Stuart Barrow (ed.)

Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (2005)

ISBN: 0-9581390-4-0

Reviewed by Kathryn Linge (this review was first published in November 2005)

Stories and recipes? On the face of it, Stuart Barrow’s Gastronomicon looks to be a bit of a gimmick. As an avid recipe hoarder, it’s a very attractive gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. However, after reading Barrow’s introduction, his intentions start to become apparent. For him, writing and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG) are inexorably linked to food. By producing this anthology, he’s hoping to showcase the people that make up the CSFG not only through their writing, but also through their favourite recipes and what they like to eat.

So which comes first? The story or the recipe? In some cases, it does appear that the story has been written and a somewhat appropriate recipe jammed on the end. These combinations might include a really good recipe or a really good tale, but there’s something lacking in the whole. I think the writer needs an emotional investment in both the story and the recipe for it to work at its best. And when it does work, and the story and recipe merge seamlessly together into one cohesive whole, you really are left with something better than the sum of the two.

This is a review with a difference – much like the anthology itself. Sure there are stories to read, but there are also recipes to be made and so I’ve done my best to have a go at as many as one small-ish person can. This was not all of them, by far – I got though 14. Beverages and desserts are somewhat underrepresented – mostly as I never got round to buying all the alcohol needed for these! On a practical note, I am an infamous Changer of Recipes and Substituter of Ingredients [TM]. When I started out on this project, I had the best of intentions to make each recipe exactly as described – I even went and bought 100 year old eggs! It made no difference, however, and I now realise that I am almost physically incapable of following a recipe to the letter. I substitute with glee. I don’t have any measuring cups. And I refuse to sift. I also never remember to look at the clock and normally have to guess how long something has been cooking. Things normally turned out fine, but I would be a disaster in the Woman’s Weekly[1] Test Kitchen. Speaking of the Women’s Weekly Test Kitchen, whilst most recipes were very easily followed (or not followed, as the case may be), a few were a bit ambiguous, particularly in terms of ingredients. I’ve discussed the ambiguities I found within each below. However, it probably would have been a good idea to set up a CSFG Test Kitchen to check the recipes to make sure the directions were unambiguous. Also, it would have been useful if there had been an indication of how many each recipe serves. So let’s get down to it. I really liked the way Barrow welcomes us into the book with his Ginger Cookies – much like he must welcome people to CSFG critiquing circles. I liked the ginger cookies themselves much much more. The main problem with the ginger cookies is they are so darn more-ish, especially when you add more ginger (which I would recommend doing each and every time you make them). The recipe states you can get three and a half dozen out of this recipe. I only got about two and a half, but I have a weakness for dough, and I make big cookies. So it’s probably right.

Bring on the soups! Kaaron Warren’s “The Glass Woman” is, in some ways, as intimidating as her Prawn and Tomato Soup. Prawns? Shelling? This is not something I do on a regular basis. I don’t even really like prawns. Warren’s story is short, but intriguing. There is no beginning and no end. Instead we are provided with a window into a complex world and left wanting to know more about it. Why a glass woman? Is it a metaphor? Are we all glass women? Do I really have to shell prawns? At the very least, the story is an excellent advertisement for her anthology, The Grinding House, which I am inclined to buy just on the strength of this story. “Quest Soup”, by Donna Maree Hanson, also seems to be a short interlude within a bigger story. However, unlike “The Glass Woman”, I felt I had read this story before. We observe travellers on a quest, but the time we spend with them is too short for any character development or quirks to endear us to them and I did not wonder about where they would end up – it would all play out as it has a hundred times before. The accompanying Pea Soup recipe is pretty much an exact copy of that made in the story – and I even used a sprouting onion. However, again I knew what would happen even before I made it – there was too much (I’m only one small-ish person, remember) and it was very bland and thick. Perhaps I didn’t put in enough salt (I “seasoned to taste”), but I did put an awful lot in and I worried for my heart and arteries. Ultimately I think it needs more flavour for it to be suitable for those who are not starving and on a quest. I would definitely suggest adding the bacon hock or bones, if these do not offend.

