A Feast from The Book of Salt: Duck with Figs and Port Wine

HRD42 Duck Feast Prep

In 2012, I was a teaching assistant at Harvard Extension School for a course called “The Expatriate Moment in Paris.” I was swept up in the content of the course—more so than I ever thought I would be, not having appreciated the Modernist movement years ago. But reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and the second book of the USA Trilogy had a tremendous impact on me, and influenced the way I write today. I’ve also been curious to see how this innovative group of artists and authors are portrayed in today’s works: from Midnight in Paris to Paula McLain’s Paris Wife, I’ve enjoyed many of them.

I recently finished Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, a novel that follows the life of a Vietnamese cook who worked for the legendary Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. The unique writing style is sensuous, melancholy, and philosophical. Binh is haunted by the past—cast out by his family for being gay, he comes to Paris, and wanders from job to job, all the while becoming an expert in city’s geography, impressing locals with his ability to name the location of every little street. And so he comes to find his way to 27 rue de Fleurus, the famous salon of Gertrude Stein, where he executes decadent meals to her now-famous crowd of artist friends.

“Every kitchen is a homecoming, a respite, where I am the village elder, sage and revered. Every kitchen is a familiar story that I can embellish with saffron, cardamom, bay laurel, and lavender…Three times a day, I orchestrate and they sit…silenced. Mouths preoccupied with the taste of foods so familiar and yet with every bite even the most parochial of palates detects redolent notes of something that they have no words to describe. They are, by the end, overwhelmed by an emotion that they have never felt, a nostalgia for places they have never been.”

Book of Salt

My first inclination was to extract the recipe for pineapple sautéed with shallots and beef. But then, I read his list for a special meal: “24 figs, so ripe that their skins are split. A bottle of port wine. One duck. 12 hours.”

And so began my quest. In late winter, finding fresh figs was impossible, so I settled for organic dried. A tasting at a local wine store led to a tawny port. I took a long walk to Savenor’s in Cambridge to find a whole duck. Lacking earthenware pots and jars, I filled a cocktail shaker with the figs and port, and, according to Binh’s notes, let them get to know each other—“twelve hours will be sufficient for a long and productive meeting.”

HRD42 Roast Duck with Figs and Port

When it came time for roasting, I rinsed the duck and covered it with salt and pepper, and scored its skin on both sides and placed it in a large cast iron pot. I roasted it at 300 degrees for an hour, flipped it, then roasted it for another 45 minutes before adding the fig and port mixture. I turned it on the hour for another two hours, basting it every 15 minutes. As the mixture thickened, I added some light beef broth.

In the book, Binh serves the duck with rice, with threads of sage. However, knowing how tasty potatoes are when roasted in duck fat, I went in another direction. I chopped Brussels sprouts and potatoes and poured several generous scoops of the duck fat and port mixture over them for the last hour, when I raised the temperature in the oven to 400 degrees.

HRD42 Potato and Brussels Sprouts

The flavors were deliciously complex–the duck skin wonderfully crispy. The next day, I shredded the leftover duck meat and chopped the potatoes and sprouts and stirred it together. I unrolled store-bought pie crust and cut the circles into half, and spooned the mixture into each half, creating a variation of an empanada.

While the empanadas cooked, I poured the rest of the port (just over 1 cup) into a heavy saucepan and added about a cup of broth and two fresh rosemary sprigs, as well as some salt and pepper and a generous pinch of baharat, a Middle Eastern spice mix. I cooked it on high until it was thickened and reduced. When the empanadas were ready, I poured the sauce over them on the plates. It was a great way to have the leftovers.

What would I do different the next time? Add cardamom to the fig and port mixture.

I highly recommend the book, and if you’re adventurous enough to give this recipe a whirl, I can assure you it was well worth it. Have you ever tried to make a recipe out of a novel? As with the Game of Thrones cookbook, it can become an obsession.

Binh’s story still haunts me. It’s a deeply personal story, and his life as an outcast is only accentuated by his passion for cooking.

“They have no true interest in where I have been or what I have seen. They crave the fruits of exile, the bitter juices, and the heavy hearts. They yearn for a taste of the pure, sea-salt sadness of the outcast whom they have brought into their homes.” 

