Tim recently stopped by to chat about some of the wicked cool history he discovered while researching and writing his new book.
Hi, Tim. How did you get interested in food history?
I suppose the most truthful answer is my plain old love of food! But an equally-accurate answer is that I wrote a picture book called A History of the World from a Hamburger-Lover’s Point of View (me being the Hamburger-Lover in question)–and an editor who rejected it said she’d be interested in a whole book on food history. Which, the world being its cutely ironic self, she also later rejected. But I had a ton of fun researching and writing the book, and it all turned out for the best.
I should add too that anyone who’s paying attention knows that a lot is changing right now in how we think about food, and I gradually came to realize how important many of these changes are. It’s more than just a shift away from, say, corn dogs and potato chips to healthier fare (notice that we’re currently in a kale revolution, for example). That’s important enough! But this big transition we’re in also has to do with maintaining the environment and encouraging economic justice around the world. So I relished the opportunity to get kids interested in food as more than–as it formerly was for me–just the stuff we put in our mouths.
Hey–“relished the opportunity”–unintentional food pun. Awesome, eh?
Ouch! You didn’t warn me that you’d be inflicting pun-ishment on the interviewer!
Where did you do your research?
All over the place. I generally do a good amount of online research, especially with the increase in quality sites on the Web, along with the burgeoning amount of junk. But I always use print sources too, and found many fascinating ones. In fact, this was one of those projects where I had to stop myself, time and again, from doing too much research, reading ahead in a mesmerizing book when I’d already gotten what I needed from it. That’s actually a genuine challenge sometimes! One of my most fervent wishes is to be reborn as a self-aware cat, in which case I’d give one entire life of my nine to the fascination of pure research.
I also learned about some amazing people, whom I mention in the book–like the Japanese scholar who tracked down the true origin of fortune cookies (NOT Chinese!). I even contacted a number of them and got wonderful responses from them.
There are lots of myths behind how various foods developed. How hard was it to sort out food fact from food fiction?
That’s a great question, because it can be a real challenge. Isn’t it funny how prone we human beings are to fanciful or just-plain-wrong explanations for things? I think that’s due to our instinct for storytelling drama, not to mention our desire to have things the way we want them. But for any historical work, Job One is to separate the wheat from the chaff. (Sorry! Another food pun, and a boring one).
The most difficult and interesting issue for me in this book was the famous story about Mongols putting raw meat under their saddles. Now a story like that–so dramatic and stomach-unsettling and cool and crazy–well, I of course questioned whether it’s actually true. And it’s cool enough to have become something like an urban legend, in the sense that it’s continually being retold–and when that happens, a writer has to be cautious, since all kinds of false things can accrete to actual historical practices or events. In retelling stories, people often just haphazardly glom layers of falsehood onto some kernel of truth.
Many of my sources said it was true, and others said it wasn’t, so I compared and analyzed and all the rest. In the end, I found enough trustworthy sources saying it happened, so I presented it as historical reality.
On the other hand, if some medieval Mongol rises from the grave and thrashes me for saying such a slanderous and disgusting thing about his people–well, then I’ll gather up my tattered soul and go back and revise.
What was the weirdest/grossest/most interesting thing you discovered in your research?
I got a huge kick learning about some of the more unusual Chinese dishes, most from times past, like deep-friend camel hump, cooked goose foot-webs, barbecued elephant trunk, and leopard fetus. But you stated it exactly right, since what’s “gross” to one person or culture may be delicious to another. I make that point in the book. I’ve lived overseas three times, so I’ve experienced myself how something that originally strikes you as odd or distasteful can end up being one of your favorite foods. When we first moved to Tokyo and went to the grocery store, it was–well, a trip! There were, for example, octopus tentacles in plastic bags for sale. We were delighted when we found a big jar of peanut butter and immediately bought it. But when we opened it at home, we found out it was miso, the stock for a Japanese soup–and we were all so disappointed. But that was silly, because now my whole family LOVES miso soup.
Hold off on the goose foot-webs, though–I’m open-minded, but my interest in water-fowl doesn’t extend that far.
What surprised you the most about writing and researching this book?
The biggest and best surprise was realizing just how much different cultures have actually been working together, mostly unconsciously, for centuries. Because new foods often travel, so to speak, crossing borders, and then are often developed in new ways by the new group. This isn’t true of all foods, of course, but it’s surprising how global humanity can be about food, and was even centuries ago. A lot of New World foods, for example–like chilis and tomatoes and potatoes–came to play a huge role in the cuisine of distant and very different cultures. Thai food, as I hope you already know, often uses chilis, to mouth-watering (and nose-reddening) effect. I loved learning that the ethnocentric, conflict-based view of history I was taught in school, though certainly true to some degree, wasn’t really the whole story. It’s as if our general human desire to make things better just keeps happening, and causes us to cooperate, sometimes in ways we’re not even aware of.
I mean, Good Lord!–thank you, Thai people, for the delicious things you’ve done with our American chilis!
What was your favorite part of researching and writing this book?
I’d have to say the stories I learned–like the perhaps-untrue one about Alexander the Great refusing to drink water until his thirsty soldiers also got some–or the one about the northern chieftain at a Chinese feast who ate a banana peel-and-all because he’d never seen one before and thought that was how you did it. And then all the rich detail of human life I encountered.
As just one example of the latter, I learned about the Chinese term for someone who’s puffed up and thinks he’s a big shot but actually isn’t. So I’m just waiting for the chance to call someone a “hat-wearing monkey.”
It was strangely fun too to become the Rude Dude character and just let loose in the ways I thought he would. I’ve always thought I’d like to go to a party in a gorilla suit, mainly because I think it’d be fun to act like a gorilla.
Does that make me weird?
Yeah–I know–it does.
Maybe, but being weird is much more fun, isn’t it?
Will Rude Dude be making any future appearances?
I have no idea. If the market speaks, I obey. I’ve gathered some research and ideas for a second book, but mostly just out of my own interest. Still, it’d be a blast. But out of my hands, I think.
You’ve written in a lot of genres—non-fiction, poetry, picture books, short stories, and more!—for audiences of all ages. Which genre is your favorite? Which genre is the most challenging? And why?
I don’t really have a favorite. In fact, that’s part of my great good fortune. Writing in different genres and for different ages, writing as a generalist rather than a specialist, isn’t all that practical. I think I’d do better career-wise and money-wise, probably, if I concentrated on one thing. But I’m constitutionally incapable of that, and being a generalist is one of the greatest joy-inducing realities of my life. It’s funny to me–“generalist” is such a dry, abstract term–sounds almost like some kind of doctor. But in my life it’s a fountain of pleasure and fascination. The whole world is my topic.
And even though writing a novel is harder than, say, writing a haiku, longer and more complex works don’t feel any harder to me, just because it’s such a delight to work on them.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing research and world-building for a–okay, ahem, get ready for the phrase I’ve come up with to describe it: a YA/adult crossover realist fantasy series.
That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?
For a long time I’ve been preparing to write a big story about three young people whose parents stand up to terrible political oppression, a decision that results in their children having to flee into what everyone considers a hateful, lifeless wilderness. One of the most pleasurable things about this, besides the story itself, is the opportunity to create my own world.
Thanks, Tim! Good luck with your new story!
Check out Tim’s web site to find out more about him and his other books.