Ice Queen Interviews Lucy Zhang
Ice Queen: How was your trip?
Lucy: It was great! It was our first time to Africa so it was a lot of new and interesting experiences. And certainly I discovered that I can handle much higher temperatures than I anticipated. It was over 108 degrees Fahrenheit there and a couple of our accommodations did not have air conditioning. So we slept in some pretty hot weather and I realized that I could fall asleep if I was tired enough!
Ice Queen: How was the humidity?
Lucy: Oh, it was really dry. For the most part, it's desert in Morocco. So the humidity was good. If it were humid, I think then I'd probably just be like, I can't handle it anymore.
Ice Queen: What other countries did you get to visit while you were there?
Lucy: Oh, it was just Morocco. We did like a whole tour of Morocco visiting the different cities there for about seven or so days.
Ice Queen: I saw all your food pictures. They looked really good!
Lucy: It was really good! A lot of the staples of Moroccan cuisine are couscous and Tajine, which is like this pyramid shaped clay pot, where they cook on the stovetop and those are super delicious. And then Marrakesh is one city we went to and they have a specialty dish called the Tanjia, which is another clay pot, but instead the whole thing gets put into an oven so there's heat applied from all directions and it's gonna slow cook for hours. So the meat in there becomes really, really tender.
Ice Queen: I think I might have seen you post that—was that lamb that you had with that?
Lucy: Yeah! That was.
Ice Queen: It looked really good. Even the olives, and I'm not an olive person!
Lucy: I'm not either, I hated olives before! But they served olives with every. single. meal. And it was like, Well it's in front of me. I'll eat some. And now I can eat olives. So there you go!
Ice Queen: That kind of brings me into your piece that you submitted. Speaking of things that I don't know if I would've tried before. Or well... I don't know. Maybe I would cause I like the broth in menudo. My husband loves it.
Lucy: I love menudo too.
Ice Queen: He buys the big cans of menudo—that's some of his favorite. Tell me about, "I can't tell if dad blames me for losing his grandchild."
Lucy: Yeah. It kind of starts with talking about making pig stomach and, for what it's worth, pig's stomach is much stinkier than tripe, which is in menudo. Just for some context, cause you might think that tripe is already pretty stinky, like you have to wash it pretty well to get rid of that kind of awful taste, but pig stomach is way more, the extent is way more.
So I wrote this after I went home for Thanksgiving. My dad was preparing it because I really like these kinds of cuts of meat cause I think they're chewy and really delightful to bite through. So he was making it and then he's like, I'll teach you how to make it now so that you can make it on your own. Like I'll never make it on my own. Cause I'm too lazy. But sure Dad . So he was going through the whole entire process.
So what you have to do is wash it with flour— or corn starch but corn starch is more expensive— to get rid of that the kind of weird taste and there's this whole process that he showed me, and, throughout the process, he was also cutting out the bad pieces of the pig stomach. He's done this a lot and he also has a biomedical background. So he's kind of familiar with organs, you know?
So as he was poking through it and cutting he's like, you know, this shouldn't be here there's something wrong with this pig stomach. Like Maybe this pig stomach had some kind of illness. And I'm like, Okay. I mean, can we still eat it? And he's like, We could probably still eat it. But that kind of oddness got me thinking and inspired the piece.
Ice Queen: I loved that part of the piece. Because it seems like such a different skill than you would see in like most shops, right? Even in butcher shops, most people don't get meat like that, you know? It's very sanitized in supermarkets. It's already packaged up, they've added fake blood to make it look more attractive and more appealing to meat eaters. So that knowledge of meat, right? That knowledge of the body— whether it be human or animal body— is lost on most people.
That was probably one of my favorite parts: the very detailed description of how you have to clean this. And you mentioned just now, when you're talking about cleaning it to get rid of like that taste, have you ever had that taste like: Oh, they didn't clean this right.
Lucy: I tried to cook it once by myself, before my dad showed me. And all I did was I blanched it in water. I didn't go through the whole process of using flour or anything. I just blanched it once. And then I tossed it into the pressure cooker. Yeah. That didn't work.
Ice Queen: So now you know, it's like, oh, that's why it didn't work. It seems like a very loving process. You have to really want that dish.
