The West |

A Space Cowgirl’s Book of Comfort Food Recipes

by J.A. Pak

edited by Lisa Locascio


Ladies, do not go out with a journalist. And if you do and that journalist gets hired to head the Outer Hebrides bureau and he asks you to come along, break up with him immediately. On no account do you listen to his tear-filled pleas, his pledges of undying love, his promises of “adventure”, the guilt trips. Do not let your heart melt as he sends you bouquet after bouquet. Walk away, dear ladies, walk away.

Because I did not. And for ten years I was stuck in that hellhole of space called the Outer Hebrides. There are no towns there, ladies. There is no fine dining. The only heels you will wear come heat-sealed to two-inch thick gravity workboots that keep you mired in goo because paved roads exit only in the wet dreams of civil engineers. The nearest civilization is the Zhobu star system where the little moon Sweet Avalon actually has a mall. And that’s an eleven-day trip on a ratty shuttle, hon. In ten years I made it to Avalon, sweet little Avalon, twice. I cried all the way back “home.”

Home. My true home is Mistport. The center of civilization. Glam capital of the universe. I am a metropolis girl through and through. Born and raised. 10th generation. So what happens when you take a metropolis girl out of Mistport and plunk her down in the middle of nowhere? We survive. Turns out we Mistport Minnies are tough. Standing in line for six weeks waiting for the yearly Sale of the Century at the Pleiades Starmall is good training for almost anything. I survived the storms, the intense heat waves, the power shortages, the rebel attacks, the day-long hikes when the tank broke down. Much to my surprise, I could live without my daily manicures, TV, instant chats. I could even live without a Roboto Butler. So what can’t I live without? Food, ladies, food. Comfort food. The food of Mistport. The food of civilization.

First, let me be perfectly clear: I am not an expert on food or cooking. Before arriving on Ienlow, I didn’t even know how to crack an egg. Like most Mistport Minnies, I ate out almost every day. And when I didn’t, the Roboto Butler cooked. My model did a mean Prince Omala omelet. It never even occurred to me that there wouldn’t be restaurants in the Outer Hebrides. Or Roboto Butlers. Instead, what I found in my new domicile was a thirty-year-old cranky food replicator with only twenty-six entree options. Twenty-six! And all twenty-six, from hamburgers to cheese souffles, tasted pretty much the powdery same. So you see, I started to cook out of desperation. A need for food. Real food. The food of home.

Lulu’s Lichen Omelet

It’s not really clear what makes up the Outer Hebrides. It’s just a convenient term for any and all things beyond the Glacien belt. The main official administrative offices are located on Ienlow, a modest-sized planet in the Krawkow star system. That was my hell for ten long years. Ienlow. Not a pretty planet, let me tell you. A sticky sand covers most of it. And underneath that thin layer of goo is hard crystal. Useless hard crystal. Unlike the immensely valuable crystals and minerals making up the surrounding planets, the real reason why there’s so much activity in the Outer Hebrides. Needless to say, not much grows on Ienlow, and certainly nothing that looks at all edible. It took me two years to discover Ienlow’s lichen and only because of Lulu.

Lulu is a granddaughter of one of the original settlers of Ienlow. These descendants are now classified as rebels and are forced to live hidden miles away from official settlements. You’ll never knowingly meet a descendant. I only met Lulu because I got lost. It was after yet another ballistic screamer with the Journalist: he wanted to know why I’d thrown out his filthy, rotting, centuries-old slippers and I wanted to know why he’d dragged me down to hell. I mean, there were things growing in those slippers and I’m sure that was why his feet stank. Blinded by fury and blood-vessel-bursting frustration, I jumped into the tank and blasted clear out of town. Had no idea where I was going except as far away from the settlement as I could. Didn’t stop until I saw black smoke hurling out of the engine. Sure that the tank was finally going to blow, I grabbed the emergency pack and leapt out in a panic. It didn’t blow. But I knew I was stuck for the night.

The sun was setting. Below me was a field of purple set ablaze by Helios. The purple was lichen, growing from a sheet of protruding crystal. How beautiful it was, like a nebula on the ground.

