The Killer* in the Kitchen: Cooking the Books with Steven Brust

On the page and in the kitchen, author Steven Brust adds a dash of dramatic flair to his creations. To wit: his latest installment in the Vlad Taltos series, Tiassa; his upcoming collaboration with Skylar White, The Incrementalists; and the Hungarian fra diavolo recipe, below. (Heads up for adult language)

Cooking the Books has many questions for Brust: Is Vlad a pantser or a recipe-follower in the kitchen? What is this new unit of measurement in Brust’s recipe? How does cooking relate to the craft of writing in general?

Curious as to what the always-unpredictable Brust might say? Read on.


Thank you for joining us to talk about food and fiction!

I feel like I should say that I’m not clear on the food and friction thing. Rubbing food together to create heat? Usually you heat the food, you don’t use it as a heat creator. So …

Cooking the Books is about food and fiction. Fiction.

OH Fiction! I heard you wrong. See what I did there?

Let’s talk about Vlad. He is the character most closely associated in your readers’ minds with food. Notably, he’s the son of a restaurateur.

When his father owned the restaurant, Vlad was roughly the equivalent of busboy-sous-chef-pantry-chef-dishwasher. He would have probably begun an apprenticeship if things had gone differently.

If his father hadn’t put on airs.

Right. Or something. The whole life of crime thing got in the way of his cooking career.

What does Vlad like to cook?

Well, he’s obviously a “me” surrogate on many levels.

I should have locked up the jewels and the silver before the interview?

Vlad is NOT a thief. Just a harmless killer.

Ok, he’s not me on those levels.

What Vlad likes regarding food is based purely on what I like. And what I like is pretty easy to express. Two rules cover it all:

  1. If it doesn’t have onions, it had better be dessert.
  2. If it doesn’t have garlic, it had better be chocolate.

That said, I’m very much a carnivore. There’s a lot of vegetarian food I like but after I’m finished, I never feel like I’ve eaten. With the bizarre exception of egg salad.

Egg salad with or without the pickles?

With pickles. With onion. With garlic. And with a lot of paprika.

So that’s it, pretty much. Meat, onion, garlic. And more on the olive oil side of the scale than the butter side.

We see Vlad wooing Cawti often in the series. That’s how I locate myself in time with these books: where the couple is in the various stages of their relationship. He tends to woo her with gifts, and sometimes with food.

There are references to Vlad cooking for Cawti and it being special. But he is, in my head, a better cook than he thinks he is. He thinks of himself like I think of myself: I can cook stuff I like to eat, let’s not go any further than that.

I think Vlad has some fairly high standards for cooking and because he doesn’t meet them, he won’t think of himself as that good. But once in a while, the courtship, he thinks, “I’m going to sit down, I’m going to make her a good meal.”

In the kitchen, is Vlad a recipe guy? A plotter? Or is he a pantser?

He’s a pantser. And again, that’s because of me. That’s what I am. Both with writing and with cooking. For the most part, I can follow a recipe. And I will sometimes. As long as it doesn’t have any adverbs in it.

Adverbs? Like ‘slowly…’

‘Carefully.’ ‘Gently.’ ‘Briskly.’ No, that’s just not happening.

Other than adverbs, I can usually follow a recipe. And of course, like any other right-thinking person, I am an Alton Brown fan. How can you not be? Cooking for geeks!

Vlad’s a pantser. In the early books especially, he’s also a white wine drinker. This is not a habit I associate with cooks, unless they cannot drink red wine.

Interesting. I drink both, myself.

When we meet Vlad, he orders a white wine. And as the books go on, it becomes ‘I’d like a wine.’

Whites are refined so differently. In most non-technical societies, you see a lot more red wines because it’s harder to remove the skins. (Astute reader Phiala points out that this is not the case, and that I should sample more wines to be sure. However, Brust’s answer regarding technology and worldbuilding is a great one, so we’re going to press on…)

Ok, first off, I’m playing a lot of games in that world with technology. There’s kerosene. That implies petroleum engineering.

One of the things that irritates me in fantasy is a technological level of “Ok let’s go for the year 1603. That’s our technology. Now add magic.”