Lucy: It is. My dad was the one who did the cooking growing up, and he still does the cooking for just my mom and him, and he puts a lot of time to those kinds of long painstaking processes to marinate things or prepare different cuts of meat or dry meat too. He has a lot of patience, I think.
Ice Queen: I was gonna say that takes a lot of love and that also takes a lot of patience. I mean like I love food, but I love to eat it. That sort of all day, or that hours long preparation, it has to really pay off. You know, and very few things that I ever make do for me. I'm not a good enough cook for it to pay off.
Lucy: The only way it could pay off is someone else did it for you.
Ice Queen: Exactly. I'll give money to someone who does this for a living or just really loves it. I'll do that. Tell me about the recipe you chose and what made you wanna showcase that?
Lucy: Yeah. So congee is one of the simple things that I do cook because it is so easy but it is so comforting and warming. I feel like congee is very much overlooked especially in the Western world. People eat oatmeal and they're like, oh, oatmeal is great. Congee, in my opinion, is far better. You can pretty much turn it into anything: you can make it spicy, you can have meat, or century eggs put in there and when you use the right kind of rice, it creates like the most, viscous, warm, soupy texture that I love— even in the summer when it's really hot, and then I'm like sweating afterwards. I feel like it's one of those underrated foods that I wanted to draw some more attention to.
Ice Queen: I felt the same way growing up about oatmeal. Like who's eating oatmeal? Turns out a lot of people.
Lucy: A lot of people like been doing all sorts of things to oatmeal.
Ice Queen: My mom I guess never had oatmeal growing up. So when my brother was little she tried to make it but she didn't know how. She got the instant packets and she didn't know you had to add boiling water. It just said hot. And so she added tap hot water to it. And she was like, this doesn't look right. But she gave it to my brother and he ate it and loved it. It was about a year before she realized. Someone else made it and she was like, what is this? And they were like, ...it's oatmeal?
Lucy: That's so funny you mentioned that, I had like the exact same experience with my parents. They didn't know how to cook it either. So they put like room temperature milk into it, and then that's your breakfast, but when you put not hot liquid into it, it doesn't expand. Right? So it feels like you're eating nothing so I was always hungry afterwards.
Ice Queen: What is your favorite congee? Is it like your dad's or have you been in a restaurant that made it really good?
Lucy: Oh, I just prefer the congee I make honestly because it's all about like the water and rice ratio. So for congee you use— at least the type I like— short grain rice, not the long grain rice. Where the grains separate from each other. Like, you know, if you're eating Indian food or I think Mexican rice is also a medium or long grain rice. Like they just separate from each other. The short grain is the sticky rice, like kind of like sushi rice, so that if you use that and you have like perfect water ratio, I'm happy. So that recipe is my perfect water ratio.
Ice Queen: I have plans like to make it from your recipe. I have plans to make every Ice Queen dish, but especially that. That just seems like a very morning dish to me, you know, like the perfect breakfast.
Lucy: Especially when it's cold.
Ice Queen: What is your favorite family recipe?
Lucy: Family recipe. Huh... That is kind of hard to pinpoint... but oddly enough... so one recipe that I actually know and learned from my mom is not actually a Chinese recipe, but tiramisu.
So my mom, when she left China, she first went to Switzerland to study for her PhD. When she was there, she met people and they taught her how to make tiramisu. And ever since I had the version that she made I compare it to what you buy from stores. It's just like, what, what are the stores doing wrong? Like, why can't they get this right? In the stores, the cream is super thin and then you have the cake layer that's about the same. But the way my mom makes it, the cream is super thick and it dominates — the cream is the best part of it, I don't care about the cake! It's just dough. I really don't understand what other recipes people are following and why it's so hard to get right!
Ice Queen: That's so funny. That's my mom's favorite dessert. And, whereas your mom is really good at making it, her mom was really bad at making it because she didn't like coffee. And so she never soaked the cakes enough, it was like a whisper of coffee, you know? And so it was just always very dry and everyone else hated when she would make it. Everyone's just like, please, dear God, don't make that again. Like, don't bring that to the event, make something else, do something else. We've got dessert handled!
So do you know how to make your mom's tiramisu?
