In a recent New Yorker article about food, wine and recipes found in fictional novels, Adam Gopnik wrote, “There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”
The Fourth World trilogy has many examples of the second and third kinds, from Fourth World‘s tasting of most-famous wines held in Mellon College to Dr. Neelin’s musings on a complex vegetable stew, just before he is arrested for sedition. In Fourth World Nation, our hero Benn Marr innocently attends the highly-politicized Mayor’s reception in Highland City, one of the Martian colonies, and sizes up the PWE’s dangerous Head of Security. Here’s an excerpt:
“Well, I promise I won’t try to escape again,” Benn said uncertainly. He was being truthful, wasn’t he? There was no reason to escape. As Benn had already pointed out to Lora, the goals they hoped to achieve by “escaping” the PWE somehow always seemed to align perfectly with those of the PWE! Until they didn’t, he supposed.
“I am glad to hear that, because there isn’t much time to devote to that sort of thing,” Salman began, stopping abruptly as a dour-looking Asian waiter leaned over and placed a small bowl before him. “Caviar with blini, on shallot-citrus foam,” mumbled the old man in a mechanical way, carelessly dropping another bowl onto the table in front of Benn. On impact, a shiny black cube, which had sat balanced on a mound of some white foamy-gelatinous substance, tumbled onto one side of the bowl, where it lay sadly on its edge: minus ten points for presentation, thought Benn. Salman, whose black cube remained perfectly centered, eyed the retreating waiter, still taking his rapid mental notes. His aura flared violet at its borders.
Late that evening, when Benn finally returned from mingling with the elites at Dr. Montero’s townhouse, he found Lora waiting in his dorm room… (she) had completed a pile of overdue charting in the other room, then brought back a loaded tray from the cafeteria. Benn hastily declined her offer to share the multicolored sponge-like cubes on the tray, as he was already struggling with gastric discomfort at the memory of his caviar-and-blini cube on shallot-lemon foam; the “bovine organic essence” (extracted from liver, thymus, spleen and other organs) topped with a crispy cornflake crust; the bean strings sauteed in organic brown dairy oil (don’t ask); then there was the fifty-layer corn-syrup gateau which had brought his dinner to an impressive, if nauseating, conclusion.
In the final novel of the trilogy, Child of the Fourth World, the action shifts, along with the range of food flavors, to a Quarantine Zone in Southeast Asia. Here’s another excerpt:
On that score, at least, Arno had no complaints. He had heard that feeding the Quarantined Class in the three Western Hemisphere Zones was seen by PWE planners as an opportunity to rid themselves of a mountain of excess corn and its by-products. Here in Southeast Asia, the excess crop was rice, genetically engineered to concentrate starch in grains the size of large grapes; the PWE, under the scrutiny of a “free press” which reported the more obvious human rights abuses, gladly supplied heaping bowlfuls of rice, at least ten to twelve grains per bowl. That was filling enough, but it was the accompanying dishes that made all the difference: instead of the gummy, corn-based Vitacubes in artificial flavors manufactured by Synthedible Corp, here in this non-industrial zone they were fed the local “peasant food” as a default, or even as a punitive measure. No bread? Let them eat curry!
How ironic, he mused: surely the PWE had never intended the lowly diet of prisoners to be so nuanced and flavorful— it was simply delicious! After a few initial weeks of gastrointestinal distress, Arno’s palate and gut had adjusted to the high level of spice, and now he could not imagine returning to the bland diet of his past. Never having sampled real chicken, beef or seafood, he did not recognize the substitution of dried bean curd for poultry, farmed fruit bats for conventional red meats— and for shellfish, a smaller version of the “lobster” he had spied earlier crawling out of the wall. He thought longingly of Nonya chicken curry; beef rendang; Indian fish head curry; Penang prawns in sambal tumis sauce: to Arno, if this diet was meant to be punitive, Southeast Asia was indeed the culinary briar patch of Quarantine Zones!
At the urging of generous readers who have grown accustomed to my characters and admit they “hate to see them go,” I am considering writing another novel. However, the main story line of the Fourth World trilogy is pretty much spent, so there will have to be a separate narrative– perhaps set many decades in the future– involving the youngest of the original characters. In the meantime, an entirely different sort of project is already underway: a collection of culinary memoirs from Singapore/ Kuala Lumpur days, based on stories told by my mother and others of her generation (see the previous post on this blog, Crazy Rich Memories), complete with recipes which we are now refining in the kitchen.
The young-cousin generation has participated in this project with enthusiasm, so there will certainly be value for our family. But given the growing number of Asian immigrants to this country, other families with similar experiences, these culinary memoirs may well find a wider audience– stay tuned, and bon appetit!