Let's recover a little

I've spent the last couple weeks making Russian food, Eastern European food, in my spare time. The other night, around eleven, I started making a little loaf cake that was mostly eggs and cheese curds, studded with cherries and candied orange peel. It tasted like somewhere between an egg tart and cheesecake, like tea time by grandmothers in a faraway place. 

In a moment of weakness, also late at night, I bought a pelmeni press. Pelmeni are like tortellini, but they are the Italian dumpling's tastier, more rustic cousin. Pelmeni are made from a simple, soft dough. Packed with meat. Then, they are frozen. They were food carried in sacks in Siberia on long trips and the dumplings naturally froze. Because I do not live in the frozen wilderness, I scattered the dumplings on cake pans and placed them in the freezer. 

There's something wonderfully comforting about pelmeni. After pouring the little dumplings into boiling water, you simply wait until they rise to the surface. Dress them with sour cream and dill. Cracked pepper. The meat juices pop in the mouth and the sour cream is a sauce onto itself. 

Borscht is wonderful. I've only had it at restaurants where it is a special thing. I feel a special kinship with the soup if only because it begins with cooking onions and celery in butter. Only recently I've realized that is the comforting food smell of my childhood. Browning celery and butter. Borscht involves beets, can have carrots and potatoes too. And it's ready in about an hour with no fuss. A soup after my heart. 

 

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It's been an eventful couple weeks, full of book festivals and work deadlines. There was the LA Times Festival of Books, which I like to attend every year, as well as Yallwest. 

Yallwest this year was special, mainly because a group of writers that I'm a part of had arranged a meetup at the festival. I have met Samantha Chaffin in person, but never Kristin Yuki or Lydia Albano. Welcome to 2018, where it's not a big deal to meet people who only know online. My security measure was that if Lydia had turned out to be a beer-bellied ax-murderer, Samantha would have found out first. Anyway, Lydia turned out to be a lovely person and Kristin too, so we did all the things one does at book festivals. 

It was interesting also because the website that subsumed and erased Figment, where we all got our online start, was at Yallwest. Without coordinating, some of us came with our Figment totes won from contests years ago. It was a miniature protest. 

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I refused to do any signings, except to press Lydia's book, Finding You, into her hands and insist that she sign it. I essentially wandered from panel-to-panel depending on who I was with and what they wanted to see. I ended up at panels on comics, LGBT, a keynote highjacked by a moderator, strolling through the ARC and giveaway tents but needing nothing. I got to talk and listen. I stumbled across a girl I met on a program in Japan years ago, and we re-connected over Yuzuru Hanyu and stories. Having a new job.

This was the first year I did not attend a panel on agents or getting published. Lydia and I walked up to that panel, but the room was full. It was a beautiful day with a Santa Monica sky so blue and cloud-streaked that it could have been the walls of a baby's room. It was warm. We shrugged and walked away. 

Oh, fuck that. Like I need some to tell me to personalize a cover letter for the millionth time. Or look me in the eyes and tell me, a stranger, that my ideas matter. 

We got grilled cheese sandwiches and crispy tater tots, and we ate in the shade. It's tradition. 

 

We're all getting older, of course. I remember those Figment days when I came home from classes and banged out stories like I would never have another idea. Nowadays, I am comfortable with the idea that I'll always have ideas, but I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the reality that no one particularly cares. On some days, maybe most days, I'm comfortable with it. 

 

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Anyway, there was the LA Times Festival of Books too, which is a much more chill affair for me despite being spread over a whole weekend. I enjoyed just browsing the booths and books for sale. A good friend is working on an illustrated children's book, so we read and flipped through tons of picture books in the name of research. 

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In my usual fashion, I did not properly plan the book festival. But in a stroke of luck, I did stumble across the signing for Diana Galbaldon, author of the Outlander series. It was an epic signing line, and I was in it for two hours. We, the people of the signing line, didn't know each other, but we knew the books, and we clustered in shady patches, waiting as the line inched forward. 

She was nice. She must have been tired. 

I ate pitas stuffed with meat and grape leaves stuffed with rice, and it was a pretty nice weekend. 

Thinking about all this makes me ready to keep working. We'll see how it all comes out. 

 

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Let's Food of Magicians (ft. food photos)

 Food of Magicians is done. In honor of the silly novel, I have studded this blog post with some of my favorite food photos of Summer and Autumn 2016.

Delicious baked goods from Companion bakeshop in Santa Cruz. 

Delicious baked goods from Companion bakeshop in Santa Cruz. 

The story revolves around Agatha, a girl who arrives in Isidore, the culinary capital of her lite fantasy world, with the hopes of opening a pizzeria. But the only job she can get is working as a delivery girl, and she accidentally ends up handling the delivery account for one of the most famous restaurants, Plums. Agatha becomes friends with Bo, a girl working at the restaurant, as well as other young adults running around the city. 

