E.C. Myers is the mild-mannered superhero behind the award-winning YA alternate universe duology: Fair Coin and Quantum Coin. We lured him to Cooking the Books with a peanut-butter laden trap, and while we have him in our power, we’ll ask him about the kinds of food found in speculative young adult fiction. From pizza and french fries, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cooking to Master Chef, and more eclectic offerings on the menu, join us as E.C. fires up the stove for our latest Cooking the Books.
A question came in from the audience – our first from the Twitterverse!
So is there any evidence that pizza is different in alternate universes?
E.C.: I’ve been thinking about this question. Thanks, Sunil!
The whole thing about alternate universes is that anything that could exist does exist in a parallel universe. But… I realized that there’s nothing we could invent that hasn’t already been invented by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They have exhausted all of the pizza options that could possibly exist. Pizza with marshmallows and peanut butter? That exists.
So I feel like I don’t know how vastly different pizza would be in an alternate universe. Maybe there would be a universe where there would be no deep-dish pizza. I don’t really like deep-dish pizza, sorry Chicago. I prefer NY-style pizza, or Italian pizza that you have to eat with a fork and a knife – the super thin crust pizza. With seven cheeses. So if I were writing universes, then those pizzas would be available in abundance, and Sicilian or deep dish pizza, probably not so much. You’d have underground rebels cooking that pizza, illegally. You’d have to track them down, and you could because those brick ovens are really easy to find.
But there are subtle differences that exist in individuals from universe to universe. Why not with pizza?
In Fair Coin, I wanted to undermine the tropes of parallel universes. I set it up that there aren’t magical powers in parallel universes, there aren’t super heroes. They’re all still based in reality and the physics that we know. There are safeguards built into the coin so that Ephraim couldn’t go to a universe where he couldn’t survive. If there’s a universe where there’s no oxygen, the coin won’t let you go. And what I wanted to deal with was the idea of traveling to other universes and not knowing you were in another universe because they were so similar to your own.
So there are subtle differences. Once Ephraim starts making bigger jumps, it becomes more obvious. There are bigger divergences that become more observable.
One of the ways he knows he’s in a different universe is that his mom makes him breakfast. He wakes up one morning and there’s this “Donna Reed”-style spread – sausage and bacon and toast – that his mom would never make. He’s used to eating Pop Tarts, and he’s like ‘wait, something’s wrong.’ His mom even says ‘don’t get used to this, I’m not doing this for you every day, but it’s a big day for you…” but the fact that she did it at all is pretty amazing.
In an alternate-universe like the one in the TV-show Fringe, food isn’t always that different either. At least, not much stranger than what Walter would make in our universe.
I don’t think we see anything different in the other Fringe universe. Spoilers aside. In the far future, food is very different – like Walter eating egg sticks. Everyone thinks that’s nasty, but Walter eats all sorts of nasty things. Food is very important to Fringe. Walter eats Red Vines, which were used by the fans when they were trying to support the show. And Walter’s very food-obsessed. He wants to go out for shakes and is always making food in the lab. And then there’s the cow, Gene – which does survive. I was really happy to see that they took care of the cow.
But it was interesting to see that they didn’t really dwell on food being different.
What are some issues that might arise from food being very different in an alternate universe?
I have a short story about parallel universe dating services where you can date a parallel universe version of your ex. In certain universes, that’s problematic because of allergic reactions. So it would be interesting to play with the idea of food being different and not agreeing with your system.
… Like marshmallow-peanut butter pizza? (Sorry TMNT chefs!)
I actually tried experimenting with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle style cooking. I put peanut butter on a pizza once. It was not good. Most TMNT cooking is not good.
When I was a kid, I tried different variations of food with peanut butter. Because I love peanut butter. I tried peanut butter on rice. I thought something like cold sesame noodles with peanut sauce, it’s so good, so this might be good too… But no. It is not the same. It tastes really nasty.
