Throughout my life it’s always come back to my family. I know I’m fortunate to have people in my life that love me because of my eccentricities, partially because they’re also responsible for this. I come from a very big, loud, and opinionated Mormon clan. My mom has four brothers and my dad has two sisters and two brothers.
I have lots of first cousins and there are five of us born within a three-year span of one another and we always hung around and chased each other throughout childhood. My Aunt Claudia has been a constant supporter of my dreams and as I grew into adulthood she became my feminist icon and basically my other mother.
Family is not without tears and trials though. Since we’re all so big and loud and opinionated there are a lot of butting heads on my dad’s side. I also had a falling out with my dad last summer that’s still slowly undergoing repairs. And me being three thousand miles away often has me aching for the presence of those that make me laugh and those that feed me good food.
This is seeping into my writing. As I continue to study food writing, reading books of late like Signe Johansen’s Solo and Bee Wilson’s First Bite, I am reminded how cooking is firmly rooted in family and groups for so many of us. Attending lectures at the British Library’s Food Season, it is the theme throughout all talks. Food is love and food is family. We’re food writers because we discovered this passion at the feet of our family members throughout our formative memories.
In How to Cook a Dragon, my work in progress for my PhD in Creative Writing, I have two characters who in their first chapters are on the outs with their families. One because they are a source of their anxiety disorder and the other because he has chosen love over the traditions of his people to only marry within their own magical race. Yes, it is probably an allegory for both interracial marriage and LGBTQ 20th century issues. I do not deny that is a large part of my outlook that churches should mind their own damn business about consensual pairings. (But that’s another blog post for another day and another novel that’s on the backburner.)
But family, I find I have to give my characters back their families as well. Most wounds heal with time. Good memories often win out over the bad. Few slights are so severe that they can’t be repaired with more good memories.
Even though both my parents worked, I have so many memories of the kitchen table. Of pot roasts with beef from my Grandpa Forbes’s farm and cobs of corn picked hours before slathered in butter. The summer get-togethers with my Grandma T’s brownies with their sweet penuche-like frosting and my Mom’s pasta salads have been peaking in my thoughts as summer descends on Cambridge.
The long winter is over; us sweet summer children are ready for the fruits of the sun. (Take that GRRM)
Michael Pollan asked in his last book, “For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?”
Because of the distance I’ll write about food and family and love. And continue to share my memories and self-discoveries through food and cheer and prose.
© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.com, 2017-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Sometimes you need to take pride in the little things. I’ve been really struggling with my writing of late, lack of productivity and satisfaction with actual prose produced, and it’s been wearing me down. On Monday nights for the next three months, I’ll be sitting in on the novel writing class of Dr. Caron Freeborn, a writer and poet I’ve really come to respect and I certainly admire her zeal and passion for the craft.
In the first class, she inadvertently covered several things I’ve been stressed about regarding my PhD’s structure that has partially contributed to the writer’s block I think. We also did a short writing exercise, which I often love to do, even though most of the time I hate being put on the spot to write. Quite often it’s a weird way to get the elasticity of your creative muscles moving again. But when I buy those books of “1001 Writing Prompts” it feels like my brain is once again reduced to an empty cavern. I need to figure out a way to make it work solo for me.
For the exercise in class on the 5th of February, we were told to write down one or two lines or several characteristics and we put them in her hat and drew out one written by a fellow classmate. You can see the one I picked below:
“Mechanic, motorcycle rider, anti-authority, show off, caveman, ladies’ man.” We were told to craft a monologue, inner or otherwise. We only wrote for about fifteen minutes and I easily banged out on my keyboard the following:
There’s something you should know about the highway, the sonbitch tends to go on, but the gas in your engine can burn out. The radiator needs coolant. And yeah it’s fuckin stupid to go around without headlights on the sonbitch. I saw a dumbass the other day cruisin’ along with the rear break lights out. Where was I goin’ with this? Oh yeah, highways are not women neither. You can have scruff, you don’t vote, you give cops the bird on your bike, and you don’t give a damn about the speed limit, but highways are like women, there’s always one willing to take you for a ride.