Rockfish with lemon sauce in Virginia. Deep fried dill pickles, thanks, Toronto. And homemade spiral fish with nori in Ocracoke, North Carolina.

One of the cool things about building a world in a city is creating a sense of space by a variety of characters, locations, and types of food. While Agatha is running around making deliveries, Lance is a young man working as a milkman for his family's diary. His cat has been held hostage by the magician mafia, and he wants to get her back, which means he has to get the money to pay them off. His path—and Agatha's—crosses with Hadiya, a wickedly gifted chocolatier and confectionist who has opened a hot new candy store. Hadiya is a runaway princess from a fondness for guns and a hatred for her past... 

Sushi in L.A. Thanksgiving feast with Maryland stuffed ham, truly one of God's gifts to mankind. A homemade roll cake with apples and cranberry whipped cream. 

Everyone gets tangled up with Jerome, a magician enforcer and the son of a mafia boss named Mr. Black. Jerome likes wearing tight pants and writing bad poetry, but he's really a terrible villain who can't 100% commit to evil, and it's resulting in the erectile dysfunction of his magic. Unlike his father, who is 100% okay with evil and can make people follow his commands at the twitch of a finger. 

There was a lot of stuff that was fun to write in this book. Because the world that Isidore exists in is so similar to our own, I did not have to do a lot of crazy, extensive world-building. I could focus on making stupid jokes and writing food descriptions, which is all I ever wanted to do as a writer anyway. 

It's been a bit of a journey, this book. In classic form, I planned this to be a quick book, only 80K and done in the early fall, but as I got to writing, it seemed that the scenes took longer. Honestly, I'm not shocked. The final first draft clocked in at 103K, only a little shorter than Fox Demon, which does shock me somehow. I think the thing that changed the length was that I ended up spending more time on each character than I planned. This held up until I reached the 90% mark, and then I was filled with a strong urge to Just Finish. Of course, this means that there's some tragic underwriting and a few dangling/weakly gestured at plot lines that I didn't want to resolve. Sequel opportunity? Or laziness? I'm going to claim the former! 

Humble mac and beef at Bouillon Chartier in Paris.

Humble mac and beef at Bouillon Chartier in Paris.

When I compiled the entire document—I usually write my chapters in separate documents—to send to my first reader, I was really struck by the three set pieces structuring the novel. These set pieces are food competitions, both underground and on reality television, where our heroes and villains duke it out to achieve their dreams. They really are absurd. But characters cry and laugh, so dunno, it's about food. 

It's all simultaneously sincere and cynical that the narratives probably have personality disorder. And I seemed to think that if I nodded at the audience, acknowledging weak, pivotal moments in the plot, then it was all cool. When I was planning, I was thinking the story would be a sort of YA Kiki's Delivery Service, if something like that was even possible when YA just seems to be getting darker. I wanted there to be stakes, but I didn't want the stakes to be crazily high, and I wanted most of the characters to have loved ones. I wanted them to encounter obstacles and clash with each other, but that there'd be no doubt that they'd all—literally—just hug it out at the end. 

I think while it's important to see Katniss Everdeen hacking and slashing her way through tyranny, it's also important to have stories that come back to friendship and all the uncertainties of young adulthood. Stories about teaming up with difficult people, and making the world a better place, whether it be through dramatic blowing up buildings... or delivering a pizza to a friend when they need it. That's the slightly dysfunctional story I've written.

I don't know if I'll edit it next year or not. I'm going to start a new novel, and I've told myself I'll take a peak at Food of Magicians again next spring. I'll take a few reading requests on the first draft, but it still just feels like a gooey marshmallow of a novel. 

Below is a gallery of images from a meal I had at Ze Kitchen Galerie, one of the best meals I've had in my life. The multi-course I enjoyed there became one of my inspirations for Plums. 

Let's Catch Up, with Taiwanese Donuts

Wow, life gets in the way sometimes!

After finishing my job, I flew to the East Coast to help my family move into a new house, and on top of all the stresses that come with moving, there was no wifi, so I couldn't update the blog. I've had to sneak out to the local library just to send emails from my laptop. I have truly suffered. But now there is wifi and I'm here!

I want to back up and talk about a food adventure I had in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. You might remember way back to the Festival of Books, where I played games at various tourism booths. One of those booths, which was dedicated to Taiwanese tourism, had a challenge for people to visit various Taiwanese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, hosted by the Culture Center of TECO in Los Angeles. At each restaurant, you would get a stamp, and then after five stamps you would get a prize. 

I'll be honest. Before coming out to Los Angeles, you could fit my knowledge of Chinese food on a few fortune cookie slips. But the array of restaurants and cuisines has really opened my eyes and resulted in a lot of fun experiences. 

For my stamp-collecting quest, I started at Lu's Garden, which specializes in rice porridge studded with sweet potato. You walk up to the register (and not unlike Chipotle) and them point to the assorted dishes in the buffet you would like. I was guided through my journey by my friend Shirley. The San Gabriel Valley is her stomping ground basically, and she probably stopped me from making a great fool of myself. 

