In my Talking Food series I’ll be featuring short interviews with authors, chefs, cooks, historians and food writers about their experiences of food, from memories to favourite recipes.
This week, I’d like to introduce Premee Mohamed, author of the The Apple-Tree Throne and the much-acclaimed Beneath the Rising, whose work romps across genres, from alt-history gothic fiction to cosmic horror.
LM: Premee! Thanks for joining. Let’s kick off by talking about Beneath the Rising, which was published in March of this year. In this book, food is used to add detail to character relationships and to vividly evoke time and place. (I’m thinking of Johnny and Nick eating cubes of cheese and crudites as children, or the odd sort of intimacy that getting a yoghurt out of someone else’s fridge implies). Can you tell us a little about using food within the novel, as an authorial decision?
PM: I genuinely think that’s something I lifted wholesale from all my friendships while I was growing up. My brother and I weren’t supposed to have friends over while ‘unsupervised,’ so the upshot was that we rarely had friends over at all. Meanwhile, I was often over at other friends’ houses with what felt like less strict rules, and I was always ultra-paranoid and on what I thought of as my best behaviour. It always meant a lot to me when they were like ‘Let’s make a box of Kraft Mac for lunch’ or ‘Go get anything you want out of the fridge.’ In particular, I remember being over at my long-time best friend’s house once (28 years now!) when we were thirteen or fourteen, and they had a box of some coveted cereal that my parents never bought, and he gave me a strange look when I pointed it out and said ‘You can just make yourself a bowl, you know.’
Cooking for friends, offering someone food, trading snacks, that absolutely cemented my friendships and made me feel more certain not merely that we cared about each other, but that we trusted each other. I think I was using it unconsciously in the book to signify how deep and long-standing Johnny and Nick’s relationship was. Not just that they ate each other’s family’s food, and had since they were children (the weri-weri conversation!) but that even on the run, they’re consistently making sure the other person isn’t hungry or thirsty. The meals they deliberately eat alone are weighted with meaning too.
LM: The descriptions of food in your novella, The Apple-Tree Throne, are equally fascinating, and perfectly encapsulate the story’s alt-history setting: the terrible deprivations of trench warfare versus the overabundance of rich food, to the Victoriana melange of some of the descriptions (like the “Clark’s Garden” cocktail of rosewater, orange blossom, lemon juice, black rum, salt and ginger beer – please tell me you’ve tried that in real life?). Can you tell us a bit about using food within that imagined historical setting?
PM: Thank you! I loved writing about food in that novella! I did a bit of research for it, not very extensive – actually, quite a bit of food came out of a dictionary of Victorian slang that I looked up before writing. I really wanted food to be something that the main character, Lt. Braddock, was fixated on. Because as you point out, he was terribly deprived while serving, he and his best friend Clark still joke about it (cannibalism, etc). He grew up poor, he taught himself to eat scraps, and that came in handy for wartime. Now that he’s out, he’s clearly expecting more of the same, and part of the shock he experiences when he returns – cultural, class, social, religious, financial, etc – also includes the food he’s used to versus what the Wickersleys are used to.
It became a handy shorthand for how very out of his element he is. Food is almost another weapon, or a tool: they’re not using it to show off or illustrate their social standing and wealth, but that’s how it ends up feeling to him. They think they’re just eating like normal, and he’s constantly reminded that he doesn’t belong. It was also fun to contrast that with the food that his best friends give him. The homemade cakes and jams and pies, they make him feel loved, they don’t make him feel intimidated. (I have not tried Clark’s Garden, but if someone makes me one, I absolutely will drink it. What’s the worst that could possibly happen?)
LM: Do you have any particularly strong food memories that you find yourself re-creating in fiction?
PM: Oh no, now I’ve had to wrack my memory for food in short stories as well as the longer works. Most of my strong food memories are about cooking with friends, or at friends’ houses, and so there’s always a couple of disasters… I haven’t deliberately incorporated anything from real life, I think, but maybe I should start doing it in my writing! There are a lot of stories to tell. A lot of smoke alarms going off, a lot of questionable barbecued items, and at least one pitcher of absolutely disastrous sangria.
LM: I suspect I may know the answer to this but… coffee or tea? Or neither?
Chocolate or cheese?
Cheese cheese cheese absolutely cheese I am comprised of 90% cheese by weight.
Breakfast or dinner?
Breakfast FOR dinner! That way, you get all the delicious breakfast foods you love, without having to get up early!
Favourite beverage to relax with?
Non-alcoholic is definitely a cup of tea, alcoholic probably a cider! I love cider.
If you cook, what’s your favourite thing to make? (Or order in, if not?)
I find during lockdown I’m cooking the same dozen or so things again and again… maybe eggs benedict? I’ve gotten quite good at it in the past six months, not that it requires any special skills, but I feel I may as well be competent at making something I like to eat.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
Something I’m not supposed to be working on! I’m about a third done a long novella or short novel, I guess a fantasy, about a man who’s coerced into participating in a dangerous military mission, despite the fact that he’s part of the resistance. Definitely one of those ‘Your principles or your life?’ stories I find uncomfortable but satisfying to write.
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author based in Edmonton, Alberta. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues, including Analog, Escape Pod, Augur, and Nightmare Magazine. Her debut novel, Beneath the Rising, is out now from Solaris Books, with the sequel A Broken Darkness due out in 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @premeesaurus and on her website at http://www.premeemohamed.com.
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