The Grisha series is beloved by every single reviewer at The Midnight Garden, so we’re tremendously excited for the release of Ruin and Rising on June 17th, 2014. Can you believe it’s almost here?
As part of the official blog tour for the book, I sat down with author Leigh Bardugo for lunch at Mari Vanna, a beautiful, relaxed restaurant in West Hollywood named after a Slavic fairytale grandmother who welcomed hungry travelers for a home-cooked meal. Since the trilogy is set in Ravka, a world inspired by Russia, the setting could not have been more perfect for this interview. We were seated outside in the lovely garden patio, with birdhouses hanging from the trees and a samovar fountain right next to our table! At one point, a bird flew in and drank from it, and we were thoroughly charmed.
Originally we’d talked about meeting up after the book was published so we Midnight Garden ladies could grill her about what happens in the final installment of the series, but instead Leigh and I met to talk about a subject dear to both our hearts: food! If you’ve read the novels, you know that they’re brimming with mouth-watering descriptions of quail roasted in honey served with fresh figs, braised oxtail, sweet iced wine, and all kinds of other culinary delights. I wanted to get to the bottom of how food came to play such a significant part of Alina’s story, so pull up a chair and join us for the chat!
Leigh: You know authors, we live to serve. You wore butterflies. I wore seahorses. We are all whimsy all the time.
Wendy: I suppose we fit right in with this decor! I’d basically like to live in this restaurant, please.
Wendy: As you know, I am quite taken with the food porn in the Grisha trilogy. Why spend so much time describing the food in your books?
Leigh: Have you met me?
Wendy: It’s true that every time we’ve seen each other, there has been lots of food and drink consumption, but this is for the record! It’s very clear to anyone reading your books that you have a deep appreciation for food, but I’m curious why you wanted to include that level of detail.
Leigh: Food can play a big part in forming the texture of a world. It can make a place feel familiar and real in a very immediate way. But I think the trick of fantasy is to take something familiar and give it a twist, so that the reader feels grounded but transported. I haven’t had brandied cuckoo and I doubt most of my readers have. But they’ve had some kind of poultry, and they know the taste or smell or at least the color of brandy. It’s a fantastical dish that still creates a sensory connection.
Wendy: That was certainly a dish that tickled my fancy. Are there any real foods or meals that inspired the food in Ravka?
Leigh: As you and I have previously discussed, the cream-filled pastry tower is inspired by croquembouche, though of course I couldn’t call it that. Some of the foods, particularly the staples, came from research, but some just came out of my head.
Wendy: Like this gelatin baby deer. WHICH IS MY FAVORITE THING EVER. I want to coo over one so badly.
Leigh: Who wouldn’t want a baby jello fawn? Actually, gelatin is a common dessert now, but it used to be a delicacy that only the very wealthy could afford.
Wendy: I actually knew that! Novelty aside, that’s partly why I appreciated its inclusion in the extravagant feast at the dacha in Siege and Storm. It’s because it took ages to render the stuff off the bones, so you had to have lots of servants with the time to do it, so the mere fact that it was there told you a lot about the owners of the house. I do love a good meat aspic.
Leigh: I’m fascinated by food trends. There’s a book called The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy About Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue by David Sax that I’m dying to read. I can finally learn about the peppermill trend! I don’t trust people who don’t think about food.
Wendy: Since I am pretty obsessed with food, I don’t really understand non-food lovers, either. A meal can be the summation of an entire culture or lifestyle, so it feels like there’s something fundamentally lacking in those who don’t have any interest in it; it’s nourishment for the body, but also for the intellect and soul. If you’re interested in food, I think you’re often a curious, open-minded person as well.
Leigh: You learn so much when you listen to people who are food enthusiasts, or farming enthusiasts. There’s a specificity to their language and a depth to their vocabulary that you can’t get anywhere else.
When our food arrived, we shared svekolnik, a refreshing cold beet soup, a pretty Russian country salad, thin blinis with house-cured salmon, and delicious lamb and eggplant on grilled toast. We finished with Napoleon cake–we didn’t believe the waiter when he told us that the Russians have a long tradition with this dessert, not just the French–but apparently he was telling the truth! The food was amazing, and was such a great accompaniment for the topic of our conversation.
Wendy: Tell us a little bit about your history with food. Did you grow up with an appreciation for it?
Leigh: Not really, I grew up on TV dinners. My grandmother was a terrible cook and I was raised by a single mother who was working. I ate a lot of Van DeKamps enchiladas; I remember the big treat was to go to Otto’s Pink Pig for prime rib. I remember it had blue vinyl booths and paper place mats.