I think I made peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, and those were actually ok, especially with slices of apple in them. But you can’t just take things that you really like and put them together. That doesn’t always work. No matter what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles say.
In some young adult stories, food is often served to the characters, or they order it, or it’s in the fridge. It’s the kind of food that doesn’t require the main characters to go through a whole mess of steps to get to the point where it’s edible. It’s fast. Is that something common to YA? What books do it differently?
I have to imagine on some level that food preparation, unless it’s central to the plot, belongs in the category of bathroom breaks. You don’t typically read about your protagonist saying, “we really need to talk about saving the world, but I just need to pop into the loo for a second.”
My teens eat a lot of French fries. Easy food.
One book, if you’re thinking about chefs, and also parallel universes, is Planesrunner by Ian Macdonald. Everett ends up being the cook on the ship. He’s very proud of it and he even teaches the rest of the crew skills around the kitchen.
But somehow cooking seems to be a younger thing, like the kid version of Master Chef on Fox. My friend Tara Dairman has a middle-grade book coming out next year: All Four Stars – about a girl who accidentally lands a job as food critic for The New York Times. She also learns to cook and has epic cooking disasters.
The types of stories that are popular in YA right now, I think they’re too busy dealing with whatever situation they’re in, or thinking about their love triangles to actually cook.
OH! Another exception is Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger, which is interesting because it’s set in a magic school, but only one of them is going to survive. So it’s kind of Hunger Games mixed with Harry Potter. And the first test they go through is learning to create an apple. If they can’t do it, then they starve. They have to make food with magic. That ties magic to survival.
Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races has a made-up recipe for November Cakes.
Right, and in Sarah Prineas’ Magic Thief series, a secondary character, Bennett, cooks things like biscuits and bacon. Sarah includes a recipe for biscuits in the back of the book.
And one of the things I most remember from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series is spagbol. From the food kits – or meals-ready-to-eat. Every time I eat spaghetti Bolognese, I think of that.
Obviously, in Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, food is very important, but the main character doesn’t prepare it.
Food seems to be a huge thing in anime too.
Oh! And in Fair Coin, Ephraim, I am now recalling with pride, does in fact cook for Zoe. He makes her an omelet. She is suitably impressed.
Speaking of food, and prepared food, your next project involves automats. Can you tell me a little about that?
Who We Used to Be is about a world where kids remember their past lives when they turn fifteen because the atomic bomb triggered in 1945 makes people recall their past lives.
From then on, the world is slightly different.
One of the ways I carried through this idea of people remembering being from different cultures throughout history, and the resulting mish-mash of cultures, is through food.
My teen characters don’t make their own food, but they go out to restaurants. The automat is one of those. The original automats had American foods like hamburgers and soups, but in the Who We Used to Be automat, you can get Indian and Korean and Thai and it’s all behind these little windows and you put in your quarters and pull the food out.
I really like that idea – like a mall food court all shrunken into these little windows.
Another difference in the book is Thanksgiving food. Because the characters are influenced by the memories of the original settlers and of the Native Americans, they have a clearer idea of what was eaten then. So they’re eating venison for Thanksgiving. Turkey isn’t really on the menu anymore.
What was the traditional food at the time?
Stuff like roast venison, fried cod, duck, corn bread, and pumpkin stew. Turkey, not so much.
What was the research for the project like?
For Who We Used to Be, I ended up getting into one of those Wikipedia loops where I kept sticking in more questions based on what I’d found. For every touch point in the book I had to make sure it would exist. I was looking for justifications for why something should exist in this world, but also I was looking for ways to say ‘this really isn’t our world’.
So for instance I looked up Pepsi – which started off being called “Brad’s Drink” and was served at drug stores. Then it evolved into Pepsi. Then I had to decide, is this a Pepsi universe or a Coke universe? Things like that.
What is your favorite food?
Difficult question to answer. Probably PB&J, because I like peanut butter so much.
