Monday, July 6, 2020

Frogs legs, artichokes, and buffalo milk... memorables on the menu

HALLIE EPHRON: A few weeks ago I wrote about the Giant Artichoke t-shirt my husband used to wear that so embarrassed our daughter. Julia found a photograph of the Giant Artichoke restaurant, still operating in Castroville, California, about 50 miles north of Monterey. In the front, still standing is the 20-foot tall artichoke featured on the t-shirt.

A good portion of the menu featured artichokes. Stew. Soup. Salad. Dip. Their fried artichoke hearts were delicious with a lemony mayo.

Behind the restaurant is a warehouse where you can buy humongous artichokes that looked like the plaster model out front, along with an eye-popping variety of canned and marinated artichokes (as well as t-shirts).

The town is the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World,” and has been growing and processing them since 1922. It holds an annual Artichoke Festival--Marilyn Monroe was the first artichoke beauty pageant queen in 1948. Sadly this year’s artichoke festival has been cancelled due to covid-19, but it’s scheduled to make a comeback June 5-6, 2021.

What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever eaten and do you have a t-shirt to commemorate the experience?

JENN McKINLAY: I do not have a T-shirt but by far the strangest place I’ve ever eaten was
in Coopertown, FL (an unincorporated area with a population of 0008, if I remember right). We took the famous airboat ride into the Everglades, fed the alligators marshmallows - hey, it was 1984, we didn’t know any better - and then retired back to the cafe to try frogs legs.

Yes, they taste like chicken. What I did not expect was that they came attached, as in it was the frog, battered and fried, from the waist down. Naturally, my brother proceeded to pick one up and hop it across the table. I laughed so hard, sweet tea came out my nose. I highly recommend a visit to Coopertown if you find yourself on Route 41 in Miami-Dade.

RHYS BOWEN: I have eaten in several questionable places: in a Bedouin house in the Atlas Mountains (where the home made bread was delicious) and I’ve drunk buffalo milk in a Toda dwelling--a mud structure about four feet high and maybe eight feet long with a hole in the top to let the smoke out. Todas are an indigenous people in the mountains of South India. They didn’t allow outsiders but we got an introduction through a Toda woman who had married outside the tribe. Quite an experience. Alas they do not make T-shirts!

On that same trip we had our worst meal ever--in the primitive overnight lodge of a game park--it was the oldest chicken who had died of questionable causes (probably run over by a truck) and cooked in grease with so much grit from blowing dust that we gave up after a couple of bites. Also no T-shirt available.

Oh, gosh, the weirdest. Well, it might have been the restaurant in Florence, Enoteca Pinchiorri. Imagine elegant, then increase ten fold. Gorgeous, spectacular, five stars. The exclusivity is off the charts.
At the next table, the ugly Americans. Mom and Dad, and the two most entitled California (we heard then refer to it) blonde teenagers you can ever imagine. Don't even bother imagining, your brain does not need the sludge. Anyway, they blithely ordered, the fish I think, and proceeded to tell the waiter (who might have been John Gielgud), that they wanted the sauce on the side and no butter. And double vegetables, no butter. Without a glimmer of a response, he took their order. Very good, he said.

Five minutes later he came back.

The chef says he cannot prepare the food your way, he will prepare it his way. And furthermore, he said in perfect English, he says he cannot cook for you, and we cannot serve you, and he is requesting you leave.

They did! They slinked out, and it was all the rest of us could do not to cheer. I endlessly wish I had a t-shirt. I wonder where those people are now.

LUCY BURDETTE: This isn’t about a weird restaurant, it’s one that will linger in my mind forever. About six years ago John I attended a family wedding outside of Salt Lake City,
Utah. We took a few extra days to cruise through Utah and see a couple of the wonderful national parks in that state. I, of course, was in charge of where to eat.

In between our two days of driving and gawking at the astonishing scenery, we stopped for a night in Boulder, Utah, to eat at the legendary Hell's Backbone Grill. I made reservations months in advance for dinner. They serve exactly the kind of food I like, delicious but not fussy. I ordered a spicy meatloaf and John had a chicken quesadilla casserole that was hot, cheesy, and addictive.