Wendy: Sounds like a lot of kids’ childhoods. So what was the turning point for you?
Leigh: The meal that changed the way I looked at food was at Tra Vigne in the Napa Valley. We got all dressed up and it was so fancy! I had salmon with blood orange sauce, and my first bite was like that scene in Ratatouille. I’d never had anything like that before, and I thought “This is what food can be.” And the whole world opened up.
Wendy: I love that. I’ve been obsessed with food ever since I can remember, and have a special fondness for books that include it. I still associate certain foods strongly with the books where I first read about them–I will never see Turkish Delight without thinking about Narnia, for example. But I didn’t learn to cook until after I was married.
Leigh: I didn’t start cooking until I was in my twenties and living in Seattle. I was stuck in a terrible job and I was so bored that I needed to take up something new. And cooking was such a challenge for me because I hadn’t grown up with it. I even started making my own bread from scratch. Even now, when I need to distract myself, I’ll cook or bake something because it’s still so foreign that I have to focus on it completely. It clears my mind. It has a beginning and an end and then you get to eat the product. It’s done. You can’t go back and the revise the meal so it’s a nice antidote to a process like writing.
We also ordered a flight of vodka, which Mari Vanna infuses in-house. We tried out a variety of flavors: tomato-basil, cucumber-dill, pear (Leigh’s favorite), pineapple, and honey-oat. Our chatty waiter was very enthused about our food and drink choices, and brought us some extra vodkas to try, including olive oil-flavored (ick! the only one we didn’t care for at all) and an experimental, hush-hush apple-cinnamon vodka from the cellar (Wendy’s favorite).
Wendy: Did you intend for the food in your books to serve as a sort of metaphor for Alina’s relationships or for the world opening up to her? It’s interesting to see how the food in the trilogy ranges from very simple hard cheeses when she’s on the run to lavish spreads that include suckling pigs, flavored ices, champagne, and so on. And the ceremony of dress and the politics of seating and so on are fascinating as well.
Leigh: I didn’t plan for the meals to be symbolic, but food is never incidental. The act of cooking for people, of breaking bread with friends is so important. Even something like sugar and the rationing of it turned into an important social moment for Alina in the books.
Wendy: You know, Madeleine L’Engle said that sometimes you write the story and then you find the meaning in it later. The roll that Alina and Mal share at one point certainly brings back memories for them, and there’s that lovely bonding moment that happens as well.
Leigh: Yes, those bird-shaped rolls are a spring tradition in Russia. A reader brought some to me once at a signing.
Wendy: Oh, that’s lovely! Bread is such a culturally and historically significant food, yet it’s such a simple one, too–it’s nice to see it included in this way. Can you give us a hint of the food that we might see in Ruin and Rising?
Leigh: Since they’re at war, there isn’t as much food in the third book, and there’s even a scene where some of the characters talk about the luxuries they miss. There are a few little details though—hard cider, lamb sausages. I can’t resist.
Wendy: Well, I am very excited to meet up with Sturmhond again. I mean, to find out how this story concludes, whether there’s food porn in it or not. I’m also excited for this new companion series you’ve just announced! What can you tell us about that?
Leigh: It’s basically my Oceans 11, Inglourious Basterds, ragtag band of misfits, impossible heist story. It’s set in Kerch which is basically the hub of all world trade—legal and illegal—so it’s a very different place than Ravka: different politics, different players, and yes, different food.
Wendy: Thanks for joining us here at The Midnight Garden again, Leigh. I associate all of our meetings with vodka or champagne and delicious things to eat, but I think this fairy tale lunch has been my favorite outing yet.
Ruin and Rising, the final volume in the New York Times bestselling Grisha trilogy, will be available online and in stores on June 17th, 2014. The Dregs, a new series set in the “Grishaverse,” debuts in 2015.
Previously at The Midnight Garden:
Win the complete Grisha Trilogy!
Thanks to our wonderful friends at Henry Holt, we have a set of all three books in the Grisha trilogy to give away to our readers. All you have to do is fill out the Rafflecopter form and leave a thoughtful comment below telling us why you LOVE this series or why you’d like to start reading it!
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Our thanks to Leigh Bardugo for graciously meeting with us for this interview, and to Henry Holt for providing the giveaway copies. Follow along the rest of the Ruin and Rising Blog Tour for additional Q & As, poster giveaways, and more!
Photographs by Wendy Darling for The Midnight Garden.