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Mel Gilden

As we close in on the midpoint of the month, I have to say that I am loving the new year. I’m sleeping better, eating better, exercising more, and (most importantly) writing a lot more. Life is good, so much so that in a few days I’m treating myself to a bit of travel and heading off to Detroit for ConFusion where, according to the current version of the schedule, I have several panels, a signing on Saturday at 4pm, and a reading on Sunday at noon. Stop in and say “howdy” if you’re going to be at the convention.

This week’s EATING AUTHOR guest is a particular delight to have. I first encountered Mel Gilden’s work back in the late 80’s when I acquired a paperback of the newly released Surfing Samurai Robots from the Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks. An alien detective named Zoot Marlowe, surfing robots, the California sun, and an industrial genius with a name like Knighten Daise —?what more could you want? The book was a wacky mix of Raymond Chandler and Douglas Adams and I loved it. It was only in preparing this introduction that I discovered that Mel had returned to the series a few years later and written two more books. I’ve already added them to my overburdened To Be Read list.

Mel’s other fiction includes children’s books, various media tie-in novels (everything from Beverly Hills 90210 to Star Trek), and television cartoons. He’s been a consultant for both Disney and Universal, developing theme park attractions. And for five years he was the co-host of Hour 25, an SF radio interview show in Los Angeles. Given that I grew up there (well, okay, in Culver City), I’m a little flummoxed that our paths never crossed. But hey, I’ve got him here now, so it’s all good.

LMS: Welcome, Mel. What stands out as your most memorable meal?

MG: Thanks for asking. I do in fact recall a meal, or rather a whole set of meals:

I was going to write about the wonderful dinners my sweetie puts together, often at the last minute. But we are both still alive and healthy, and I live in hope that other, even more spectacular, dinners will appear as time goes on. So I decided to write about my grandmother—my mother’s mother—who was known to everybody as Ma, no matter how they were actually related.

Dr. Big

Back when I was a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ma would invite local family members to dinner once or twice a year. She must have been 60 or more by then, but as far as I know, she did all the cooking herself. She and her husband had come from Latvia in their twenties, so everything she made had an East European aroma and flavor. This was okay with me. I love that stuff. On the rare occasions when I experience such an aroma now, I spend a lot of time just inhaling.

In those days, nobody in the group worried about fat, sugar, or gluten, so the table was loaded down with so much meat, starch, and a selection of vegetables that you could not actually see the table.

Dinner always began with chicken soup – homemade, of course. I still remember the little puddles of chicken fat floating in the soup among the alphabets and thin noodles – always both because we kids liked both. The soup was very good, but I never ate as much of it as I wanted because I knew what was coming.

The meat I liked best was the egg-shaped hamburgers, perhaps because each of them contained bits of carrot and spinach that gave them an extraordinary flavor that I still haven’t forgotten after all these years.

Surfing Samurai Robots

There were potatoes, of course, but I preferred to eat the noodles in various forms, my favorite being noodle kugel. Kugel means pudding. It was put together in a big baking pan, mostly filled with noodles that had been mixed with raisins and spices and perhaps an egg or two to hold the whole thing together, then baked until it was a solid mass. I have never been too sure about the preparation details. I only know that I loved it.

You may be surprised to learn that dessert was not my favorite part of the meal. The honey cake was all right, but Ma used to make something called teiglach. This was an enormous knot of thick pretzel-like dough that had been cooked, or at least dipped, in honey. I’ve never been a big fan of honey, and you could crack your teeth on the dough part, and besides, the honey got all over everything. I think some of the adults ate it.

Calories were not a concern. I know that I myself had seconds of my favorite dishes and occasional thirds. Nor was I alone in this. After a while, lifting a full fork or spoon to our mouths was more than we could manage.

The Jabberwock Came Whiffling

When dinner was over, the female members of the crowd gathered in the kitchen to wash dishes and make expert commentary on the food while the males sprawled in the living room with their belts, and frequently their pants, undone. There was a lot of moaning and groaning. What little conversation there was consisted of promises never to eat again.

When the dishes were done, Ma would enter the living room and announce, “Nobody ate! Look at all this food left over!” Everybody departed from the house with a CARE package full of what we liked best. The leftovers might last for days, but it was never long enough.

In later years, I tried to get my mother, and now my sweetie, to attempt some of the food that Ma used to make, but it is a difficult job. I’ve even tried it myself without much success. There are no recipes. She never used them. Though she may have made a few extra grocery purchases, mostly she just used what she had in the house.

We have had some success with kugel and beet borscht, but the secrets of Ma’s hamburger and chicken soup are still mysteries, and probably will be forever.

Thanks, Mel. I feel like we must surely be related. Reading of Ma’s cooking has stirred up memories of my own maternal grandmother’s cooking (don’t get me started on her knadles). On her first visit to Los Angeles, she got off the plane carrying two shopping bags. One contained a giant bottle of homemade kosher pickles, and the other a massive container of chicken fat (in case she couldn’t get that in California).

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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