Of course we had to have breakfast there the next morning, too. I chose blue cornmeal pancakes, which they served with cinnamon butter and syrup. The pancakes were sprinkled with little purple flowers. Oh, and we ordered a box lunch to take with us the next day too. Three meals in less than 20 hours – that's a great restaurant. Now the chef/owners are finalists for best chefs in the Mountain Region by the James Beard Foundation for the 2020 season! (And ps, I don’t have a tee-shirt but I did buy the cookbook.)

Here’s my rendition of Hell’s Backbone Grill meatloaf recipe.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Gosh, let me think about this one. Most, I guess, exotic would be the dinners we had while on safari in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Five-star gourmet meals served communally so we had a chance to talk with the most interesting people, in open-air tents that could have come straight out of Isak Dineson’s memoirs. We dressed for dinner! (The travel agency gave us a heads up, so I had a skirt and a couple of scarves that looked good over anything.) Truly different than any other experience, before or since.

The dining spot that seemed farthest away from anything else in the world: the Three Chimney’s Restaurant on the Isle of Skye. Ross and I went on our honeymoon, and it wasn’t nearly as famous as it is now - it had only been open a couple of years - but already had a reputation as a destination for foodies. We walked from the farmhouse we were staying at, and I’ll never forget the contrast of eating in this tiny stone crofter’s cottage (this was years before it would be expanded and have an inn added on) and being served the most amazing food and wines.It was utterly dark by the time we left, with nothing but the starlight and the occasional bleat from a sheep to guide us as we wended our well-lubricated way back to our B&B. Heavenly.

Worst dining experience ever: Chuck E Cheese’s for the Sailor’s 7th birthday. Greater love hath no parent than to dine on that flabby excuse for a pizza while an animatronic band lays waste to the very concept of music.

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  No one can compete with Rhys's memorable meals! But the place that popped into my mind was a little restaurant bar in the wilds of central Florida. I was on book tour with Charles and Caroline Todd. We had several book festival events over a couple of days, so our publisher put us up in the most central location, a very (very) basic Holiday Inn that seemed literally in the middle of nowhere--it was just plunked down on the highway. There was no coffee shop and there were no restaurants except for a sort of bar shack across the motel parking lot.

With no choice, we ventured over for our first dinner. A raised walkway crossed over the shallow end of a lake and when we looked down, it was full of alligators! Big ones, little ones, all cruising lazily below us. Our hopes did not go up. But we were seated on a big open deck, and the food turned out to be delicious! Charles and I had fabulous oysters; Caroline and I stuffed ourselves on the best whitefish dip I've ever eaten. We ate every meal there over the next couple of days and at the end of the event we were sorry to go!

HALLIE: UGH, Chuck E. Cheese. And I was sure Debs was going to tell us that the featured items on the menu were... alligator!

Aren't we all yearning for a great restaurant meal, something we'd never make at home?
What are your uniquely memorable restaurant meals?

Sunday, July 5, 2020

What We're Writing - Jenn on Promo!

Jenn McKinlay: I am presently at the start of that two-weeks prior to release day mad dash of have-I-slapped-news-of-my-upcoming-release-on-every- possible-social-media-forum-known-to-God-and-man? Is there any new way I can say "Buy my Book!" without saying buy my book? about a giveaway? A live chat? A bulletin board in downtown Phoenix? A Zoom visit with every bookstore that will have me? Does everyone know I have a book coming out? It's a romcom set in Ireland, France, and Italy - coming July 21st - just sayin'! Plus, look at the cool animation my publisher did of the cover. 

At this point, I feel like the neighborhood gardener with the bumper crop of zucchini. A perfectly nice person, to be sure, but suddenly they have zucchini coming out their ears and you can't walk by their house without them thrusting a bag of the dreaded stuff on you.  Right now, I am that person with the paper sack full of zucchini. People see me coming and they run. I get it. I don't take it personally. Really. (sob)

But still, promo is a part of the job. I think I've hit every avenue available to a writer for promotion (there's even a book club kit for the novel: click HERE), but if you have any suggestions or ideas, give me a holler! 

A starred review from Publisher's Weekly! Thrilling!

