Food is Personal; Food is Political: Cooking the Books with Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig comes to Cooking the Books with six published novels under his belt, including Blackbirds (Angry Robot, 2012), Mockingbird (Angry Robot, 2012), and, most recently, The Blue Blazes (Angry Robot, 2013).

He has plenty more words [some safe for work, some really, really not] where those came from, with new novels on the horizon, and his wildly popular blog http://terribleminds.com.

Chuck is an absolute delight to have as a guest, even when he’s looking like he might destroy some charcuterie with very big hammers, Gallagher-style. Ok, so maybe he’s the delightful guest that sometimes leaves a bit of a mess behind. The kind that you need to hire special cleaners to remove.  Curious as to what he might bring to Cooking the Books? We’re so glad you asked! It’s meat, folks. Lots and lots of meat. And a few controversial words about … bacon.

Let’s talk about your fiction and food – The Blue Blazes and Under the Empyrean Sky in specific. Food is front and center in both books, to different purposes. Why is that?

CW: I have both a personal and political interest in food.  On a personal level, I like to eat food.  This isn’t the everyday, shrug. ‘I like food’. I mean I really enjoy food. I love all of the foodie conventions.  I just made lettuce wraps the other night with sea-beans and I had fiddleheads on the side. It was all very foodie farm-to-table hipster food and I was like “oh my god, I’m that guy.” But I love it and it’s great.

To put the things that I love, and that compel me into my fiction — that’s important, but … I also have a two year old and we are constantly struggling with ‘what do we feed him that isn’t poisoning him.’  He’s a great eater, and we’re lucky so far.  He’ll eat kale, last night he was eating kohlrabi and shiitake mushrooms. He’ll eat bravely. And sometimes he just wants chicken nuggets and I’ll concede that fight.  So it’s always a fight over what we’ll put in his body.  For me – I’m done, I’m 37 years old, I’ll eat whatever, I’ve been pumping God knows what into my body – because it’s already done. But he’s young, and we’re trying to do right by him, so food is a political issue for that reason.

So The Blue Blazes is about loving food. Mookie Pearl is this big thug, this brute force main character who is basically a human sledgehammer. But at the same time he has this weirdly delicate palate. I mean it’s charcuterie so it’s still — it’s meat! GRRR. But it’s also like little delicate strips of lardo. Mookie makes charcuterie and he’s compelled to buy it too. That softens him, in a way.

I like to show that Mookie’s not all destructive and “I LIKE TO PUNCH THINGS.” He has this refined palate.

On the other hand in, Under the Empyrean Sky, which is my young adult novel coming out July 30, food is entirely political.

Under the Empyrean Sky is the first of a trilogy. That book really takes food politics front and center. It features the sunniest, shiniest, dustbowl dystopia you’ve ever seen. The world has been ruined by corn and these rich people float in the sky above it all, while the hardscrabble worker type, the Heartlanders eat “shit biscuits” which is like hardtack.

The Heartlanders have no access to great food, they eat rats and animals with tumors and stuff like that. So when Cael, the teenage main character, finds a secret garden in the middle of the corn – lush peppers, beans, all kinds of vegetables – it’s like eating chocolate for them. The food is so lush and good and they haven’t seen anything like it in fifteen years. Under the Empyrean Sky is definitely a world where things have been ruined by big food conglomerates.

In The Blue Blazes, which is a great book, your main character, Mookie Pearl is focused on eating from the word go. He calms himself with eating. And, as you said, he’s particular about his charcuterie.

Yes, Mookie has a refined palate and he’s also an emotional eater.

I sense a running food theme in The Blue Blazes. The word pig comes up in a lot of contexts. The vehicle that they ride underground is called a ‘pig’. There’s a butcher – Karyn — who is extremely good with the stranger parts of a pig.

Right. Yes.

But I noticed a particular part of the pig is missing from The Blue Blazes. So let me ask: Chuck Wendig, did you write a Bacon-Free book?

A bacon-free book? Yeah, there’s no bacon in The Blue Blazes.

How could you write a book about pork with no bacon in it?

You know what, I’m going to make a controversial statement that I think bacon is over.

