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Food, Glorious Food

First published in Phlogiston Twelve, February 1987.

I am currently suffering from a tummy-bug whose symptoms are so startling, that I’ve had to hide the garden hose away in a dark corner in case it gets jealous. I haven’t eaten anything at all for four and a half days and I’m feeling a little peckish. Therefore the subject of this particular article is one which is currently very dear to me—food.

Many years ago, in England, there was a television series called The Clangers. It was a puppet show, and it concerned a race of aliens (the Clangers themselves) who lived on soup and blue string pudding. Soup was obtained from the soup well which was guarded by the Soup Dragon. I forget how they used to placate him in order to get the soup. The origins of blue string pudding were never satisfactorily explained—but there was no doubt at all that it was very nutritious.

The program had a huge cult following, and I was once invited to a Clangers party where they served soup and blue string pudding. Soup is straightforward, of course, and the blue string pudding was merely spaghetti which had been turned a rather sickening shade of blue with food colouring. You would be amazed how many people refused to eat it simply because of the colour (Clangers notwithstanding). There seems to be some sort of psychological imperative in our minds which requires that our food be the right colour—if it isn’t we get suspicious. Fortunately, this instinct appears to have atrophied in me, I enjoyed my blue string pudding, and went back for more; much to some people’s disgust.

Damon Knight reports a similar experiment in his book The Futurians:

On Cyril’s birthday the Futurians surprised him at dinner with mashed potatoes prepared beforehand with food colouring carefully arranged in layers. When he took a helping, under the white surface he found green and red mashed potatoes. Then they poured him a glass of blue milk.

Another time, they used Cyril to test a report that it was scientifically impossible to eat a fried egg under red light because when you broke the yolk it looked black. Cyril couldn’t eat it.

The Cyril of this story is Cyril Kornbluth; and the Futurians were a group of fans in New York in the 1930s. You may have heard of some of them: Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Isaac Asimov…

Later in the same book, Knight gives us the recipe for Futurian Chop Suey : …spaghetti, hamburger and canned cream of mushroom soup: it was best when it rotted a day or two in the refrigerator.

Food is tremendously important at conventions. When you are glassy-eyed at four o’clock in the morning it is quite often the case that all that stands between you and sudden death by starvation is a pork pie. Those of you who visit “Conspiracy” next August in England will meet a British fan called Brian Burgess who will sell you a pork pie and a glass of milk whenever you require it. Uneaten pork pies (and sometimes eaten ones) are traditionally thrown at Harry Harrison. I urge you not to let this custom die.

Within the genre itself, however, there is little mention of food. The authors are generally too concerned with the action to slow things down for a meal and I sometimes wonder if John Carter lived on thin air and thoats. An exception to this rule is Jack Vance whose characters are constantly sitting down to lovingly described feasts:

…a salad of delicate herbs, twists of fragrant paste and silvered pepper-crusted meat; a skewer of small broiled fowl, hot and sputtering on a slab of grain-cake with a garnish of sour melon-balls; a parfait of five fruit flavoured frosts.

Maske: Thaery

Vance is a sensuous writer, and one of the senses that he delights to titillate is the sense of taste.

A footman rolled in a buffet and offered trays of sweet wafers, salt-bark, cubes of spiced meat, decanters of wine, flagons of essence.

Servants of the Wankh

Sometimes the ingredients of a feast by Vance are familiar, but at other times they are not. Vance’s worlds are alien; strange places and just as the strange places of our world produce odd, disgusting foods, so do Vance’s.

Bending her head, she busied herself with the appetisers; dishes of grey grapes, biscuits, smoked sea-insects, pickled fern-pod.

Servants of the Wankh

And sometimes they are…well, like this :

…they were served a meal of bread and thick dark soup, the ingredients of which Reith did not inquire.

City of the Chasch

The evening meal was a platter of dried fruit and pickled fish which no-one ate.

Servants of the Wankh

“What will you eat?”
“What is to be had?”
“Bread and steamed eel with hilks”.
“Then this must be our fare”.

The Dirdir

Passages like this make me suspect that Vance must have spent some time in England. Nobody in the whole wide world can ruin food like the English can ruin food. In the Midlands and the North there is a delicacy called mushy peas which you can buy at fish and chip shops. The name is very descriptive, this gourmet dish consists of peas boiled for hours until they collapse in on themselves in a steaming heap. This is not your ordinary pea though; no, this is a special variety of pea bred over the years to produce the slimiest, most hideous shade of mush green that you ever saw. Mushy peas look like dragon vomit, smell like biological warfare and I have no idea what they taste like because I have never found enough courage to put any in my mouth. But that is not the worst. Tripe is the worst.