Paris is Always a Good Idea is my debut trade paperback women's fiction novel. Debut! It's like starting all over and being a newbie author again -- exhilarating and insanely stressful! Because 2020 hasn't been exhausting enough. I swear every day feels like a week, every week a month, every month a...well, you get the idea. Focus, Jenn! Talk about the book!

There is so much I want to say about this book. How I wrote it in the wake of great personal loss, how the stress of writing it almost killed me with a scorching case of shingles (not hyperbole, okay, maybe a little), and how it really started to shine with such delightful promise in the beginning of the year. Then, as you all know, the world ground to a halt and the fiction industry hit pause. So now we're in a very peculiar wait and see period, which for an author releasing their baby into the world is, frankly, excruciating. 

And so, I write my silly social media blurbs, trying to lure skittish readers like wild birds to the feeder: 

Have you ever looked up your exes? (Subtext, don't look up your exes, just read about my heroine looking up hers. Much more satisfying without the potential for embarrassment or upset).

Which country would you like to travel to Ireland, France, or Italy? (Less subtle subtext: No one can travel anywhere right now, so buy my book and you can fictionally tour all of Europe. Much cheaper).

Can a person ever really let go of the pain of their past? (Not even subtext, more like a slap upside the head of -- who cares? Buy my book! It's fun and it'll make you cry - a twofer!). 

All right, Reds, how about it? What's in your secret promo sauce? Where do you focus your energy? 

And, Readers, what gets you to buy a book from a debut author? Word of mouth? Reviews? A pretty cover? Can a writer grind you down by promoting so much you develop FOMO (fear of missing out) and you buy the book or does too much promo repel you? 

Asking for a friend. Okay, it's me, I'm asking for me. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

What We're Writing Week - Out of Season with AT MIDNIGHT COMES THE CRY

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Happy Independence Day, everyone. It's a strange, sober sort of Fourth for most of us; no BBQs, no parades, no concerts, no block parties, no fireworks. (Or at least, no official fireworks.) One of my family's cherished traditions is watching the movie Independence Day on the afternoon of the Fourth, often between a small-town parade in the morning and a house party at a friend's. I have to admit, it's a little anti-climactic to actually be in a global emergency and discover instead of flying jet fighters toward an alien ship, we need to fight by wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and washing hands.

But the real message of the movie - in addition to "don't forget to regularly update your security software" -  is "No one makes it alone." The characters in the film survive and triumph by joining together, by helping each other, and by working together as a community. Which is how we're going to get past Covid-19.

I've written scenes set on the Fourth of July before, in Fountain Filled With Blood and One Was A Soldier. I wish I had a new one to share with you now, but instead, I'm going way out of season, since my work in progress, At Midnight Comes the Cry, takes place in December. It does, however, start with a parade.

The trouble started, as it so often does, behind the manure spreader. The Greenwich Annual Lighted Tractor parade was in full swing, and this particular spreader, scrubbed until not a molucule of offending odor could cling to its metal, was brilliant with twining, interlaced lights – the publicity for the parade had promised a million, and the owners of the heavy-duty machine were doing their part. The tractor pulling the trailer was equally festooned, and in addition sported a banner, lit by a spotlight, that proclaimed, “Spreading Christmas Cheer!” 
Who needs the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade?” PJ Adams asked. The animal control officer for the nearby town of Millers Kill, PJ held a yearly open house for the Greenwich event. Her 200-year old Georgian home was stuffed with friends, family and fellow municipal employees, some inside keeping company around the groaning buffet board, some warming themselves by a roaring fire pit in the yard, and some, like the Rev. Clare Fergusson and her husband, clustered together on a low side porch lit with hanging paper lanterns. 
Russ Van Alstyne huffed a laugh into his mug of hot cider. At his feet, Oscar, their lab mix, made the same sound. At the Adams house, everyone was welcome: kids, cats, dogs and, Clare thought gratefully, unemployed ex-police chiefs. She shifted their seven-month old to her other hip, tugging his hat into place. Ethan's eyes remained fixed on the whirling illumination of the parade passing by. Between the party, the lights, and the Christmas carols booming from the floats Clare figured he'd either be so overstimulated he wouldn't sleep for a week, or he'd conk out the minute they loaded his car seat into the truck.

