In Defense of Stew

From Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland:

Stew is the staple food in Fantasyland, so be warned.  You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out.  Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time.  Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in camp you are likely to be attacked without warning, and in an inn prone to be the centre of a tavern brawl, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak.  But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food.  The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables.  Do not expect a salad on the side.

So many conventions of epic fantasy make so much less sense when viewed in the harsh light cast by The Tough Guide.  But is stew really one of them?  Many people seem to think so.  You can hardly have your characters sit down to a meal of stew these days without someone in your writers group pouncing on the supposed error.

And yet, I would argue that complaining too much about stew in historically-based fantasy novels shows a basic lack of understanding of food around the world in general, and of the history of food around the world in particular.

From Volume 2 of Don Quixote (1615):

[Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have stopped at an inn for the night, and Sancho Panza asks the innkeeper, or landlord, what they have for food.]

The landlord responded that he could have anything and could ask for whatever he wanted:  the inn was stocked with the birds of the air, the fowl of the earth, and the fish of the sea.

[This is followed by several paragraphs of Sancho saying, “Okay, we’ll have this,” and the landlord responding, “Oh, actually we’re out of that”, a la Monty Python’s cheese shop skit.  Finally…]

“Let’s settle this, for God’s sake,” said Sancho, “and tell me once and for all what you do have, and enough talking, Senor Landlord.”

“What I really and truly have are two cows’ heels that seem like calves’ feet, or two calves’ feet that seem like cows’ heels; they’re stewed with chickpeas, onions, and bacon, and right now they’re saying, ‘Eat me!  Eat me!'”

Sounds to me as if stew is actually a fairly authentic meal for your characters, if your imaginary world is at least somewhat based on pre-Industrial Europe.  On the other hand, of course, since Don Quixote is a parody of heroic quest tales, maybe the joke about characters not having anything to eat except stew is older than people realize.

Obviously, no one’s going to be cooking up a pot of stew over their campfire after marching 20 miles.  But in an inn or tavern, where the proprietor and staff have been there all day?  Perfectly reasonable.  Far more reasonable than steak, in fact.  For one thing, most of the meat on a cow (or any other quadruped) isn’t tender enough to be turned into steak.  It requires long, slow cooking in some kind of liquid (also known as “stewing”).  Even more so before the advent of modern factory farming and feedlot practices.  And, before the invention of refrigeration, most of the meat people ate would have been salted, dried, and/or smoked.  Salted meat especially needs to be soaked and boiled before it’s palatable again–an excellent candidate for stew.  It doesn’t make sense to kill a large animal for fresh meat unless there are enough people around to eat it before it spoils.  So you might do this for a wedding or other special occasion, but the suggestion that a typical inn serving ordinary travelers should specialize in steak instead of stew is a bit ridiculous.

Another set of issues around fresh meat, at least in temperate climates, are seasonal.  Late fall is the traditional time to butcher large animals, for several reasons.  One is that it’s cool enough to allow you to clean and cut up a cow or pig (or sheep or goat or deer) before the meat spoils (it might even be cool enough that you can safely hang the carcass in a shed for a few days).  But it’s not so cold that your fingers are likely to freeze before you’ve finished.  Also, it’s expensive to keep animals alive through a cold winter, and most of the calories they consume (provided at your expense and inconvenience, since there isn’t any grass for them to graze on) go to maintaining body temperature, not putting on muscle mass (i.e., meat).  Food-to-meat conversion is much more efficient during the summer and early fall, since warm-blooded animals aren’t burning calories to keep warm.  Which means that fresh meat is going to be less available and more expensive through the winter and early spring months, until the animals have had a chance to graze again and put on some of that weight they lost during the lean time.

What about chicken?  Chicken was also a food for special occasions before factory farming made chicken the cheapest meat.  Chickens were mostly for egg production.  Sure, if you wanted more laying chickens and let your hen sit on her eggs to hatch them, half of the offspring would be males, so you might as well raise those for food and eat them while young and tender.  But once your female chickens got too old to lay eggs, they were too tough for roasting.  That’s why a mature female chicken is referred to as a stewing hen.  If you remember later verses of the song “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” (believed to have been written during the late 1800s), one line goes, “We will all have chicken and dumplings when she comes”.  Chicken stew, in other words.  (Although in the song, it isn’t a stewing hen, but “the old red rooster” who gets the axe.)