Lucy: I do! Whenever I go back home and then there's some kind of like event or— my family has a lot of family friends who will bring over vegetables that they've grown or, you know, random stuff like that, so we'll make them tiramisu. So whenever I'm home, I'll be the one making it because my mom, she has arthritis now, so I do it for her and I know the recipe by heart.
Ice Queen: Oh, that's nice! There are sometimes I'll make something enough that I generally know it, but I don't think I have any recipes by heart.
Lucy: Yeah, you only really need those kinds of recipes for desserts. If you're making something savory, you just toss it in. But, for desserts, if you screw it up, especially if you're using the oven, you're screwed.
Ice Queen: Yeah, and you better hope you have enough ingredients to try again [Both laugh]. Okay, so I've been excited to ask you this question because you always have food in your writing. So... what is your relationship to food in your writing?
Lucy: Yeah, I think food stems a lot from— well, I think in general, my writing tends to have themes of consumption (sometimes literally, sometimes not) or some form of hunger, whether that's food or not food. So, I naturally tend to kind of gravitate towards using food as images, especially to depict hunger in that kind of form.
So I'm recalling one of the pieces I wrote a while ago— I don't remember the titles of any of my pieces, but it was about basically a mother eating her child. And it's not about literal hunger or a hunger for food, but it stems from a lot of that kind of imagery and a deep desire for something, a deep desire for a certain kind of power over something... so, in general, when my mind goes there it always kind of reaches for food. And then sometimes food just naturally fits into some descriptions that I bring up.
Ice Queen: That's what I love so much in your writing. You're not trying to make food necessarily delectable. Sometimes it is that way, and you can like recognize that it's delectable, but food is a vehicle. The food itself, you still have to talk about it, and the way you describe it is not always beautiful. But it is very in the body, you know?
Lucy: Yeah. I like to, as you've probably noticed, I like to describe the body a lot too. And sometimes I use food literally with the body because I think it's interesting. I like to think of it like, when you're consuming food, instead of just going through the digestive system, what other ways can you kind of see it manifest as part of you— because it's becoming part of you, right? A lot of my pieces also deal with body image and you can have very complicated relationships with that. So how do you see that food kind of manifesting? I wrote a piece two years ago, I was describing a spine. I was using ba bao fan, which is a type of sticky rice dish, and I was talking about using dates as the glue between your bones. I really like kind of imagining those kinds of things and then trying to complicate the relationship between the two.
Ice Queen: What do you love about food in writing?
Lucy: I think the descriptions just naturally are more universally understood or felt, or are more visceral than many others, because everyone eats food, everyone needs to eat. Even though the food can be different but it's something that's such a shareable experience that, that I have a much easier time connecting through that kind of detail than necessarily a character's previous experience or background information or their relationship with another character.
Ice Queen: Yeah, definitely. I remember talking to Remi about it. I think it's in a way easier for especially newer writers as well to enter into description when you give them food to talk about, right? It's gonna bring about so many different details. Just naturally. And so then taking that experience and then transforming it into every other aspect of detailed writing.
Lucy: And! When people are reading, I think they will easily get hungry. So if you toss some food descriptions in there and you make them hungry, they'll associate a stronger emotion that piece.
Ice Queen: Exactly! [Both laugh]
Lucy: And then BAM, it's something more effective!
Ice Queen: Which kind of leads into my next couple of questions. What are your favorite food scenes in writing?
Lucy: Oh man. I'm not sure I can— can I bend like the question a little bit and say like any kind of medium or genre of art?
Ice Queen: So the next question does lead into TV, movies, video games, etc. So it's written and then like the more visual media, but let's combine them.
Lucy: Certainly the most memorable food scenes that pop in my head are from anime because they pay so much attention to detail when they animate those scenes. And so when I'm watching, I'm just like, ah, looks so good!
Like I can remember the ramen scene in Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) by Makoto Shinkai, when the characters are trying to find Mitsuha. They stop at this small little ramen store and they order ramen and the animation, they animate them holding the chopsticks and kind of like folding the piece of tofu and, and just slurping up the bowl. It was just, there's just so much attention to detail to those images and you can definitely describe them in writing, but just seeing that visually has such an incredible effect. And it's not just that, like a lot of anime that have nothing to do with food, pay so much attention to detail to when their food scenes and it's great.
