Last time I visited A Dribble of Ink, I wrote about worldbuilding in the air and monsters. Aidan asked me to return and talk about food in fantasy, which I do fairly regularly for my interview series Cooking the Books.
Running a food-oriented interview series makes me think really hard about food in every book I write, including Updraft (Tor 2015), because I don’t want to suddenly have a cow-based product (like milk) appear in a world that has not seen a cow in forever, and where a cow would have to scale a sky-high tower made of bone to get that milk there. NO that would be bad and has never happened, ever. (Thank you again, brilliant copy editor Ana Deboo, for, ehrm … Completely Unrelated Reasons.)
So when Aidan asked, I began to think about those Fantasy Foodies who get it right — and who make our mouths water in the process. Here are thirteen1 of my favorites (there are many more, but the list grew unmanageable), in alphabetical order, and I’ve given you some amuse-bouche quotes to go with them.
In Saladin Ahmed’s collected stories, Engraved on the Eye, and his novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, the character Adoullah — a ghul hunter — is a tea aficionado, but we also witness his skill at marketplace bartering (through the inexperience of his assistant) and the messes he makes when he eats. Ahmed often uses food and access to food to delineate political and economic status. For instance, Ahmed described a scene from one of his short stories to Cooking the Books like so:
“Haggling is still the way in a lot of the world, and across a vast majority of the past. Adoullah knows that he can go out with this many coins and can expect to come back with this many vegetables of this quality. Rashid comes back with wilted half-full baskets of vegetables and Adoullah looks at him like, “You’re an idiot.” That says a lot about class and food and economics.”
The role of food (and water) in Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting is subtle, and important. It builds community and family. Some lasts forever, some does not. But (brought to my attention this year by Rose Fox, and I thank them for it) her short novel The Search for Delicious is something else again — a kingdom torn apart by the need to define the word “delicious” universally.
“But then we got to ‘Delicious is fried fish’ and he said no, I’d have to change that. He doesn’t care for fried fish. The General of the Armies was standing there and he said that, as far as he was concerned, Delicious is a mug of beer, and the Queen said no, Delicious is a Christmas pudding, and then the King said nonsense, everyone knew the most delicious thing is an apple, and they all began quarreling.”
With her line-of-supply discipline, her willingness to go to the ground for food information, and her amazing skill with mixology, Bear’s books serve food that is substantive and delightful. In her latest, Karen Memory, what the title character eats carries many details about the world of the steampunk Pacific Northwest. About the food in Range of Ghosts (Eternal Sky series), Bear said on Cooking the Books:
Cooking a marmot goes something like this: ‘First, catch marmot. Skin marmot and remove meat from the carcass. Then put the edible offal and meat back inside the skin and sew the skin shut.’ In modern Mongolia, they sew the skin shut with wire. A hundred years ago, they would have used some sort of twine or tendons. Then you take a blowtorch or acetylene torch, and blowtorch it until it’s crispy and blackened. You have marmot stewed a la blowtorch – you serve up the insides. In Range of Ghosts, they bury it in the coals of their fire to cook it.
When I’m doing research for a story, there’s that moment in the research when I stumble across something so completely wonderful – I remember coming across this marmot cooking technique, and I knew that I had to put it into the story, as long as it didn’t distract from the narrative. (read more)
(… I still get searches for “mistress marmot blowtorch”. True story.)
I’ve said publicly a number of times that when de Bodard talks about food in her stories, watch out. She feeds her audiences complex world information and characterization details by the spoonful. This is especially true of her latest book The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz 2015), where she ties food scarcity to the ability to procure rare foods as an intimidation tactic. Don’t miss de Bodard’s regular feats of cooking on her blog. Of special notice right now, Aliette’s Cooking the Books roundtable with Zen Cho and me, where she shares her recipe for TÔM RANG THỊT BA CHỈ (Grilled Shrimp and Pork Belly) .
Wu Long tea: those teas are carefully prepared by the tea masters to create a range of tastes and appearances. The brew is sweet with a hint of strength, each subsequent steeping revealing new nuances. – From Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight (Clarkesworld)
First, what you need to know is that Vlad Taltos is a cook, and a darn fine one. Well you also probably need to know that Vlad’s an assassin, but that’s not important, nevermind! Have a sit down and try the goulash! Brust’s recipes from Dragaera have been tested in the Food through the Pages kitchen. He’s also visited Cooking the Books and talked about his writing and his cooking processes. He says: “The parallels between food and writing are so obvious and clear. It’s hard to talk about them because they’re inherent.”
From herb magic, to cheeses, to the types of foods served aboard an airship and beyond, Beth Cato’s clockwork empire takes steampunk cookery to new levels. Cato is a member of the Holy Taco Church (with Jaye Wells, Chuck Wendig, Kevin Hearne, Delia Dawson and many others) and a fantastic cook. Check out her blog Bready or Not for proof. From the first chapter of Clockwork Dagger, Cato issues a warning that she may be made of magic and steam, but she’ll pull absolutely zero punches when her heroine Octavia Leander risks her life to save a puppy. She hands it back to its young owner in the excerpt available at Tor.com:
“The girl lowered in a clumsy curtsy. “Oh, thank you, ma’am,” she said. “Now we won’t go hungry tonight and Pa won’t beat me or nothing.” Her eyes shone, bright and happy.” (read more)
Beth’s latest book is The Clockwork Crown (Voyager, 2015).