Janie! Janie!” The woman standing on Russ's other side leaned over the railing and called to her daughter, standing with a group of tweens by the fire. “They're handing out candy! Go get some!” The group behind the manure spreader was, indeed, tossing candy into the crowds along the sidewalk, boosting excitement for their otherwise less-than-impressive float: a single tractor sporting chicken-wire frames winging out on either side. There were plenty of lights, though, wrapped around the chassis and hanging from the frames, although from her angle, Clare couldn't see the design. 
What organization is it?” she asked. There were kids involved, walking along the edge of the street, handing out sheets of paper. The candy-tossers, she could see now, were all women. “A daycare?”
Janie returned, stepping carelessly on the frozen soil of PJ's border garden, and handed one of the papers up to her mother. “Look at this. It's weird.”

Oh my God.” The woman held it at arm's length for the rest of them to read. In the dim glow from the lanterns, Clare could make out WHITE FAMILIES UNITE! BLOOD AND SOIL ARE OUR HERITAGE! DIVERSITY IS A CODE WORD FOR WHITE GENOCIDE!

I hope it whets your appetite for more in '21, dear readers! And tell us in the comments if you're finding any small, quiet ways to mark our nation's birthday.

Friday, July 3, 2020

What We're Writing--Debs in the Ivory Tower

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Most of us writers perpetually wish that we could escape to a proverbial ivory tower where we could write undisturbed. We even pay to go on writing retreats, where we have no interruptions and no responsibilities other than turning out those pages as our deadlines loom. But so far the only retreats I've managed have consisted of booking myself into hotel rooms for a few days, although I daydream about one in which I stay in beautiful cottage in the woods, and delicious baskets of food are delivered to me several times a day while I tap out page after brilliant page... 

Unfortunately, that one hasn't come true.

I've never been very good at sticking to schedules, I have to admit. One outing can throw me off my writing stride for days, and a trip can set me back for weeks, so I suppose it's natural that I've fantasized about having loads of uninterrupted time. I never imagined I would actually get my wish.

But here I am, almost four months into lockdown. No trips, no conferences, no book signings, no speaking events. No lunches out, no shopping expeditions with my daughter, no babysitting, no movies, no concerts, no having friends over for wine-time in my kitchen.

It's just me and my laptop, day after day. We'll see in a couple of months whether or not there's magic in a forced retreat. My deadline is inching nearer.

Here's a snippet from Kincaid/James #19.

And for a  little scene setting, here's a view of the cafe in Russell Square, in Bloomsbury, not far from the British Museum.

And here's the fountain in its center, on a damp and chilly November night.

“Mummy.” Trevor tugged at the hem of her coat.
Lesley Banks gave a sigh of exasperation and kept her eyes fixed on the screen of her mobile. “Honestly, Trev,” she snapped. “Amuse yourself for one minute, can’t you? You’re a big boy now.” One of her staff at the hotel had just sent her a text saying she couldn’t come in for evening shift and Lesley had got to sort it out straight away. The walk across the square was the only time she didn’t have to keep her eye—and her hand—firmly fixed on her five-year-old.
“But, Mummy—”
“Trev, just look at the pretty fountain, okay?” she said, scrolling through her contacts for someone who might be willing to fill a shift at short notice.
Mummy.” Trevor’s tug was more insistent. Something in his voice made her look away from her screen. “Mummy, I think that lady isn’t well.”
“What lady is that, love?”
Trevor pointed. “That lady over there, by the tree.”
Lesley made out a dark shape beneath the trees just beyond the illumination cast by the fountain’s lights. She shook her head. “Not our business, love.”
“But Mummy.” Trevor scuffed at the leaves. “She walked funny. And then she fell down.”
“Look, baby, it’s probably someone who’s just had a bit too much—” Lesley stopped. That wasn’t the best path to go down with a kid, she supposed. And why teach your children to be kind if you weren’t prepared to be bothered yourself? With a grimace, she pocketed her mobile and grasped Trevor’s hand. “Okay, let's have a look.” Taking a few steps closer, she called out, “Miss? Are you okay, miss?”
There was no movement from the shape, but her eyes had adjusted and now she could make out legs, and the outline of a boot. Lesley hesitated. There was something about that stillness that struck her as wrong. Even drunks weren’t usually completely unresponsive. She glanced round, suddenly hoping for a supportive fellow Samaritan, but the crowd had thinned while she’d been dithering.
She could just call 999, of course, but she’d look an idiot if it was a rough sleeper merely the worse for wear. And if the woman really was ill, well, she’d had first aid training—you had to these days in the hotel business, didn’t you?—and the ambulance service could take forever.
Loosening Trevor’s hand, she put him behind her and said, “You stay right here, baby, while Mummy checks on the lady.”
Taking a deep breath, she crossed the intervening ground and knelt. “Miss,” she said.
When there was no reply, Lesley put tentative fingers on the woman’s shoulder and gave it a gentle shake. The figure, loose as a jelly, rolled face up. The flopping arm brushed Lesley’s knees.
Lesley jerked back, her hand to her mouth. “Oh, Christ,” she breathed. Behind her, Trevor began to cry.