Ice Queen: I made the mistake of watching Your Name on an airplane, it ended as we were landing thankfully so I wasn't just cryin on an airplane! [Both laugh]
What's your favorite show about food?
Lucy: I wouldn't say this is my favorite show, but it's the one that pops into my brain when you mention that— it's called Shokugeki no Sōma the English name is Food Wars and it's a shōnen, are you familiar with the term shōnen?
Ice Queen: Yes.
Lucy: Okay. It's a shōnen anime, so the battle scenes are cook-offs. It's super dramatic and many of the scenes get a little bit— they show a lot of skin because the reactions to eating the food are sexually pleasuring? It's just a really over the top anime, but it's also a shōnen, so it's kind of fun to see the main character climb the ranks and you know, it has like its equivalent of a tournament arc and you, you're kind of watching the underdog move up in these super over the top cook-offs and the food looks really delicious.
So that is the one that immediately comes to mind.
Ice Queen: I love that. I had to write it down because I love added drama to food, right? I don't like it in real cooking shows, but I love it in fake cooking shows. Well, so many of them are fake in a way but I don't like the lie that it's supposed to be real.
Lucy: Yeah. Cause you're having real people in live-action cooking shows.
Ice Queen: Do you bake more or do you cook more, and when did you get into it?
Lucy: I hardly bake. I don't like baking much because I dislike turning on the oven for like one or two things and then generating all this heat. I'm like, oh, that's so inefficient. I can cook something so much faster on the stove or in the instant pot. So I don't bake much. Although, we are actually moving to San Diego soon. We bought a new home just a year ago, so I'm like, I should use our brand new oven at least once or twice.
So I used it once or twice, but overall I'm not a baking person.
In terms of cooking, I always cooked to, you know, survive [Both laugh]. Like in college I cooked cause it's cheaper than eating out. And then after college and starting work, I cooked a little bit, not as much as I do now— cause you know, before the pandemic I was going into work and we had something called the Working Late Dinner Program, which meant if you stay at work after 7:00 PM, you got a $12 voucher to get a free meal. I'm like, all right, I'll do that. I had no life [laughs].
So that covered my meals and then I'd only need to cook a little bit on the weekends if I wasn't going out to eat. And then the pandemic kicked in. So lots of people started cooking more. I started cooking more— I experimented here and there with like new recipes. Right now I'm at this like nice equilibrium where I just cook to live, not really cook for the creativity or tastiness. It can't taste awful. It just needs to taste okay. And I'm happy.
Ice Queen: I think that's where I'm at too. And I used to use my oven a lot because I did more roasts and, stuff like that. The thing I hated the most was always having to clean the top of the stove?
Lucy: [Emphatically] Yes! Cleaning is horrible!
Ice Queen: Horrible! But the air fryer has been the biggest game changer.
Lucy: I don't have one, but it's kind of an overpowered oven or like a micro-oven kind of? Is that a good way of describing it?
Ice Queen: It's like a mini convection oven. You know, I'm sort of at that place now to pop something in the air fryer for 20 minutes and call it dinner.
Lucy: It's all about convenience these days. Who's gonna bother with complicated things?
Ice Queen: Exactly. So what would you say is your favorite food?
Lucy: Oh, man, that that is a loaded question [Both laugh]. Okay. So I'll give a category of dishes.
I'm sorry, it's a cheat answer, but both my husband and I love soup foods. So we didn't realize this until one of our friends commented when we would basically propose a bunch of restaurants to go out to if we were going with friends. And then one of our friends asked, wait, why are these all soup places?
So like Korean sundubu, ramen, pho, hot pot, rice noodles which is mei fun. And you know, any kind of soup dish that's on our list of restaurants— we just don't go to any other kind of restaurant, it's pretty much just soup dishes!
Ice Queen: I mean, soup is so filling. You can add so many things to it.
I'm not a soup person in a lot of ways, but like a lot of the dishes you just described, I love. And I don't know if I would've described it as a soup dish, but now I'm like, yeah, of course it's soup dish. So I do like soup. I just don't like a lot of soup.