It should be a bit of this, a bit of that, and then certain things, magic will cover.

But other things, magic won’t cover, and the processes will have developed otherwise. And playing with that is always fun. So yeah, they can do red wine and white wine.

One reason I stay away from red wine in scenes is going to sound really stupid, but that’s ok. Anytime you give a guy a hand wound, you’ve got to be really careful of the imagery of stigmata. You’ve got to either intend it, or not bring it up. In a book with a lot of violence in it, the same thing goes for red wine. The association is red wine equals blood. So I sometimes just shy away from it because I don’t want to go there.

How do your characters’ tastes differ beyond Vlad Taltos?

It’s hard when writing about food not to just go with my own taste. With Vlad, I don’t worry about it. I like it, he likes it, it’s simple. But in general, in other books, it’s really hard – because it’s so easy to fall back on what I like.

I’m one of those people with an overly developed sense of bitter. I don’t like good beer or strong coffee because it tastes massively bitter to me. I have to be thinking to not carry those tastes forward into my characters.

It’s very hard to step outside of our senses, but food lets you do that.

We’ve talked about Vlad, the character that most people recognize as a quintessential Brust character. Your new book is going to be very different.

Yes. It’s called The Incrementalists. I wrote it with my friend Skyler White, who is just brilliant. She does good food too.

I could go on about the premise and the background and the world of The Incrementalists. But what we’re doing with food in the book is important.

The Incrementalists is built around a group of people who are expert manipulators. They know how to generate oxytocin, they know how to generate dopamine. They know how to make the brain produce these chemicals. And they use that ability to do things. To change things.

Think about what our relationship with food is. With certain tastes and smells. Food is one of the most potent tools the incrementalists use. Whatever a particular person will respond to, they’ll use – music, art, food. They’ll find out ‘this person will respond to this particular song in this way.’

Food is one of the huge ones. You’ve heard the term ‘comfort food,’ right? My guess is that when people are having that food, their brain produces oxytocin. It literally is comfort food.

We play with that a lot in the book.

So food is a method of control in The Incrementalists? What is this group trying to accomplish, in general terms?

In general terms, they are a 40,000-year-old secret society that has been manipulating human history to make things better.

I’m kind of tired of secret societies that are evil. The methods these guys use are pretty much evil and I think they’re aware of it. But their intentions are good. They go through history and when there’s something really awful happening, they make it a little less awful.

For example, do you know about the Battle of Antietam? Lee’s orders, wrapped in three cigars, were lost. How ever could that have happened? It’s that sort of thing.

I’m hoping to get other people involved in the broader project. Because it’s a great set up for secret history. The original idea is from Tappan King.

You take any moment in history and think ‘well, that could have been a whole lot worse. Maybe this didn’t happen.’ There’s a reference in the book to the MP3 format. They’re the ones behind that. They convinced certain people to standardize a sound format because it could have been much uglier, much more difficult, and really irritating for many years.

It seems like your characters are flipping emotional switches to make some of these changes happen.

As a matter of fact, the technical term that the incrementalists use is ‘switches.’

I just sold a short story to Tor.com related to The Incrementalists where a character’s switch is corn on the cob, right from the field, stuck into boiling water for not more than four minutes. That’s a switch for him. It gives him an intense pleasure rush.

Also, in the book, there is one really, really good meal.

Part of the fun of secret history is finding real places and even people to work with. The story is set in Las Vegas, and the characters go to Hugo’s Cellar, which may be the best restaurant in Las Vegas. It’s nominally a steak house. The dinner in the story is important because the book is told in double first person, with two different points of view: Phil and Ren. The way they feel about food, and wine, and the experience at Hugo’s are different. So the meal expresses their relationship.

So, in the meal at Hugo’s, Phil has the rack of lamb. You get this picture of him grabbing these bones and pulling them apart. Ren has Boeuf Wellington. Which is more surgical dining. That expresses their characters.

Did you and Skyler send chapters back and forth while writing the book?

