Gastronomy and Fantasy

Akhi Pillalamarri
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One of the great things about fantasy is learning about how people in premodern societies ate and learning many new recipes. Dorothy mentioned in her post a couple of weeks ago that she learns about real-world history from fantasy books, but my favorite historical detail involves what’s for dinner.

One cannot help but notice in both Fantasy-based games and Fantasy books that whenever you enter the average house or inn, there’s always someone tending to a pot of stew over the stove. Did everyone, minus the nobility, really always just eat stew almost every day? Was someone always making stew? Really? This seemed surprising to me, but then I learned about Perpetual Stew. According to Wikipedia, Perpetual Stew is

is a pot into which whatever one can find is placed and cooked. The pot is never or rarely emptied all the way, and ingredients and liquid are replenished as necessary. The concept is often a common element in descriptions of medieval inns. Foods prepared in a perpetual stew have been described as being flavorful due to the manner in which the foodstuffs blend together, in which the flavor may improve with age.

Of course, the nobility, who usually feature prominently in fantasy literature, at a lot more than just stew. These dishes are richly described by authors, like George R. R. Martin who put a lot of thought–maybe a bit too much–into describing the food of his world to readers. In fact, George R. R. Martin has described so many dishes, that there is an entire cookbook derived from his works: A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook.

In addition to the actual recipes, it is interesting to read about medievalesque food to understand something about what types of food people ate centuries ago and about “natural patterns” of sourcing. I’ve learned quite a lot about agriculture from fantasy, in fact. Nobles, at least, seemed to eat a lot more game back in the day than rich people do today. That’s because they went hunting quite a lot and farm animals like cows and pigs were too valuable to kill whenever. There are also seasonal reasons for this. Until the advent of modern refrigeration, both animals and crops were ready for consumption at certain times of the year. This is obvious for the case of something like apples, which are ripe in the autumn but also true of animals like the pig. According to Wikipedia,

The slaughter [of pigs] traditionally takes place in the autumn and early winter, and the timing has several practical considerations. It can start as soon as it gets cold, as the cold is required as a natural method of preserving the relatively large quantities of meat during the butchering. Yet, because people often do the work in the open, it is preferable that the temperatures aren’t too much below freezing during this time, hence the slaughter rarely extends into winter. Also, slaughter activities typically need to produce results before the Christmas season, to provide for the festive cuisine.

Of course, most fantasy works still use terrestrial, earth-inspired foods. More rare are entirely new ecosystems with new flora and fauna not drawn from either real world or mythological inspiration. This could lead to new foods and new ingredients. I think that with the effort it takes to actually think and write about food, it is fair to not expect anything too spend too much time detailing entirely new recipes. While, for example, Brandon Sanderson’s world of Roshar has a lot of weird and unique flora and fauna, including a lot of domesticated life that resembles crustaceans, the food people eat in his world still resembles real world food to a reasonable extent: curry and tacos.

One thing that I would like to see is as fantasy moves away from  Western influences are foods and food patterns and agricultural ideas coming from non-Western cultures. There’s a lot of grain and bread in fantasy, but not as much rice; one recent exception was Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series which has large Asian influences.

Readers, what foods make your mouths water after reading about them?

*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.

Header image is from The Daily Dot.


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