Talking Food with… Premee Mohamed

author photo premee mohamed

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?)      

Definitely making a Clark’s Garden

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.

Quickfire round!

LM: I suspect I may know the answer to this but… coffee or tea? Or neither? 

Tea!

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.

You can buy The Apple-Tree Throne and Beneath the Rising, or pre-order A Broken Darkness, the sequel to Beneath the Rising (Spring 2021).

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Talking Food With… Rachel Burton

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.

Rachel Burton author

Today I’d like to introduce novelist Rachel Burton, whose new novel The Tearoom on the Bay is due out from Head of Zeus today.

LM: Happy publication day, Rachel! Readers may know you from your previous novels, The Many Colours of Us or The Things We Need to Say. Both of your upcoming books, including The Tearoom on the Bay take place in atmospheric seaside locations. Are they a departure for you in style as well as setting?

RB: In 2018 I spent a lot of time on the south coast due to my husband’s job. I’d never really spent a lot of time by the sea other than when I was on holiday and I really noticed what a meditative experience watching the sea can be, as though the sheer enormity of the ocean makes you realise how short your life can be and I knew then that I wanted to write a book set on the coast. The Tearoom on the Bay is set in the fictional Yorkshire coastal town of Sanderson Bay and while I didn’t deliberately change direction when it came to the style of my writing I did find that by setting a book on the coast a lighter style emerged even though the book deals with difficult themes. I think writing evolves over time as we evolve both personally and as writers and being by the sea and setting a book by the sea definitely saw me make some changes! 

LM: There’s a strong thread of memory, family and stories passed down through the generations in almost all of your work. Is this reflected in The Tearoom on the Bay in the form of recipes?

The Tearoom on the Bay cover

RB: Ellie, our protagonist and owner of the eponymous tearoom, has been inventing recipes for different teas and tisanes since she was a teenager and grew her own herb garden. She dried the herbs and started experimenting with teas – lavender and valerian for insomnia, camomile and rose petals for anxiety, ginger and peppermint for nausea. She grew up in a cafe and her memories are all intertwined with tea. She also believes everybody has a tea that is “theirs” – the pub landlord for example who Ellie is in constant but friendly competition, is gunpowder tea, and Ben, who claims to be a hardened coffee drinker, is Russian Caravan. There is also a recipe in the book for vegan black bean brownies (this is a recipe that readers of my previous books will already be familiar with and now they can finally make them!)

LM: Do you have any particularly strong food memories that you find yourself re-creating in fiction?

RB: My favourite meal has always been afternoon tea – I’ve always loved home baked sweet treats – and there have definitely been a lot of scenes in my books that revolve around tea and cake. I also find that I often write scenes set in restaurants and cafes; I’m much more of a “dining out” person when it comes to socialising.

LM: What was your favourite part of conjuring Ellie’s cafe in The Tearoom on the Bay?

RB: I loved imagining what it would look like, how it would be decorated and thinking about all the care and attention Ellie would have put in to the small details to get her tearoom just so – the shelves with the boxes of loose leaf tea for example, and the way that none of the cups and saucers match and have all been picked up from shops and markets across the world. I also loved inventing the different herbal tea mixtures too! 

Quickfire Round!

Coffee or tea?

Tea of course!

Chocolate or cheese?

Chocolate.

Breakfast or dinner?

Dinner.

Favourite beverage to relax with?

Earl Grey tea or a gin and tonic, depending on the time of day.

If you cook what’s your favourite thing to make?

Scones. (I told you afternoon tea was my favourite meal!)

LM: Can you tell us a little more about what you’re working on now?

RB: I’ve just finished the edits for my next book, The Summer Island Festival, which is out in March. It’s also set by the sea – this time on the Isle of Wight – around a music festival and the desperate search for a missing rock legend! There are a lot of chocolate croissants in this book too I’ve just realised!  I’m also finishing up the first draft of my summer 2022 release but I can’t tell you very much about that just yet. 

You find Rachel on Twitter and Instagram and at her website.

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At the Sauce Podcast

I was delighted to be a guest on episode 35 of At the Sauce; a brilliant food and drink themed podcast based here in Bristol. It was a joy to talk to Alex and Karis, especially knowing they’d recently interviewed one of my favourite food writers, Bee Wilson.

