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.


Anonymous said...

When I first read the title I thought it said, "Cooking Fantasy Worlds".

Guess I was wrong.

Still cuisine plays a big part in how we define culture that it certainly should not be overlooked. Ancient Empires would rise and fall on the availability of food, as it not only is for everyday consumption but also a luxury item as well (at least certain types of food crops, such as tea, sugarcane and "spices").

Cattle raiding was also important to many Indo-European societies, which shows you the importance of cattle as a source of material, including food.

Kerri C at CK Farm said...

Cool post! It made me think of my MS where my supernatural being eats raw meat, but the bacteria in it is what his body craves. I put some thought in food I guess lol! Ok I admit I like to eat too!

I liked the story of your memories of your grandmother! Thanks for sharing!

Hazardgal said...

I loved Jean Auel's books! You know that Man vs Wild TV show gives info on primitive cooking, etc. He eats some God-awful stuff though!

writtenwyrdd said...

It's small details like these you mention which make an enormous difference in how real your fictional world comes across.

I try to consider a few mundane daily details and twist them a little, as in your cooking example. Thanks for sharing.

Marian said...

Hi Marge,

You "loved" Jean Auel's novels - as in, past tense? :) I could understand that, though - The Clan of the Cave Bear is the best in the series. There's not as much tension and conflict in the more recent novels.

I don't have a TV, but that sounds like an intriguing show. Now that I've started reading about primitive cooking, I want to find out more.

Disturbing dish of the day : banana beer fermented with human saliva (courtesy of The Hot Zone).

Marian said...

Writtenwyrdd - Thanks! And small details can be slipped into the story without stopping its forward momentum.

Kerri - Glad you enjoyed the post. I love the detail of the supernatural being needing bacteria rather than meat.

Reminds me of Gerald Durrell writing about the menagerie he kept, and how he needed to accomodate the food preferences of all the animals. Apparently most of the monkeys would eat bananas and throw away the peel. But there was one who would eat the peel and throw away the banana.

Marian said...

Ralfast - Cooking fantasy worlds is fine as long as they're not half-baked.

OK, bad jokes aside, that's a good point you raised about the importance of food in ancient times. Doesn't the word "salary" also come from "salt"?

Maybe I should do a post about that next. Feast and famine in fantasy worlds...

Mary Witzl said...

I love the descriptions of your grandmother's cooking area! When the salt gets too moist to come out of the canister, I add water and use that too.

When I bake curries or cardamom bread that is solely for our family's consumption, I crush the pods with my teeth if I'm in a hurry and can't find my mortar and pestle. Hee hee...good thing my kids don't read my comments!