“You can touch those,” I heard a gentle voice say.

It was Lulu.

“Hello,” I responded, a little stupefied at seeing a fellow human this far from “civilization.” She seemed ancient, a thousand lines engraved on her sun-burnt face as if she were a wooden totem.

“You must be lost,” she said, rich and gravelly. The voice of the underground crystal.

“I think I am.”

“Follow me. The sun’s about to disappear. Safer to spend the night with me.”

It didn’t take me long to realize Lulu was a “rebel.” I wasn’t sure how I was still alive. On home turf, “rebels” tend to shoot strangers on first sight (or so I’d been told over and over again). Even Lulu couldn’t tell me why she’d rescued me that day.

She lived alone, her small hut-like house right under a canyon ledge so it couldn’t be spotted by surveillance drones. The descendants are experts at camouflage and guerilla warfare. And at cookery. After all, it’s not like they can walk up to a government store and replenish their supply of foodmix for the food replicator. Out of necessity, they’d learned how to cook native plants and wildlife. It turned out that the lichens on Ienlow are not only beautiful but edible. Fresh, they have the taste of goat cheese. Dried and rehydrated, they taste of seaweed. Roasted, a bit lemony.

That night, Lulu made me a dish of lichen omelet. To my great surprise, the omelet had real eggs in it. I had heard there were feral chickens roaming about but I’d thought it was urban-legend stuff.

“Not legend at all,” Lulu said, smiling. “And not so feral. I’ve got a few old hens out back. Not native, of course. They say one of the first settlers smuggled in some live embryos.”

It was lovely watching Lulu cook, the handle of her well-worn pan snuggled in her expert hand, the eggs swirling and bubbling. One of the best meals I’ve ever had.


6 eggs

A handful of lichen (substitute mushrooms, fungi, cheese, etc—whatever is best on your home world)

Butter (Lulu used butter she’d made from Gallow seeds. The Gallow plant grows near the northern hemisphere of Ienlow, where the colder weather solidifies the sand enough for modest plant growth.)


Break the eggs into a large bowl and whip. The whipping makes the omelet fluffier. Heat a large frying pan, add butter and then the lichen. When the lichen has wilted a bit, add the eggs and stir the mixture rapidly until it begins to solidify. Take the pan off the heat immediately (the omelet will still be runny but that doesn’t matter as it’ll continue to cook as it sits in the hot pan). The lichen will have exuded a creamy juice which will act almost like cream. The result is a custardy, souffle-like omelet.

Lulu’s Chicken and Dumplings

My introduction to Ienlow’s lichen was a true revelation. I soon discovered that this lichen is as versatile as an egg. Left to dry under the intense Ienlow sun and then ground into powder, the lichen becomes flour. What can’t you make with a little egg and flour?

I met up with Lulu about once a month. She taught me how to cook, and when I got better at it, we began exchanging recipes. I had the surprise of my life on one visit: Lulu had made chicken and dumplings.

“One of the hens no longer lays eggs so I put her out of her misery,” Lulu told me.

“We’re going to have chicken?” I asked, ecstatic. Real chicken! “Roast chicken?”

“Oh, no,” Lulu said, laughing. “You need a nice, young chicken for roasting. This is literally a tough old bird. Can’t do much with it except boil it. Get nice stock too. And when the meat’s tender enough, you can make chicken and dumplings.”

Now, I’d heard of chicken and dumplings, a nice ancient dish from colonial days, but I’d never actually eaten one. What a treat! I’m not sure why restaurants don’t have it on their menus. It’s sad how dishes go out of fashion. Here’s Lulu’s recipe.


one whole chicken


For the dumplings:

something like 100 grams of flour [ figure out exact measurements later—am I getting any of this right? It’s been so long since I’ve been near a kitchen ]

about teaspoon of leavening agent (Most people use baking powder. On Ienlow, the agent is a mold that can be cultured from a thick mixture of native sand and water, which is naturally carbonated.)

