Food in Fantasy Land
What would life be like to live in a world without breakfast cereal?
I have recently been in a position to think deeply about the sorts of foods I eat on a regular basis. I find my tastes rather seasonal and generally very simple. I like salads and vegetables and barbequed meats during the hot summer months. During winter I tend to crave more traditional ‘comfort foods’ such as pasta – in nearly any form, roasted meats and potatoes, curries, cabbage rolls and even the occasional stew. These are usually the dinner or supper meal. Lunches are often similar as I generally consume leftovers, with the addition of a few more sandwiches. Breakfasts however, are regularly bowls of cold cereal and occasional eggs or pancakes.
However, if we were to enter Fantasy Land things would be different. According to the informative Tough Guide written by award winning author Diana Wynne Jones (she really did write excellent children’s fantasy books), my diet would consist largely of stew and waybread. This is the long way of bringing me to my point of interest; the appearance of food in books.
How many stories actually deal with eating; not just for the occasional banquet, but for the sustaining of the character’s life? How many fantasy books fall into the clutches of viscous, brown slop served with a flatbread?
There are a few stories that come to mind where the food stood out – not in a glaringly awkward way. Rather I noticed the food was something different, something regional. The first to come to mind is Zoe Marriot’s Daughter of Flames. I remember it had the main character eating chickpeas, which was different and weirdly interesting to read. Not that the author made a big deal of the food being consumed, just that when she described the meal as flavour for her world it didn’t include stew.
I suppose you could argue Harry Potter has a more realistic bend on the food issue too. Although many of the sweets are given cutesy names to fit with the fantastical world, the students often eat regular food: sausages, potatoes, eggs, toast and the like – I am sure there were vegetables in there somewhere too.
Just to clarify, I am not looking for vast detailed treaties on food and its preparations. Tolkien is famous for spending six pages discussing the preparation of rabbit – though was it a rabbit stew? I cannot remember. However, even this wordy narrator fell into the common trap of feeding his travellers a steady diet of waybread for much of the books. After all, the purpose of eating food is merely to remind the reader these are real people with real needs.
Interestingly, modern, urban fantasies and other adventure fiction falls victim to a similar problem of what to do with meals. I find that stew is not prevalent in these situations. Instead it has been replaced by coffee. Similar meal swaps are seen by many characters on TV. The first thing these individuals do in the morning is grab a cup of coffee – seemingly unable to function without the jolt of caffeine. When time is running short and the days long, don’t worry they don’t need to stop to eat – just drink another coffee or the occasional pop (soda for the Americans) and the character is good to save the world.
I hope not. Unless these individuals are also connected with nutrient giving IV drips, I don’t think they are going to have the strength to save the world – certainly not on a repetitive basis. I wonder does this also connect with or potential perpetuate eating disorders? We are in a time when the number of serious eating disorders (anorexia to obesity) is soaring and the characters in our popular media are showing serious lack of healthy eating habits.
Or perhaps I am more sensitive to the overabundance of caffeine in my stories as I don’t drink coffee, tea or pop. While not as bad as my brother, my morning requires a healthy bowl of cereal to start – substituted with the occasion egg or pancake. After all breakfast is the most important meal of the day.