Still, there’s always the shop. Your lady’s at home is like the garage. You call out and the doors open. No matter how many highways you’ve been down. The pope says you should always go bareback, but godddammit man, remember to wear leather and rubber for chrissake. Keep the skin from gettin’ all red and pussed after a tumble.
As you can see it’s far from being great, and the character is quite a piece of work himself, but I keep telling myself that I need to practice #BoringSelfCare and positively celebrate when I achieve something. It’s 150-ish words of something that is creative and even unique. I mean a “Hell’s Angel” type (as one classmate called it when I read my piece aloud) who actually endorses wearing a condom? Maybe there’s some redemption for this nameless asshole and it’s a further notch for me on my writer’s journey.
P.S. When I wrote the piece I think I was trying to capture the essence of Adam Baldwin’s Jayne Cobb from Firefly, with obvious added transgressive attributes. Maybe given a bit more time I could have redeemed him somehow, but for now he goes out onto the Internet in all the rough edges of my #BoringSelfCare acknowledgement.
© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.com, 2017-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Less than a month left in this crazy year. Well, crazy doesn’t even cover a fraction of it. I started this list the last week of November 2017. Some things I added when I first drew up the list have already been completed. Some of you may call that cheating. I say that’s too bad. It’s my life, my brain, and my list (and besides it’s postmodern to mess around with chronology).
- Request my federal post card voter application: I am putting this one it down first, because it’s something I still believe in as jaded as I am at the ripe old age of 30. Seriously, those of us who gained adult-like consciousness in the age of 24-hour news media and the Internet, we’ve lived lifetimes of political campaigns already. We of this generation are exhausted, but I still believe in voting. Some call voting an illusion of choice, yet when you do cast a ballot (even for Jon Stewart or Bugs Bunny) you’re still making a choice. They can never take that away from you or your so-called conscience.
- Figure out where my writing and where my research, intersect: I’ve been in knots over my annual review over the last few weeks. Now that it’s over I need to sit down, possibly over multiple individual sit downs with myself during this PhD thing, and figure out again where my writing and where my PhD research meet. I’ve been so pre-occupied with my research, and struggling so much with creative output and production, that I have really neglected my writing muscles. They’re rusty and stuck, because I haven’t been giving them the proper workouts. Going through repeated bouts of mental illness flare-ups, stress, and general procrastination have not made for a productive year. Time to get busy reading and get busy writing.
- Remind myself why I’m doing this PhD: I feel like this is going to be a continuously evolving Q & A session with myself. It ties into the question above, but there is more to my PhD than the writing and research. I wrote a blog post about my reasons for pursuing this path earlier in 2017. I think it’s something I need to reflect on more often.
- Find a journaling/diary habit that works for me: Speaking of reflection, I have always, always sucked at keeping a journal or diary. During my holiday back home, I think one thing I will do is spend some time on Pinterest and explore new ideas.
- Organize research articles and websites: In an attempt to narrow my research focus for the latter parts of 2018, I will start looking over some of the shorter bits of research that I’ve compiled (some accumulated during my BA and MFA degrees). There’s quite possibly 200+ articles, links, stories, and bits that I’ve saved over the years, and quite often the little nuggets you need to fit things together are lost in longer books. This excavation will be ongoing.
- Buy Scrivener for iPhone/iPad: For better organization. My notes and my stories are all over the place. I already have Scrivener for my Macbook and I think the reasonable extra cost of a synchronous app on my phone would help contribute to organizing my PhD and personal writing projects.
- Eat a steak: I had a steak, Caesar salad, and au gratin potatoes before seeing Venus in Fur with Natalie Dormer and David Oakes on December 1st. The steak was delicious. Not the best ever, but a tender rib eye nonetheless, with garlic butter and paprika salt. It was yum. And the play was icing on the cake. Natalie and David saying they loved my name as they signed a copy of the play at the stage door.
- Bake something: I’ve never been a baker. I have a few solid recipes I’ve nailed, but nothing spectacular. My only attempt to bake, my fail-proof cornbread recipe, so far while living in the UK was a total disaster. I think I’ll make ginger cookies for my co-workers.
- Play cards and games with my family: This one will obviously happen after I fly on home on December 13. It’s been said, but making something like this important enough to put on a to do list gives it that special place of importance.
