Stranger in a Strange Land, Day 2


In my rant about raisin pie, I neglected to mention where I’d found it: rural Pennsylvania, a few miles east of Gettysburg and just north of the Maryland border. I’m at a writers’ workshop, but here’s the catch: I’m not here as a writer, but as a cook.

The participants are science fiction writers, but not what you might normally think of as science fiction writers. As one of the 14 told me this morning with some disdain, “We don’t do hardcore science fiction.” Another chimed in, “We couldn’t do hardcore science fiction,” by which he meant space-oriented stories set in the future and underpinned by all sorts of technical jargon, both real and invented.

Rather, these science fiction writers inhabit the realm of fantasy. They sit all day at two long trestle tables on the ground floor of one of the houses that comprise the facility. (The other, with a rumpus room in the basement decorated with lifesize cut-outs of football heroes in action poses, is technically a converted barn.) These writers prefer to write all at the same time. It’s like they’re in a public library, only the setting is a bed and breakfast that reaches the height of its popularity in the summer months, when tourists flood into the region to inspect the Gettysburg battlefield, and undergo the ancillary attractions that dot the landscape. Do I need to mention that the bed and breakfast is filled with kitsch of the most tasteless and flagrant sort?

Now, Gettysburg is a baleful, brooding landscape, and the overcast skies and bone-chilling dampness only add to the effect. We can see a ridge that figured in one phase of the battle from the wooden deck at the rear of the old stone house. We can also see fallow fields of truncated corn stalks, copses of oak and black walnut trees, and herds of dairy cattle who sit in the mud all day contentedly, and only occasionally rise to get a bite to eat.

The writers like to talk back and forth and help each other with spellings, obscure words, names of characters, etc. I really didn’t see how they got very much done in the course of a day, but then the name of this sort of gathering is “retreat,” and part of the fun of a retreat is ignoring your perceived responsibilities and then joking about it. “How many words did you do today?” is a common question, and 900 seemed to be a very good answer. “I’m writing a short story about steam punk vampires in 19th century New York City,” another one would say, helping me to figure out the sort of things they were working on. Another participant seemed to be writing a scene about talking vegetables in the supermarket.

The friend who recruited me is a vegetarian. So I resolved to cook only vegetarian food. I knew this would be a hard sell for diehard carnivores, but it only made the proposition more appealing, since I wasn’t getting paid for my efforts, and I was chipping in my $170 for the five days just like any normal science fiction writer.

But how to cook great vegetarian food in the extremely conservative environment of rural Pennsylvania, where the visage of Lincoln seems to be frowning down at you from evey lamppost and building? I knew than in the last decade, even the most remote areas had acquired supermarkets the size of football fields stocked with viands every corner of the earth. Even parts of the country far from prosperous had these sorts of retail establishments; it was a function of the global economy. These place didn’t carry anything locally grown, in general, even though farm fields spread before me as far as the eye could see.

I found my dream supermarket on the south end of Littlestown, our nearest village, on the road that headed toward the Maryland border. I had promised to make a Chinese stir fry, and I knew that, among all the TV dinners and chemically laced food, I’d find fundamental Asian things. I grabbed a cart at the front door, noting that all of the milling employees looked to be about 15 or 16 years old. In short order, I’d collected fresh ginger, a bunch of beautiful miniature scallions, firm Japanese tofu, high-sodium soy sauce, fresh garlic, and a cornucopia of fresh veggies, including wonderful sugar snap peas. I’d also found an assortment of dried lo meins.

Back at the kitchen of the stone house, I started chopping, boiling, and stir-frying, and in short order made a delicious heap of noodles, nicely browned in the skillet (no wok here, believe me). At the last minute I decided it needed something, so I made a flat two-egg omelet and cut it into strips to add to the concoction.

The dinner didn’t go over as well as I’d hoped, although several ate it and proclaimed it tasty. I’d been warned that most of the writers were junk food fans, and, indeed, they’d stocked the larder with frozen pizzas, snack chips, and boxed meals. When I opened the freezer, the face of Jimmy Dean beamed back at me.

The next night I did much, much better. Near the middle of Littlestown, I found a Mexican grocery story. The selection of dried chiles and Oaxcan white cheeses was as good or better than anything I could get in New York. I went wild, and filled a shopping cart with white-corn tortillas and whole dried chiles and ripe plum tomatoes. I even found fresh garbanzo beans still in their husks.

I went home and made bandera (“flag”) enchiladas with two sauces, red and green. The red enchiladas I stuffed with sautéed zucchini and shiitake mushrooms. The green were stuffed with crumbled fresh cheese and raw onions. I baked them just long enough to melt the cheese on top, and served them with extra sauce. They were a big hit among one and all. Even the diehard carnivores loved them.

Next: I reconnoiter the restaurants of the Gettysburg and Hanover area.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2009

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