How do you think meals would change for a starfaring culture? How have they stayed the same in your books?

Joe: In The Forever War, people had calorie rations. But if soldiers had extra desserts, they would take them to cook who would ferment them and sell the results back to the crew.

I’ve seen the display in Florida about the space station galley.  It looks like someone was given a million dollars and the gustatory discrimination of a sixth grader.  They’ve got all these interesting things to open and prepare, but the meals are creamed chipped beef or peanut butter and jelly. It’s all so dreary and American.  Post Skylab, NASA recognized that some people can’t eat bland food. They created a big checklist where you could get all kinds of stuff, as long as you ordered ahead of time.

I like the idea that on a starship you wouldn’t have to squeeze food out of a tube and live in total boredom. You’ve got freeze drying. You can pack an awful lot of flavoring agents into a few kilograms – spice racks pack efficiently.

A little spice can go a long way?

Joe: Yes. If you read about the American Gold Rush, about people preparing to go up to the Klondike, what people carried is fascinating. Suppliers would have ready-made boxes containing flour and jerky. But they all had spice racks with things like dried mustard and chili powder.

You explore food- and scarcity-related issues in your latest book, Earthbound.

Joe: Earthbound is the third book in the Marsbound trilogy. The food in Earthbound is survival food.  One of the questions is what will people eat when all the lines of supply are gone. Everyone is living in a subsistence economy, but the population is large for a subsistence culture.  They eat each other for a while.

But there is a little fort full of people who know how to farm, hunt, and fish. They live fairly well, but always worry about other people who might come by.  That’s kind of the Whole Earth Catalog written as a depressing scenario. In this situation, what do you fix and what do you eat?

Everyone in the fort came from a culture of plenty. After a couple of years, how do they adjust to a culture of scarcity? How do they treat each other? It is  a primitive sort of communism, essentially making sure everyone has water and food, at least.

I liked writing that one.

Where does your interest in food come from?

Joe: My mother and I would watch Julia Child and then go make the dishes.  She had two boys, and I was the one who learned to cook and sew.

Gay and Joe, thank you both so much for speaking with Cooking the Books!  We hope you’ll consider coming back sometime.

Boozy Beef

(recipe by Joe Haldeman)

Ready in: 30-60 minutes
Serves 10

Ingredients:

3 1pounds fillet mignon or fillet of beef – cut in cubes

5 tablespoons butter

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 pound mushrooms — sliced

3 3/4 tablespoons shallots or green onions — minced

2 1/2 medium onions, to taste – optional — sliced

5 tablespoons flour

1 cup bourbon

2 cans beef broth

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 cups sour cream

Sprinkle the steak cubes with salt and then dust with flour. In a large skillet,

quickly brown them on all sides in the olive oil and butter. Remove the steak from

the pan. Add the onion slices and mushrooms to the pan drippings. Sauté for a few

minutes, until the onion is tender. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon flour. Put the steak

back into the pan with the onion and mushrooms. Add the beef broth and bourbon.

Cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, covered. Adjust seasoning to taste, adding

salt and pepper, as needed. Stir in the sour cream the last few minutes, right before

you serve. Serve over cooked noodles.


Biography:

Earthbound, the third book in the Marsbound Trilogy

Joe Haldeman is the author of more than twenty novels, including the Marsbound Trilogy (his most recent) and The Forever War.  He is the recipient of five Hugo Awards, the Joseph W. Campbell Award, five Nebula Awards, the Damon Knight Grand Master Award, the Locus Award, the Rhysling Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. He teaches writing at MIT, and lives the rest of the year in Florida.  He is an inveterate traveler and cook. (Joe’s website is here.)

Gay Haldeman  (Mary Gay Potter Haldeman) has a Master’s degree  in Spanish Literature from the University of Maryland and another in  Linguistics, from the University of Iowa.  She has taught in the Writing Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) every fall since 1983, specializing in English as a second language.  The rest of the year she resides in Florida, where she manages science fiction Grand Master Joe Haldeman’s  career, dealing with editors, answering correspondence (in Spanish and French as well as English; isn’t the internet wonderful?), serving as travel agent, answering the phone, typing and filing, arranging publicity, selling Joe’s out-of-print books, etc.   In 2011 she was given the Big Heart Award at the World SF Convention in Reno, NV. She’s been going to SF conventions since 1963 (so has Joe) and loves to meet new people. After 47 years of marriage, she still thinks Joe’s the best thing that ever happened to her.


More Cooking the Books

11 comments

  1. This made me think about the recent studies on how food tastes different at altitude and in space. I expect your sense of taste is lessened in a starfaring ship also. Pack that spice rack!

    1. Thanks, John! I’m very glad to see you here and glad you liked the interview. It was a lot of fun – and Joe had this whole list of stories with meals in them. That was incredible.

  2. I took science fiction writing with Joe when I was at MIT. My fondest memories are of going with Joe to the Thirsty Ear pub on campus after class (classes were in the evening). He’s a fun guy to talk with.

      1. And Gay helped me with some of my earlier grammar and sentence structure problems with a piece I wrote about The Stars My Destination.
        I’m hoping I get to see Joe again in person some day and thank him.

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