Stew is common in traditional cuisines around the world.  Pot-au-feu in France, cozido in Portugal, Moroccan tagine, Mexican pozole, Hungarian goulash, Persian khoresh (I made a very good one with beef and okra recently, from this excellent cookbook), South Indian and Sri Lankan sambars.  You could argue that most South Asian and Southeast Asian curries are basically stews:  meat and/or vegetables cooked in liquid until everything is tender.  Stew makes sense if you don’t have a lot of fancy kitchen equipment.  Put everything in a pot with some liquid; cook it for a long time.  And humans have been making clay pots for 20,000 years or more.

I don’t think critics are entirely wrong to complain about all the stew eaten in fantasy novels.  Look at the Don Quixote example.  At the end of the scene, the innkeeper doesn’t say, “What I have is a big pot of stew”, he describes what went into the stew.  If you write that your characters were served stew and leave it at that, you’re missing a perfect worldbuilding opportunity.  We learn a lot about the kind of food available in inns in 16th century Spain from the description of the stew Sancho Panza is offered–cheap cuts of meat (including bacon, which we know is both salted and smoked), along with chickpeas (a staple locally-grown legume that can be dried and stored through the winter) and onions (a local vegetable that also stores well).  If you’re writing a story set in a terrain and climate that isn’t like Spain, your characters might eat stews with different ingredients.  Maybe dried peas, in a colder climate (remember the song about “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old”?).  The meat might be salted beef instead of bacon, or salted fish if the inn is near a coast or river (or if the majority of the population abstain from meat for religious reasons multiple days each week but are allowed to eat fish, as was the case for most of Europe during the Middle Ages, when salt cod was traded pretty far inland to give people something to eat on fast days).  The stew might even include fresh fish or seafood if you’re next to a large body of water.  But fresh fish is even more perishable than fresh meat, so you won’t see it even a day’s journey away.  Remember that meat used to be a lot more expensive.  Most people’s diets (among agricultural societies) consisted mostly of grains and legumes, with a bit of meat for flavor when they could afford it.  So a legume stew with a bit of meat is probably more likely than meat and vegetables.  (And vegetables are seasonal, when you can’t ship everything from California year-round in refrigerated trucks.  Make sure that whatever vegetable your characters find in the stew would actually be available locally in that climate at that time of year.)  Think about what access to spices your imaginary country might have.  Caraway, cumin, coriander, and dill all grow well in northern temperate and Mediterranean climates.  Pepper, cinnamon, and cloves?  Not so much.  But spices keep well once dried, and are popular trade goods.  So wealthy people might enjoy a spice outside its growing region, but ordinary folk would have to be satisfied with local flavorings.

And of course, there are plenty of non-stew foods that don’t show up in fantasy novels nearly as often as they should, given their popularity in peasant cooking traditions around the world.  I’ll write about some of these in a future post (eggs, anyone?).  Until then, don’t be afraid to feed your characters a hearty bowl of stew!  But be sure to tell the reader what went into it.

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Mysterion Anthology

Donald and I decided that our marriage doesn’t have enough conflict and neither of us has enough distractions from writing fiction.  In a perhaps-foolhardy attempt to solve both issues at once, we’re going to edit and independently publish an anthology together.

For those of you who might be less familiar with publishing lingo, an anthology is a book of short stories by different authors, often on one particular theme or topic.  (A book of short stories by a single author is usually referred to as a collection.)  We’ll be inviting authors (including you, if you’re an author!) to submit speculative fiction stories (science fiction, fantasy, or horror) that engage meaningfully with Christianity:  Christian characters, themes, or cosmology.  Stories we select will be published in an anthology called Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith.  You can read more about it at, and you can even sign up for our newsletter (for authors, Submission Guidelines and Theme Guidelines provide more information about the kinds of stories we’re looking for)!  We pay 6 cents per word for stories of up to 10,000 words.

We’re open to submissions from October 15th to December 25th, and the anthology will be published sometime in 2016 in both paperback (print-on-demand) and e-book formats.  (If you’re not sure what print-on-demand means, the short answer is that you’ll be able to order it from Amazon and possibly other online booksellers, and we won’t have to find room for 1000 books in our small apartment.)

Why are we doing this?  Well, we’re both Christians.  And, while we enjoy reading fiction written from a wide variety of perspectives, we often wish that we encountered more stories dealing with Christian beliefs and life in a way that feels authentic to our own lived experience.  I don’t necessarily mean pro-Christian here.  There are things that bother me about my own religious tradition, things that I’m skeptical of or uncertain about.  That’s part of my authentic lived experience of Christianity, too.  What I mean is, portrayals of Christians and Christian beliefs are often too much on one side or the other.  Either Christians are the good guys, standing up against obviously wrong and stupid antagonists, or Christians are the bad guys from whose wrongness and stupidity everyone else needs rescuing.  Neither side resonates with me.  I like stories where no one’s really the villain, where it isn’t clear who’s right or wrong.  And when there are Christian characters, if I squint a little and look at them in the right kind of light, I should be able to see a resemblance to myself or my friends or family members.  Even when the likeness makes me cringe.  Perhaps especially then.