Check out the episode below. You can find other episodes with guests ranging from chefs to producers to other writers over at At the Sauce and you can also support their work via their Patreon. Thanks Alex and Karis!

It’s a heck of a newsletter this month, with a seasonal recipe perfect for Burns Night, news, a short story and more. Click below to sign up.

Talking Food With… Katy Moran

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.

Today, I’d like to introduce as my guest author Katy Moran. Katy is a former book editor who now lives in Shropshire with her husband and three children. Her first novel Bloodline was published in 2008 and was an epic adventure set amongst the warring kingdoms of the Dark Ages. After a series of successful Young Adult Novels, Katy has turned her attention to adult fiction. Her debut adult novel False Lights has been described as ‘Georgette Heyer meets William Boyd’ and as having ‘… a marvellously dark and compelling anti-hero and a truly gutsy heroine… a terrific read’. Katy’s latest novel, Wicked by Design, was published in September.

And if you follow either of us on Twitter, you’ll know that Katy and I were allies this summer in the fight against the never-ending courgette hoards.

LM: Hi Katy! Your latest book, Wicked by Design, is set in an alternate Napoleonic era. Do historical recipes and/or food history have a place in your research? 

KM: Yes, I think that because my books are set in an alternative Napoleonic universe, details like period recipes and the food that people ate have an important role in grounding readers in the world and making them believe in it. In Wicked by Design, I seem to focus in on details of what people are eating or drinking at moments of extreme stress. There is a moment in St Petersburg when one of my heroes, Crow, is really falling to pieces at the supper table under the combined effect of grief, opium and too much brandy. Somehow, zeroing in on the details of the creamed spinach tart and beef olives that everyone else is eating throws his state of disintegration into contrast. (There is a recipe for beef olives in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, published in 1747). Crow’s state and behaviour at this moment were also partly inspired by the music video for Johnny Cash’s cover of hurt, which features him surrounded by a feast; opulent but somehow repellent platters of rich food. 

LM: Any favourite examples of food in fiction?

KM: Yes, I always remember Sylvia Green’s tiny ham rolls that she ate on the train north to Willoughby Chase, and the awful contrast with her unnerving travelling companion’s rich confectionery oozing with violet icing. Actually, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken was one of the inspirations behind my alternative timeline: ‘This book is set during a period of history that never happened’.

LM: Can you share a little about your research process? Are there any tips, tricks or strange practices you find yourself following?

KM: I work in a second-hand bookshop and much of my research is driven by books I stumble on while filing new stock in the history section, so my advice would be to visit a shop like the one I work in, that has a varied and esoteric selection of books. It’s one of the best ways to get yourself out of a plot hole, too. I always find answers that I’d never have come up with by approaching the problem head on.

LM: What is it that draws you to the Cornish coast as a setting? Can you share a favourite historical fact or piece of folklore from the region?

Hell Bay, Bryher

KM: For one of the companion novels to Wicked by Design, I needed a setting in close proximity to an island. My husband’s father was born on Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly, so that’s why one of my heroines, Hester, was brought up on the island of Bryher, and that’s how I arrived at the more general Cornish setting, too.

LM: Some quickfire questions! First, coffee or tea?

KM: Coffee!

Chocolate or cheese?

KM: Chocolate.

Breakfast or dinner?

KM: Dinner.

What’s your favourite beverage to relax with?

KM: A Gin & Tonic.

If you cook, what’s your favourite thing to make?

KM: I love baking and anything that involves the creative use of leftovers or hiding vegetables so that they are undetected by my children. Last night, I made a pie from the remains of a roast chicken and a baked ham, and the stock from the chicken is bubbling away in my kitchen. My kids spent the summer gorging on chocolate cake without a clue it was made with courgettes from the terrifying mountains that kept appearing in the garden. I’m not always this organised, though, and we’ll be having frozen pizza this evening.

LM: Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?

KM: Another novel set in the world of Wicked by Design, but eight years further on.

Thank you Katy! You can find out more about Katy at: https://katymoran.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter @Katyjamoran.