- Play Yu-Gi-Oh with my brother: Same with this one. I bought a bunch of Yu-Gi-Oh cards several years ago because I missed playing (yes, I was a very geeky teenager, oh come, on Pokemon is popular again, let me have my Dueling Monsters okay?) and I ended up giving them my brother a while back. I always used to say we’ll play during the weekend, and I never did. We will many times during Christmas holiday Jake, I promise.
- Polish a few poems and send them out to literary magazines: I actually started this on the train to London on December 1st and I worked on a few poems the next day. “Both Sides, Now,” “Curves That Cut,” “Flame,” and “On the Piccadilly Line” will join several other poems in a rotation of simultaneous submissions to lit mags throughout 2018.
- Go through books, scan relevant stuff, and give away what I don’t need: Hi, I’m Ginger and I have a bad habit—I buy books and I don’t read them. Charity shops, used bookstores, and good old Amazon and Abe Books are dangerous to my bank account. Not only that, books add up to a lot of weight when you need to move I’m not sure if I will be moving at the end of the spring, but I do know I need to pare down the many tomes I’ve managed to collect.
- Minimalize: I moved to another country with only three suitcases and I still feel like I own a lot of junk. The top of my dresser and my bedside table accumulate piles that I know messes with the feng shui of my anxiety. In addition to sending the books I don’t need to charity shops, I’m going to go through my stuff in the UK and in storage at home and pare down again.
- 2018 conferences, conventions, day trips, and holidays: For 2018, I have already planned to go to Picocon, Eastercon, NineWorlds, and FantasyCon. For added excitement, FantasyCon is taking place in Chester, England, which is very close to Liverpool. The World Museum in Liverpool will have an exhibition on the Terracotta Warriors that intersects with the dates of FantasyCon and since I’m in the area, might as well kill two birds with one stone. I mean come on, seeing bits of China’s coolest ancient artifacts in the city of the Beatles? I’m so there.
- Rewrite final chapter in With No Name: I had a revelation regarding the last chapter of the novella I wrote in 2015. I’ve never been satisfied with the ending, but on the bus the other day I realized my protagonist had been asking the antagonist of the piece the wrong question. I hope with this new question, and rewriting the last chapter to match it, will strengthen the story enough where I feel satisfied and confident enough to start shopping it around as well.
- Dye my hair a fun color: I’m still not sure about this one. The maintenance is a pain for bright colors and the upkeep is expensive. But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Maybe just something underneath?
- Outline rewrites for Quality of Scars: My novel is the monkey on my back. I have been working on the first draft for over two years now. I reached the conclusion a few months ago that I would have to rewrite at least 40% of the 100,000 words I’ve already written, if not 50-60%. I know that once I return from holiday I will have to hit the ground running with my PhD projects in order to make up for the disastrous 2017 production. BUT as soon as I find the balance between my PhD, my part time job, and my personal projects (aka QoS), I want to have a beta ready second draft by my 31st
- For my health: I am not a healthy person. I am quite overweight and I know this impacts my mental health more than anything else. People say that you shouldn’t focus on what the scales say, but my feet, knees, and self-esteem beg to differ. I’m not happy with my body. My main goal is to be able to walk into a department store and be able to shop around, even if finding a 18, 16, or 14 is still a pain. At least I won’t be restricted to the tiny plus size section. In addition to finding the balance in my work and PhD I need to find the will to exercise and eat right. I lost a good 20 pounds my first few months here, and then the summer that all turned to shit. I remember Weight Watchers was successful for me, and I’m seriously considering returning to the program, especially with the recent Flex/Freestyle update. Almost everyone has weight loss goals as a New Year’s resolution, but the main reason I titled this blog post as “18 Before, For, and Beyond 2018” is because I know each day builds up to the tomorrows. I have a lot of ideas to share and I have a lot of life to live. It all adds, up and I would rather the positives outweigh the negatives. Some things need balance. But there are other notions that need to be about constructing and climbing mountains, with enough energy leftover to fill in the holes of the past.
© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Featured image was taken in August of 2017 in Cambridge, UK with an iPhone 6. Image 1 was taken at Peterborough Cathedral in September of 2017 with an iPhone 6. Image three was taken in London in August of 2017 with an iPhone 6.