We ordered seasoned eggplant, sausage, dried fish and nuts sprinkled over vegetables and the salty crunch was great sprinkled over the porridge. We also ordered simmered meats and vegetables. Highly recommend. Would go again. 

Lu's Garden though.. did not have the stamp. So they gave us the random paid stamp behind the register, and Shirley decided to photograph the journey... just in case the local cultural center hosting the contest decided to not give us a mug.  

This one was a little strange.  Uncle Yu's Indian Theme Restauran t, which is a sports bar serving Taiwanese bar food with Native American knick-knacks as decorations. The waitresses wear feathers in their hair. Some things only happen in the San Gabriel Valley. We enjoyed drinks with the grilled and spicy corn-on-the-cob. 

This one was a little strange. Uncle Yu's Indian Theme Restaurant, which is a sports bar serving Taiwanese bar food with Native American knick-knacks as decorations. The waitresses wear feathers in their hair. Some things only happen in the San Gabriel Valley. We enjoyed drinks with the grilled and spicy corn-on-the-cob. 

It's really unfortunate that I didn't take pictures at  Yung Ho City Restaurant  because describing this Taiwanese breakfast food without a visual aid is going to be a challenge. We ordered Taiwanese donuts, which are long (like churros, but fatter) and a more savory/neutral flavor. You dip the fried dough in warm soy milk or take a more salty, savory approach by munch on bread twists filled with dried pork. I enjoyed it. In this picture, I am wandering around after eating, trying to find a staff member to grant me my stamp. 

It's really unfortunate that I didn't take pictures at Yung Ho City Restaurant because describing this Taiwanese breakfast food without a visual aid is going to be a challenge. We ordered Taiwanese donuts, which are long (like churros, but fatter) and a more savory/neutral flavor. You dip the fried dough in warm soy milk or take a more salty, savory approach by munch on bread twists filled with dried pork. I enjoyed it. In this picture, I am wandering around after eating, trying to find a staff member to grant me my stamp. 

Surprisingly, this was one of my favorites! I'm normally not a fan of beef noodle soup, but  Taipei Bistro 's thick homemade noodles and rich, flavorful broth won me over. Studded with big chunks of beef that fell apart. Also, our waitress told Shirley that I looked like a woman who had come in yesterday, who was half-Taiwanese, half-German. Am I? No. But the soup was great. 

Surprisingly, this was one of my favorites! I'm normally not a fan of beef noodle soup, but Taipei Bistro's thick homemade noodles and rich, flavorful broth won me over. Studded with big chunks of beef that fell apart. Also, our waitress told Shirley that I looked like a woman who had come in yesterday, who was half-Taiwanese, half-German. Am I? No. But the soup was great. 

Our last restaurant was a vegetarian family restaurant called  Vege Paradise  where we ordered fake kidneys and mushrooms in a brown sauce, fake fish (which was tasty on its own rights) and dessert. I liked people watching. Lots of families came in as we rested, and the staff were friendly. We had been eating all day long, and Shirley and I had to take some of it to go. They stamped our sheet, and I posed at the front of the restaurant.   I don't usually smile with my teeth. 

Our last restaurant was a vegetarian family restaurant called Vege Paradise where we ordered fake kidneys and mushrooms in a brown sauce, fake fish (which was tasty on its own rights) and dessert. I liked people watching. Lots of families came in as we rested, and the staff were friendly. We had been eating all day long, and Shirley and I had to take some of it to go. They stamped our sheet, and I posed at the front of the restaurant. 

I don't usually smile with my teeth. 

Finally, the big moment! We went to the  El Monte Taiwanese Culture Center , which was hosting the contest. When I approached the front desk, I found out I was the first person to complete the food quest! The head of the Center came out to greet me and congratulate me. He said they were looking to expand the restaurant list, which I look forward to! He presented me with an extra mug and we got to take photos!   Afterwards we explored the Center. They had Taiwanese art in cases, a library, and they seemed to be offering classes and lectures, which were ongoing while we were there. 

Finally, the big moment! We went to the El Monte Taiwanese Culture Center, which was hosting the contest. When I approached the front desk, I found out I was the first person to complete the food quest! The head of the Center came out to greet me and congratulate me. He said they were looking to expand the restaurant list, which I look forward to! He presented me with an extra mug and we got to take photos! 

Afterwards we explored the Center. They had Taiwanese art in cases, a library, and they seemed to be offering classes and lectures, which were ongoing while we were there. 

The great failing of this blog post is that there are no food photos. This is because I was too busy eating (and enjoying the food) to take pictures. But I hope you'll check out the Yelp links and see other people's pictures, and should you find yourself in the Los Angeles area, please take advantage of the amazing array of great Chinese and Taiwanese food.