~50 grams of butter

salt (the ubiquitous crystal on Ienlow, ground finely, makes a good substitute for salt)

1/4 cup of eggs

milk (Lulu’s milk was from Gallow seeds but regular dairy milk is fine)


Boil the cleaned chicken in plenty of water, careful to remove the scum that rises to the top. Lulu says this can take anywhere from an hour to three days depending on how tough the chicken is. The chicken you get at Mistport supernovamarts probably needs less than half an hour. And, of course, you will have to adjust for your local gravity, atmosphere, altitude, etc.

When the meat is falling off the bone, take it out of the broth—meat, bones, everything. Do NOT throw away the broth. You will need the broth to cook the dumplings. With your fingers, pull apart the chicken meat into small threads. Of course, wait until the chicken is cool enough or you’ll burn your fingers!

Now for the dumplings, which are just these fluffy cake-like things. In a bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Add butter. With your fingers rub the butter into the dry ingredients until you get something that looks vaguely like Katingla sand. Mix in egg. Pour in enough milk to make a sticky batter.

In a casserole pot put in half the chicken meat and enough of the broth to cover the chicken by five centimeters. Heat the broth. When the broth is about to boil, put in small spoonfuls of the dumpling batter, placed so they won’t touch. Close the lid of the pot and lower the heat to simmering. In about twenty minutes you’ll have a soul-satisfying dish your friends will remember for life.

Pasta with Lichen

There were plenty of pasta dishes in the food replicator: macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, lasagna, etc. It was food-replicator food, grim and gloppy. I would have killed for one more meal at Petrovio’s, where the pastas are lovingly made daily, so good they almost didn’t need sauces. I’m a real carb nut. And then one day it occurred to me. Lichen. You can make flour with lichen. Flour, a little water and salt—pasta! For a month I experimented. The lichen flour isn’t as glutinous as wheat flour. Getting it to stick together in just the right way took hours and hours of trial and error. The trick is to let the dough dry, ferment, for a good twenty-four hours. Only then is it pliable enough to cut. And then the pasta has to be dried again. Cooking it immediately is disaster. Fresh dough melts in boiling water and what you get is porridge. Good porridge but not pasta. [Should I include a porridge recipe or two?]

As soon as I’d become an expert, I took my pasta to Lulu’s to show off. She loved it. Lichen pasta in a thick, creamy lichen sauce. To celebrate, she decided to open up a tube of her prized salami.

Lulu made her salami with sphinx meat. The sphinx is one of the rare creatures on Ienlow that actually makes wonderful eating. These animals, about the size of large dogs, live in small family units that feed near hot springs. There are many springs on Ienlow, which I was very surprised to find out. On first look, Ienlow seems a desert of sand. But actually, there’s plenty of rainfall on Ienlow. The rain just never stays on the surface. There are no oceans or lakes on Ienlow. All the water drains into the ground, creating vast underwater river systems. Occasionally the water will bubble back up, the layers of crystal having carbonated it. Some of the springs are near hotspots in the planet’s crust and the water will billow up as mist. These hot spas are where you’ll find the sphinx.

The meat of the sphinx is delicate and briny, as delicious as the micato of Aokvir. In fact, I suspect that one day, some bright young thing will come along, farm the sphinx and make a killing (oh, to be a bright young thing!). The one unsettling thing about eating sphinx is that they have eerily human faces, thus their name. But according to the Hellminor Ethical Food Index, the sphinx ranks pretty low. Much lower than the humble pig. Still, I’m glad I’ve never had to butcher one. I watched Lulu butcher a chicken once and promptly threw up.