I say this having just last week made a dinner where every dish had some kind of bacon in it, so obviously I still love bacon, but as a trend? It’s too much.  I like bacon in unconventional things. I’ve made candied bacon and chocolate-covered bacon and I’ve had a bacon milkshake, which was tasty. But honestly? We’re done. We can stop with bacon.

There are other meats that are delicious and it’s time to start talking about them, I think.

Ok, for our readers, define charcuterie, which comes up frequently in The Blue Blazes.

Charcuterie is the act of artisanal butchery and the curing of meats. Sausage charcuterie, pepperoni charcuterie, ham charcuterie.  I don’t do this myself, but I’m dying to try it.  Soon as I have that magical free time I keep hearing about, I will try it.

You know the funny thing about charcuterie? While it’s hip and trendy now, it’s very old. That’s how people dealt with meat hundreds of years ago. You had to cure it to preserve the meat. It’s not like “I’m going to carry this steak with me across the country and we’ll be fine… Just eat this rotten steak.” Salt curing and brining is — theoretically — preserving your meat for a long journey ahead. But then you can have such a delicate cut that you can do a lot of really interesting things.  There’s a great book on charcuterie – Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (W.W. Norton, 2005). Great book.

What draws Mookie to these foods — over other foods?

I don’t know that we know what draws him.  Obviously food is a part of his history, who he is. When he goes into a Polish restaurant, there’s a dinner with his bosses.  In that scene he’s constantly trying to eat — he wants to eat that pierogi — and people are interrupting him and getting in his way. There’s a big conflict in that he wants to eat, but can’t.

The meat thing ties into his nature. He’s a meat guy: a physically meaty person. The fact that he will use hammers and cleavers in a fight ties in to what he does at the table.

Nora, Mookie’s daughter, is more associated with the scent of flowers in particular. You have a whole Persephone myth moving through The Blue Blazes. But we don’t really see her eat.

Yes, sort of a spin on the Persephone myth. No, she’s not really associated with eating… outside of what happens — can we spoil the book?

No don’t spoil the book!

Yeah but see — I’ll just say what she eats at the end is very significant.  So there you go.

So Mookie rides a metaphorical pig into the underworld.

Yeah. That’s real a real thing, by the way. The whole sand hog thing — again, ‘hog’ — is real. Those guys are amazing. Anytime I see people who do extreme jobs that help further the country or the world – guys who go deep into the earth and underwater are amazing. These guys go down — and have been going down for a long time — beneath Manhattan in a space at least as big as what you get above the surface. That “man a mile” thing is not quite as dramatic as it once was, but they still die down there. Pockets of gas, tunnel collapses. These guys are down there carving out the infrastructure of the city. New York City does not exist without the sand hogs. The water that comes in, the transit tunnels – they are amazing.

You are like the Mike Rowe of science fiction right now.

I love Mike Rowe. He has some really great talks about the value of work.  And I like to think this is somewhat of a blue-collar book.  Fantasy sometimes has somewhat of a lofty white-collar vibe – magic is often ephemeral and very distinctive. It’s artistic, in a sense. In this book, the magic is much more crass.  But then of course you have Mookie with his delicate charcuterie.

What part do the rollergirls play in this book?

The rollergirls come at the criminal organization from the side.  If you look back at the gangs in New York 30 years ago, they weren’t the kinds of gangs that we know today. There were some goofy ones – a lot of the gangs in The Blue Blazes are riffs on that. There were girl gangs, greaser-era girl gangs. Roller derby was an interesting hook for that.

The butcher, Karyn – who is roller-girl adjacent –seems to be a kind of bridges between Mookie and the places he can’t go. So what is Karyn’s position in the whole mythology of TheBlue Blazes.  She seems very transitional.

She seems like a gateway, but she’s not. She provides him with information. She’s also reflecting to Mookie what he could have been. She does what he loves, as opposed to what he doesn’t like – his job. He belongs to his job, but he doesn’t like it.  He respects her – moreso than he respects his own colleagues, I think.

Food in Under the Empyrean Sky – is it an up/down dichotomy? What do the people who float in the city above the cornfields eat?

They eat all the lovely fancy food – the second book gets into what the Empyrean eat.