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Talking Food With… Lucy Hounsom

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.

Today, I’d like to introduce as my guest author Lucy Hounsom. Lucy is the author of The Worldmaker Trilogy. Her first book, STARBORN, was shortlisted in the 2016 Gemmell Awards for Best Fantasy Debut. Her fourth book, SISTERSONG, will be published by Pan Macmillan in 2021. She is a Waterstones bookseller and co-hosts the award-winning geek feminist podcast ‘Breaking the Glass Slipper’, which last weekend won Best Audio at the British Fantasy Awards 2019. She lives half the time in Devon with two cats and the other half in Skyrim.

And for people who don’t know… she is also my older sister. 🙂

LM: Hello, err, Lucy. (I won’t share our ridiculous nicknames for each other here). Let’s get started: what are some of your favourite examples of food in fiction?

Lucy: Definitely the descriptions of fruit in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. They’re so luscious and visceral; I especially love the way she dwells on each fruit in its turn:

Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy

– Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market (1859)

Another all time favourite has to be from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry is found on the Knight Bus and taken to The Leaky Cauldron. Cornelius Fudge sits him down in front of the fire with an enormous platter of hot, buttered crumpets. Every time I read the passage, I have this unreasonable fear that Fudge will devour all of the crumpets before Harry can even take one; I always want to yell at him to stop talking and start eating!

LM: Well, now I want crumpets. Can you share some of your strongest food memories, pleasant or otherwise?

Lucy: An unpleasant memory is undoubtedly the time I stuck my fork into a chicken kiev and it exploded boiling garlic butter all over me. I must have been about ten at the time, and I remember the exact top I was wearing. Even though it was washed, it forever after smelt of garlic…

A much better memory is from when we were younger, just about old enough to use the oven on our own. We used to sneak Linda McCartney pies from the freezer and cook them in the afternoon while Mum was at work, completely ruining our dinner. She must have noticed that they always went missing, but never said anything. After a few years we lost interest, partly because I’m sure they reduced the salt content… or perhaps it was just the illicit fun of cooking pies unsupervised and wolfing them down in secret.

LM: Do you ever use food to set the scene in your own work?

My new book, Sistersong, set in magical ancient Britain, actually uses a lack of food to set the scene. For example, at Beltane, in May, they celebrate the coming summer by eating the first strawberries, but it quickly becomes apparent that ominous weather will lead to a terrible harvest. In an isolated, tribal community, such as the one where Sistersong is set, the success or failure of the harvest is life or death, bound up with the prosperity of the kingdom. In a time of famine, everyone starves, even the King’s household.

On the other hand, the opening chapter of Starborn takes place inside a busy inn, filled with hot stews and pints of cider and ale, while rain pours down outside. I wanted to juxtapose the inclement weather with a deep sense of familiarity, comfort and security that will all too soon be threatened…

LM: No spoilers!

Lucy: Fine! I will say that inns in fantasy – and the food you find there – are tropes in their own right. Picture The Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings. Adventurers come in from the cold and sit by the fire with flagons of ale, a wheel of cheese, a hunk of dark bread and bowls of stew… “Unidentified Stew” is classic fantasy fare, and can range from delicious and savoury to downright disgusting.

LM: Time for some rapid fire questions! First, the eternal choice: chocolate or cheese?

Lucy: Cheese.

Tea or coffee?

Lucy: Aaaaah. Tea. For the varieties.

Potatoes, bread or rice?

Lucy: Bread.

Breakfast or Dinner?

Lucy: Breakfast. Brioche. Croissants. Muesli. Porridge with blueberries. Endless delights.

Favourite drink to relax with?

Lucy: Tough one. I’ll say prosecco or a nice Provence rosé.

LM: If you cook, what’s your favourite thing to make?

Lucy: Probably jambalaya with prawns and frankfurters. Or anything with smoked paprika!

So, there we are – I hope you’re all now suitably hungry. You can check out Lucy’s work at https://lucyhounsom.co.uk/ or follow her on Twitter and Instagram as @silvanhistorian or on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/lucyhounsom.

SISTERSONG will be published under the name Lucy Holland by Pan MacMillan in Spring 2021.

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