It’s the little things

When asked how the economy is doing, an ivory tower sort might tell you in abstract numbers. Me? I’ll tell you that this Saturday’s farmer’s market had twice as many vendors as the tentative re-start last week, and lots more customers. The lady who makes the colour-changing pasta and the quail egg pasta was feeling confident enough that she baked perishables this week, and had focaccia and keto “cloud bread” out for sale, instead of just dry pasta. (The focaccia is a work of edible art!) And the rosemary & garlic infused olive oil lady was back, with a whole bunch of backyard chicken raised eggs. The lamb herders, sadly, sold their flock and have moved away.

And therein lies the difference in perspective between abstract worldbuilding and your characters.

Saturday, for group dinner, I tried a recipe I had never done before – roasting chickens right out of a Moroccan cookbook. I always get a little nervous when making dishes native to places I haven’t been, but most of the other people at the table have been aplenty. (Look, with my crowd? Yes, I have cooked a tagine and served it nervously, because I was very likely the only person at the table who hadn’t done an arms deal in a souk. The first gentleman stepped in the house, took a deep appreciative breath, and grinned. “Soul food!” He popped the tagine lid, and remarked to the ones behind him, “Hey! You can identify the meat this time! Definitely chicken, not dog!” I’ve been advised not to worry. Still, I worry anyway.)

Now, when cooking Moroccan food (and many other points around Southwest Asia), preserved lemons are a staple ingredient in the cuisine. I went tripping down to the tiny import food store right next to the muslim community hall a few months ago, and got ginger paste, preserved lemons, and orange blossom water from a very nice gent who worked hard to make sure that he never touched me while ringing up the groceries, what with me being a woman he’s not related to, and also worked hard to make sure that I wouldn’t be offended by it. I worked just as hard right back to make sure he knew I understood, and not offended in the slightest… both of us doing it by body language alone, never a word spoken about it. (This, too, is the difference between abstract cultures and how characters interact, and the way you can hold a separate conversation with body language in the dialogue tags.)

Now, everyone I’m cooking for who’s been in the med and the middle east – and I do mean everyone – told me “If you’re using preserved lemons, rinse them off first!” As they’re packed in a salt brine, this makes perfect sense. Even the cookbook mentioned rinsing the preserved lemons “lightly.”

Nobody mentioned the salt brine is slimy. Really, really slimy.

Seriously, who wouldn’t wash that off first? And now, I can assure you, if I read a book in which someone decants preserved lemons and doesn’t rinse them, I, too, will be going “Nope! Suspension of disbelief has failed! Ick!”

By the way, the smell of preserved lemon lingers. It’s as potent as garlic, in its own way. Make a marinade that includes both, and you can guess exactly what my kitchen smells like…

Speaking of, how do you describe the smell of a kitchen? It varies wildly by the dishes usually prepared there. Indian food is notorious amoung landlords for permeating the walls of the house and leaving a lingering scent unless the place is primered with the same sort of chemicals used for pet odour and heavy smokers and potheads, and then painted over. But plenty of other scents permeate – baking bread, for example.

And a kitchen can tell you a lot about the people who live there, and the world around them. In the latest book, I had to work my way up trophic levels to see what the ocean had to have in terraforming before it could support top-level predators… because sardines are far easier to support than tuna. When creating a world, fishing policy is economic policy writ very specific and very close to the stomach, the wallet, and the bone.

Okay, I also had a restaurant serving fried minithulu and the characters grumbling about kraken predation of fish stocks, but that’s because it’s my world, and it made me laugh. Hope it makes a reader smile when they hit it, too… but no, I didn’t include the recipe!

Of course, I’m still working on publication. Maybe I could slip that into an afterword?



  1. Very nicely done.

    And I think this is advice I need to be thinking in the direction of right now.

    Thank you.

  2. I want to hear more about the lamb herders. What tragedy befell that they needed to sell-up and move away? Werewolves attacked? Or did was their sheepdog a werewolf and got married?

    Or are the lamb herders werewolves?

    And how does one herd a lamb? Don’t they turn into sheep, eventually? And if so, where do the werewolves fit in?

    I have so many questions. ~:D

    1. They’re mutant sheep where the leg never solidifies enough that they can’t kick, so they’re technically lamb.

  3. By the way, the smell of preserved lemon lingers. It’s as potent as garlic, in its own way. Make a marinade that includes both, and you can guess exactly what my kitchen smells like

    *ears perk*

    The Duchess has a mad fondness for lemons– do they smell like salty lemons, or what? Couldn’t go shopping for them right now, stuff is a little too tense, but depending on how they smell it might be worth putting on The List.

    1. Note:
      I know how hard it is to describe scents, but can usually get at least on the level of “you know how you can still smell the turmeric and then some other stuff in a place where there’s a lot of Indian cooking?” type description.

      1. It’s lemon, but it’s softened, and smoothed, not unlike the difference between roasted garlic and fresh. All the sharp knocked off, and something earthy, and aged, added in that calls to mind clay jars hidden from the heat of the day in the depth of a slightly dank cave. It’s lemon and sea – not the beautiful fresh scent people associate with wide open white sand beaches, but that gut-punch briny smell off the working harbour, under the deisel fumes and the screaming seagulls fighting over the scraps.

        There’s a little ferment, there, under all the brine and the aged lemon.

  4. I tried to make salt-preserved lemons once – put them in a glass jar with a tin lid … put them away and totally forgot about them.
    They ate away the tin lid to the jar. Totally.
    The next time I do anything calling for salt-preserved lemons, I’m going to the Ali Baba market for them.
    Seriously. I’ve never been able to replace that lid.

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