Reds and readers, have you had a fantasy come true in a totally unexpected way? And fellow REDS, have you ever done a proper writer's retreat? 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

What We're Writing--Hank in the Middle

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  I’ve been here before, Reds and readers, I have been here 12 times. The first time I had no idea what I was getting in for, and simply powered ahead, blithely a newbie, having no idea how difficult it was to write a book.

By book two, I realized the middle of the manuscript was a morass of hideous quicksand, an impossible journey, a slog, a step-by-step, inch by inch, crawl through the unknown.

You know by now that I do not outline, as much as, every single time, I wish I was adult enough to do so. But I do not know what happens next to my books, not until the next sentence and the next chapter in the next paragraph.

USA Today Bestseller--now in MASS MARKET PB!
When I am finished, somehow my brain has Rubik's cubed all the puzzle pieces and put them into a coherent and even, sometimes, entertaining order, and it’s all fine. But sisters, along the way, it is very difficult.

I try to look at it  as 1000 words at a time. I say the mantra: just keep going just keep going just keep going.

And I heard a wonderful author last night say that the key was to write without fear. I was so touched by that! It’s very easy, during a first draft, to criticize yourself at every decision. Every word. Thinking – – as I do so often – – this is absolutely terrible! I don’t even know what a sentence is, I don’t even know what a word is! How did I even ever do this before? And then I try to laugh, because I know this is what happens every time.

You know my upcoming book, THE FIRST TO LIE, just got a star from Publishers Weekly. (Whoo hoo!)  Well, I will confess, only to you, that there were many days, and I mean many, where I thought this book just isn’t going to work. It doesn’t make any sense, I don’t have it, it’s bad bad bad, maybe I should just give up. But of course, I couldn’t, because everyone at the publisher was waiting for it.

I also keep a writing journal, just a couple of lines every day.  I  am gratified and embarrassed to say that every journal, 13 in a row, start the same way:  "Day one. I have no idea."

And somehow, something happens and then something else happens and then something else happens. And then I got the PW star. 

(So I was wrong. But! Now I fear that’s the last time that’s going to happen.)

The other things that seem to recur at the stage is that I write a lot of things that I know will be cut. And that is kind of powerful. Even reassuring. Sometimes it is just me looking for the story, and I know it will get deleted. It will have been instructive to me, but not necessary to the book.

I have a problematic character in the book that's coming next. She is a 1999 college girl, smitten with her professor. Yes, I know this is inappropriate, but in 1999, a certain kind of  18-year-old might’ve felt that way, mightn't she? The same way she’d have had a crush on a rock star, or a movie star, or some other fantasy. She’s not exactly self-actualized, let me say that off the bat.

So, her personality evolves. Here’s a little bit of what she's like right now. Don’t hold me to this! It will be fascinating, I hope, to see how this changes in a month or two, to see how Cassie behaves and what she decides. 

At the beginning of the book, which takes place 20 years after this scene, Cassie is gone. Vanished. Missing. Where did she go? (And of course I have no idea.)

But here’s a tiny bit of the Cassie that exists in the first draft of the first draft of the first draft.  