The above image is the contributor’s copy of a project pitched to me in the fall of 2016. The editor of Reaching Beyond the Saguaros (Serving House Books), Heather Lang, proposed a haibun project to our Fairleigh Dickinson MFA group. A haibun is a Japanese travelogue combining prose and poetry. I loved the sound of this idea, especially since for much of my MFA I felt disconnected from the community of my fellow students because I lived in Utah and most of them lived in New York and New Jersey. I had clicked with Heather because of this distance (she lives in Las Vegas) and because I admire her literary magazine Petite Hound Press.
When I took up my section of the project I had recently learned that I had been accepted to Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. This began a new path in my life that I had been working towards, and wanting to walk on, since my high school days. And soon after the reception of this news, my days in Utah became a series of “last time for a long time” moments. One of these was a trip out to West Wendover, Nevada with several family members.
I’ve never been much of a fan of the small gambling town. I have absolutely no luck and there’s not much to do besides drink, gamble, eat at mostly okay restaurants, and go see shows at the concert hall. That weekend during my cousin Brent’s birthday Penn and Teller would be performing their comedy and magic act. I had seen the duo before in Las Vegas with our cousin Dylan, who in turn has seen them live almost a dozen times. My grandma, her sister, and two of her daughters also joined us for the show. We all went out to dinner at an Italian place called Romanza. They happen to make amazing cocktails and this was the restaurant that started my love of Caesar salad.
However, before this night began, Dylan and I drove into Wendover together. We discussed the upcoming election, the Marvel shows on Netflix, and other topics. Because this was going to be my last time for a long time, I asked if we could pull over at a rest stop that over looks the Bonneville Salt Flats.
It looks like something out of a science fiction or fantasy novel. A blanket of gray-white salt left behind from when a great saline lake covered much of Utah towards the end of the last great ice age. Every kid in Utah learns about Lake Bonneville and we’re shown where the lake left geological imprints in the Wasatch Mountain rage. There were times when I would find myself looking at the mountains and visually tracing the lines of where the shores used to be.
There’s almost always wind whipping through the peaks of the Silver Island Mountain Rage along the northern edge of the Salt Flats. I can’t remember if this was the first time I noticed it, but that afternoon the wind blew salt onto my lips and when I licked them I tasted a unique sea. So different from the time I walked along the harbors of Long Beach, California. There was a distinct lack of fish, but supplemented with an earthy base note, almost as though the air were a salty, dry rain.
But when I returned home to write about northern Utah, Layton, and Salt Lake City for the haibun project I was smothered by writer’s block. Each word of the first couple of drafts of my part of the haibun was pulling out like teeth. It felt like an exercise in futility and seriously began to affect my self-confidence. I was unsure if my piece needed dialogue, but inspiration for some came from a conversation with my sister about my upcoming move. She reiterated how much she had missed the mountains of home while living in North Dakota, and warned me that I would soon feel their absence in England, in a place without them.
I rounded out my haibun with the constant memory of the mountains turning from spring green to summer brown every year and other recollections of what home was to me.
To my surprise Heather liked it. I passed it on to her to give to the next person in the travelogue chain and pretty much forgot about the project as I continued with my preparations for my PhD program and transatlantic move.
As the days continued to countdown to the day I would leave, I pulled my part of the haibun out of one of my iCloud files to read at my going away party. I’d never lived further than 40 miles from the city I was born and raised in, and since I spent the last half of 2016 preparing to move to England it seemed like a fitting piece to read aloud. I’ve always been very shy about sharing my reading in front of my family. A lot of my works tend to use colorful language and situations I dare not speak of in front of my grandmothers, but the haibun was my ode to the home I would be leaving behind.
There’s nothing like making people feel something when they read your work. One of the few times I’ve gone to an open mice night and actually got up to read, a woman handed me a note saying that she had been touched by my poems. That night in front of my family I began with Walt Whitman’s O Me! O Life!, a poem that I rediscovered at the beginning of my MFA program and one that basically set the internal tone for what I wanted to achieve with that degree. (Here is a short clip of Robin Williams reading part of this amazing poem from the movie Dead Poets Society.)