That’s my answer, at least.  Donald may have a different one, if you ask him.

Are we a Christian publisher?  We’ll probably never get onto the American Christian Fiction Writers Recognized Publisher List, even if we become successful enough (and publish novels).  Apparently, Christian fiction has to be written from a Christian worldview and must not contain “profanity, graphic sex, gratuitous violence or other objectionable material, and must otherwise conform to generally accepted standards of the CBA [Christian Booksellers Association]”.  We’re not necessarily looking for profanity, graphic sex, or gratuitous violence, but we’re also not publishing a book for readers who don’t want to encounter anything offensive or disturbing.  We believe authors should use whatever words and situations they consider necessary and appropriate to tell a particular story.  Besides, I’m not sure the Bible itself would meet these content guidelines.  And, while we do want authentic portrayals of the Christian experience, and cosmology that fits into a Christian framework, we’re eager to consider stories from any author of any faith (or none).

So, if you’re a science fiction & fantasy reader and enjoy stories where faith and/or religion figure prominently, check out our website and subscribe to our newsletter!  And if you’re a writer, send us a story (but only after October 15th).

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New story out in

My latest story just came out in Issue 30 of  “Twenty-Seven Images of Retribution” concerns a young man determined to avenge his father’s death, while struggling to come to terms with how his father failed him, his mother, and their people.

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New story out in Crowded

Sometimes it can seem as if I hardly ever get a story published.  So it’s exciting to announce, only a month after my last new story came out, that “It Is Beautiful Here” is now up at Crowded Magazine.

Crowded has an interesting concept, which you can read about if you click around their site a bit.  The stories they publish are selected by their readers and prospective authors; they’ve “crowd-sourced” story selection, so to speak (hence the name of their magazine).  If you’re interested in publishing a story with them, you post it to the submission pool, and anyone who’s either a subscriber or who has submitted a story of their own has the opportunity to read it, give it a rating of 1 to 4 stars, and provide “constructive criticism”.  Stories are submitted anonymously, so no one reading your story knows who wrote it while they’re deciding what rating to give (and only the aforementioned subscribers and authors are able to see the submission pool).

The story concerns a young man who wakes one morning from unsettling dreams to find that he has started turning into a tree (with apologies to Franz Kafka).

I hope you enjoy it!

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New story out in Fantasy Short Stories

My story “Brother’s Keeper” just came out in the latest issue of Fantasy Short Stories.  This is a sequel to my earlier story “The Year of the Bear”, published in Allegory way back in 2010.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the four-year gap is due to the vagaries of publishing, or to how slowly I write.

“Brother’s Keeper” has a “traditional” fantasy setting.  With elves.  And a strong-willed 14-year old female protagonist.  Depending on your own reading preferences, you can take this as either endorsement or warning.

Here’s the tagline:

Aleine can’t stand her annoying younger brother Imry, who never gets in trouble for anything and was born with the ability to do magic, an ability Aleine desperately wishes she had.  But now Imry is in danger, and Aleine the only one with any chance of rescuing him in time.

I hope it won’t be another four years before you see the third installment!

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Five weeks of garden pictures

I thought people might enjoy seeing some pictures of this year’s garden. I spent much of March anxiously gazing out my window into the yard, first wondering if the snow would ever melt, then wondering if it would ever get warm enough to plant anything. Once the snow was gone, I would go out every day (sometimes more than once) to poke at the hard, frozen dirt in the raised bed. Is it thawing yet? How far can I stick my finger in before I hit ice?

Well, as it always does, spring has come to New England. I started planting hardy, cool-season vegetables on April 4th, a few days after I noticed the first crocuses blooming in our neighborhood. I put in fava beans, spinach, radishes, parsley, chervil, and komatsuna. Three days later, I added chives, baby bok choy, red giant mustard, and mizuna.