HANK'S WIP Chapter 10

Cassie couldn’t wait. She would see him in fifteen minutes. She felt the warm mid-morning sun wrap her in its October glow as she hurried up the cobblestone walk to Wharton Hall, a classically imposing gray stone behemoth at the edge of Berwick Green. Okay, so like, she was wrong, she’d been wrong that college was going to suck. Her mom had insisted it’d be wonderful, that night before leaving for school. But Cassie—and she had to admit she carried a dark lump of embarrassment inside her about it about it now--had thrown a huge fit in her bedroom, and refused to leave home. She’d even picked up two corners of her new black suitcase, tipped everything out onto her pink and white bedspread, and slammed the empty thing closed.
         Pooch had yelped, barking, thinking he needed to protect her. When Cassie was angry, Pooch got scared. Smart dog.
“Come ‘ere, Pooch,” Mom patted her knee, quieting him, but stayed, posture ballerina-elegant as always, in the hunter green chair in the corner, her gray-edged hair twisted into a messy bun. Pooch whuffled into mom’s knee, traitor that he was. Stupid dog.
“Cass, honey, is there something you’re trying to tell me?” Mom’s voice had that quiet edge she used when she was trying to stay calm.
But she didn’t have to be so sarcastic about it. Yeah, there was something she was more than trying to say. She was saying it.
“I can get a job,” Cassie had insisted. She’d also seen Lily trying to hide outside her bedroom door, as if Cassie didn’t know she was eavesdropping like crazy, like she always did, on everything Cassie did and said and planned, and that made her even angrier. Lily, what a complete dork, and totally got all the attention because she was younger and needier and missed her father so deeply much. As if Cassie didn’t miss him, too. In a way.
“I don’t need stupid college. I can be a model, everyone says so, and that’ll be easy and awesome.  I’ll be like the new face of Y2K. Or—something.” So maybe that was overreaching. But she’d plowed ahead, concocting her plans as she said the words out loud. “I’ll, like, take the bus to New York and find an apartment, and—send you all the money.”  She’d paused, watching her mom’s face. Gauging to see whether she was buying into this scenario.
“Whenever you’re finished,” her mom had a fake little smile pasted on her face, a smile that meant whatever, “you can pack these things back up and we’ll finish loading the car.”
They’d glared at each other,  a standoff, Cassie in cut offs and a plaid flannel, her mom in jeans and one of Dad’s old shirts, which always made Cassie sad. She didn’t understand why mom would insist on wearing dad’s clothes.  It was hard enough that he was gone without having to see his stuff all the time. Mom should have gotten rid of it, long ago. Started totally over.
Memories were toxic, Cassie knew. You could learn lessons from the past, and she did, but then hoarding all those bygones would only make your brain more crowded.  Memories were sadness, and regret, and replaying bad things. She’d become a trained  surgeon with her own memories, removing everything she didn’t need. Tossing it.
“Can I have her room?” Lily had edged into the doorway, wearing dumb sneakers about fifty times bigger than her feet.
“Shut up,” Cassie said. As if everything wasn’t upended enough. Ended enough. Her dad would never have let this happen. But how did it happen? When did she change? Like, overnight? All though senior year she’d craved going to college. On her own, meeting real people, smarter people, no curfews, no rules, no “take your sister with you.”  She’d have her own place. Sort of, with a roommate, but still.  But now, all that new seemed—too much. Too much new at once. “Mom? Tell her to get out of here.”
“Cassandra.  Blair. Atwood.”  Her mom stood, planted her hands of her hips. Pooch’s tail whap-whap-whapped against the blue chair. “You apologize to your sister. Now. And then pack.”
“Screw you,” Cassie said.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” her mom had said, her voice super-quiet.
Cassie flinched as her name startled her back to the real world. Or present time, at least. October. Berwick University. The Green. Ten in the morning. Two girls, one in a BU t-shirt, the other wearing a flannel shirt just like Cassie’s. She wasn’t sure of their names, but they were probably in her dorm.
“Hey,” she said, pretending. She’d figure their names out soon enough. If it mattered. Now she needed to get to class. She'd see him in ten minutes.

HANK: If you're still with me, thank you! And you should know the main character of this book is Lily, the little sister.
Do you dislike Cassie too much?
Let me know! And now, back to writing.  Only fifty thousand words to go.