Also a lot of the foods that my mom makes. I keep intending to learn how to prepare them, but I haven’t tried yet. My mom is a self-taught cook and learned from watching her mom. Also she really understands food and can go to a restaurant and then reverse engineer food. So if I ask her, “How do I prepare bulgogi the way that you make it?” She’ll give me the steps, but measurements are all based on her intuition. She’ll say ‘put in a dash’ so the recipes are sort of useless to me. I want to go to a Korean cookbook and use that as a baseline to see if I can make it like my mom makes.
Whenever I ‘wing it,’ things don’t go well. Like: “I don’t have any of this, but that is kind of like this. Maybe it will work?” and it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.
In college, we had an (illegal) microwave and a heating coil – to make tea. Tea is important to me. I had to have tea. And my mom sent me off to college with my own rice cooker. I had no idea how versatile rice cookers are. It came with all these attachments, and they look really strange, but once you read the manual, you discover you can cook eggs in there – all sorts of things. I made ramen in the rice cooker once.
It’s not “snack” ramen. It’s food ramen. I’m so picky – the only ramen I want is the ramen I ate when I was growing up: Ichiban. I’ve tried Top ramen and the chicken-flavored stuff and it’s disgusting. I like the one I grew up with. It’s the Sapporo Ichiban ramen, only the original flavor.
What other projects do you have in the works besides The Way We Were?
I have a reprint coming out in Alec Shvartsman’s Coffee anthology, called “Caution: Contents Hot.” It’s about a woman who smuggles a neurotoxin into a Starbucks and it’s triggered by coffee. It’s a story between her and this one guy who tries to stop her. That was originally written for another themed anthology, then sold to From the Asylum, and then the Coffee anthology came along.
I have a story coming out in the Schoolbooks and Sorcery anthology, edited by Michael M. Jones. My story is called “The Grimoire Girls” and it is a somewhat transparent mashup between Gilmore Girls and Supernatural. There’s food in that! They order out a lot, using magical powers.
Thank you so much, E.C. for talking about food with us today. And for your “Magic Broccoli” recipe… which looks super easy.
E.C. says: My wife calls this “magic broccoli” because she loves it so much. I think it’s magic because it’s so simple to make. I got the original recipe from allrecipes.com, where it’s listed more accurately as “Broccoli with Garlic Butter.” That recipe is below with my usual modifications indicated; like my mom, I don’t actually bother to measure anything, unless I’m making this for guests.
- 1 1/2 pounds like, maybe two heads fresh broccoli, cut snapped by hand with brute force into bite size pieces
- 1/3 cup give or take butter
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons a splash white vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon a shake or two ground black pepper
- 2 cloves spoonful garlic, minced (from a jar)
- 1/3 cup chopped salted cashews meh
Place the broccoli into a large pot with about 1 inch of water in the bottom. Bring to a boil, and cook for 7 minutes, or until tender but still crisp. Drain, and arrange broccoli on a serving platter toss broccoli into a bowl. Let some fall on the floor for your dog, because she loves broccoli.
While the broccoli is cooking, microwave melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat ramekin for 30 seconds. Mix in the brown sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, pepper and garlic until it’s light brown and tastes delicious; add varying amounts of butter, soy sauce, and vinegar as needed. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Microwave for about a minute and stir. Mix in the cashews, and pour the sauce over the broccoli. Serve immediately.
Amount Per Serving Calories: 187 | Total Fat: 14.2g | Cholesterol: 27mg Best not to think about it.
E.C. Myers is the author of Fair Coin (recipient of the 2012 Andre Norton Award) and Quantum Coin, young adult science fiction novels published by Pyr. His short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines such as Sybil’s Garage, Shimmer, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. He currently lives with his wife, two doofy cats, and a mild-mannered dog in Philadelphia. You can find him online at his website http://ecmyers.net and on Twitter at @ecmyers.