Shark-Jumping

We’re all familiar with the phrase, however, how many people remember actually watching that cringe-worthy scene from Happy Days, accompanied by the kind of cheesy music only the ‘70s could love? It’s haunted me a lot lately.

Facebook Jumps the Shark

Photo credit: Geoff Livingston via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 (modifications made to branding)

Prithee, why?” you ask. It’s because of that legendary blue and white lower case f that has become part of our everyday lives since 2004. Don’t get me wrong—Facebook has done marvelous things for me. Reconnected me with my true love, notified me of an open position that led to an amazing career move, and of course, put me in touch with friends and associates from the past. I’ve greatly enjoyed these connections, and I usually adapt easily from one major redesign to the next, but this time…something is missing. Like…my friends. I see a lot less of them. I haven’t liked thousands of pages. I’ve muted as much dross as I can. Now, Facebook seems to be the mutant love child of Instagram and Twitter. Really clever text updates are crushed between photos. Something about the organic connection with my friends seems absent.

Much ado has already been made about FB’s drastic throttling of business pages. The nonprofit start-up I work for has 5,000 likes. We’ve been paying to boost our posts for a long time, yet now we’re reaching a very small fraction of our audience. More money, please—and maybe, just maybe, more people will see your post. If our algorithm likes you today. My own author page has truly suffered. With only 269 likes, now fewer than 10 see my posts. I’m not abandoning it, not just yet, anyway.

Google+ has been the more interesting place to be. The content on my newsfeed there is more interesting—edgier. More than 1,600 have me in circles, and the reality is—the quality of conversation in the writing groups there is ten times more professional and witty than the majority of FB writing groups I still belong to. There’s far less scolding, too. People who break the rules seem to be blocked faster, and less ado made about them. Blip! Gone! We won’t crab at the rest of you because of one jackwagon! A couple of groups on FB are still worth it, but I wonder for how long. Twitter is still very engaging for me. I’ve learned to finesse the feed until most of the spam disappeared. The brief, meteorite-like conversations have been entertaining.

And yes, I know—before I get schooled on the fact that Facebook is a business and not running a charity—I know. As one person on FB scolded, professional writing isn’t a hobby, and costs are incurred if you want to be taken seriously. Then they went back to posting inspirational quotes over pretty photos and linked to Neil Gaiman’s top 10 bits of advice for writers for the thousandth time. Yawn.

The point is this: these multi-billion dollar companies can afford to help small businesses like indie authors. Having come from scrappy beginnings themselves, they could offer a program to foster success, and put the squeeze on those who can pay the big bucks. Like Nike. Or Amazon, or any of the other Fortune 500. Facebook connected people in its halcyon days. Now it’s focused on duking it out with Google and the other tech giants for the most robots, virtual reality gadgets, and all the things that will bring the wonders of Star Trek and a bevy ‘80s sci-fi movies to reality. As long as it doesn’t have the same repercussions as Skynet, I’m cool with it.

I wouldn’t mind paying if I felt the reach paid good dividends. But I’m seeing how much we pay at my day job, and the reach is weak. It’s a nonprofit doing excellent work, and to the tech tycoons who shout above the fray of traditional business that they claim to be better than, they’re becoming more like them all the time, and it smacks of hypocrisy. Small businesses and indies like me weren’t counting on a free ride, but a fair one.

Shadows of a Fading World in Amazing Stories

Checkpoint Bravo

1987, West Berlin, Germany

I’m not at all homesick. In fact, I want to stay in Berlin forever. However, I’m writing love songs in Spanish to the one who almost got away—he’d written many love poems to me in high school, but being terminally shy, I concealed my mutual crush. I left to join the exchange program for my senior year to Germany without so much as a goodbye. (I’d often wondered what happened to him, until he found me on Facebook in 2009. This time I had the good sense to say yes.) Interspersed with these Spanish love songs was a nascent trilogy, the name of which I forget, and I’m too lazy to dive into the closet (there be dragons in there!) to find the original notebook with the handwritten story and watercolor paintings I did for it. It was largely a riff on the first six books of the Dragonlance series. Leaving Berlin seemed impossible with all the friends I had made there, and the city was a haven for artists I loved, such as Nick Cave and David Bowie. With great reluctance, I return home.

