In the world of cutting-edge speculative fiction, Ann VanderMeer (the award-winning fiction editor of Weird Tales) and her husband Jeff (the author of the bestselling
City of Saints and Madmen and Finch, among others) loom large as an editor/writer power duo. In their new book The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, Ann and Jeff (who appears, as in the book, under the nom de nonsense “Evil Monkey”) tackle questions which have plagued the unhealthily curious for ages: can you serve a phoenix to your rabbi? What about a manticore? What about…E.T.?
With the feeling that there were a few questions left unanswered by their book, we reached out to Ann and Jeff (in his Evil Monkey guise), for further illumination.
The Barnes & Noble Review: Ann, you teach Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes. Do you get questions from students along the lines of “Is a Wookie kosher?”
Ann: You would be surprised at some of the questions I get from the students. I actually learn quite a bit from them. I can’t always answer their questions so it requires me to study more myself. They get a kick out of that. Also, it shows them that you are never done learning. What I like to do is to ask THEM if Wookkies are Kosher and then see what they say. I remember having a deep discussion once about Captain Underpants when we were talking about the clothing worn by the Kohanim in the Holy Temple.
Evil Monkey: I was there when they started talking about Captain Underpants. That was one of the proudest moments of my life…
BNR: If you were forced to prepare and eat one imaginary animal from this book, what would it be? Please don’t say “The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary”, which seems like everyone’s safe choice.
Ann: I am kind of partial to the behemoth, especially since this animal is only for the righteous. not that I consider myself in that group – but it sure would be nice to think about. Also, I have a hankering for the jackalope. Who wouldn’t?
Evil Monkey: Oh, the Headless Mule, for sure. It’s self-cooking! It’s like a meal and a microwave at the same time. Failing that, I’m intrigued by the Arkan Sonney, the fair hedgehog. Depending on how you catch it, it can be large enough for a dinner party or small enough for a snack.
BNR: Ann, in the entry on E.T., you say, “Anything intelligent is not kosher.” But what about Triffids? Clearly and unmistakably plant life. But they are also, according to the most extensive accounts, pretty intelligent. Do they make the cut?
Ann: See, this is what I love about this whole thing. You and I could debate this for hours, maybe even days, or weeks! This is what the Rabbis did (and still do) when determining how to interpret the laws. You know what they say…two Jews, three opinions! IS a Triffid really a plant? What constitutes a plant? And what about meat-eating plants, such as the venus flytrap? Would that be kosher? One answer leads to more questions.
Evil Monkey: What I love is we’re talking about Triffids as if they’re real.
BNR: What about Babe the Blue Ox?
Evil Monkey: The main problem with eating Babe the Blue Ox isn’t whether it’s kosher or not—it’s finding the barbecue big enough to cook the darn thing.
BNR: Reading your dialogue with Ace of Cakes star Duff Goldman, in which he cheerfully dives into the question of how to prepare such creatures as a Mongolian Death Worm, made me fantastically hungry and also unable to eat for an extended period of time. How did this project affect your appetites?
Ann: I enjoyed Duff’s take on how to cook the various creatures. He’s very talented (and funny). Working on this book made us laugh and also increased our appetites. But then Evil Monkey loves to eat!
Evil Monkey: I clearly remember scarfing down a turducken followed by a tursalmon and a turchickeel while working on the project, so I would say…everything was quite normal.
BNR: Fantasy and science fiction have always had a hard time with food and especially with cooking. The details tend to get blurry or are dismissed entirely. Both of you work, as writers and as editors, in the speculative fiction realm – is this book an attempt to rectify that?
Ann: Well, if this book doesn’t bring those two worlds together, I don’t know what can. Can’t we all just get along?
Evil Monkey: This book began as a passing thought and ended up as something deeply silly. It is meant to rectify seriousness in the world.
BNR: What are you serving for Passover?
Ann: I think the question is what are we NOT serving – ha-ha! We are fortunate to have great friends with wonderful hospitality (and not to mention actual cooking abilities). We usually spend Passover with them. When I do prepare the food at home, it’s usually a brisket (not very original, I know). My husband didn’t marry me for my cooking, I can promise you that! You have to understand that I was 12-years-old before I realized that it’s not normal for the entire house to fill up with smoke when you cook dinner. I loved my grandmother very much but she was, well, let’s say very creative in the kitchen?
Evil Monkey: Ann didn’t marry me for my cooking, either. The only dish I used to make was canned chili with extra onions and cheese into which I would pour corn and cous cous, resulting in something that had the consistency of cement, but which would last for weeks (very important as a poor, starving college student.)
BNR: Just one more question: Cyborg Iron Chef. What’s the first battle?
Evil Monkey: Monkeydeathbot versus Cyborgotron, mixed martial arts and cooking combined, four minutes of one followed by the other, and then repeat until knocked out or finished cooking. First battle would use only the inner lining of the walnut—the part so bitter that Duff Goldman believes it is the taste of evil. But, I would note, not the taste of evil monkey.
-Interview conducted by Bill Tipper