Garden, 04/07/14

Here’s a picture, from April 7th.  Gardening experts among you may notice that I’m using the square-foot gardening method.  Sort of.  I don’t bother with a permanent grid to mark out the squares, I just used tomato twine strung around some small nails that I hammered into the frame of the raised bed.  I don’t have the complete grid yet in this picture, just enough to mark the areas I’ve planted.  Actually, three of the planted squares are not completely delineated by grid.  Wonder of wonders, the plants still came up and thrived.  The world did not end.  (If you’ve ever read Mel Bartholomew’s blog–he’s the founder of the square-foot gardening technique–you’ll notice that he’s quite opinionated about the Only True Way to do square-foot gardening.  And about a lot of other things.  Others who promote the square-foot gardening approach, like Boston area non-profit The Food Project, are less dogmatic about it.)

The chicken wire is there to keep squirrels from digging up the newly-planted bed.  I was too lazy to make a chicken wire cover for both sides.  Actually, I already had the one chicken wire cover I made last year (it wasn’t wide enough, so I had to snip wires and twist them together to make a cover that would go over one entire half of the bed).

Garden, 04/14/14

One week later.  I’ve planted more stuff (beets, carrots, Swiss chard, and a second square of radishes).  You can see I’ve finished the grid, and covered the second half with chicken wire.  You can also see a dusting of cayenne pepper on the southern side of the bed (top).  The chicken wire wasn’t quite as effective at keeping squirrels out as I’d hoped.  They were apparently able to sit on top of the mesh and poke their miserable little paws through the holes.  They do much more extensive digging without the mesh, though.  It helps a bit.  Like most mammals, squirrels hate the capsaicin in cayenne pepper, so it can keep them out of your garden for a while.  Unfortunately, they do get used to it, as I discovered last fall when they were frantically burying hickory nuts among the newly planted lettuces.

You may also notice that the grass is ever so slightly greener in the second photo.

The third photo (below), is from April 21st.  We had snow and a hard frost between photos 2 and 3.  Yeah.  Gotta love New England weather.  I’ve taken the chicken wire off the northern side because, although you can’t really see them in this picture (they’re too small), the spinach seedlings are up, and the dirt isn’t entirely level in the bed, so the spinaches (in an area where the dirt was higher) were poking up through the holes in the wire.  And I needed to cover up the mustard seedlings in that half (the 4 tiny dots in the row second from the bottom, on the left), since the temperatures were dropping below 30.  I just used upside-down drinking glasses.  For the side that still had chicken wire, I put a doubled sheet of black plastic over it, resting on top of the mesh, weighted down with bricks.  (One of the cold nights was very windy.)

The uncovered spinaches and radishes ended up with a half inch of snow on top of them.  But they were fine.  And the seeds that hadn’t come up yet did eventually emerge.  Except for the chives, but I’m not sure what’s going on with them.  The seed may have been too old.

More cayenne pepper, around where I’ve planted the fava beans.  Because I really didn’t want to have to replant them, due to squirrel activity.  I’m not sure I’ll get a crop to begin with; they prefer temperatures below 70 F, and Boston doesn’t have a lot of days in the spring between when the ground is frozen and when temperatures are well above 70.  Also, I don’t think I really get 6 hours of sunlight in this yard, so crops take longer to mature.  We’ll see.  I really like fava beans, so I’m hoping to get some.

The plastic wrap weighted down by small stones is over the chervil.  Chervil needs light to germinate, so you’re supposed to press the seeds into the soil surface.  But it’s hard to keep them moist enough.  I’m using the Saran wrap to create a mini-greenhouse.

Garden, 04/21/14

Below, a week later.  Even more green grass.  You can see the fava beans easily now, in the lower left corner and the one next to it.  I’ve taken away the second chicken wire cover, because the beets (which are still difficult to see, in this picture) were poking up through the holes.  Also, I’ve switched over from the Saran wrap greenhouse to ones made out of drinking glasses.  Some of the chervil came up, so you’ll only see 2 glasses in the chervil square instead of 4.  The other glass is covering some newly-sown marjoram, which also requires light.  I replanted the chives that never came up, with fresh seed.  And I’ve planted a third square of radishes, and some cilantro.  Dill, too, but that’s in one of the pots that you can’t see in this view.  There’s a bunch of stuff in pots, along the edge of the yard, and on my patio, but I’m just focusing on the raised bed here.

Garden, 04/28/14

And, finally, a photo from May 5th, 4 days ago.  More cayenne pepper, marking sites of past and continuing depredation by pesky squirrels.  You can see a lot of changes from the previous week.  Things are really taking off now.  I’ve been thinning the greens and adding the thinnings to our salads, or just using them to garnish whatever vegetable side dish I’m serving for dinner (microgreens!).  I ate a radish, but it really wasn’t big enough.  The first square of radishes is growing rapidly, though.  I think they’ll be ready next week.