Berlin Mom by UBahn

1996, the Boston area

I turn back to the trilogy after finding it during a move and give it a new name. This time, it’s strongly influenced by Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, which I played endlessly, thinking there was no way a video game could ever get any cooler. There was also a touch of the Might and Magic series in the story. It becomes highly Gothic in visuals and writing style—this being the peak of my Goth days. I’m making mead and spending lots of time in the Arsenic and Old Lace shop for Wiccan/pagan enthusiasts in Cambridge. Kate Bush’s albums (yes, vinyl!) are on the turntable every day.

2006, the Boston area

I’m deep into writing my first novel, The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love and doing research for Dark Lady of Doona. After moving yet again, the journal in which I compiled all the notes for the 1996 version of the trilogy resurfaces. I insist that this time, it will not be derivative of any popular fantasy-based influences, even though I’m clocking long hours on Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This time, I’m working on my master’s degree in creative writing and literature. Half the courses are writing workshops, the other half are literature courses. I focus on medieval literature. Two essential courses are about Tolkien: his medieval influences, where we read Beowulf, Niebelungenlied, the Poetic Edda, and the Kalevala. The other course is a linguistic history course about how he created the languages for the Lord of the Rings based on early medieval languages. I decide to create my own language for the trilogy. I spend months creating charts of verb tenses and grammar rules. The heart of the story remains: warring gods cause a moon to shatter above the planet and chaos ensues as two kingdoms struggle to become empires and subjugate each other. The name changes again.

2013, the Boston area

On Google+, I see a call for submissions from Long Count Press for an anthology called Shadows of a Fading World, and the cover artwork is gorgeous. They’re looking for “dying world stories.” My post-apocalyptic fantasy leaps to mind, and I pull my notes from 2006 and start a fresh version of the story without looking at the old versions and yet again, I change the name. This time, it really takes off and I can’t stop writing. Keeping it within the word count is nearly impossible, but I do my best. I send it in and it’s accepted into the anthology.

Shadows of a Fading World cover

In March 2013, and I receive word that the long-time Amazing Stories magazine has written a review about the anthology. The publication has had an interesting history. It also was caught up in the larger sphere of TSR’s world, publishers of Dragonlance, when they acquired it in the early 1980s. I loved the publication as a kid, and hoped that someday, my name would appear in its pages.

It’s now there—on a page reviewing Shadows of a Fading World. The review is wonderful, and I’m delighted that Long Count Press received such high accolades. And to the point made by the reviewer—it’s a totally fair assessment that the story isn’t self-contained. It served as an experiment to see if this trilogy could finally break out of the carefully handwritten three-ring notebooks and be something on its own. I’m close to finishing my third novel, due out later this year. And finally—after 27 years, Moonfall will evolve into a full novel to introduce the series. It’s all I can think about these days, to the point of it distracting me from finishing the third novel. But hey, it took me more than 20 years to marry the man I adored in high school, and like a fine scotch, it’s aged into something that offers a lot more complexity and has become unique—far from the naïve worldview I had while watching the rain fall from my little room in Berlin.

Window in Berlin

 

Dark Lady of Doona in the Suvudu Universe

Suvudu

I’ve evidently been out of the loop, and am probably close to losing my membership card to the nerd girls club. I’ve never heard of the Suvudu Universe. A month ago, I did an interview that appeared on Wendy Van Camp’s No Wasted Ink blog. Though the interview mainly focused on Dark Lady of Doona, it was also an opportunity to talk about my background as a writer. No Wasted Ink is a great blog, and I’ve been back a lot to read some of the book reviews and other author interviews.

This week, I received an email from Wendy to let me know the interview had been submitted and accepted to the Suvudu Universe, a branch of Del Rey–Random House. When I first saw the name Suvudu, the name didn’t click…until I clicked on the link. For those who may have been in the dark like me, it’s a hub of all things sci-fi- and fantasy, with graphic novels, manga, and much, much more. I could hardly believe I was seeing my name and green-eyed selfie shot on the same site where news is shared about Brandon Sanderson and George R. R. Martin. I was soon wandering through everything, and making sure I added them to my social media feeds.