Personally, I can’t believe there is such a thing as a bad dumpling, and Li Kao’s Adversity Dumplings does not provide any evidence to the contrary. These are good dumplings, with a divine sauce that has just enough chilli to give just enough bite. They’re easy dumplings – no fiddling with wonton wrappers here! They’re party dumplings – a great icebreaker and conversation piece for any occasion. Most of all, these are solitary dumplings and you may find yourself rustling up a batch to eat all by yourself. The charming tale that Zara Baxter has woven around the dumplings leaves the perfect melding of story and recipe. Li Kao’s battle over adversity is both endearing and amusing. My only quibble is the wine listed in the ingredients list. Red wine? White wine? Neither seemed appropriate for an Asian dish and I settled on using Chinese cooking wine in the end (sherry would do too I’d guess). Her advice on pickled greens was a great addition, however. I have bought kim chee in the past by mistake as well!

“Blobs”, by Robbie Matthews, also complements the Pikelet “blobs” it is served with. They’re both light and fluffy and easily digestible. “Blobs” is also blessed with the best illustration in the anthology by far. Matthews’ recipe makes a fine pikelet, and his suggestion of adding bacon and corn to make a savoury pikelet is quite mouth-watering. Unfortunately I have not yet been blessed by possessing corn, bacon and flour all at the same time. I need to try harder. Nicole R Murphy’s “A Man Needs Meat” is short and sweet, but loses impact after it’s first reading. Again the recipe fits in well with the story but, while I felt a mushroom sandwich would be quite marvellous, I was a little uneasy about the directions – microwaving in this context just felt wrong. As I prepared it, I felt even more dubious. I didn’t feel the mushroom could have been fried long enough. The whole sandwich together looked really dry. How wrong I was. The mushroom sandwich is DIVINE – quick, easy and divine. The mushroom was well and truly cooked through and provided more than enough juice to combat the otherwise dry-looking assembly. I might be tempted to put a bit of salad in next time, but I worry that it would spoil its, otherwise, perfection. Perhaps I’ll leave the salad on the side.

The great variety of mains perhaps illustrates best the diversity of the CSFG membership. Mik Bennett’s “Inquisition” provided much food for thought and I appreciated it more on a second reading. However, the accompanying recipe for burritos is not as entwined with the central story as others and Daniel could have made any number of meals. I’m glad he did make burritos, however. They’re very good – both easy and extremely quick to make. Following the recipe to the letter, I did not add the (very) optional chilli. However, I would in future because the bean mixture was just a little bland. I wouldn’t add fried mince though. Finally, Daniel may not have had a blender, but perhaps he carried a potato masher in his backpack? I found it a very good way to mash the beans without electricity.

“Kali Dal” by Jenny and Stuart Barrow is an appropriate tale for the accompanying recipe, but I did not really feel engaged at any time. The dal itself was a different matter. The combination of three different pulses (black beans, red lentils, red kidney beans) produced a dal that was dark and deeply satisfying. The cardamom, in particular, makes it smell divine. It felt extremely librating to just dump everything in the pot and be off – no finicking about frying onion and such! On a practical note, I’m sure mine didn’t cook for anywhere near as long as the two hours quoted but I did use pre-cooked kidney beans and I’m still not entirely sure I had the right black beans. I also wasn’t sure if the recipe called for fresh ginger or ginger powder – I went with fresh. Finally, next time I might add the chopped fresh coriander just before serving – it looked so lovely and luscious as I was stirring it in but it wasn’t so luscious after it had been cooked for a further 30 minutes. Still, this recipe is one of those where it’s almost impossible to go wrong and I highly recommend it!

Valerie L. Y. Toh’s “Sisters of Guilin” has the feel of a tale that’s been handed down from generation to generation. I found the writing a little stilted but otherwise I really liked this story of love across time. I definitely liked it much more than I seem to like preserved eggs. However, as it turned out, it wasn’t the preserved eggs that brought me to a halt in this recipe – it was the pandan essence. I couldn’t find it anywhere, and never got round to checking what it actually is on the internet. More preserved eggs turned up in Geoff Byng’s “Dragon and Thistle Congee with Preserved Egg”. I don’t really get congee. I suspect it’s sort of like Vegemite [2] – an acquired taste that one has to be brought up with to fully appreciate. I also didn’t get the accompanying story, “References (from The Book that was Written in the Ink of the Cyclamen)”. From Byng’s bio, it appears that the paragraphs on this page are indeed references from his book, The Book that was Written in the Ink of the Cyclamen. But are they enough for a new story? I don’t think so. Byng’s attempt to make the accompanying recipe more “authentic” is admirable but in the end just made it difficult to follow. More description of the ideal congee consistency would have helped enormously (mine, I fear, was too watery) and the ingredients list was a bit vague. Raw pork? Barbecue pork? Mince pork? There are many types of pork. In the end, I added pork meatballs, which I’m absolutely sure were not what was being specified, but were very nice.