If I ever said “UCP” to my father he would go all nostalgic for his lost youth in the depths of Lancashire. “Tripe and onions,” he would sigh, “cowheels”. UCP stands for United Cattle Products, an organisation dedicated to making money by selling the bits of cows and pigs that no other organisation would touch. Of those bits, tripe is without doubt the nastiest. For those of you unfamiliar with tripe, I should explain that is consists of the stomach and intestines of the cow. Depending on the sort of tripe you require, it varies in shade from off white to a sort of decomposing grey colour and it feels like dead snakes smeared with soap. Again, I can’t tell you what it tastes like because I lack the courage to find out. But my father loved it and so did my dog and they are both dead so you can’t ask them. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but…

To continue into this digression into nausea for a while, it might also be instructive to tell you about Danish Pig Melts. I didn’t earn very much when I first started working and so my food purchases tended to be based on price rather than on what I felt like eating. I discovered a lot of new tastes that way. On one particular occasion I was wandering around the supermarket comparing prices when I discovered some meat wrapped up in transparent plastic and labelled “Danish Pig Melts”. I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was, and neither did any of the supermarket staff that I queried, but it was so cheap they were practically paying me to take it away, so I bought it, took it home and looked it up in my cookbooks. Nothing. They didn’t know what Danish Pig Melts were either. Well never mind. I got out the pans and turned on the stove and cooked myself Danish Pig Melts and mashed potato, with a nice thick gravy. It smelled a bit suspicious as it simmered, but I ignored that. It was cheap, that was the main thing. I served it up, and I took a slice. The texture seemed a bit rubbery as my knife cut it. Never mind, it was cheap. That had to be a good thing. I chewed it.

My teeth bounced around off it for a while before I managed to regain enough control to spit. My whole head filled up with the taste of Danish Pig Melts, and I didn’t care however cheap they were, they were horrible. I’ve never eaten reconstituted dinosaur droppings, but if I ever do, I will laugh gaily, swallow them and ask for more. I have had Danish Pig Melts in my mouth and lived.

Pausing only to drink a gallon or so of water, I went around to see a friend who had even more cookbooks than I did. We spent a happy afternoon searching for Danish Pig Melts, and eventually we found it.

Pig Melts are spleens. I chewed a spleen! Aaaagh! I am a little unclear as to exactly what function the spleen serves in the body, but whatever it is, it doesn’t taste too good afterwards. Take my advice, don’t ever eat a spleen.

Boy you can buy some weird food in England, if you choose carefully.

Reith became aware that he was ravenously hungry; at a small restaurant they ate boiled sea-thrush and spore-cake.

The Dirdir

Different countries, different customs, different foods. In a small town on the border between Belgium and Holland I ate a boiled ball. To this day I don’t know what it was, but it was about the size of a tennis ball, a dirty brown colour, and it was boiled for a while before I was served it. Later that same day, my friend showed off his command of the Dutch language by ordering mussels in fluent Flemish. He got a bottle of Moselle, and ordered subsequent courses by pointing to the menu like the rest of us. In Switzerland I ate raw beef and raw bacon and we were asked to leave the restaurant because we were singing She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain too loudly and disturbing the other diners. In Fiji I ate curry with my right hand and it tasted just as bad as it would have done with a fork. In a Japanese restaurant I discovered that there are an infinite number of ways to cook raw fish.

After a meal of stewed hackroot and mealcake the three repaired to the library…

The Dirdir

In England I have never eaten jellied eels, whelks, pig’s trotters or black puddings. I have eaten haggis and was mildly surprised to find that it wasn’t at all bad. Probably because it was Scottish—mind you, so is porridge, but I have yet to be convinced that porridge is a food. In New Zealand I have discovered that sausages do not exist. The things sold under that name bear little resemblance to the real thing. A friend visited me once from overseas. “Whatever you do,” I told him “don’t have the sausages”. I should have known better—he immediately ordered sausages. Once.

I had a business colleague who used to get a cup of hot water out of the office coffee machine, drop a frankfurter in it for a couple of minutes and then eat the frankfurter. That was lunch; every day. In his early forties he resigned his job on the grounds of ill-health. He had an ulcer.

…new dishes were set before them: croquettes in sweet jelly, toasted sticks of white pith, nubbins of grey sea-flesh.

…cakes of pilgrim-pod meat, candied plum-shaped objects which might have been fruit or possibly leech-like insects, bars of meat paste, sweet and salty wafers of a delicate, crisp white substance…

The Pnume

Once, at university, I ate in the student canteen and they gave me a stew. It was green.

Glenn Young

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