As soon as I shared out the link to friends, word spread and people visited the site to vote up the post. My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who helped to spread the word about my appearance on Suvudu. You, my friends, rock, and I salute you. (I haven’t listened to AC/DC since the ‘80s, but the sentiment still stands.) I look forward to returning to the Suvudu Universe often.

NoNaNoWriMo

Camp 2014-Participant-Twitter-Header-1

When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, I had unrealistic visions of participating every time. When camp NaNo branched into two, I was overjoyed. Three months to plow through novels—how great—just think of how much I’ll get done!

Not so much.

I’ve learned that NaNoWriMo has its uses, and for 2014, it doesn’t fit into my plan. Here’s why:

It’s a great tool for brainstorming. I spent all day yesterday at the Harvard Leadership Conference, learning about design thinking and how to implement it in coming up with innovative solutions. It was an intensive day of panel discussions and workshops, and I got a tremendous amount out of it. Basically, design thinking incorporates empathy as an element into resolving problems, and is followed by a layered brainstorming sessions where idea upon idea is sketched out—even to ridiculous, counterproductive ideas so that your mind is pushed down new paths. These new paths can offer solutions that may never come to mind if you try to solve the problem in a linear way. I realized NaNoWriMo has been my sandbox for design thinking.

As the final keynote ended (and amazing talk by former astronaut Ron Garan, accompanied by stunning footage he’s taken from space), I checked my email to see invitations to join up for Camp NaNo 2014 in April. I logged in, thought about it, and said no to this round of NaNoWriMo.

I’ve been an open rebel the past couple of years. My first, in November 2011, was the only time I crafting something new from beginning to end. It’s the novel I’m currently working on, Whiskey and Rue, set in Tombstone around the time of the gunfight at OK Corral. Then I alternated between Whiskey and Rue and Lords of Kur, a novel I originally began in 1994, but I used NaNo to drastically change it.

NaNo is fantastic for first drafts and reworking novels that have lain dormant for many years. Characters change, scenes that otherwise wouldn’t have appeared with careful planning suddenly stand out as key passages in the story, and it can be a lot of fun to just let the stream of consciousness flow. Both of these novels require careful planning and focused writing now, and I can’t let myself get distracted by trying to work on something new. I’m already behind on getting Whiskey and Rue to the editorial stage.

That isn’t to say I’m not sorry to miss out this year. I am. I enjoy the focused time to write with abandon. I’ll be there in spirit, on my walks to and from the T to get to work, thinking about the novels to come.

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Historical Fiction

Votes for Women via Flickr: by psd using license CC BY 2.0

Votes for Women via Flickr: by psd using license CC BY 2.0

It wasn’t necessarily a theme I set out for when I started writing. Yet over time, a pattern became clear: I was mostly inspired by history, and I had a knack for finding extraordinary women who were often little more than footnotes in history books. Sometimes they had a few paragraphs, and legend and facts intermingled. It didn’t seem fair, and I realized it wasn’t always the fault of the writer (well, except in cases such as Professor Jared Sparks at Harvard, who threw out the letters of Ben Franklin’s sister while working on a biography of Mr. Franklin). Such details were simply not recorded, depending on the era and culture. When I researched the woman known as the wife of Prince Vlad Dracula (though evidence indicates she was a consort), her actual name was unknown. My portrait of her is based more on reading about medieval life in Eastern Europe. Even when I went to Romania to talk to historians, they shrugged helplessly when I pressed for detail, though they were very helpful in filling in many gaps I couldn’t obtain in books.

When I worked on Dark Lady of Doona, I found many of the stories about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley were repeated with variations on details from book to book, and there weren’t that many reliable biographies to use. The novel I’m currently working on, about a woman who lived in Tombstone, Arizona, during the time of the gunfight at OK Corral, has had its challenges as well, and that’s as close to modern times as I’ve gotten as I add to my list of stories to tell.