That’s exactly what we did. It’s so much fun! And I got to put my buddy Jason Jones, who is one of the chefs at Hugo’s, into the story.

Jason is also the guy who helped me with the meal in Dzur. Which was a painful process because he had to cook each dish and I had to eat it. O woe is me. (The mushroom barley soup was really remarkable.)

Based on what you said above, regarding the different dining experiences, let’s look at a broader issue. How does food reveal character?

Take a really obvious example: Corwin in Nine Princes in Amber. His first meal: devouring the steak, tearing into the French bread. Meantime, Fiona takes these little ladylike bites of her meal. That’s a lovely character moment and it’s a sensuous moment.

But that scene with Corwin wouldn’t work with a quiche. Fiona couldn’t have brought out a fondue.

I love food scenes because they do so much. It’s so easy to convey mood even more than character in a food scene. It’s so easy, falling-off-a-log-stuff, to get across frenzied or relaxed or sensuous.

What else do food scenes accomplish?

They control pacing. You’ve just had a big fight scene. You’ve lived through it. Then you got a huge plot revelation. Now let’s sit down for a meal and let the reader breathe and prepare for the next time we build tension. It’s always about the creation and release of tension.

A sex scene is another good way to release tension, or to control pacing. Except in a novel that’s not a work of erotica, a sex scene has to be transformational. A food scene doesn’t have to be transformational. You don’t have to come out of the meal with a different relationship than you went in. If you do, great. Or you can just say ‘here’s my chance to slow things down, do some character building, do some worldbuilding.’ Food is my favorite way to do world building.

How so?

I have a wonderful book called Principles of Field Crop Production.

If I want a character to eat some beef in my world, I need to decide what I’m feeding the cows. Are they range fed or corn fed? That does make a difference. If it’s corn, where am I going to get the corn? The Principles of Field Crop Production will tell me: this is the kind of ground you need, this is the amount of water you need. It’s a great book – one of the few I have exclusively for worldbuilding.

When will we see The Incrementalists?

It’s coming out in September of 2013, from Tor. I can’t wait. I am so geeked about this project.

The recipe you sent me has an unusual unit of measurement at the end: the metric fuckton. Is this a standard measurement?

After we finished The Incrementalists, I was going crazy. You know how long it takes after you finish things and before you hear back with a book, right? I was going crazy and I sent a copy of the book to my friend Marissa. She wrote me a really nice letter back and said “Well this book was obviously written by people who have read metric fucktons of Zelazny.”

I just love that term.

The fra diavolo recipe you’ve shared with our readers, is this a family recipe?

No, something I came up with. Traditionally, a fra diavolo is a marinara sauce with cayenne. I messed around with it – finally got it to the place where I like it. But the key is, like I mention in the recipe, is using the Hungarian method of cooking onions, which is not the same as the Italian. Mixing that in really worked well.

The parallels between food and writing are so obvious and clear. It’s hard to talk about them because they’re inherent.

In writing, as you know, it’s all about the details. You’re making the fra diavlo, if you go to the really good butcher shop and get some really good Italian sausage, as opposed to going to the grocery and grabbing the package of Johnsonville, a lot of people won’t notice the difference. If you are using fresh oregano instead of the dried stuff. Ditto. If you’re really careful selecting your peppers, or using fresh minced garlic instead of powder, a lot of people won’t notice the difference.

But if you do all of those things together, people will notice the difference.

It’s the cumulative effect of all those little decisions. Just like writing.


Steven Brust’s Hungarian-style Fra Diavolo Sauce

I call it Hungarian style because of how you cook the onion, which is the way you prepare onion for a paprikas or a perkholt; everything else is fairly standard Italian. But it’s amazing how much difference it makes if you do the onion this way.

