The importance of food to fantasy fiction
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” — J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973)
One of the parts of worldbuilding I enjoy is the creation of food for my story characters. It’s very easy to let our characters get caught in a loop of stew and dumplings. Now, I don’t know about you, but that would bore me silly. Even Persephone got to eat fruit! Okay, so it didn’t go so well for her, but you see my point, right?
J. R. R. Tolkien, whom many refer to as the “Grandfather of modern fantasy” fed his characters well. Hobbits had breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper. No starvation for those small folk! When Gandalf and the Dwarves invade Bilbo’s home he feeds them all sorts of delicious-sounding food. Pork pies, seed cakes, scones, sausages, mince pies, cheese, butter, apple tart and raspberry jam, salad, eggs, cold cuts, and even pickles. When Frodo and Sam set out on their adventure, they run into (quite literally) Merry and Pippin who have been raiding Farmer Maggot’s fields of carrots, onions, turnips, mushrooms, and potatoes. Elsewhere in the Shire are orchards full of apples, honeycombs dripping with honey, ovens full of “new loaves”, and bushes full of ripe blackberries. And let us not forget that Hobbits enjoyed gardening and grew a variety of vegetables not mentioned in the books. Not to mention the nourishing and energizing Lembas bread of the Elves that sustain the Fellowship later on in the series. It’s easy to see that Tolkien enjoyed his food! (I re-read The Hobbit, and all the books in the series, every year and usually come away hungry.) Hobbits did not go thirsty either. They had at their disposal vineyards full of fruit waiting to be made into red wine, and we presume there would have been milk for the youngest Hobbits, but it seemed their favorite drink was beer, although there is mention made of tea and coffee.
Tolkien’s contemporary C.S Lewis had Turkish Delight. Legendary Hansel and Gretel were lured with sweets as well.
Let’s not ignore the Potter-verse with Hogwart’s Great Hall feasts of roasted chickens, pumpkin pies, ice cream, roast beef, lamb chops, tarts, eggs, kippers, corn-on-the-cob, steak, grilled vegetables, Yorkshire pudding, shepherd’s pie, porridge, sandwiches, and custards, as well as some of the most memorable sweets like chocolate frogs and every flavor jelly beans. (Grass, anyone?) Later on in the series, we’re introduced to butter beer and follow the main characters into a tea shop where they can dine on sugared butterfly wings or enjoy small cakes with orange curd preserves. Dumbledore enjoyed a nip of sherry from time to time, too.
Even Bethesda’s game Elder Scrolls: Skyrim has braided loaves of bread, a variety of berries, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet rolls, butter, cheese, cabbages, ash hoppers, roast venison, crab, rabbit, elk, stew, apple dumplings, salt, eggs, pheasant, netches, chicken, ash yams, fish, crostatas to make your mouth water, beets, vegetable soup, fondue, tea, ale, beer, and cider.
Why then do so many fantasy authors rely merely on bread and stew?
Food can be used as a plot device, an ice-breaker between characters that don’t know each other all that well, and as a trade item. We can learn a lot about a culture by what they eat and how they prepare it. A culture that eats rabbit stew and raises its own pigs to make sausages and bacon will have different seasonal activities than a culture that does not eat meat. People that only eat fish on Friday may quite possibly venerate a different pantheon than a hunter/gatherer culture. Food can feed one caste and be banned for another, it can be a currency among guilds, it can tell us about trade routes, climate, topography, or even be the basis for laws and crime such as venison was in the form of the King’s deer in Robin Hood.
Historically, food was a political tool and should be in more fantasy fiction. Although I personally do not agree with slavery, it has been used as a plot device rather effectively many times, and food has played into that. Fruit, vegetables, and smoked or salted meat have long been traded, and with trade comes exposure to other cultures.
Without any variety on their tables, fictional worlds are missing out on countless layers of opportunity and flavors.
Do any of your favorite fantasy novels or short stories feature food? What “fantastical food” sticks out in your memory?