Then I read a short poem titled The Place (Without) (unpublished) inspired by Harold Pinter in an afternoon workshop I took from Renee Ashley. A prose poem titled Here to Live Out Loud (unpublished) and a free verse piece called Are You Alive from Planet Earth? (Here and There) (unpublished) inspired by two of my dearest friends, James and Jennifer.
I was in a rhythm as I performed and so when I got to “Layton, Utah,” my piece of the haibun. To avoid breaking any of that momentum, I kept my eyes focused on the pages in my hands. After I finished my ode to my home I looked up and saw that, the people I love and adore most in the word were all speechless and several had been moved to tears.
It was the best gift I could have ever received before beginning my PhD journey.
Ginger Lee Thomason
Being from Northern Utah: On a quick drive westward from
Utah’s capitol, through beige desert ranges, we stopped at the Bonneville
Salt Flats on the way to a little gambling town. (Possibly for my
last time in a long time.) When the wind picked up, we could taste a
desert sea blowing through the peaks, and almost see where the earth
curves amongst rippling refractions off asphalt and salt. Images to imprint.
The Wasatch, Uintah, and Oquirrh surrounding Home have just
been my whole life. Always to the east. Their millions of years of
memory seen through my infinitesimal birthdays.
“You’ll miss the mountains,” my sister said. “Their absence is an
Summer weekends up the Ogden, Farmington, Little, and Big Cottonwood
Canyons to find the evergreen amongst golden brush turned
into tinderboxes. To visit an old saloon, where they put brats on top of
hamburgers and see where people have stapled signed dollar bills to the
walls and ceiling. And there are initials everywhere of lovers, families,
and friends. You can find my graffiti at the Shooting Star in the ladies
I’ll miss memories the most.
© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com, 2017. “Layton, Utah” was first published in “Reaching Beyond the Saguaros” Serving House Books, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Image 1 was taken with a Samsung phone by Tami Forbes in May 2017. Images 2 and 3 were taken with an iPhone 6 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 2016.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” —Thomas Merton
There’s a stupid food lore that if you throw cooked spaghetti at the wall and if it’s stick it’s done. This is stupid for several reasons of course. Why waste pasta? And why clean up more messes after cooking than you need to? We all know the pot of marinara is going to spit up a hot bubble of tomato-y burp at one point and get little driblets of sauce all over your stovetop. Besides, I highly doubt anyone in this day and age would do anything that dumb, then again we have people believing that they can recreate Minion cookies off Pintrest that come out looking like something else entirely.
My apologies for the tone of the last paragraph. It was written in frustration at a Starbucks in Cambridge after spending over an hour staring at a blank screen. That is of course a lie, I spent most of the hour I should have been writing surfing the Internet. At least 25% of the time was spent “researching” for the short story I’m trying to finish right now. It’s hard to write about what you know, but obviously don’t know as much as the real people in our stories.
This can be frustrating if your character is say an impulsive fighter, from an ancient order and she nearly gets herself killed by rushing into a situation before thinking everything through. You know she should know better, but obviously you have to craft circumstances that circumvent logic and almost twenty years of training. What about a chef frustrated with her profession, even though she is at the top of her career as the story begins? How does one write about crafting the perfect menu that tells a magical, mental narrative if you’ve never been through the rigors of culinary school, let alone years of training and months of recipe testing? How can I make my readers think something like “fresh ricotta, olive oil drizzle, rosemary salt and candied orange zest on crispy olive ‘panettone’” is delicious and well thought out even though it has probably never existed in a restaurant outside the digital pages on Microsoft Word in my iCloud drive?
This is of course the whole purpose of writing—to make a reader experience what you have and to foster this unique osmosis of imagery. This is what I am studying and am trying to quantify for my PhD. All writers eventually figure out what works for them and how they convey this to their readers. Of course when this flow of information seems obstructed, aka writer’s block, this generates the opposite feeling of osmosis. It’s as if the fusion of words is burned up and suddenly our keyboards become dying stars. Except we don’t want a supernova to happen, even though this seems at first like a good idea. (Supernovas eventually become black holes.)
Recently, someone asked me what my writer’s block “looks like.” An interesting question, and one that will likely make every writer pause before they say “a block of course.” This physical manifestation of a literal translation between metaphor and imagery is pervasive. There are even gag gifts for writers of wooden cubes labeled as such. I’ve even seen a thick notebook designed to look like this.
