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by kathy blackwell | January 20, 2015 | People
Novelist Amanda Eyre Ward and book journalist Clay Smith are best friends, but when they meet for dinner at Fonda San Miguel, they have lots to catch up on. Her timely new book, The Same Sky (Ballantine Books)—about the connections between a young girl who makes a treacherous journey across Mexico to the United States and a woman who owns a barbecue restaurant in Austin—is set to debut January 20.
And Smith, editor-in-chief of Austin-based Kirkus Reviews, is on the verge of awarding the first Kirkus Prizes—at $50,000 each, it’s one of the largest literary prizes in the world—to three writers at the end of October. Since introducing fine Mexican cuisine to an unsuspecting city in 1975, Fonda San Miguel has been the site of many celebrations as well as Sunday brunch, happy hours, and intimate dinners. The colorful and vibrant atrium is the perfect setting for these two friends to enjoy a three-course meal and Mexican cocktails.
The appetizers arrive: Ceviche de Langosta y Mango—poached lobster marinated in mango juice and topped with mango salsa and avocado—and huaraches, which feature a blue corn masa base covered in chipotle black beans, queso fresco, and “the hottest salsa we make,” says the server.
AMANDA EYRE WARD: This lobster ceviche is amazing.
CLAY SMITH: These are very authentic recipes. I wrote an article about the history of Fonda San Miguel, and it can reliably make claim to being the first authentic interior Mexican restaurant in the United States. In the mid-1970s, this was the place saying that there’s much more to Mexico than Tex-Mex food, with its cheesy, tasty greasiness.
AW: I went to the border to do research for my new book, but I also had to research the barbecue in Texas, which was fantastic. One of the characters in the novel is a barbecue restaurant owner. Remember when we met Aaron and Stacy Franklin [of Franklin Barbecue]? I e-mailed them from the MacDowell Colony artists’ residency in New Hampshire, asking, “Does someone really tend the fires for 24 hours a day?”
CS: See, I’m your best friend, but this is all news to me; because I’m a book critic, you won’t let me read the galley until it’s actually made. [Laughs] What were some of the questions you had for a barbecue maker?
AW: What really interests me, especially about the Franklins, is how hard you have to work. Aaron is so young, and he has the barbecue knowledge about how to read the smoke, watch the fire, and slowsmoke the meat. In the novel it’s obviously fictionalized, and not Aaron and Stacy. It’s just a young couple who are working hard to perfect one thing, which I really respect; that desire for perfection is great for their restaurant, but it’s keeping them from finding the family they deserve.
Server brings the main courses: Carne Asada a la Tampiqueña, a grilled beef tenderloin and a cheese enchilada, and Camarones al Mojo de Ajo, shrimp grilled in garlic and butter.
CS: This filet of beef is the manifestation of the idea that simplicity is much harder to achieve than it looks—it’s a beautifully cross-hatched, very thin slice of beef. It looks simple, but it’s so hard to do.
AW: Can you give any details on this amazing prize that you’re about to give out?
CS: We are in the lucky position of being able to give away $150,000 a year. We only give stars to about 9 percent of books. The Kirkus star is a pretty legendary thing in the industry. It means that the book stands out among all the other books published at that time. It’s a book that once you put it down, you still are thinking about it.
AW: Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario was what first told me the story of these kids finding their way from Central America across Mexico to find their parents in the United States.
CS: I thought your publisher was smart to move up the publication date of this novel to coincide more effectively with the awful news stories about children trying to find their parents. Does the media coverage feel like a shallow rendition to you?
AW: When I started this book, nobody knew about these kids. On one hand I’m thrilled because their stories need to be told; it is a humanitarian crisis, but they’re children. I’ve talked to tiny kids up to teenagers, and each one has a story that is so horrifying, so gruesome about why they left. And not one said, “Oh, because I could get a better education here,” or “Oh, I thought it would be fun to get an iPad.”
Dessert rounds out the meal: Crepas de cajeta, crepes served with a goat-milk caramel and cajeta ice cream, along with flan de Almendra.
CS: The crepas de cajeta tastes like caramel cotton candy. Maybe the most memorable taste of the night.
AW: When I was interviewing these kids, they told me about the horrible things that have happened to them, but then they described every single morsel of food on the journey. It matters so much. This kid would say, “And then I had a tortilla and stew that someone gave me.” And he would describe this stew and the tortilla as if it was the most important thing in the world, because it was to him at that point. It makes them feel cared for. When these kids get to the shelters that are run by Austin’s Alexia Rodriguez [of Immigrant Youth Services for Southwest Key], the first thing the kitchen will do is make them a meal from their home country. Isn’t that amazing? The kitchen staff can make dinners like dinner at home to make sure the kids know they’re safe.
photography by Knoxy Knox