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The biggest obstacles come when studying my favorite era: ancient history. Sumerian tablets provides precious few mentions of incredible women, from High Priestess Enheduanna to the only woman on the King’s List. If it weren’t for Herodotus, I doubt we’d have ever heard of Artemisia of Caria. How lucky that she now is immortalized in the sequel to 300, Rise of an Empire! I keep kidding to my husband that I’ll carry Herodotus’s time with me to the theater. He jokes that the old historian won’t be there to autograph books.

The list of novels and stories to write has become so long that I sometimes fear picking up another history book, for fear I’ll discover another woman with a compelling tale to tell. There are several novels on the list that stray from historical fiction entirely, with an epic fantasy and some speculative fiction. I can only hope that future advances in nanotechnology can prolong my life and ability to keep writing, or upload my consciousness into a computer so my thoughts translate directly into Scrivener (or whatever writing program will exist!)

599px-Herkulaneischer_Meister_002

The first week of March has been celebrated as Read an Ebook Week for the past few years. March is also Women’s History Month. While the focus is often on American women in history, I always look globally. Amazing women who have changed the course of history are everywhere. They may have been behind the scenes, people may have deliberately erased their names, or were forgotten as cultures merged and evolved, but I intend to tell as many of their stories as I can, and share out the best works I can find of others who have found themselves on a similar path.

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A small selection of books that have inspired me, in no particular order:

  1. The Memoirs of Cleopatra, by Margaret George
  2. The Whip, by Karen Kondazian (a story about a women who lived as a man, driving stage coaches, in the Old West)
  3. Boudica by Vanessa Collingridge
  4. Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers
  5. Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna, by Betty De Shong Meador

And to honor both Read and Ebook Week and Women’s History Month, my two historical novels are available for free, exclusively on Smashwords, through March 8, 2014: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love and Dark Lady of Doona. Use code RW100 during the check-out process. Please enjoy, and celebrate by sharing the stories of the women who have inspired you.

Group_of_Women_Airforce_Service_Pilots_and_B-17_Flying_Fortress

Offerings for Read an Ebook Week 2014

Ebook Week 2014

I’m always happy to share good news about Smashwords. It was through Mark Coker’s vision of making the indie author movement more accessible to writers and readers alike that I became convinced to publish my work through his platform. When Forbes announced that Smashwords made the list of America’s Most Promising Companies in 2014, it was thrilling news. How far self-publishing has come. Coker’s innovative plans have given countless opportunities to authors, libraries, and like-minded organizations who have helped sweep away the old stigma. The new site design is fabulous. He gets the relationship between authors and readers, and seeks to find ways to build upon that relationship. So every year, when they encourage participation in Read and Ebook Week, I jump at the chance to support the Smashwords mission.

To that end, both of my novels are available for free this week, March 2-8, 2014, only on Smashwords. Enter code RW100 during the check-out process. If you’re so inclined, I’d greatly appreciate any feedback in reviews! Thank you for supporting indie authors like me. :)

The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love

 VM front panel

Legend has it that the love of Prince Vlad Dracula’s life committed suicide during a siege when the odds of winning were slim. This is the story of Ecaterina Floari, consort to the Wallachian prince who served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A ruthless warlord in the fifteenth century, Prince Dracula fought valiantly against those who would control the land of his ancestors. As his consort, Ecaterina accompanied him in the turbulent years of exile and discovered an ancient force influencing their lives. Her devotion to him was eternal, and she followed him into immortality…

 

Dark Lady of Doona

 Doona Front Panel.final

Known as “Granía of the Gamblers,” Granía O’Malley makes a high-stakes bet to buy her freedom and the ability to continue her livelihood as pirate queen on Ireland’s west coast. She enters into a dangerous agreement with Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and soon finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue that is plunging her country, as well as her family, into chaos. At war with a cruel governor while serving as one of Walsingham’s many spies, Granía struggles to maintain stability within her family and fleet and provide an enduring legacy for her heir to the seas. A story full of adventure and passion, Dark Lady of Doona portrays the life of a formidable woman who defied traditions by commanding her own fleet of ships and leading her loyal followers into rebellion.

 

And you can check out all the other books enrolled in the Read an Ebook Week program here.