The first book mostly focuses on what the Heartlanders on the ground eat. Shit biscuits, rats. The main character’s sister runs away to live on the flotillas in the sky and sends  care packages down to her family that are primarily food.  She sends things they’ve never tasted and can’t even conceive of – mangos and pot de crème… it’s basically food porn for them.

Would you be willing to give us a taste of Under the Empyrean Sky that shows us a bit of this experience?

Surely.

The first thing that draws Cael’s eyes are the red bell peppers, fat and swollen like breasts. They hang so low they’re almost touching the ground. But soon his eyes move to see the bulging green beans, the jaunty onion tops, the round cabbage so richly purple it matches the iridescent back of a caviling grackle bird.

“Ohhhh” is all Rigo can say.

Lane is more verbose. “It’s a garden. A glorious, no-shit, shouldn’t-be-here, how-the-hell-can-it-survive garden.”

Cael laughs, nudges the dead shuck rat aside with his foot, and grabs a red pepper. He twists it and it pops off the plant. Then he takes a deep bite.

His teeth puncture the tough skin with a pop, and his mouth floods with the pepper’s juices. It’s sweet and bitter at the same time. Wet, crisp, crunchy—as refreshing as anything he can remember. Cael closes his eyes, listens to the corn rustling and whispering. Feels the warm sun at the top of his head and the cool breeze brushing across his brow. A moment of bliss. Then he’s jolted out of it as Rigo hops over and snatches the pepper out of his hand.

~ from Under The Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy), by Chuck Wendig (Skyskape, July 2013)

What inspired you to write about food inequalities from this perspective?

I wrote this book in the month after my son was born and then over the year worked with my agent, Stacia Decker, to hammer this thing out.

I grew up on a farm and I was very young when we stopped doing more traditional farming – corn and livestock – but we still lived in that farm community, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  So I have that vibe – that connection and sympathy for the hardscrabble farmer. And I watched the documentary called King Corn, which was amazing. These two guys buy an acre of land and decided to see what it takes to grow corn. It’s a very strange process for them that involves more than just the basics. It takes in GMO stuff and agribusiness.

All of that culminated in Under The Empyrean Sky.

Talk to me a little bit more about growing up on a farm? How does that change the way you experience food?

When I was very young, we had steer and chickens.  We always had a garden, but my father pulled away from a lot of that. We had odd animals, elk, peacocks. Pheasants, rabbits, pigs. Growing up on a farm was always interesting. You get a sense of proximity to food – you get a sense of eating… not just ‘it came to me in a very pretty package,’ but intestines and what they smell like – don’t puncture those by the way. That smells horrible.

Eating what you have grown is much like charcuterie; with both, you gain an intimacy, an awareness of what goes into the food.

Organ meat is trendy now, but it was peasant food. It was what was left after someone else got the good stuff.

It’s important to understand what food really is – that it’s not just a white powder in a box. That’s important.

Chuck, thank you so much for talking with Cooking the Books!  Best of luck with Under The Empyrean Sky, debuting in July.  And thank you for your recipe, below:

It’s fresh strawberry season, so this is an easy way to shove them into your mouthhole with great delight:

  • Put a pint of washed strawberries in a blender with:
    • two cups of milk,
    • two Tbsp of honey,
    • two Tbsp of malted milk powder.
    • Oh, and a small palmful of ice cubes.
  • Blend.
  • Adjust sweetness to taste.
  • Drink. Or, rather, guzzle greedily before your toddler can take it from your hands. Or, my toddler, at least.

Wendig_Photo2_paintedChuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He is the author of such novels as BLACKBIRDS, MOCKINGBIRD, THE BLUE BLAZES, and UNDER THE EMPYREAN SKY. He is an alumni of the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab and is the co-author of the Emmy-nominated digital narrative COLLAPSUS. He lives in Pennsyltucky with wife, son, and two dopey dogs. You can find him on Twitter @ChuckWendig and at his website, terribleminds.com, where he frequently dispenses dubious and very-NSFW advice on writing, publishing, and life in general.

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

6 thoughts on “Food is Personal; Food is Political: Cooking the Books with Chuck Wendig

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s