Lucy: To be fair, we don't like a lot of Western soups. Well, for one, we can't really have too much dairy cause it destroys our poor lactose intolerant stomachs, but Western soups tend to be very thick. And it's more chowdery, but a lot of the soups that we have are more of a broth, so it's thinner and we like those more. We don't like them as heavy, so that's why it makes hot pot and noodle soups like pho really nice.
Ice Queen: I had this discussion, I think with Roseanna, of like, what's the definition difference between a stew and a soup, right? To me it was always like soup had to be sort of like a brothy consistency. If you go over that, I don't think you can be considered soup anymore.
Lucy: That's what I thought, right? But then you see some restaurants call these things soups and they're super thick. So I'm not too sure anymore. Yeah. I'm just gonna go with what I think is a soup.
Ice Queen: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would that food be?
Lucy: Oh, man. Probably some form of like noodle dish, like ramen or pho or, you know, it's very hard to choose between those though. Yeah. But, but like choosing a noodle dish is total cheat. Cause there are toppings.
Ice Queen: I was about to say there's so many options that you can do with a noodle dish, right?
Lucy: I could say apples. Oh yes. I love apples. Man, do I love apples! I have a whole spreadsheet where I basically have been tracking all the different kinds of apples that I've been eating and my New Year's resolution is to try 10 apples this year. Let me find my spreadsheet, I'll share it.
Ice Queen: That's so interesting! I just saw a few weeks ago a farmer in, I wanna say North Carolina, saved like 20 different species of apples.
Lucy: Wow! Apples are so interesting because I love like biting into one and then trying to guess what the cultivar is coming from. Like what did they breed together to make it? And once you start picking up on these things, it's like, you can pick up on the different tastes. And there are some really interesting apples that like, when you cut open, like inside is bright pink. It's super cool.
Ice Queen: I've seen those! So basically you're an apple sommelier.
Lucy: [Laughs] Yeah.
Ice Queen: Eventually someone's gonna hire you, pay you a bunch of money, to be an apple somme. I'm putting that out in the universe for you!
Lucy: Why thank you! So I worked at this company, and in the center of it they have apple orchards but they don't let us pick the apples, because you know what they do? They hire people to pick the apples and then they take the apples to the cafeteria and they sell them back to us for an insane price. So of course I'm not gonna do that. Of course I pick them even though I'm not supposed to.
They grew a lot of the exotic apples, like pink pearls, the ones that are bright pink inside. So I just had a free for all when I would walk there. I'd go there super early in the morning or super late at night and just pick a bag full.
Ice Queen: Yeah, of course! Wow. Just like one more way that they could have done even just a small gesture of not being horrible?
Lucy: They're so cheap. I can't believe it, but I can't do anything about it. I can only steal apples.
Ice Queen: Ooh, this one, this one has gotten some interesting answers— what's a food that you've tried so hard to like, and you just don't?
Lucy: Huh? That's an interesting question. Let me think about that for a little bit. Okay. Okay. So there are a couple here, but I'm gonna go back to apples. I really don't like the Fuji apple. It's sickly sweet. And there's no other dimension to the flavor. It can sometimes be crunchy, but sometimes they're just super mushy.
They're an abomination of an apple.
Ice Queen: I'd agree. I'd say it's like a naturally mealy apple.
Lucy: If you get like a freshly picked one, it's crunchy and juicy, but that doesn't correct for the taste. Unfortunately it sucks.
Ice Queen: Oh, I had one recently. Have you had a SugarBee apple?
Lucy: Yes! I've had SugarBee.
Ice Queen: I liked it! I normally do not like apples that much. It really depends on the kind of apple and it has to be sliced, I can't just eat an apple. The act of biting, I don't like. The resistance of biting into an apple is one that is not enjoyable.
Lucy: I'm the exact opposite. I can't have it sliced. I love biting into it! I feel a bit like a beast when I bite into an apple and I feel like empowered in a certain way.
Ice Queen: I could see how you would, but it's just the give, when I feel that I'm like, oh, nope! And I also generally like much tarter apples.
Lucy: Same! Do you like Granny Smiths?
Ice Queen: That's my favorite apple.
Lucy: That's— I love granny Smiths too! No one else seems to like them, but I love them!