  • 1 cube chicken bouillon
  • 1 Anaheim pepper, diced
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, diced
  • 1 can tomato sauce (I use Cantadina cuz I like it)
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes (you know, the usual can size)
  • 2 packages fresh mini-bella mushrooms
  • 2 packages fresh assorted or white mushrooms. (You know, the usual size packages of fresh mushrooms come in)
  • 2 green peppers, diced
  • 2 red peppers, diced
  • 3 lbs spicy Italian sausage (bulk, or chopped if you get links)
  • 2 really fucking big yellow onions, diced
  • 1 1/2 heaping soup spoons of fresh minced garlic
  • A bunch of oregano (fresh, if possible, dried if necessary)
  • Basil
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Crushed and dried red pepper
  • Marjoram
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 1/2 glugs of red wine (pinot noir, burgundy, or Chianti)
  • olive oil

Make a mug of bouillon (you know, cube and boiling water in a mug?)

If you are using fresh oregano, finely mince half of it and set it aside.

Heat up a large stainless steel skillet over high heat (cast iron is not your first choice this time, because you need quick response. God help you if you’re using an electric stove).

When it’s hot, pour in enough olive oil to barely cover the bottom.

When the oil is hot:
If you had fresh oregano, take the half you didn’t dice and put it in the oil. Let it season the oil for a couple of minutes, then remove, shake the oil back into the pan, and discard. Or, if you’re crazy, set it aside, dice it, and add when you add the rest of the oregano.

Throw in your Anaheim and jalapeno peppers.

Saute them for a moment, then add the onion. Swirl and stir the onion until it starts to stick a little, then immediately turn the heat down to medium or maybe a bit less, and add a couple tablespoon of chicken bouillon . (You can also skip the bouillon and just use water. I tried wine once, but didn’t like it.)

Continue stirring until the bouillon is evaporated, then add another couple of tablespoons, and stir some more.

Keep doing this until the onions are pulpy–that is, right before they turn translucent. It isn’t easy. If it makes you feel better, I can only hit it about 50% of the time. It generally takes about 45 minutes.

While this is happening, get a large saucepan and pour in the cans of tomatoey stuff. Add the minced garlic, the mushrooms, the oregano, the basil (about 1/3 as much basil as you used oregano), the marjoram (even less marjoram), cayenne to taste, crushed red pepper to taste, salt, black pepper. For this, I tend to use ordinary table salt instead of kosher salt or sea salt, I guess because the sausage is salty enough to bring the flavors in the other stuff out. Freshly ground black pepper works best, vide Alton Brown.

Add in the wine and water or the bouillon you didn’t use; I tend to use about half a can of liquid (wine + bouillon ). Heat medium low.

When the onions are perfect (or you’ve given up), add them to the sauce.

Turn the frying pan up to high, and fry up the sausage, then add it to the sauce.

Add the peppers to the sauce. Add more water if necessary to cover.

Cook down until the consistency is right. Makes .8 fucktons (English measure) on account of it’s better the second day. Keep adding water when you reheat it to keep the consistency right. You eat it over noodles, of course.


Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and raised in a family of Hungarian labor organizers, Steven Brust worked as a musician and a computer programmer before coming to prominence as a writer in 1983 with Jhereg, the first of his novels about Vlad Taltos, a human professional assassin in a world dominated by long-lived, magically-empowered human-like “Dragaerans.”He has written thirteen of the planned nineteen “Taltos” novels, interspersed with other work, including To Reign in Hell, a fantasy re-working of Milton’s war in Heaven. He’s online and on the Twitter.

* Mostly harmless. No plot tomatoes were damaged during this interview.

Read more Cooking the Books – The updated library of interviews is here.

7 comments

  1. Curious: my understanding of white wines differs from what you said/implied.

    The skins of the grapes are discarded, but after the juice is pressed. It isn’t hard, and doesn’t require any technology beyond a press. That’s if you’re using a white grape, like a Riesling. White wine can be made from red grapes, but that is difficult, and rarely done. Chardonnay goes back to the fourteenth century, at least, and Riesling to the fifteenth.

    What am I missing?

    (Medievalist, material culture geek, fond of food.)

  2. Here’s a deep, important question that I’ve been discussing with Fran offline: Does Vlad eat gesztenyepüré (for the non-Hungarians, chestnut puree run through a ricer, ideally topped mit schlag and a little bit of chocolate syrup)? I read the food sections in the Taltos books pretty intently, I don’t think it’s ever been mentioned.

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