My logic for picking the subject of this first installment of this blog series of cooking from and reading the work of sci-fi/fantasy authors went thus:

  • It’s gone into the coldest months of winter here and I want soups and stews.
  • Peter S. Beagle has three soup recipes in Serve it Forth and he wrote one of the classic fantasy books that I’ve never read. (Having the song from the movie stuck in my head because my college roommate was a fan doesn’t count, especially as I didn’t actually watch it myself)

The Recipe: Clam Chowder

Photo of the book page containing the recipe for Beagle's Comforting Clam Chowder.
Beagles Comforting Clam Chowder, as seen in “To Serve It Forth: Cooking with Anne McCaffery”

“For very bad days”, the subheading of the recipe claims. I can’t claim the weekend I made this was all that bad, but coming out of a week of precautionary quarantine in the middle of the Omicron pandemic spike, it certainly can’t hurt anything.

One thing I feel I need to point out: the recipes in this book are obviously very personal to their contributors, and most of these contributors fall somewhere in the “enthusiastic home cook” category. They make choices that I, “enthusiastic home cook with some aspirations to food snobbery” would not make. They are absolutely valid choices and I’m going to try to avoid overly-harsh judgements (it’s the results that matter), but it’s going to be hard for me to avoid coming off as snarky when commenting on some of them.

Photo of an array of ingredients for clam chowder clustered on a countertop, including canned clams, canned milk and canned cream of potato soup.

Take the ingredient selection, for example: I can grasp the appeal of having canned pantry goods making up the bulk of the soup, for something that needed to come together on a “particularly bad day”, throwing in some fresh things to dress them up. But leeks, while an excellent option (preferred over the alternative of one large onion) tend to be a special trip to the store for me and mushrooms in what looks like a New England-style clam chowder is…a choice. (Wikipedia tells me that Beagle is from Manhattan and then the Bronx, and Manhattan has a very different, tomato-based clam chowder to its name, and New England vs Manhattan clam chowder is one of those regional food fights that inspires a lot of sound and fury.)

The other thing that struck me as particularly odd was the canned cream of potato. I kinda get its value as a shortcut as opposed to a butter/flour roux and peeling/cutting potatoes, but…you’re using canned soup to make homemade soup and there’s something fundamentally weird about that. (I also had the absolute hardest time spotting it on the grocery store shelf, as I was looking at the various “chunky” potato soups when I needed to be looking next to the other condensed cream soups.)

Photo of chopped leek greens cooking in a soup pot.

Conventional cooking wisdom says to stick to using the white parts of the leek. The truth is it’s perfectly fine to use the green, but they can be a little tougher, so I gave them a head start. (I did whack off a few inches that were kinda withered.). It gives the otherwise beige soup a nice hit of color too.

Photo of the contents of the soup pot halfway into making the soup recipe, with the cooked leeks and mushrooms.

The mushrooms presented a quandary: the only indicator given to how many to use is “a lot”. I decided on this day that “a lot” equals two 8oz packages, pre-sliced. This may have been overdoing it.

The other thing I may have overdone is the sherry. I can’t let that pass by without a small rant: if you aspire to any degree of “fancy” cooking, a bottle of cheap, dry sherry is one of the best things you can keep in your pantry cupboard. The stuff I buy costs about $7. It skirts the edge of being actually drinkable, but that doesn’t matter when you cook with it, because the harsher flavors evaporate away and you get this savory, almost nutty flavor with a good hit of bright acidity. If you do pan sauces, this stuff is a queen of pan sauces. To deglaze the pot with the veggies before adding the canned liquids, I put in a pretty healthy glug, maybe even a glug-glug. Then it was just a matter of opening all the cans, dumping in their contents, stirring, and letting them simmer a while to get happy.

A finished bowl of clam chowder, topped with bits of bacon and set on a plate next to two slices of homemade brown bread.

And this is what I got (with some bacon on top next to some half whole-wheat no-knead bread I’d made the night before). As a clam chowder, there is room for critique. The “lots” of mushrooms and the amount of sherry I added and to some degree, the flavor of the canned milk (which I do actually like) made it hard to taste the clams. On a subsequent attempt, I might cut back the mushrooms (or replace with a more neutral-tasting veggie…frozen cauliflower?) and add another can or two of clams.

But judging it just as a soup? It was very, very good. Silky smooth, thick, flavorful and filling. Would make again even as-is. The clams add a wonderful savory undertone to this mushroom-and-potato soup. Whether you like this or not will probably depend on what you come into it expecting. At the least, it’s a good thing to have on a stormy weekend with your choice of movie or book.

The Book: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn is a tale of old magic, suffused with ample amounts of explicit Narritivium.

This is not a book that operates on the intellectual senses. It’s not that it’s confusing: the plot follows a coherent order. In fact, the plot leans hard and leans openly on the inevitable, because it runs on the logic of fairy tales, and not even in the slightly twisted way of Terry Pratchett’s work. When it says something will happen, it happens more or less that way. But the way it happens is quite beautiful.

“Sense of wonder” doesn’t come easily to me. I intellectualize a lot and I overthink everything. The weekend I fist checked it out of the library, I was wrapped up in the idea of making the soup and reading the book and writing this blog entry and I’d been cooped up after a week of being sick and I couldn’t just enjoy the book even though I recognized that the writing was rich in poetry. It was toward the end of this week, when I was tired enough that I’d had trouble focusing on anything at work, where I gave myself a “just relax and read” night, where I could get into it and ride the emotional wave and enjoy the beauty. (I’ve started to recognize this state as the one in which I can best appreciate most Hayao Miyazaki animated films.)

And the titular Last Unicorn is, in her universe, sense of wonder incarnate. But very few people in her increasingly modern world are still able to see her for what she is. Some few naturally have the knack and they become the book’s main characters. The awesome beauty of the unicorn inspires both heroics and villainy. But for both, any joy gained from the experience is fleeting and any attempt to hold onto dooms the seeker to despair. The thing that ends up saving the day is, in the end, human emotions and human bonds…and while the unicorn can (from circumstances that arise from the plot) experience them, the world of humans and the world of unicorns cannot coexist with each other for long.

So rather than fall into despair over the things we can’t hold on to like the main antagonists of the book, it’s up to us to find joy and comfort in the things we can, even if they are temporary and fleeting.

Like good soup.