I have this theory about food in fantasy fiction. Possibly brought on by listening to too many Discworld audio books in quick succession. But my brain is the kind that likes to make lists, and catalogue things, and organise them in my head. So here is my theory:
There are three kinds of food in fantasy fiction: stew, lark’s tongues, and sausages in buns.
Don’t believe me?
When I say ‘Stew’ I mean camping food generally, though of course Stew itself is the star of any fantasy hero’s menu – a nourishing substance which travellers eat every single night while questing. I was first made aware of this tradition when reading The Belgariad by David and Leigh Eddings, in which Polgara the sorceress took great pride in feeding brown sludge to everyone for dinner (and its breakfast counterpart, gruel). As an adult, I wonder whether Polgara had a magical crockpot bubbling away in her saddlebags throughout the day?
The late, great Diana Wynne Jones, who left a marvellous legacy to fantasy readers and writers everywhere with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, had this to say about stew:
“You may be shortly longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. 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… Do not expect a salad on the side.”
Other staples of travel food involve some variation between Tolkien’s elf-made lembas, the magical crackers which give you the ability to move forward with your plot without stopping for a sandwich, and Pratchett’s dwarf-bread, which is made with gravel and kitty litter and exists solely to make you feel very creative about the art of roadside foraging.
Next there’s the lark’s tongues – which is to say that most aristocrats and/or villains of fantasy fiction tend to eat like characters in the Roman Satires. Never mind the hearty meat-on-meat dishes that kings like Henry VIII actually feasted upon – while medieval is the order of the day in a great deal of fantasyworld building, the posh menus are more likely to borrow from The Feast of Trimalchio: decadent, outrageously expensive and often tiny portions of food, eaten delicately and with great ritual. You can’t help wondering if sometimes they’d like a plain old bowl of stew instead of poached peacock slivers in aspic!
It also has the side effect that you begin to question whether anyone eating quail’s eggs is in fact a villain. I got served them unexpectedly in a caesar salad the other day, and I could feel myself turning into a grand vizier as I ate…
Mostly when I think about food in fantasy it’s those first two categories that spring to mind, but as I said at the beginning, I’ve been revisiting a lot of Discworld lately, and musing upon the repeated use of the sausage as plot hub and convenience food. One of the most consistent supporting characters (never a protagonist) in the long run of Discworld novels is CMOT Dibbler, or “Throat” for short, named after his catchphrase “and that’s cutting my own throat” when he offers discount prices. While he’s a seller of many things through the series, his core product is sausageinnabun, and it’s this foodstuff that he returns to whenever his other moneymaking scams have run dry.
As with all true junk food, Dibbler’s sausages are both appealing and appalling, sometimes in the same mouthful. The appeal is often their cheapness and the fact that they are there, but those who do eat them often regret it.
“And then you bit into them, and learned once again that Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler could find a use for bits of an animal that the animal didn’t know it had got. Dibbler had worked out that with enough fried onions and mustard people would eat anything.”
— Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures
While Dibbler’s sausages are probably the most epic example, there must be more convenience food in fantasy, right? I’d love to hear some examples from readers – as well as their favourite instances of Stew or Lark’s Tongue Cuisine in fantasy fiction.
This post was written by Tansy Rayner Roberts for her Flappers with Swords Blog Tour.
Tansy’s award-winning Creature Court trilogy: Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts, featuring flappers with swords, shape changers, half-naked men and bloodthirsty court politics, have been released worldwide on the Kindle, and on Kobo & iTunes in Australia & New Zealand. If you prefer your books solid and papery, they can also be found in all good Australian and New Zealand bookshops.
You can also check out Tansy’s work through the Hugo-nominated & Aurealis-winning crunchy feminist science fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia. You can find her on the internet at her blog, or on Twitter as @tansyrr.