For me, there are several interpretations of what’s happening in Gillian Polack’s “Stu’s Stew” and for most of the story I was not entirely clear if Stu was in real or imagined danger. However, Stu’s feelings of alienation and isolation are beautifully realised. I almost didn’t get round to making Stu’s Stew – every time I pulled the recipe out I seemed to be lacking another spice on the list. The pureeing step seemed a little overwhelming too. However, once I got down to it, it was a lot easier and quicker than it looked. This makes a really fragrant curry (although perhaps you don’t want to think too closely over what the 1 kg of beef topside represents!). I’m not sure if I pureed long enough – I kept finding bits of chunky cinnamon bark in the finished product – and, as I don’t normally make such meaty dishes, a little more guidance would have been useful. I ended up with a lot of sauce (not a bad thing, as the sauce is really good) because I added water to my desired consistency and then it got more watery as the beef cooked. Some estimation of how long it takes to cook would’ve helped too so I could have better coordinated the rice and steamed vegetables I served with it. I also tried sprinkling coriander over the top, but it didn’t really add to it. Don’t bother.

Barbara Robson’s “Not Like it Used to Be” is very clever and sharp, but just a little sad as well. Fortunately Damsels in Distress (Doro Wat) and Fire Spice Paste (Berebere) are there to cheer you up. Fire spice paste takes a bit of planning and effort but is a great addition to your fridge. You can use it in a curry, or put it in a … curry. That’s all I’ve done with it so far, but I have made a number of very good curries with it. I have to admit I went slightly off the rails with this recipe – mostly because I did not read it properly and the paltry spice jar of paprika brought home, nowhere near equalled the half-cup required. However, even with a dramatically smaller amount of paprika (one paltry spice jar full), the resulting paste seemed very dry. I ended up adding a few glugs of oil to make it pasty rather than crumbly, which wasn’t in the recipe at all! The recipe (even the one I followed) makes quite a lot of paste but this is a good thing because it keeps well and is a great addition to all your … curries. Better still – make the Doro Wat. It’s fabulous and simple and quick, once you’ve made up the Fire Spice Paste. In my mind the Doro Wat was more tomato-y – perhaps because of all those curries I’d been making? However, it’s not tomato-y at all, but has a luscious brown spicy gravy that is just begging to be mopped up with a piece of bread. I couldn’t find injera bread (I don’t even really know what it is!) but there was naan aplenty at the supermarket so I mopped up the juices with that and was very pleased with myself. I guess my only other quibble is, like Stu’s Stew, this is a meaty meal and so some guidance with what vegetables would go with it would have been useful. But that’s just me trying to be healthy – I’d eat Doro Wat by itself with naan any day of the week.

The dessert section starts off with bubblegum ice cream from Maxine McArthur, which sounds promising and, as you cast your eyes over the ingredients list, appears to be exceedingly healthy. But is it bubblegum ice cream?? It’s not like any ice cream I’ve ever made before. The recipe has many positives – it’s super-quick to prepare (plus 24 hours freezing time). It’s pleasant and minty and it’s very refreshing, but if you’re expecting it to taste like Hubba Bubba you will be disappointed. If you’re expecting it to feel like ice cream, you’ll be disappointed too – it’s gritty because of the blueberry seeds, and I’m not sure why you put egg whites in it (though I was very pleased to have an opportunity to use some of the stock pile I had in the freezer!). Anyway, enough questioning of the ice cream. What’s the story like? “Does the Spearmint Lose its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight?” is adorable and just as it should be. McArthur really puts the feeling into bubblegum and, in this case, the results are strictly warm and fuzzy. However, if you think about what could be done with ‘feeling’ bubblegum, it may creep you out.

I worried about my cinnamon balls. I worried because all that was specified in the ingredients list was a “tin of condensed milk” and a “packet of sweet biscuits”. Tins and packets available in the UK are smaller than those in Australia – what if my balls suffered in consistency? However, after a bit of guesstimation, they were fine and now I wonder whether biscuits and condensed milk are sold around the world in quantities to make the correct ratio. It’s probably law. I also worried about the amount of cinnamon that is added to the balls. “It’s not natural,” I thought, and the gritty cinnamon feel of the balls that were taste-tested early on led me to feel I was justified. However over time, the condensed milk worked it’s magic and the balls melded into cohesive, smooth and delightfully cinnamon-y morsels. They didn’t last long after that. It’s a bit hard not to give the game away, but Kylie Seluka’s accompanying story “The Spice Merchant” works extremely well with this recipe. The description of the merchant’s trials and tribulations is a bit laboured, but Seluka’s description of the aroma of the unknown spice is wonderful and absolutely spot on.

