Get ready to feel hungry, because the theme for this quarterly roundup is food.
I love reading speculative fiction stories that are about food, prominently feature food, or use food as an integral part of world and character building. Coincidentally, a couple of nights before I put the final touches on this column, I started reading Fault Tolerance by Valerie Valdes, the third book in her Chilling Effect series. And right from the first chapter, I was reminded that this series is a great example of science fiction where food (and drink) really matters, because captain Eva Innocente takes her coffee and pastelitos de queso very seriously.
One of the short stories that inspired the theme for this roundup is the deliciously dark and tasty “Bonesoup” by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Strange Horizons. It begins like this: “In Greece, we have a saying: You must eat the body part you want to grow stronger. Or maybe that’s just something my grandmother used to say.” Dina, the narrator of “Bonesoup,” loves her grandmother dearly, but even though her Nana has fed her well throughout her childhood, it’s always bothered Dina that she would only feed Dina meat, never the scrumptious sweets she gladly offered Dina’s friends and other children. As the story unfolds, we realize that there’s a secret wrapped up in Nana’s cooking, and that there is also a secret wrapped up in the love Dina has for both her grandmother and her friend Katerina. Triantafyllou masterfully unwraps that secret bit by bit, as Dina’s grandmother becomes ill, and as Dina begins to see her Nana—and her childhood—in a new light.
Though they are very different in tone and texture, Triantafyllou’s story made me think of the fierce and exquisitely crafted “Mal de Caribou” by Becca De La Rosa in The Dark. “Mal de Caribou” is a story where the food is described in the most luscious of terms, but the delicious and often elaborate dishes, and the intoxicating language used to describe them, are also a device used to hide the true purpose and intent of the person who made the food.
“Wet Dreams“ by Rich Larson in Interzone #292/#293 is set in a decidedly unglamorous Canadian neighborhood inhabited by a group of characters so finely and precisely captured that I felt like I might have met them before (I think I have met some of them before). The story has a loopy, dream/nightmare vibe and spirals inexorably into ever-deeper weirdness, though it never quite lets us see the true shape of that strangeness. While food is not the main point in this story, Larson’s descriptions of food and drink are a vital part of how the characters (and their way of life) are introduced and described. For example, take the mac and cheese mentioned in the story’s opening paragraph: “I’m crushing bright orange Doritos onto my Kraft Dinner when someone comes knocking real loud on the door to my basement suite. I stub out my joint by reflex, even though it’s probably not the landlord, who lives in Edmonton and only ever showed up that one time he was in town for a funeral and decided to change my furnace filter.” When I say this story grabbed me with that recipe, I really mean it. It’s a great example of how to vividly capture both a place and a character, and set the mood for a story, through the use of food.
One of the best food-centered stories I’ve read recently is “Bring Your Own Spoon” by Saad Hossain in Tasavvur. It’s a uniquely imagined, wonderfully compelling science-fantasy tale set in a dystopic future version of Dhaka city, where most people don’t grow or cook their own food anymore, instead relying on replicator-like machines. Here, we meet Hanu, who loves to cook using scavenged and naturally growing ingredients (much to the horror of the authorities), and Imbi, one of the many Djinn who inhabit our world in this future, and who is a huge fan of Hanu’s cooking. I love how Hossain makes food the centerpiece of this dystopian story, and how Imbi and Hanu’s passion for food brings hope, and some delicious nourishment, to a community where both those things are in short supply.
Further inspiration for the food theme came when two of my favorite zines recently published food-themed issues: FIYAH #23 from July 2022, and Diabolical Plots from May 2022. The stories in these issues showcase a range of ways that food can infuse a story with humor, heart, and/or horror.
Elnora Gunter’s gripping near-future sci-fi “Food for the Soul” in FIYAH is set in a bleak future where a group called the Coastals have taken over New Orleans and much of the Delta area. They’re supposedly saving it from the ravages of climate change, but also doing their best to erase the area’s history and culture, including outlawing the use of spices. Jayde, who works with her dad in the family’s restaurant, is frustrated and desperate, ready to risk everything to bring back the flavors of the dishes her mom used to make: “Home wasn’t home anymore. Not in the way it should be — a place where you’re safe free of cost and not toeing regulations about how to live, how to eat … how to survive.”
In “Kingston Gourmet” by Ashaye Brown, also in FIYAH, we find out what happens when an alien species called The Gourmands get a taste of fish ambul thiyal, eventually setting off a global cooking competition of sorts. It’s a quietly funny story with a big heart and a big appetite, and it’s chock-full of good food and good storytelling. Fair warning: By the end, you’ll likely want to try some Jamaican cornmeal porridge.
I love stories that mix baking and spellcraft, and the fierce and sharp “The Pastry Shop Round the Bend” by Makeda K. Braithwaite from this issue of FIYAH is just such a story. Asest puts her magic into the baked goods she makes, using her craft to help those in the community who need it, even when the help she offers might not be exactly what people thought they needed: “The hardest lesson I have learned is that sometimes you have to heal people in the way they need to be healed, and not the way they want to be healed.”