Amazing how tough Lulu could be. When I first saw Lulu I thought she was an old woman but she’s the exact same age that I am. We lived in such different worlds. She had no idea what a manicure was. She’d howl with laughter as I told her stories about my life in the great metropolis: adventures with the Roboto Butler, stunts I pulled at the military balls. I’m sure she thought I was a bit crazy. That my world was completely crazy. Sadly, she never said much about her own life except to say she’s a descendent of one of the original settlers. Now that’s a sad tale. These poor settlers had been lured by government promises of free land and new lives. It was true, the land was free, but it was also useless. You couldn’t farm it, you couldn’t mine it. Quickly in debt, the settlers had to take government jobs mining on outer planets and moons. Some, like Lulu’s father, were forced into the auxiliary military, sent on dangerous, usually one-way exploration missions. Lulu was six when she last saw her father. How can people still be duped by the promises of free land? How often has that trick been used? But then I forget how poor some planetary systems are, how desperate they are for hope. Does the human condition never change?

Of course, I no longer think of Lulu and her people as rebels. Or even as first settlers or descendants. I think of them the way Lulu and her people think of themselves, as New Hebridians. Once, I playfully called Lulu “cowgirl.” She was so hurt and angry. I couldn’t understand why until the Journalist told me “cowboy” and “cowgirl” were Outer Hebrides slang, a pejorative term that meant “outlaw,” “vandal,” “deadbeat.” Of course, I didn’t think of her like that at all. Lulu had become a dear friend. She taught me so much.

New Hebridians. Can’t we at least give them that? After all their hardship? And everything you hear on the news is wrong. The New Hebridians didn’t rebel out of greed, although I can’t help thinking this “war” would go away and peace miraculously restored if the Outer Hebrides suddenly ran out of all those tempting mineral resources. No, the New Hebridians rebelled only after the new wave of settlers arrived, taking their jobs, even their land (exactly for what purpose no one can figure out, but I’ll bet you anything the Blackwell Corporation’s involved). Yes, I do realize I’m not an expert and that these are very complicated issues and you would be right in thinking I should not be bringing these very complicated issues up in a cookbook. Some would even say my comments are treasonous absurd. But then, some would think independent thought itself is treasonous . In any case, if there are some of you out there who would be interested in further exploring these topics, I would highly recommend H Hieronymous Woods’ The Right To Self-Definition In The Era Of Empire Building. [ Or is it Hieronymous H? The title doesn’t sound right either. Maybe it’s not even the right book—why is it so hard, to remember, remember anything ] The book is a little hard to find since Woods’ arrest two years ago and I wouldn’t advise going through the usual channels to find it. Certainly, don’t mention it by title. But if you happen to come across it, well, by all means read it. And who knows what climate we’ll be living in after the next territorial elections? I’ve always been an optimist.

Thunder & Lightning

Thunder & Lightning, also known as T&L, is the local hooch. It’s made from the bacteria that sometimes grow on top of drying lichen. Really strong, a bit hallucinogenic, bitter, makes you flatulent as all hell. Basically, you have to be desperate to drink it. And people on Ienlow are pretty desperate. There’s so much tax on alcohol that most people can’t afford anything but alcopops. So they drink T&L, which, by the way, only the New Hebridians know how to make and so is technically illegal. The New Hebridians make a lot of money selling T&L. Selling black market hooch and piracy keep the New Hebridians funded. Too well funded as far as the government’s concerned. Suddenly, the number of spy drones on Ienlow tripled. Those little tan birds were everywhere, even stuck to the laser window screen of my bathroom. And it haunts me: did I lead one of those fecking birds to Lulu? I can’t get that image out of my mind, Lulu’s house bombed to hell, me thinking I was seeing her body parts in every bit of charred debris. After hours of searching, I couldn’t find a body. I’m hoping that Lulu wasn’t home, that she was out foraging. I’m hoping that Lulu isn’t on Ienlow at all but in the G-6 sector where the New Hebridians have a stronghold. She’s a survivor. She’s from a family of survivors. I know she survived.