For me, my writer’s block looks like a giant cube of sandstone. This is probably because I am a huge fan of the TV show Futurama. In the episode “A Pharaoh to Remember” the Planet Express delivery crew has to deliver a block of sandstone to a planet resembling Ancient Egypt. When Professor Farnsworth makes this announcement with his usual call of “good news, everyone,” we don’t see it until the camera pans out to show this object being larger than the spaceship that will deliver it, and Fry comments, “I thought something looked different in here.”
Over the past six months since I’ve arrived in the UK, I know I’ve been so focused on pushing this block out of it’s tunnel, that I have forgotten one of the most basic principles of the physics of the mind. We can imagine almost anything if given the linguistic keys to do so. When this person asked me the follow up question of “why can’t I move this block?” my immediate reaction was, “well, maybe I should just pan the camera out?” Instead of moving or chipping away at the gargantuan artifice built up of procrastination and bad habits, I can focus on expanding the cavern it’s stuck in.
So take this advice, even if I don’t as often as I should. Don’t focus on moving, blasting, or chipping away at the obstacle. Maybe instead focus on expanding the cavern around it. Either by panning out, exploding new holes to let the light in, or finding cracks you didn’t realize that were there. This mental exercise can be strengthened with a few other proven tricks of mine, and if they work for me and my screwy brain, they might work for you:
- “Read a lot. Write a lot.” I wholly believe in Stephen King’s advice from On Writing regarding this mantra. When I don’t read, my writing gets sluggish. This is also true if I read a lot of similar things in a row. If you’re reading too much about food history or on the craft of writing, like I have since starting my PhD program, read something in a completely different genre. Even if it’s just a few articles, short stories, or some poems. Just look at what picking up a biography in an airport did for Lin-Manuel Miranda.
- Find your space. This can be in a coffee shop, library, or setting up a corner desk in your home. Making a space for writing seems to help your brain center itself and realize it’s time to write or create. This actually is something many writing manuals suggest. The latest one I bought is Organizing for Creative People by Sheila Chandra. It’s something that’s easy to forget, especially if you move to a new country and expect the writing bug to find you again. Doesn’t work like that.
- Give yourself deadlines, and stick to them. Self explanatory, but even more so is to make yourself excited to see that end goal and not just treating it as a means to an end. Perhaps treat your next project like a travel itinerary. Sure things may change at the last minute and you may have to visit the National Gallery instead of the Tate Modern, but you still have to leave London and go back home eventually. Make the ending (or at least the first draft of a project) your coming home date and then the next step is the next itinerary for your next adventure of creativity.
- In addition to a space and deadlines, above all you have to treat writing as something between a hobby and as a “real” occupation. It must be nurtured. This can be done with deadlines, a dedicated space, and by feeding it with words read and words written. Time spent writing must be protected and become as much a part of your routine as sleep, bathing, taking prescribed medication, eating well, and exercising. Notice how all of those things in the previous sentence not only contribute to a healthy body, but in turn a healthy mind.
“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” as John Lennon said but one must make writing part of life, not a plan.
Advice I have been given over and over. Things I know, but often forget to practice. Perhaps we always need re-reminding of the important things as a way to remember to appreciate them.
“If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.” —Thomas Merton
© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodcheerprose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Image taken with iPhone 6 in July 2017 at Museum of London, London, England, UK.
It’s been a hell of a year.
Just over one year ago, in early June of 2016, I decided to see if the idea that started to take shape during my MFA program would be worthy enough to make a decent PhD thesis. I drew up an Excel spreadsheet of PhD in Creative Writing programs in the UK that could take FAFSA student loans and narrowed them down based on other additional factors. Those included tuition, cost of living, and the coolness factor of where the school was located. Then I started reaching out to the schools to find an advisor that could supervise my science fiction and fantasy genre.
At the time I was pitched my PhD topic to focus on the food imagery in the works of Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. A few times I got the response of “I’m sure we could find a supervisor for you.” Although the most common reply I received was, “I don’t think anyone here could supervise a degree that focuses on speculative fiction.” Or is silence better than kindness? There were a few silences too. I’m sure I could have been more aggressive but this was more or less an exercise in seeing what could happen. I had no idea if I could even go beyond asking. I still had to save up money, apply for a visa, and mentally prepare myself to leave home for at least three years.