There’s magic at work in Lina Munroe’s “The Usual Way” too. Danae has had a passion for baking since childhood, but in spite of her skill, she spends years trying to get her mom’s chocolate cake just right: “Danae spent hours staring at the recipe card, searching for her mama in the spaces between the words and finding nothing but her own frustration. The recipe on that notecard wasn’t the whole recipe, she told herself, and that was why the cake didn’t come out the way it was supposed to.” Munroe blends memories and magic with baked goods in an absolutely enchanting way.
“Just Deserts” by A. M. Barrie, also in FIYAH, is a riveting historical fantasy/horror story about Hercules, an enslaved man who ends up cooking for George Washington. Hercules is the story’s narrator and introduces himself at the beginning of the story: “My name is Hercules, and the name nearly lived up to me. Or perhaps I, it. Time, I suppose, will tell. I have been called many things in my life, and alone, none have done me justice.” In addition to his exceptional cooking skills, Hercules also has a powerful ability that ends up serving him well through life, and which serves as an instrument of justice in a time and place where cruelty and injustice were often the order of the day.
Diabolical Plots’ May issue features a menu of four stories. I included Amanda Hollander’s hilarious and hugely entertaining “A Strange and Muensterous Desire” about a supremely cheerful teenager’s quest to come up with the perfect grilled cheese recipe in my Short Fiction Treasures roundup in June.
“Vegetable Mommy” by Patrick Barb in the same May issue is an intimate and unsettling slice of post-apocalyptic horror that starts out with the ominous line: “After the sky got sick, I made a new Mommy from the vegetables in our fridge.”
Allison King’s “The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family” from this issue is equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching as it follows the Chang family’s quest to A) humor Ba, their aging and ailing father, and B) recreate the taste of the mediocre chop suey that is (inexplicably, in the opinion of his kids) Ba’s favorite dish. The quest involves the purchase of a Remote Mouth, a new-fangled technical gadget that can recreate flavors from memory. King blends childhood reminiscences and memories of food with finesse, perfectly capturing the second-hand embarrassment children often feel around their parents, while also revealing the deep love, and the sense of humor, that truly bonds this family together.
The final story on the menu in this issue of Diabolical Plots is “Mochi, With Teeth” by Sara S. Messenger, where family and memory, magic and food, are brought together in a tender and emotionally powerful story that involves a spellbook in Japanese and several pieces of mochi: “June knows lacking magic doesn’t make her less Japanese. But she craves it anyway — more now that she’s an adult, growing disillusioned with American culture, painfully aware that her grandparents are getting older while she still can’t speak their language or conjure their ability.”
In many of the stories I’ve mentioned, food is intimately tied together with family, magic, and memories. This is also the case in Rati Mehrotra’s “Black Wings, White Kheer” at Podcastle (narrated by Suna Dasi). In Mehrotra’s story, a mother has to come to terms with the complex truth of who she was, and what she has given up, in order to find the power and courage to save her child. Food and cooking play a fundamental role here both as a bond between the past and the present, and as a (delicious) magic-infused remedy: “There is moonlight and magic in every bite, love and memory.”
Another story where memories and magic are stirred by the scents and flavors of food is R. B. Lemberg’s lyrical and exquisitely wrought novelette “To Balance the Weight of Khalem” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “The vegetables sizzle and sag, reminding me of another life—a summer in Raiga, when my grandmother made sinenkie i belenkie—each piece of aubergine and summer squash perfectly cut with an unstolen knife. But mine is better. The vegetables smell of gratitude and secrets, of the sidewise market and words spoken in the dark.” Here, food and spices are links to memories of war and exile as well as family and love; and an onion, carved by the onion jeweler, holds a vision of the past in its intricate layers.
To further whet your appetite for food in speculative fiction, I’ve put together a bonus tasting menu of five stories from the last few years:
- “Sorry We Missed You” by Aun-Juli Riddle is from khōréō 1.4, a food-themed issue full of tasty fiction. It’s a delightful, life-affirming science fiction story about a small family that runs a kind of food truck, in space, called The Flying Potato.
- “A Recipe for Magic” by Kat Howard and Fran Wilde, published some years ago in Barnes & Noble’s SciFi & Fantasy Blog, is a wonderful story about second chances, redemption, magic, spellcraft, and baking.
- “Godmeat” by Martin Cahill in Lightspeed is a rich and layered tale about a looming apocalypse, ancient beings trying to take over our world, and cooking. Cahill masterfully braids together cosmic horror and tragedy with the most outlandish and exquisite recipes.
- “Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree” by Nibedita Sen in Anathema is a wickedly funny tale that deals with family, unladylike behavior, sexuality, and a very hungry, food-loving ghost.
- “Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating“ by Sabrina Vourvoulias in Apex Magazine is a terrific interactive short story about political resistance, magic, and food, with a subversive sense of humor and a wickedly sharp political edge.