I suppose the government was hoping I’d lead them to others because they didn’t pick me up for another month. You would not believe how fast the Journalist threw me under. “I had no idea what she’s been up to,” he says. No idea? Of course, he had some idea. Just where did Mr. Asshole think I was getting my new recipe ideas from exactly? By the way, Asshole has only visited me once since I’ve been in prison at the center and only to show the government that he was doing his duty. Strange how you feel the government in a desolate place like Ienlow. Of course all the stores are government stores and you see military and government officials everywhere unlike in a metropolis where you don’t see the government even though the government is there just the same, watching and listening in on everything you do and say although it claims no one pays any attention except to key words like “bombs” and “demonstrations” and other meta words. But in a place like Ienlow, the government seems more, like it’s alive somehow, following you, breathing right behind you. Freedom’s just a word. We’re all in prison, walls of words and retail options and XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX after interrogating interviewing me relentlessly for seventy-four hours straight, it became clear to the Department of Culture that I am what I appeared to be: a classic dumb Mistport Minnie whose only threat was to her own bank account. The DoC was pretty decent. Not as scary as in stories and films. I was given a medical exam before my interview to make sure I was fit enough for interrogation an interview . The doctor apologized for doping me up with alithizine but it was routine and actually beneficial since it was really more a relaxant than an almighty truth serum. And, holy galactic empire, I was relaxed. The interviewers couldn’t get me to stop talking. I was remembering things from like my fourth birthday party. I went on and on about how Dervi Springall broke my fecking heart and suddenly I was thirteen again. And I’d start speaking in Mantin. Fluently, which is crazy because I never really learned to speak Mantin very well—my language teachers at school were shit. After three days of listening to my blather, clearly, they were the ones who’d been tortured, not me.

In the end, the DoC declared me a non-terrorist. I got on my knees and cried when my lawyer finally told me because let’s face it: the yearly Sale of the Century at the Pleiades Starmall does not prepare a Mistport Minnie for a Level 5 labor camp. That’s where they send people like Lulu. You don’t come back from Level 5. Instead, I was declared contaminated. This is my second year at the re-acculturation center. Life here is comfortable, if a little lonely. We get our own cells and aren’t allowed to talk to each other. Every day we do five hours of work to pay for our treatment, room and board, etc, which is fair. There’s only so much you can ask the taxpayers to put up with. I’m with fifty people testing bioconductors. Visitors are allowed once a month for thirteen-minute rendezvous. The DoC actually wants friends and family of prisoners participants to visit. After all, there’s nothing like friends and family to remind you of what you’ve lost. Medical exams are also once a month, although I go twice because I’ve developed high blood pressure and have odd attacks of severe nausea. The medical treatment is state of the art. I’m getting a new drug called synedzine which is even better than alithizine. Super relaxing. It does make me dream a lot. And I’m not always sure whether I’m awake or dreaming and I think odd things and feel odd things and I’m not sure what’s memory or dream like I’m in a thriller and there are moments when I can’t remember who I am, little blip moments, and I have to hold on to Mistport Minnie, home, Mistport but is that really Ienlow and I’m all things at once which means I’m no where at all. My mentor is on synedzine too and she floats. Literally. Although I don’t suppose she could literally float through space except that we’re both full of synedzine. Mentors are participants who are almost clean. They’re the only humans outside of medical and motivators we’re allowed to converse with. I mean, you can talk to the robot staff but they don’t have much of a sense of humor. God, I miss my Roboto Butler. Apparently the latest upgrades and accessories are phenomenal. Can’t wait to get back to Mistport and civilization.

So what am I doing writing this cookbook? Because some of you might think it’s totally masochistic of me to write a cookbook while I’m in a prison labor camp center where the only food we get is from a replicator. The last real meal I had was with the Journalist. Strangely, I remember it fondly. He’d brought home some contraband cheese and wine. We made baguettes in the replicator. As we ate he read me his screenplay. Yes, the Journalist was writing a screenplay. What journalist isn’t, right? He’d cast himself at a pretty young age in the Pollux Bejemen mold, all macho and alpha male-y. I admit it. That’s what I fell for. The Journalist is even a better actor than newsman. What am I doing writing this cookbook? Food, all I can think about, dream about, the eating and—maybe it’s the synedzine, maybe it’s changing my brain chemistry—because the words—I can taste the words feel each morsel in my mouth going down my esophagus flooding my stomach every cell of my body burning burning home Lulu