Meredith Russo was born, raised, and currently resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a mother to a wonderful four year old, a terrible cat, and a host of exciting neuroses. When she isn’t writing she runs too many D&D games, hurts her ears at punk shows, and teaches ESL. Her debut novel, If I Was Your Girl, won the Stonewall Award in 2016, as well as honors for the Lambda Literary Award and Walter Dean Myers Diversity Award. She has also contributed to Radical Hope, (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, Meet Cute, and the New York Times. Her next novel, Birthday, comes out in May 2019.
Here, she talks about waking up at dawn, a culinary sin done to homemade ramen, and old habits from working in kitchens.
On her all-time favorite meal:
My all-time favorite meal, to this day, is still my father’s spaghetti Bolognese. To this day he’s never given me a specific recipe for it (he’s one of those infuriating people who treats cooking more like jazz and looks confused when you mention the idea of a recipe) so I couldn’t really tell you how or even if it’s different from any other meat sauce, but it feels different. Maybe it’s the way the filter of childhood amplifies everything for better or worse, since I’ve been eating this dish for so long I couldn’t tell you the first time. There are vague memories of smelling what I know now was wine simmering, the feeling of his leg hair as I hugged his knee and he laughed and told me we’d go hungry if I didn’t let him go, and the faint burble from the kitchen as I sat at his feet playing with Power Rangers toys, listening to him strum his guitar while the sauce simmered. There was always something magical and intoxicating about it—a full plate would always send me and my sister into giggling hysterics to the point that Mom told him he could only make it for special occasions. In retrospect maybe he didn’t reduce the wine properly, but I would rather live in a softer, more magical world than that.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
My favorite meal is breakfast. I’ve had two jobs in my life where I had to wake up before dawn and immediately start working once I had clothes on—three years as a cook at a local punk rock/all day bar/breakfast place, and now as an ESL teacher over webcam, and as much as I hate waking up early there is no feeling quite like that first break right as the sun rises, when the sky isn’t pink yet but just starting to lighten and the nightingales are winding down. Something as simple as a fried egg, toast, and a mug of black coffee eaten on a porch or patio feels almost magical in an environment like that.
On snacking while writing:
I’m trying to lose weight so I wish the answer was no, but it’s definitely yes. On particularly stressful days I like to put on music that inspires me, walk to the corner store, and buy an energy drink and a pouch of beef jerky. Incredibly unhealthy and irresponsible. My favorite snack if I’m being responsible and properly taking care of myself is spicy hummus and turnips—baby carrots are too bland and honestly they’re a texture nightmare. Turnips, on the other hand, have just the right amount of kick and they’re chewy and crunchy without tasting like you’re chewing on playground wood chips.
On her go-to late-night snack:
Homemade ramen is my default junk food lately. I try to load up on shiitake, green onions, spinach, carrots and either broccoli or cabbage at the beginning of the week, as well as parboiling eggs and placing them in a water, soy sauce, and mirin marinade. You can make the broth at the beginning of the week, frontloading all the misery of chopping onions and scraping your knuckles grating ginger, and then when you want something satisfying to reward yourself for working hard you just put in the mushrooms, veggies, and noodles, boil them for three to four minutes, and add green onions, chili sauce, and an egg once it’s in the bowl. And…I’m almost afraid to admit this, because it’s a pretty grievous food sin, but I also like to melt a slice of American cheese on top of the noodles! I won’t try and excuse this, at least not morally, but it really does amplify the flavor and add a creamy texture to the noodles (always the least good part of ramen unless you make them fresh!) that I love.
On her food quirks:
Besides putting American cheese on ramen? I’ve worked in a lot of kitchens in my life, and those habits die really hard. You can always tell when someone’s never worked food service because you’ll yell “heard!” when they tell you something and they’ll look at you like you’re a crazy person, or you’ll say “sharp behind!” or “hot behind!” and they turn around and get in your way to ask what you’re talking about, only to be nearly burned or stabbed by whatever you’re holding. You also learn to be pretty blasé about things which, speaking objectively, are pretty dangerous or frightening. Cuts, burns, abrasions, last minute improvisations because you scorched something right before a party? When you’re used to dealing with these things while a chef screams at your and servers whine about rude customers, dealing with them in your own kitchen while folk punk plays is hardly stressful at all. My most vivid of these memories is the time my friends accidentally started a grease fire while making gnocchi—lots of crying, lots of screaming, lots of fire alarms blaring, lots of people trying to throw water on it and getting stopped at the last minute, and I just wandered into the kitchen, threw salt on it, and asked if the food was ready. Basically I’m a kitchen warrior and I can’t be stopped!
On her final meal request:
It would have to be something Southern. Pan-fried catfish, fried pickles or fried okra, squash casserole, collard greens with vinegar and hot sauce, a big fluffy buttermilk biscuit, sweet cornbread, and pecan pie for dessert, with a pitcher of sweet tea and a bottle of Jack Daniels (it’s my last meal after all). Of all the places in the world, there’s this one spot way up in the mountains on the road from Chattanooga to Nashville, sort of an outcropping where you can pull off on the side of the mountain and see down into the valley below, and it’s all patchwork farmland draped over the hills like you might see in one of the better Studio Ghibli movies. The kind of place where you can just sort or sit for hours and watch the shadows of clouds ripple over the texture of the ground below. I would want to bring a table and chairs out there, because I think the lower Appalachians are the most beautiful place on the planet and that spot is one of the best I’ve ever found. And I think the easy answer is that I would want my family and close friends with me, but I guess most people would say that. Let’s say I’ve already said my goodbyes to them. Who else would I want? I think of all the people alive right now, I would most like to share a meal with Miss Major, Chelsea Manning, Chiya Fujino, and Janet Mock, but if we’re talking all people who have ever lived? I would have to break bread with Emma Goldman, Mary Shelley, and Murasaki Shikibu. Of course, for either of those hypothetical meals, I would want my guests to bring their favorite food, because good dining is a conversation between the participants in what you eat and how it’s prepared as much as what you actually say.