Lessons from the Portuguese: Cooking the Books with J. Kathleen Cheney

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Very excited to have author J. Kathleen Cheney join Cooking the Books today! She’s here to talk about Portuguese cooking and the Golden City, where magical beings have been banned for decades, though many live there in secret.

Kathleen, welcome! Tell us a little about The Golden City and The Seat of Magic — is there a close cultural analog in the world?

The Golden City and The Seat of Magic are set in an alternate Portugal, in what would be the city of Porto, although a somewhat altered version.

What kind of research did you do on that culture?

To research that culture, I did a lot of reading, not only of history, but also period fiction from Portugal (Eça de Queirós and Camões, for example), guide books, cookbooks. Among other things, I tried cooking several recipes from those Portuguese cookbooks. And then we visited the country, spending two weeks in Portugal back in 2012, which was absolutely wonderful.

How close are the recipes you studied to the food found in The Golden City? Would you share some examples?

If you read about the indolent late 19th century gentlemen in the works of Eça de Queirós, you’ll find that their fine dining was strongly influenced by French cuisine. In fact, French chefs were preferred among the upper classes. (There seemed to be a ‘French is better’ to many aspects of the upper crust’s lives.) I chose to deviate from that by having my gentlemen prefer more rustic Portuguese cuisine, so most of the foods I included are from the common man’s diet.

The Portuguese breakfast is usually a pastry and strong coffee (although Duilio deviates from that by having a big breakfast, a habit he picked up in England). We experienced this first-hand because everywhere we went, the vast preponderance of breakfast options were pastries. In fact, we even stopped at a McDonalds in Lisbon…and found an assortment of pastries there!

Meals later in the day are heartier, foods like fish soup, potato and kale soup, and bacalhão–salted cod, often prepared with onions and potatoes. We had variations on that dish in each city we visited in Portugal.  Beef, pork, and chicken are also common (and goat in some places), but seafood reigns in Portugal, so it’s not unusual to see a paella filled with tentacles and claws.  (I’m not a big crustacean fan.)

Is there a gender division related to cooking and food in Golden City?

Like most places at that time in the century, in the home, women do the cooking. Outside the home, in restaurants, cafes, and in finer homes, chefs were men.

Oriana, your main character, has returned home after banishment in The Seat of Magic – but she is very ill. Terribly dehydrated, in fact. Would you talk a little about that?

One of the limitations of sereia being creatures of the water is their gills–they’re very sensitive to water loss. Regularly wetting their gills (by bringing water in through their mouths and expelling it via their gills) keeps them hydrated enough to be comfortable, but they have to do it regularly. Saltwater is preferable, but fresh is acceptable. Going without bathing is difficult, and thus masquerading as a servant (the Portuguese were pretty adamant about getting in that one bath per week before Mass on Sunday) means finding ways to wet their gills without being seen. (Imagine here someone using a neti-pot, except instead the water comes out each side of their necks.)

This also means that sereia routinely take in ocean water or river water through their mouths and over their tongues . However, given everything that’s in the ocean and rivers, they can eat almost anything without flinching at the taste! They’ve probably breathed it before.  And they would also have a high tolerance for salt.

But at one point in The Seat of Magic, Oriana is nearly dehydrated to death. In addition to the normal side-effects of dehydration (weakness, dizziness, and confusion) this would leave her in a lot of pain–rather like a severe asthma attack–until her gills got back to normal. But after that, there’s nothing as tasty as nice salted cod….

What complexities do magical beings find around food when they’re all living together in the same city?

The two main groups of magical being that exist in this city are the sereia and the selkies. Now the sereia, much like humans, live in cities on land, so their diet is very much the same. The selkies, however, live on the sea, just like seals. Their diet is far more raw…raw fish, to be exact.

During your research, did you come across any favorite foods? Any deep dislikes?

pasteis de nata
Pasteis de Nata (Belem)

Favorite: Pasteis de Nata (Belem) This is a small tart made with eggs and sugar and found all over Portugal (although Coimbra had a tasty cheese variant, the pastel de queijo). A bit like tiny chess pies, which are among my favorites, they’re often served with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top.

Least Favorite: Tripas à moda do Porto. Essentially a tripe and bean stew, it originally became popular in the 1400s when the citizens of Porto were shipping off all their better cuts of meat to the Portuguese army fighting the Moors in Africa. And while it has chouriço and beans to recommend it, I’ve never been fond of the half-cooked loofah texture of tripe.

What’s your next project?

I’m currently working on the first book in a new series in a second world setting: Dreaming Death. This series features on a young heroine from one of my pieces of short fiction (from “Touching the Dead”, available on my website). Shironne Anjir is a touch-sensitive, able to sense things so tiny that others can’t even see them. Unfortunately, the overload of stimulus has caused her to lose her sight. But she’s determined to use her special skills to help others. But when a killer comes to the city of Noikinos, she’s forced to use her abilities to help a gifted young man understand his dreams of death before the killer gets too close.

Thanks so much to J. Kathleen Cheney for swinging by Cooking the Books!

397820_462385903841844_861599594_nJ. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and at her website.


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  1. (Although now that I’ve looked, the two makers who do them are both on Etsy haitus!)

  2. A hearty ditto to the deliciousness that is pasteis de Belem. I think of them rather often, considering I haven’t been to Portugal since 2005!

    • Awesome! (And they are wonderful. I fear I don’t have the patience to make them myself, which is part of why they taste so good!)

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