The Big Idea: Beth Cato
I suppose other people might start work on a novel set in a musketeer-era fantasy world because they want the opportunity to write swashbuckling adventures, rapier duels, dramatic horse rides, and political intrigue. All of those things are awesome and get page space in my book, too, but in my case, A Thousand Recipes for Revenge emerged from a desire to write about magical cheese.
That’s right, magical cheese. If you know me at all, you know this is on-brand for me. If you’re coming across me for the first time: Hi, I’m Beth Cato, and I love cheese. This has been a lifelong thing for me, but in June 2015 I decided to go full special-interest mode. I started a document appropriately called the Cheese Log, wherein I record any and all new cheeses I try. Wherever I travel, I’m all about seeking out new, local cheeses and imports I can’t find in the wastelands of Arizona. My trip to the United Kingdom in 2019 was planned around a day trip into the Yorkshire Dales to visit the Wensleydale Creamery. I’ve had airport screeners pull aside my bag because the contents (i.e. aged hard cheeses good for travel without a need for refrigeration) seem “suspicious.”
I’ve worked cheese into my writing before. My Clockwork Dagger novels featured cheese-loving gremlins. Magazines have published my short stories such as “How to Creatively Host Cheese Parties During and After the Apocalypse” and “Prognostiqueso” (find those in Hexagon Magazine and Daily Science Fiction, respectively). Building a book from the concept of magical cheese, however, meant doing deep world-building. That’s my kind of thing. I love delving through stacks of research books and gleaning details as I create intricate settings. For me, going all-in on cheese and other good food meant I could only turn to one place on Earth for inspiration: France.
There’s an oft-quoted line from Charles de Gaulle that reads, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (His number was actually way off–according to DK’s book French Cheeses, there are more like 500 today. Pre-industrialization, there were far more varieties to be found there and elsewhere.) My dilemma was, how can I build an original magical system from the likes of Brie and Langres? First of all, I decided to create a secondary world that roughly correlates to France in terms of places, seasons, and resources, but has its own unique history. The latter is also what drew me to the 1600s and 1700s–there was so much to use for inspiration, from court intrigues to musketeers to food science! I also realized the book couldn’t just be about cheese. There was such a wealth of provisions (some of it questionable by modern tastes) to explore.
Which took me to the next vital question: why would cheese, and other foods, be magical?
Because the Gods said so, of course. I created five food-based Gods to oversee my world. Hester, God of Fire. Selland, God of Salt. Lait, God of Milk and New Growth. Melissa, God of Honey and All Things Sweet. Gyst, the God of Unknowns such as mold, bacteria, and fermentation. Because of the Gods, magic exists through particular foods that then bestow powers upon people.
As I already find cheese to be pretty magical, it only feels right for it to empower people. It also makes sense that Gods would be directly involved with blessing people through enchanted foodstuffs… though the meddling of deities could also be a very bad thing, as my characters soon realize. And as I also sometimes realize when I find that Gyst has perhaps been a touch aggressive in his visits to my own cheese drawer.
A Thousand Recipes for Revenge is out now from 47North. Be warned — this book might cause you to crave cheese and other delicious things!