On May 10, 2016, I received a response from the person who would become my second supervisor, Dr. Helen Marshall. Not only did she give full replies to some of my more awkward questions (I actually asked if British English grammar and punctuation would be expected of an American student), but she was wholly enthusiastic about my idea.
“Your project interests me because I find food to be such a strong component of speculative fiction, both, as you say, as a thematic device and as an avenue for world-building. All sorts of tropes come to mind, particularly taboos around eating food (such as in Fairyland for example) and in works that have a strong connection to those mythologies (Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, etc.) Anglia Ruskin could well be a good fit for your project as we have a real faculty strength in science fiction and fantasy, one that we expect to grow over the next three years.”
What? Seriously? I spent my whole MFA feeling like a bump on a log because I couldn’t fit myself into the literary fiction mold I tried so hard to fit myself into. But I was fortunate to find an enthusiastic mentor in Ellen Akins, she not only liked my straight fantasy ideas she encouraged them. When I told her I wasn’t sure about continuing on my with my Daeramere stories she asked in her wide eyed, straightforward manner, “why not?” (I try to take every opportunity I can to thank her for permission to write fantasy. Thank you, Ellen!)
There were several weeks of back and forth with Helen and then she introduced me to Dr. Tiffani Angus. Tiffani was also enthusiastic about my idea, except that both of them believed that I was “shoe-horning” the works of Atwood and Gaiman into my thesis idea. So I started to branch away, and was thrilled because I was once again given permission to explore the genre that has been my constant creative friend since I was a child.
When I arrived in the UK the time came for me to draft my real proposal, with a due date of the end of February. I must say the due date itself didn’t intimidate me at first. I figured I knew what I was doing, I knew this genre, of course I could get out in words what the (beep) I was going to become a self-professed expert in.
The truth is always harder and heavier than that isn’t it.
Like thousands of other postgraduate students (probably like every postgraduate student), I was immediately stricken with that most contagious of thought viruses: imposter syndrome. Other students were talking about doing their PhD’s on transformative works (aka fanfiction) and Tiffani told me that her PhD focused on chronotopes and heterotopias and spatialization…I felt like my terminology was so pedestrian for such lofty ivory tower ambitions.
Almost a year to the day after my first correspondence from Helen, I was told that my PhD proposal had been approved by the university. That I was worthy of literature.
I know when I say to a layperson, or even another student of creative writing and literature, that I’m studying the use of food imagery in science fiction and fantasy, particularly, how it shapes world-building and characterization, they usually reply that sounds really cool. Or variants thereof. The working title of my academic thesis eventually revealed itself as “Food and Cheer and Prose: The Gastronomy of Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Yet, when another creative writing or lit postgrad says something like, “my thesis is on the transmutability and false memory in the prose of Proust and Woolf,” I feel like I come up short. (I completely made that up but you get my point right?)
Those of you who know me well know that this is a huge part of my being, I always feel like I come up short when faced with the ambitions of others. But apparently ambition is something that is both singular and communal. Homer wasn’t the first person to tell stories about a ten-year war started by a beauty contest among the gods, but did so with his own twists because he wanted to tell this grand tale in a new way. Civilization repeated it over and over because it’s a good story and quite often tells us something about ourselves in how we retell the tale.
I guess this means I’ve got to remember that while others may talk of analyzing trauma and literary transubstantiation within the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin (again made up) that this is their part of the Trojan War of literature that they see. I see food and maybe when I tell you of a recipe hidden within prose it will either stir your stomach, or your mind, and then you’ll go and repeat the tales of brave Ulysses in your own way.
That is literature.
And this is my proposal:
Food and Cheer and Prose: The Gastronomy of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Proposed Area of Research
This doctoral thesis will be comprised of a creative piece of approximately 60,000 words and a critical analysis of approximately 25,000 words.
For a successful connection between reader and science fiction and fantasy literature the writer must evoke a convincing cultural milieu. My creative project, a speculative fiction short story collection, will explore food as a nexus of culture within literature. Each story will be paired with a recipe and will fall into one of the subgenres of science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The accompanying research will focus on how food imagery influences SFF world building, and how setting and characterization are shaped by different dichotomies found within the genre.