Rosehip preserve, elfbark tea, nettle tea, wintergreen berries…. All of Robin Hobb’s books are flavored by her familiarity with both kitchen and farm. Hobb’s character Fitz (Farseer Trilogy) observes early that food tastes better the closer you are to the kitchen. Unfortunately, he observes this while seated at a courtier’s table, staring at cooling food. Hobb’s foods have been turned to recipes by Food Through The Pages, and she spoke with me in 2014 for Cooking the Books:
“It is, of course, inevitable that we judge the status of characters or people by if they are seated below or above the salt, if they eat in a pick-up truck at a drive-thru parking lot or in a restaurant with a maître d. But I think that details like that just naturally fall into place in a tale, as do descriptions of dress or the room where one sleeps.” – Robin Hobb, from “Magic Needs to be Fed: Cooking the Books”
When I first interviewed Nalo in 2012 for the Strange Horizons Cooking the Books Roundtable (along with Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, and Gregory Frost), she reminded me of the food in “Goblin Market”, and how the tastes sang. She also said that real food is often stranger than fantasy food:
“Real food is where I tend to get inspiration because I don’t think I can dream up anything stranger than what people actually eat. Talking about things that many people wouldn’t eat, but actually have—mannish water. Also an aphrodisiac. Mannish water is a soup made with all the parts of the goat that you usually don’t eat….” (read more)
Hopkinson’s second job, aside from writing amazing novels like Sister, Mine (Grand Central, 2013), The Salt Roads (Open Road, 2015) and Falling in Love with Hominids (Tachyon, 2015) is making people hungry on twitter.
From her short story “Non-Zero Probabilities,” to The Killing Moon (Orbit, 2012) and beyond, Jemisin plays with food and taste like an expert chef. Take a look:
“On the platter lay a profusion of delicacies for the taking: crisp vegetables flecked with hekeh-seed and sea salt, balls of grain held together with honey and aromatic oil, medallions of fresh fish tied into bundles around wine-soaked raisins. And more, each arranged in neat rows of four — forty in all. An auspicious number by Gujaareen reckoning.” (more)
(I can’t wait to read The Fifth Season (Orbit 2015).)
Diana Wynne Jones
The author of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Chrestomanci Series, The Dalemark Quartet, and much more, Jones is the patron saint of fantasy food for encouraging writers to venture beyond stew and waybread, into exciting realms like Vegetables and Things That Don’t Require Twenty-Four Hours To Cook While On A Quest.
STEW: … Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in CAMP you are likely to be attacked without warning.. and in an INN prone to be the centre of a TAVERN BRAWL, Stew seems to be an odd choice as a staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak…. (From The Tough Guide to Fantasyland)
Juster is on this list for this reason: Subtraction Soup and the Word Market from the Phantom Tollbooth. After all these years, I can remember Milo eating his words and feeling hungrier after his meal with the mathemagician and so yes, Juster goes on this list.
“These are for people who like to make their own words,” the man in charge informed him. “You can pick any assortment you like or buy a special box complete with all letters, punctuation marks, and a book of instructions. Here, taste an A; they’re very good.”
Milo nibbled carefully at the letter and discovered that it was quite sweet and delicious—just the way you’d expect an A to taste. (From The Phantom Tollbooth)
The Narnia series is filled to the brim with food – from Mr. Tumnus’ tea and the Beavers’ feast, to dining on the Dawn Treader. There are several Narnia Cookbooks.
“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.” from The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe
Her Kaleidoscope color vampire eats color. Her poem “Shadowskin” (Strange Horizons 2015) explores the if/then of foods and how one cultures’ food can erase another’s. And Thakrar’s cooking skills are readily apparent in the succulent sensory overload that is The Rainbow Flame (Uncanny Magazine 2015). Keep an eye on this kind of food writing, for example:
“The sweet–tart mango dribbled cool juices over her eager lips, while the plump cherries burst between her teeth. Rupali imagined consuming a heart, then broke off mid–chew. Would that thought be taken from her, too?” (more)
Who are your favorite foodies?
- Also notable, but my list was growing outrageous so I had to stop – Walter Jon Williams, Ann Leckie, Scott Lynch, Kevin Hearne, Zen Cho, Octavia Butler, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Mercedes Lackey, Neil Gaiman, Laura Anne Gilman, Maria Dahvana Headley, Lawrence M. Schoen, Chuck Wendig, all of the interviewees on Cooking the Books… and many more. ↩
- despite the fact that his character Edmund Pevensie is a known food liar. (Seriously. Turkish delight. Blech.) ↩