Monday, December 7, 2009
Cooking in fantasy worlds
When I was a kid in Sri Lanka, my grandmother used to cook on a fireplace made of three bricks.
The fireplace was at waist level, on a stone slab, and I would look up to see soot stains on the walls. The kitchen was dim apart from a ray of sunlight that would slant down at an angle over the fireplace, and in that light the smoke was visible, thick as cotton wads. Under the stone slab my grandmother kept fuel, such as broken coconut shells. And close at hand was a glass jar half full of crushed sea salt and water (the equivalent of a salt shaker).
She eventually upgraded to a real stove, and the gap in the roof that let in the sunbeam was filled in. I didn’t mind the real stove, but I missed the sunbeam. Remembering that made me think of cooking in fantasy novels, so I wrote a little about that.
Cooking food the old-fashioned way takes time – time to either hunt or gather the food, prepare it, obtain fuel, build up a fire and cook the food. Even if some of those steps can be eliminated – for instance, carrying dried meat or lighting a fire with magic – food preparation is a long and possibly laborious process.
As a result, characters on the run aren’t likely to have a hot, satisfying meal (partly because a fire might also give away their position). One reason the Fellowship of the Ring may have valued no-cook lembas. In the absence of such food, though, the characters may resort to incomplete cooking – or none at all – which leads to the problem of
Are the characters aware that meat needs to be thoroughly cooked to ensure it’s safe to eat? I once read a novel, People of the Lakes, where the heroine, forced to cook a meal for her captors, deliberately included a segment of tripe in which she had seen part of a tapeworm. Yet another heroine (in a different book) poisoned a gang of rapists with jimsonweed.
In some societies, food may also be eaten raw – which is safe when the meat isn’t contaminated, but extremely dangerous when it is. Arno Karlen’s Man and Microbes tells of a village in the Philippines where people ate what was called “jumping salad” – live shrimp seasoned with vinegar, garlic and chili peppers. People used the rivers and lagoons as laundries and latrines as well, though. You can probably guess what happened next.
Availability of food
This will depend on the terrain, the climate and the time of the year. And in a poor society, there just won’t be much variety food-wise. It’s not fun to have the heroes eating salt beef for the third night in a row, but they may not have a lot of choice in this regard.
And even if food is available year-round (e.g. dried or long-lasting), it may not necessarily be in such a condition that the characters can dive in right away. Rice and flour, for instance, may need sifting to remove small stones, husks, insects, etc.
Methods of food preparation
My grandmother used to crush spices with a stone cylinder (like a rolling pin) rolled across a small oblong of stone. She made coconut sambol this way, and said that that method brought out the flavors much better than simply mixing by hand.
Likewise, a fantasy world could have very different ways of preparing food. In Harry Harrison’s West of Eden, the reptilian Yilane don’t use fire, so they mix meat with enzymes to soften it. As well as predigestion, food can be baked in pits, roasted in hot sand, steamed within bamboo cylinders, and so on. A good source of such ideas is Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which describes really old-fashioned cooking in great detail.
Another novel along these lines is Bettina Krahn’s The Marriage Test, where the heroine is a skilled cook who ends up working for a baron. The author has done her research on mouthwatering medieval recipes, and it shows in the book.