Aim of the Study
My proposed creative project, Odyssey in the Starwine Market: A Collection, will pair eight recipes with eight SFF works in a combined tasting and reading menu. Some recipes readers will be able to recreate for themselves, some perhaps not. The short stories will also fall under different subgenres, including high, urban, weird, and historical fantasy.
Aside from the subgenre of culinary mysteries, pairing recipes with prose is an uncommon occurrence in fiction. Although this medium has also appeared in nonfiction memoirs, Laura Esquivel’s magical realism novel, Like Water for Chocolate, in which a recipe precedes each monthly chapter, is one of the few examples where a whole menu is paired with the prose of the story.
Rosemary Jackson argues that fantasy is a “literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence or loss” (1981, pp.3-4). Food creates a connection between reader and story because it tends to literalize this desire in a variety of ways. Reading about Sansa Stark saving room for lemon cakes in A Game of Thrones, or Shadow Moon reflecting on his departed wife’s chili in American Gods, triggers Proustian moments in a reader.
One of my proposed stories, “How to Cook a Dragon,” will feature a typical post-Tolkien fantasy world. A cooking competition will serve as the catalyst to an unfolding mystery of sabotage and political intrigue between classic fantasy races. The story will also serve as a tongue-in-cheek observation of overused tropes of the genre (as examined in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) and the popularity of television cooking shows.
- Why is food imagery important to works of SFF? How can it be identified and classified and how has it changed? How is it different in SFF versus other fiction genres? Does it change between SFF subgenres?
- What dichotomies arise in the types of food imagery in SFF? How special/sacred does a meal have to be or is the banal/profane just as important?
- How does food imagery play into world building and setting? How does food define characters in their response to the meals they eat or food they encounter?
- How does food imagery enhance or change a reader’s experience of a text with regards to dietary preferences and primal or cultural aversions to the consumption of taboo food?
Context for the Research
This PhD project addresses relatively new ground in academia. Fabio Parasecoli claims “food has only recently become a respectful object of interest and research in academia” (2008, p.11). I will investigate food imagery in SFF to see how it has changed over the years and how it has shaped the genre.
My research component will combine two of the oldest pieces of civilization: literature and food. Food in myth is about desire, as illustrated by the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the Trojan War starting with a contest over a Golden Apple, and the apple that appears in the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White tale. In stories about fairies all readers know “Fairies often ask for food or gifts,” and “one must not eat the fairy food” (Purkiss, pp.66 & 129). Because of the myth and fairy tale origins of SFF there is an underlying tradition of food imagery. To taste what a character is eating or cooking enforces world building, shapes the setting, and feeds into characterization. Tolkien’s The Hobbit normalizes Middle Earth and the hobbit, wizard, and dwarf races via a feast featuring a very British menu. In contrast, Daenerys Targaryen in Martin’s A Game of Thrones is served horsemeat at her wedding feast. During his first journey on the Hogwarts express, Harry Potter walks away from the food trolley with an armful of fantastic sweets, including chocolate frogs that actually hop around.
There is also another side to food imagery, where an author takes these vicarious pleasures and subverts them. In addition to his unusual speech patterns, Gollum is further alienated from Sam, Frodo, and the reader by his bloodthirsty diet. Authors may ask of readers to view a tray bearing breakfast as something nefarious. After chaining up and stripping the wizard protagonist Harry Dresden of his magic in Death Masks, the villain Nicodemus taunts Harry with food, asking both the protagonist and the reader to sell their soul for pancakes and coffee.
My research will include SFF short stories and novels, as well as cookbooks and food history texts. Food imagery, via the lens of literary theory, will be examined through the works of SFF academics such as Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James. Works about creative writing and the craft of writing will also be studied. Visits to historical kitchens, food libraries, and London’s Le Cordon Bleu will reinforce the living history of food and its ever-changing presence in our lives and in literature.
As my academic research progresses I will attend, and submit a paper to, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and SFF conventions, including NineWorlds, Eastercon, and WorldCon. Updates on my academic and creative process will be featured on www.foodcheerprose.wordpress.com.
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