Everybody’s tried to make a meal they mess up. A pile of perfectly good ingredients that just won’t come together into something palatable despite our best efforts. And when time and money and supplies are tight, sometimes tossing out the pot and starting over is not an option.
In each act of my new spacepunk steam opera novel, FLOTSAM, the four-person airship crew sits down to a meal. They come together to eat, to debate, and to problem solve. Their thoughts in these scenes are filled with worry over finding work, getting paid, keeping the ship in good repair, and staying out of trouble long enough to spend any money left after that.
Each meal is a backdrop to what’s going on in the story at that moment: an easy, familiar meal to celebrate getting away from a confrontation in one piece; a load of their favorite takeout as distraction from unpleasant news; and, finally, a dinner that goes horribly wrong before coming together in the end.
FLOTSAM’s Captain Talis is as reckless in the galley as she is in life. When the crew members normally in charge of cooking are otherwise engaged in higher priority duties, Talis volunteers herself to fix them something to eat. She fumbles her way through dinner preparation until the engineer discovers her at work on an over-salted, unpalatable meal and firmly ejects her from the galley. When the captain later tastes the food she’s amazed that it has transformed into a rich, balanced, and flavorful chowder.
Even in secondary world fiction there is research to be done. During one revision pass of FLOTSAM, I double-checked a piece of cooking advice I picked up somewhere: that you can add a starchy vegetable to the pot to draw in excess salt. This proved to not be the case, as an oversalted meal needs not one starchy vegetable or even a pile of starchy vegetables, but rather an increase in every other flavor and ingredient in the meal to balance itself out. There are no magic bullets or miracle treatments.
The disastrous meal was a critical component of the final act. The situation that limited their menu options, the botched attempt to make something of it, and the meal’s subsequent salvation were deliberately crafted and I was reluctant to fudge the details.
I turned to my friend, a classically trained chef and cookbook writer, in the hopes they could give my scene a pass of plausibility as I described it. When I was told that there’s no easy fix, I felt lost. Frustrated. This big important scene became implausible and people would stop reading, throwing the book across the room because I stretched credulity well past its breaking point.
My friend reminded me, “It’s Science Fiction and a different planet; who’s to say they don’t have a fix?”
It is a different planet. It is a different reality. I’ve knocked it down and built it up so many times over and over in different ways, there wasn’t any reason why the rules of cooking couldn’t also be knocked down and rebuilt.
I rolled up my sleeves, thought about the oversalted dinner and the rules of the world and the characters who abided by them, and finished the scene with only minimal adjustments.
In FLOTSAM’s final draft, the ship’s engineer brandishes a jar of something she calls “an old family secret” and chases the captain from the galley. The draft saved the amusing interactions between characters along with the parallel between the meal and the situation aboard the airship. And along with the dinner’s saltiness went my own self-conscious over-explanation. My characters gathered in the next scene over a hearty meal and hoped, despite everything they’d been through, things just might turn out okay.
And now that dish might be my favorite meal in the novel.
About the Author
R J THEODORE (website) is hellbent on keeping herself busy. Seriously folks, if she has two spare minutes to rub together at the end of the day, she invents a new project with which to occupy them.
She lives in New England with her family, enjoys design, illustration, podcasting, binging on many forms of visual and written media, napping with her cats, and cooking. She is passionate about art and coffee. Follow her on Twitter @bittybittyzap.