Cozy Space Opera with Food: “The Taste of Home”, a new “In Love and War” story

Yes, I have a new In Love and War story to announce. It’s called The Taste of Home and the post title says it all, really.

The Taste of Home is another tale to come out of the 2018 July short story challenge, where the objective was to write a short story per day in July 2018. Though unlike most published July short story challenge stories, The Taste of Home is not one but two stories written during the challenge, “Tea and Memories” and “Anniversary Dinner”, which turned out to be companion pieces.

Both stories were inspired by the same combination of two of Chuck Wendig’s writing prompts, namely to write a space opera and to write about food. And since food plays a big role in the In Love and War series, to the point that I have started dubbing it cozy space opera as an analogue to the “cozy mystery” subgenre with its focus on food and recipes, that combination of writing prompts immediately sparked an idea for an In Love and War story or three, since the story “Shipbound”, which can be found bundled with Bullet Holes, was also inspired by the same combination of prompts.

“Tea and Memories”, Mikhail’s section of The Taste of Home, was the first of those three stories written. For due to his deprived childhood, Mikhail has food issues, which makes him the ideal protagonist for a space opera story about food. What is more, Mikhail not only lost his home and his family with the destruction of Jagellowsk, he also lost his entire culture and that includes food. Mikhail can never eat his favourite childhood dishes again, because there is hardly anybody left who knows how to make them.

But even though the vast majority of the survivors of Jagellowsk were children under twelve for reasons explained in Evacuation Order, there also were adult survivors, people who were not on Jagellowsk when the planet was destroyed. Natalya Shepkova, whom we meet in Evacuation Order and later briefly in Freedom’s Horizon is one of them. And wherever you have expat or refugee communities, you have restaurants serving the food of the homeland. Therefore, it makes sense that at least some of those Jagellowski refugees would have opened a restaurant somewhere in the galaxy, serving the cuisine of a dead world. And so I decided to let Mikhail stumble upon a Jagellowski restaurant on the rim.

The people of Jagellowsk are the descendants of Russians who left Earth centuries, if not millennia ago. This history would of course be reflected in their food traditions. So I thought back on my experiences with Russian cuisine and remembered a memorable dinner at Restaurant Bellevue, a more than one hundred years old Russian restaurant in Helsinki, Finland, which I visited during WorldCon 75. The food served at Restaurant Bellevue is largely based on the cuisine of Czarist Russia and therefore fits the theme of food from a lost world. And so the Restaurant Demirdova in the story is very much based on the real world Restaurant Bellevue in Helsinki, down to the description of the street where it is located. And yes, the Restaurant Bellevue offers a Russian tea tray very much like the one Mikhail is served. I even took a photo of it at the time.

Russian Tea Tray

The Russian tea tray at Restaurant Bellevue in Helsinki.

Initially, I had intended to give Mikhail a full meal. But describing a full meal takes time and “Tea and Memories” was still a short story written under the time constraints imposed by the July challenge. What is more, Mikhail would not have a full meal elsewhere, while Anjali was waiting with dinner for him at home. And so I settled for just letting Mikhail enjoy a pot of Russian tea. Which is doubly poignant, for while tea is not exactly rare in the In Love and War universe — though more common in the Empire than in the Republic — hardly anybody makes or serves tea in the way Mikhail is used to. And since Mikhail was a child when Jagellowsk was destroyed, getting to eat the pastries and sweets of his childhood again would have a special meaning to him.

The letter-shaped bukwi cookies really do have their origin in Russia, by the way, though nowadays they are much more popular in Germany than in their land of origin. They are called Russian bread over here and are very much a childhood staple. And yes, spelling out your name in cookies, as Mikhail does, is very much a thing.

I wrote “Anniversary Dinner”, Anjali’s portion of the story, a few days later. On that day, I just happened to make turkey biryani, which is a fairly complicated and time intensive dish to make, though mine is simpler than Anjali’s version. And when the time came to write my story for the day, I thought of the food prompt I had used a few days earlier and started to write a story about Anjali making biryani, while reflecting about her relationship with Mikhail.

Now biryani is very much a festive dish for special occasions — not to mention that Anjali even procured some meat, which is a rare and expensive treat in this universe — so I decided that Anjali’s biryani should be a special meal for a special occasion, too. And since I’ve already given Mikhail and Anjali plenty of adventures since they got together (and yes, the story of how exactly they got together will be written someday), it made sense for them to be celebrating their first anniversary.

Of course, a festive meal needs a festive dessert. Now I’m not much of a dessert person myself (I can whip up a dessert, if necessary, I just rarely bother), so I scanned recipe websites for Indian sweets and desserts and eventually came upon ras malai which seemed suitably tasty and festive. I even found step by step instructions how to make it, on which the description of Anjali making ras malai is based.

As I said above, I like to call the In Love and War series “cozy space opera”. And The Taste of Home is probably the coziest of all In Love and War stories. It has comparatively little external conflict and is mainly a story about memories, family and food.

So if that sounds like something you might enjoy, read:

The Taste of Home
The Taste of Home by Cora BuhlertOnce, Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov were soldiers on opposing sides of an intergalactic war. They met, fell in love and decided to go on the run together.

Now Anjali and Mikhail are trying to eke out a living on the independent worlds of the galactic rim, while attempting to stay under the radar of those pursuing them.

Mikhail is on his way home, an anniversary present for Anjali in his pocket, when he suddenly finds himself irresistibly drawn towards an unremarkable storefront and comes face to face with his past.

Meanwhile, Anjali is preparing a special anniversary dinner for Mikhail, only to find that he is late to come home.

More information.
Length: 9300 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
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