Garden, 05/05/14

Sometimes I write, too.  It would be fair to say I’m more excited about the gardening right now.

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Frozen is no Snow Queen

Donald and I recently saw the latest Disney animated feature, Frozen, and while it had some good moments and one great song, we didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the other recent Disney films (Wreck-It Ralph, for instance).

The biggest problem was the writing.  A major plot twist was not foreshadowed at all, the pacing felt off during the first quarter or third of the movie, and the tendency of characters to break out into song at the least provocation felt forced and awkward.  (Yes, I realize that it’s a musical, but ideally it should either feel somewhat natural that someone has started singing, or the song itself should be so memorable that you don’t care.)  Early in the movie, I felt myself inwardly sighing every time a character started to sing, and waiting for the plot to pick up again.

For me, the movie also suffers by comparison with the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired it, “The Snow Queen”.  This isn’t the first Andersen tale re-imagined by Disney, but Frozen has even less in common with the original story than The Little Mermaid did.  “The Snow Queen” is about the epic quest of a girl, Gerda, to rescue her childhood friend Kay after he’s kidnapped by the eponymous queen.  It’s one of Andersen’s longest fairy tales, and the one that made the strongest impression on me.  I always liked that the girl got to be the one doing the rescuing (my Barbie dolls went on a lot of quests to rescue captive princes from evil sorcerers); also there are a lot of memorable characters, like the robber girl and the talking crows.  And some wonderful scenes.  The scene where the Snow Queen steals Kay away reminds me of Edmund meeting the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; although of course Andersen’s scene was written about 100 years earlier.  I wonder if Lewis was either consciously or sub-consciously inspired by it.

So, see Frozen if you need your Disney fix, but I don’t think it’s one of their better movies.  And go read “The Snow Queen”.  Right now!

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Kaleidotrope Winter 2014

I mentioned in my last post that I have a story in the Winter 2014 issue of Kaleidotrope.  Definitely check out the other stories in that issue if you have the chance!  My favorite was Josh Storey’s “Phantasy Punk”, although I’m still not sure I quite understood it after two read-throughs.  It’s very meta, full of geek culture references and great lines, but also fast-paced and fun to read.

In the poetry department, I loved Ada Hoffmann’s “Memo From Neverland”, a brief and eloquent meditation on the story of Peter Pan and what it really means to grow up.

Kaleidotrope publishes 4 times a year, and their Spring 2014 issue should be out sometime in the next few weeks.  But they keep the older issues archived and free-to-read.  For instance, you can still read “Camouflage”, by my Clarion West classmate Eden Robins in the Autumn 2013 issue.  I admire Eden’s writing a lot, partly because it’s so different from my own style.  I think I take myself too seriously (and not in a good way) to write stories like this one.

Anyway, check out Kaleidotrope!

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New story out in Kaleidotrope

My story “City of the Dying Sun” is now out in the current issue of Kaleidotrope.  Click on the link to read it!  It’s set in the same world as the novel I’ve been working on forever, but takes place many years earlier.  There’s an elf in it, but I avoided using the e-word or mentioning his pointy ears.

“The Shoemaker’s Daughter” and “The Year of the Bear” are also set in this secondary world, but are closer in time to the events of the novel.

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Shameless commerce department

Check out the t-shirt Donald and I are selling on Zazzle!  It’s the perfect 2nd anniversary gift for yourself, your spouse, or a friend.

We designed it because we wanted them for ourselves and couldn’t find ones we liked online.  There was one, but it ruined the joke by explaining on the shirt that the traditional 2nd anniversary gift was cotton.

White t-shirts are shown, but you can get pretty much any color, any size, even a different style of t-shirt than the ones we used.  You could even get our design on a t-shirt that isn’t 100% cotton.  But that would be silly.

Hopefully if we sell a few t-shirts we’ll actually get some money, but I have to admit that I didn’t read the details of the agreement closely enough to ascertain whether any royalties will be paid in money, or Zazzle store credit.  (No, I’m never that careless about signing contracts for my fiction!)  Donald doesn’t think it really matters; he thinks we’re going to make so little money from this that we might as well use it to buy a t-shirt or mug.  But I admit, I have grand dreams that we’re tapping into some hitherto unmet need for creative 2nd anniversary gifts.  (My overactive imagination is very helpful in writing fantasy and science fiction.)

The traditional 3rd anniversary gift is leather.  Hmm….

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