Holiday special: interview with geeky cookbook author Chris-Rachael Oseland

The latest from geek cookbook maven Chris-Rachael Oseland

The latest from geek cookbook maven Chris-Rachael Oseland

If you love the Doctor, host game nights, dress in goggles and corsets, or follow the lives of zombie-plagued folk, you might appreciate the geeky goodness that are Chris-Rachael Oseland’s cookbooks.  Oseland’s books go beyond slapping the name of your favorite Hobbit onto a burger and calling it good. She meticulously researches, tests recipes, and tries to make cooking interesting and delicious food accessible. And geeky. Oseland has been praised by The Guardian and HuffPo among others, for her creative, accessible recipes AND for accommodating a variety of eating needs from gluten-fee to paleo to kosher.

So, if you’re looking for a holiday gift or a way to enhance programming at your library, consider one of Oseland’s helpful (and hilariously-written) cookbooks. Oseland also runs the wonderful recipe blog Kitchen Overlord.  Her latest venture, An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unauthorized Book of Hobbit Cookery, will be available by the end of this year.

Q: Why do you think geek culture is spreading more widely now?

Technology, mostly. I’m a second generation geek. My mom took me to conventions in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when admitting you wore costumes on days other than Halloween really was a great way to wind up socially ostracized. The technology boom of the late 1990’s changed that. A group of people who had previously been relegated to the embarrassing fringes of society suddenly had money, and for the first time, corporations were interested in catering to them in order to get some of that shiny new disposable income. That led directly to the merchandising of what had previously been an almost entirely home made, craft based culture.

Q: So, why cookbooks as a way to express your love for certain scions of geekery?

Besteamdrunks-covercause Geekdom still loves and respects its home made, craft based origins. Steampunk, for example, is in many ways a direct reaction to the merchandizing of geek culture. Status in Steampunk revolves around creating unique objects, made by hand, with attention to craftsmanship and detail. As much as we all love amazing cosplay or a lovingly crafted TARDIS library door, not everyone can sew, not everyone has access to a wood shop – but nearly everyone has a kitchen.

Cooking is a low cost, low stress, low risk way to show off your fandom. You don’t have to sew a TARDIS dress or knit a Jayne cap to prove you have that crafter cred. If you want some real entry level geekdom, you can whip up a couple of things in the kitchen and invite your friends to share them during a watch party. Achievement unlocked.

Q. Your books are quite different from other geek-themed cookbooks. We’ve noticed you do more than give clever names to burgers and nachos. What’s your process like for developing recipes for a particular theme?

I run the geek cooking blog Kitchen Overlord. Some of my cookbook ideas, like the upcoming Hobbit cookbook, started as a few recipes for a theme week honoring a geeky movie or TV show premier.

You know you want

You know you want

Once I have a concept for a cookbook, the first thing I do is figure out where to put the fences. I want to know my limits first. For example, with The Noshing Dead, I knew everything had to look like a body part. After all, it’s a zombie cookbook, and people will be using these recipes to throw zombie themed parties. Everything needs to be both instantly recognizable and edible. For the upcoming Hobbit cookbook, everything has to fit within the very limited ingredient list Tolkien set up for the Shire. That means late Victorian country comfort food with no new world ingredients other than coffee, tobacco, and potatoes.

Sneak peak at Hobbit-themed recipes

Sneak peak at Hobbit-themed recipes

Once I’ve set up my fences, then I start laying the foundation. For a historical cookbook like SteamDrunks or the Hobbit cookbook, that means a lot of research on actual recipes followed by a lot of modification. For SteamDrunks, the modifications were all health and safety based. No one needs to be drinking unrefrigerated, two day old unpasteurized milk in the 21st century. For the Hobbit, it’s about finding things Tolkien himself would’ve eaten in his rural English country childhood then removing all the curry, chocolate, and other evidence of the British Empire from the cuisine while still keeping it tasty, attractive, and fitting the descriptions in his books. I have a MA in History, so I really enjoy delving into this kind of detail.

For something like The Noshing Dead or my Doctor Who cookbook, Dining With The Doctor, I end up coming up with longer concept lists rather than recipes. I then engage in a lot more kitchen experimentation. Those recipes are all about achieving a balance between edibility, appearance, and skill. No matter how much I experiment with it, the final technique has to be something your average home cook could manage or else the recipe gets thrown out.

Q. Any epic failures that did not make it into your books?

Oseland does not advise you to make this

Oseland does not advise you to make this

My most epic failure has to be the PikaChews. I’m working on a Geek Breads book. Most of the recipes in it came out better than I expected – heck, even I can’t believe how good the Superman bread looks. The PikaChews were supposed to be a lemon flavored, chocolate stuffed variation of classic Easter bunny buns. I used black sixlets for the eyes and pink candy for the cheeks, and it was, well, when they came out, it looked like Zombie Pikachu was here for my soul. The black eyes hung half out of their sockets, trailing a thick, tarry line down these smiling yellow faces. The pink cheeks bled out so they looked like a gaping wound giving me a glimpse through the flesh and into the gums beneath. They went so far beyond failure they actually took on a special kind of twisted charm. I still covered them with a towel that night so they couldn’t watch me sleep.

Q. What’s next on your docket?

Artist Tom Gordon and I are almost finished with the Kitchen Overlord Illustrated Geek Cookbook. We’ve produced one poster-sized illustrated recipe each week for the last year. Once he finishes the last one, we have some editing and formatting ahead of us. The book should be available in Q1 or early Q2 of next year. I’m also working on a Hobbit cookbook tentatively titled An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery, which should be out in the first half of next year.

Q. And finally, can I really cook your stuff? The Noshing Dead stuff looks hard.

It’s really not. I promise. I try not to use anything you can’t find at an average grocery store, and I limit myself to techniques that don’t require any special, exotic equipment.

Apparently this is not all that hard

Apparently this is not all that hard

The Noshing Dead is a great example of making something look really impressive with almost no effort. The most dramatic spread in that book has to be the flayed corpse torso. It’s wonderfully grisly, but when you break it down into parts, everything is super simple. The base is just two flavors of crepes, red and white, pressed against one another so they’ll look like freshly peeled skin. It’s okay if you tear some getting them out of the pan or if the crepe edges are uneven. After all, it’s supposed to look ripped up. The ribcage is biscotti, which is shockingly easy to make at home. The guts are just bananas sprinkled with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a lot of red food coloring. The only trick there is leaving the bananas alone until the skins are nearly black. It’s all about using a little imagination to make perfectly ordinary things look symbolically geeky.

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