Ice Queen: It's the best one! It has such a distinct flavor to it.
Lucy: Yesss, I agree. I'm glad to finally find a Granny Smith lover.
Ice Queen: It's the best one, especially cause it's so tart it pairs well with like sweeter things.
So my last question: what are some of your favorite literary magazines, both to read and submit to currently?
Lucy: I read a lot and I submit to a lot, so this is really hard to kind of just pinpoint one or two.
So I'll highlight a couple like special eggs that I think are awesome. Threadcount publishes mainly flash fiction and micros, but they have some really interesting work that I've always enjoyed like every single piece, which is really hard, cause I've scrolled through a lot of literary magazines.
It's very hard for me to like everything. Yeah. Cause my attention span is like that of a goldfish. Let me pull up my list because sometimes it is easier to just reference that.
Quarterly West also publishes some really interesting stuff that I've liked. And I think a lot of the lit mags that I'm currently listing are a little bit more experimental, more out there, which is what interests me. ctrl + v. They do collages actually. So it's not quite strictly prose. But they have some really innovative stuff and it's also not gimmicky, which some things can get a little bit gimmicky with form. Maybe some other people think that, but I think all the pieces are super interesting and thought provoking.
I haven't actually been reading too many literary magazines these days, mainly because I've tried to stay away from Twitter a little bit more and I'm trying to finish editing my novel. And that's just a pain in the— and work stuff is changing and I'm moving and there's all this other craziness going on!
Ice Queen: Well you just mentioned a novel, so I'm very interested. Tell Ice Queen readers... which for the most part is my mom at the moment. Tell my mom about your book! [Both laugh]
Lucy: It's a kind of coming of age, somewhat speculative, book about two friends— one who disappears into a sinkhole and the other one is left kind of grappling with that, trying to find the friend and how this event kind of ripple effects into their lives from childhood to adulthood.
And I already received a rejection, a very kind rejection, from an un-agented submissions call. I gave them 10 pages and they wanted to see more. So I gave the whole thing.
And let me tell you, and no one else had read the novel. I read through it once to copyedit, not to revise, just to copyedit. I'm just like, I don't wanna look at it anymore. Let me just send it over. And then she gave some very kind, long, detailed feedback about what was working, what wasn't— a lot wasn't working!
So I actually need to revise this. Now my patience meter's at its limit!
Ice Queen: What's your dream press for that?
Lucy: I don't have a dream press. I'm just kind of like fishing around, seeing what the options are.
Ice Queen: Okay. Wouldn't turn your nose up to a big five. [Both laugh]
Lucy: We'll see where it lands once it starts getting submitted. Once I start deploying it out there, it's like fire and forget.
Ice Queen: Do you have any other projects you're working on other than the novel?
Lucy: I am constantly writing short stories that distract me from my novel. For a period of time, I was writing 1500 words every day. So it'll be 1500 for the novel one day, 1500 for a story the next day. I think that has rendered me unable to write flash fiction anymore. Cause I tried to write flash fiction the other day and it wound up too long. So my projects are constantly like individual smaller pieces. And procrastinating the novel.
Ice Queen: What about a collection of short stories and they're all 1500 words!
Lucy: I have a collection that I'm kind of tossing out there, but I kind of don't see the collection as a big project, just because I've written all the stories. And I know some people spend a lot of time thinking about the order. I just kinda slap it together. People will make meaning from the order. They won't know that it was randomly put together!
Ice Queen: It's like, it's not my job to make meaning it's your job to make meaning— it was my job to write it!
Lucy Zhang is the author of the chapbook HOLLOWED, available with Thirty West Publishing, and her micro chapbook ABSORPTION is now out with Harbor Review. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, New Orleans Review, The Offing, Passages North, The Rumpus, West Branch and elsewhere. Her work is anthologized in Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, was a finalist in Best of the Net and was long listed in the Wigleaf Top 50. She edits for Heavy Feather Review, Pithead Chapel, Barren Magazine and Vestal Review.
Erin Armstrong has an MFA from CU-Boulder, is the editor-in-chief of Ice Queen Magazine, and the managing editor of Gasher Press. Her works are forthcoming or published in The Citron Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Banango Street, New World Writing and elsewhere.