Here come the pies. Despite my pie misgivings (and I really can’t explain them adequately), I really liked Alan Price’s “Killer Pie”. Compared to a lot of pieces in the anthology it’s quite dark, and the antagonism between the two sisters is well portrayed. The chocolate meringue pie was well received by those I served it to. They seemed particularly impressed with the meringue top (I made it into an attractively spiky pattern!). I almost forgot to add the butter and vanilla to the chocolate custard filling – and these certainly made it richer. However I still found the filling a bit bland and thought it could be lifted with a bit of alcohol (not beer though). There was alcohol aplenty in T. L. Miller’s Grasshopper Pie, but unfortunately I never got round to purchasing the right ones to make the recipe. I did however, read the accompanying tale, “The Sacred Marcellan Tart”. An unnamed goddess tempts Father Kanucai Marcellus with a pie of indescribable (in a good way) taste. The goddess is described as having an “exquisite loveliness”, which seems to have been interpreted in the accompanying illustration as meaning “large breasted”. Things end as you might expect.

A West Virginian law has inspired Conor Bendle to produce an amusing tale of fairy revenge – “Yes, Virginia”. Apparently roast fairy is quite the delicacy, and so – rather fittingly – a recipe for fairy bread accompanies the story. You may expect me to disparage a recipe for something a simple as fairy bread. But, frankly, there aren’t enough recipes for fairy bread. Whole regions of the world do not know what fairy bread is, and it is up to us to educate them. However, I would contest that the suggested variation using Vegemite has not been tried (I certainly didn’t!). Cameron Hill brings us more fairies in “La Fée Verte”, or at least one more. Drinking too much absinthe produces a green fairy on a tropical beach. It’s a nice interlude for the protagonist, but I wasn’t particularly drawn in. Perhaps I needed to be drinking absinthe to fully appreciate the story? From fairies to pixies: You wouldn’t think sweet blue pixies could be macabre, but they can – Tessa Kum proves it in “Made from Real Blue Pixies”. And, although for most of the story I was neither surprised nor shocked, the final line did provide a gruesome kick that I wasn’t expecting.

Peter Raftos’ Spanish Chocolate was the one beverage I made. It may seem fiddly, but it’s not really, and you definitely feel like you’re treating yourself. I’d known that chilli and chocolate were a good combination for a long time, but this was the first time I’d actually tried it. I used chilli flakes and not chilli powder, because – once again – I did not read the recipe properly before I went out and purchased ingredients. However, I think they were a boon, because the chocolate got hotter the longer they soaked. I would definitely recommend adding the optional cinnamon and nutmeg in the optional hot water (how much is a little hot water though?) but I couldn’t tell the difference with or without the vanilla pod. As well as being delicious, the Spanish Chocolate recipe is a truly appropriate accompaniment to “Dead Gods”. Raftos gives us a first person account of the Spanish invading South America that is thought-provoking and very poignant. The added history and Raftos’ exhortation to use organic and fair-trade products makes it complete. The anthology ends with Lily Chrywenstrom’s beautiful “Skeleton Tea”, which is made all the more lovely by the inclusion of the recipe for the Inspiration Tea that inspired her to write it. I was entranced by the intricacy and detail of the piece – much like the skeleton teapot. However, the story was a little let down by the ending, which seemed very abrupt. But despite this, it’s a lovely story.

The Gastronomicon only scores 60 on the DAMN Index, which probably reflects the fairly lightweight nature of most on the tales within it. However, it scores a hefty 82 based on the recipes. So does it go on the shelf with recipe books or the shelf with my fiction books? Perhaps Barrow and the CSFG should produce a few more volumes so they can have a whole separate shelf to themselves. In the mean time I will be putting it on the cookbook shelf, where it has the added bonus of providing some diversion when I cook from it.

[1] The Australian Women’s Weekly is a long running women’s magazine filled with royalty gossip, celebrity interviews and puzzles. However it is mostly famous for its recipes, craft patterns and general lifestyle columns – Ed.

[2] Every good Aussie kid can tell you that Vegemite is the world’s best source of Vitamin B. Made from brewer’s yeast it’s, um, black and very salty – Ed.