Kage Baker admired culinary art. She loved painted cakes, stained glass sugar, staring fish carved from carrots, and edible gold leaf, and pumpkin-orange ravioli dyed black with squid ink. Grapes and pearls made alike from marzipan. Radish roses, even.
Colour – extraordinary, unnatural, glow-in-the-dark – enchanted her. If something looked like glass or metal but you could eat it: she was in heaven. It started with boiled frosting when she was a very small girl; Mamma, consummate cook and a professional painter, could frost a cake to an ivory finish and then paint it with all of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and stars.It fascinated Kage for life.
Kage gave those skills to Mrs. Smith, in Anvil of the World, and had no end of fun coming up with astonishing things for that good lady to cook. She indulged in them herself for cooking events at various Faires, as well. At a Northern Renaissance Faire, the Queen condescended to have lunch at the Green Man Inn once a year – food was provided by everyone, every troupe and Guild competing politely to supply some wonder. It was all gorgeous, a breathtaking pageant of art and plenty. And Kage was in her element …
The Ladies of Her Majesty’s Court teamed with us to set and decorate the table, which was a marvel of linen and silver, strewn with fresh flowers; Kage designed the geometry so each blossom was framed by the embroidery of the gold table cloth. She argued with the Queen’s Master of the Revels over the order in which each dish was announced, so their placement on the table would be pleasing to the eye. She added flowers and ribbons and bannerets to everything.
And Kage herself usually prepared a crown roast of venison. It was served on a golden plate, surrounding by purple kale; faceted jewels carved out of fruit jellies studded the rib ends and sparkled round the base. She candied kumquats and stuck them on like gold bosses. She contrived dark red spinels out of baby beets for the frontespiece of the crown itself.
I don’t know how anyone ever got the courage to cut it – by the time it was delivered to the table, I was usually hiding my eyes at the back of the Yard …
Kage also adored the cooking contests held at Faire from time to time, especially the illusion foods at Renaissance Faires. Pies that looked like porcelain fish, cakes shaped like castles; most of the Christmas excess in Garden of Iden was based on those contests. Kage’s favourite over the years was a basilisk, contrived from a real snake, a beef roast and selected parts of a chicken – it took first prize, though as I recall no one was bold enough to eat it. The snake had a very accusing stare.
Her contribution to the first Dickens Fair cooking contest is now deathless: captured on video by the Food Channel, it’s among the bits they trot out most Christmas seasons since. Kage is immortalized in her cook’s apron and a broad Lancaster accent, explaining how one makes a spotted dick – which is an innocent and delicious boiled pudding, but never failed to convulse Americans. Her performance culminated in her pouring custard sauce over the thing, sticking a paper Union Jack into it, and singing Rule Britannia for all the brave boys at sea … try and catch it some year, Dear Readers: it’s amazing and hilarious.
Kage just loved the panoply of food. And of drink, too. My thirtieth birthday … we spent in Pismo Beach, in the old Ocean View Hotel where the family had vacationed for decades. We had our pewter Faire mugs with us, which held 20-ounce Imperial pints, and Kage mixed some appalling concoction of rum, orange juice and grenadine in them all night. If I had succumbed to alcohol poisoning – which seemed likely at the time – at least the dates on my headstone would have been symmetrical.
Still, I did not die. In fact, I don’t think I even sobered up till sometime after noon. But I was woken early next morning by the singing of Happy Birthday, and opened my eyes to the unearthly sight of Kage silhouetted against the dawn. She was holding out an enormous chocolate eclair, surrounded by clam shells, with a candle shaped like a mushroom flaming in it. It was the damnedest birthday sight I ever had, I can tell you that.
Man, she did so love a spectacle …
And to think people accused Kage of writing fantasy, when it was just a matter of writing the world as she saw it . . .
Mind you, the world did look pretty weird to Kage most of the time.
Imagine what she could have done with a chariot race . . .
Tom – you mean, like a themed picnic? The mind boggles, And while Kage held Roman cooking in a sort of horrified fascination (really, it’s pretty much a horror show), she had friends who could duplicate recipes ranging from the universal and horrific garum to honeyed dormice. I know that because I still have them, and they’ve actually done these awful things … on the other hand, if you mean cooking an actual chariot race, I guess you’d have to use the losers. She had several recipes for horse, actually, from the last 50,000 years of human efforts in the kitchen.
I was thinking more of a real chariot race designed and staged by Kage . . . but a picnic, damn, that’s an entire niche variety of FaireType all on its own. And what potential! Sidelight – I knew one of the Roman cinematographers who shot the chariot races in the 1950s ‘Ben Hur’ with Heston. When we met, he was — a chef.
Cooking the losers? No, thanks. Neither horses or charioteers, thankee.
Thematic picnics are big deals with Faire people. Thematic dinner parties, too – which is one of the ways I know for certain fact that some of friends know to make (and have actually consumed) thankfully extinct delicacies like garum. On the other hand, ice cream bombes and absinthe parties – two of Kage’s own efforts – are totally keen.
Do you happen to know where I can find the Food Network video? I’m not having much luck on my own.
I also wanted to express my thanks to you for doing this blog – I have managed to acquire all of Kage’s books, but, as you know, there is never “enough”…
Bethe – I am not sure how to access it on the Food Network site, although I am working on it. I do know it is one of their Holiday Specials, Episode FESP01 to be precise. I am trying to track it down, as I’d like to see it again myself – my memories of it are all from the other side of the set, juggling plates of meringues and rose jelly and wondering what was making the camera man and audience around Kage laugh so hard …
Details as I progress!