Creator Q&A: The Feasts of Tre-mang

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Okay folks, pay attention because this project is awesome.

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Eli Brown’s working on a cookbook based on the cuisine of a culture that never existed. These are real recipes paired with ficitional stories about a made-up island off the coast of who-knows-where, and Eli extracts every detail from the various crevices of his mind, from design to narrative to taste-testing. This guy is too much fun not to hear what he has to say about it. Welcome to Tre-mang: a whole new world.

So, are you part writer, part chef? Does either dominate?

The writer and chef parts of me don’t compete — if anything they long for more cuddle time, which The Feasts of Tre-mang provides. I’m part of a growing army of self-taught gourmets. America is coming out of a culinary dark-age. It’s an exciting time to like food. Let’s call this period “The Renaissauce.” …On second thought, let’s not.

What inspired this project? Do you notice something lacking or repetitive in the way people approach either historical fiction and/or cookbooks, or are you just trying to add to the pot in a different way?

I was born to write The Feasts of Tre-mang and I feel lucky that with all the talented people out there, no one had already written it. I love regional and historical cookbooks — they offer a chance to actually experience something distant and lost — so much better than a museum where you’re thrown out for trying to touch the artifacts.

The idea for a cookbook based on a culture that doesn’t exist actually hit me as I walked home from having gotten a particularly elaborate botanical tattoo on my back. I was in the semi-lucid, euphoric haze wrought by hours of needled agony when it occurred to me that the fiction-producing drive and the dinner-producing drive were one and the same. I realized that there was this thing I could make which hadn’t been made before. It was the kind of epiphany that we hear about. I tried to run home, but nearly passed out and had to pace myself.

Where’d the name Tre-mang come from?

I just liked the sound of it.

Publishers Weekly has called your prose lyrical; your mom says you’re f***cking brilliant. What have your previous works been?

My first novel won a prize and got some great reviews. It’s called The Great Days and it’s about a young man trying to escape from a cult compound in the Arizona desert. It’s very “literary,” pretty dark in places, and was my attempt to understand things like the Jonestown massacre. So it’s worlds apart from this project which is culinary, funny, and doesn’t fit well into any genre category.

What they might have in common is that I invented an entire culture for both. I love stories, we all do. Cultures are just stories stacked on top of other stories. Add food and you’ve got yourself a universe. Oh, and I’ve got some poetry floating out there too.

What’s a recipe you’re most excited about, and can you share it with us?

There are so many recipes I’m excited about. The fun thing about this cookbook is that every dish is new. The Pomegranate Bergamot Curd (called Gezzer by traditional Tre-manners) is quick and easy to make.

It’s like the lemon curd you might have spread on a scone or toast, only it has the rich tones of pomegranate syrup with the violin of the bergamot singing lightly in the background. (Bergamot is the citrus that gives Earl Grey Tea its distinctive kick.) Gezzer is one of the dishes served at lively Tre-manner independence festivals, where they celebrated freedom from occupation, shot their revolutionary heroes out of cannons, and dressed in drag. You can read all about it here:

Have you traveled around the general area of your fictitious island to get a feel for what the cuisine might have been like?

The meals of Tre-mang are a result of the occupation of the island by various foreign powers. Tre-manner meals blended the best of Spanish, Dutch, Italian, English, and French cuisine. I was blessed to have many different cultural influences in the kitchen growing up.

For much of my childhood I lived on the Mexican border. An uncle of mine help found the Bay Wolf restaurant in Oakland California. My parents worked with refugees from Vietnam and Japanese exchange students stayed with us several summers in a row. I grew up knowing the subtle differences between the green stings of cilantro, jalapeno, and wasabi. I look forward to traveling to Greece and Italy someday, but so far most of my exploring has been done in the kitchen.

Who designed the awesome Tre-mang money?!?

I’m glad you like the Tre-mang currency — I designed it, and I’m looking forward to sending it out as a thank-you gift. Everything in the cookbook, the old-timey photos, the maps, posters, recipes, text, and food imagery, is done by me, which is why it’s such an ambitious project. The cooking alone is very time consuming. I go through at least five revisions of each recipe, and that’s for the dishes that work. I’ll spare you the details of some of the inedible ones.

You’ve created real fake swag. Are you secretly hoping to start a Tre-mang gang? Or a revolution?

“Tre-mang Gang” has a great sound to it. To be clear, the swag, like the recipes, are real — you can wear the shirts, you can eat the pie. It’s just the island that they come from that’s fake. Yes, I admit, a small scale revolution is part of my culinary agenda. I’d like to see Tre-mang themed dinner parties. I’m hoping some of the ridiculously talented musicians out there will help me recreate the Tre-mang national anthem. Above all I want people to have fun and think creatively about culture and food.

What can people expect from the Remember Tre-mang Festival?

If I have anything to do with it, the Remember Tre-mang Festival will feature: a marching band playing the national anthem, a Tre-manner traditional dance contest, duck-on-goat-on-defeated-Spaniard flags waving, scores of people wearing baskets on their heads, news coverage by confused reporters, and, of course, lots of delicious food. Who knows, someone might even walk away crowned Governor.

Any other thoughts? How’d you hear about Kickstarter?

We’ve all heard that the literary industry is ruined, and I’ve had my own personal tour of the wreckage. I’ve had several publishing houses tell me my novels were “too lovely and literary to sell.” Or, “We love it, we’ve never seen anything like it — but we don’t know which shelf to put it on.” No one is taking any chances, which is why we keep getting the same old pap.

 But there’s only so much blood you can wring out of a vampire craze. Optimists have said that once the media-conglomerates topple there will be more sunlight for the artists. When I first read about Kickstarter in a magazine I thought, “Well I’ll be damned. It’s happening. Creative, grassroots solutions. We might survive this thing after all.”

You can support the project here.

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