Food for Thought: The Problems with Recreating Fictional Food

the-hobbit-food

Hey guys, Fenrir here with another exciting addition of Food for Thought! Sooo it’s not often that we talk about food without a recipe (which is why there’s no Fantastic Feasts this week), but there’s actually a reason for it. Last Tuesday The Hobbit was released on DVD to the excitement of Richard Armitage fangirls fans across the US.  Overall The Hobbit has a sort of whimsy that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series does not share, and it certainly shows when the discussion of food comes up. So let’s take a moment from a foodie’s perspective to consider how it functions within a grandiose epic as complex as LOTR and what sort of information we can glean to successfully recreate Middle Earth’s cuisine — when really, we’re given nothing to work with.

Die-hard fans of Tolkien’s work may successfully plan out feasts and parties in his name, with food heavily “inspired” by Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Even some restaurants cash in on the idea of providing “authentic” Middle Earth food for those of us who sorely wish to pick up a spear and get our Orc-hunt on. Yet there is a problem with “food-placement” in Tolkien’s books, a challenge for the fan-chef who really would like to emulate the foods of Middle Earth and that’s because food is not one of his concerns.

There is a sort of whimsy that comes with foods and world-building, especially in the sort of “high fantasy” genre that Tolkien’s works are steeped in. Compare the lack of lingering lines over feasts of plenty with say, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, or even the earlier Harry Potter books that focus on the comfort of the fireside and a good listing of various foods to munch on. We get all kinds of pies, pastry, savories, and those strange but beloved UK-specific dishes that make the reading experience for Redwall and HP a little more delicious for our reading experience.

redwall-food

It’s no secret that many people remember Redwall fondly because of the food and all those descriptions of mice and moles munching away at fictional foodstuffs, and even HP introduced a worldwide audience to other overlooked British food. From treacle tart to sugar quills, steak and kidney pie, hoot root soup, duff, and fools, and other weird tasty bits, many fans end up remembering these little bites of detail that help bring a fictional world to life.  And that in of itself creates a sort of whimsical attachment to a very physical thing (food) that we experience in our minds and remember quite fondly. Not to mention that one of the key aspects of writing about food is to trigger those taste-buds and a subconscious desire to taste that food for itself — which kind of explains the presence of  numerous fansites and fan recipe books devoted to these particular series.

Now compare that whimsy to Tolkien, who really is one of my favorite writers… But who’s main concern isn’t so much extolling the wonders of Middle Earth as much as he is drawn to a crafting a particular kind of epic. Yes kids can pick up Tolkien and immerse themselves into a land of elves, dwarves, halflings, and lost kings, but we are not given the same moments to linger over a Middle Earth meal. Forgetting for a moment “An Unexpected Party” in The Hobbit (Which, in of itself is an exercise in whimsical moreso than LOTR), food is a passing concern for the Fellowship’s campaign.

And true to perhaps a military account, we do not get the same moments to truly enjoy a meal, but to appreciate what bites we can force down our throat along the way. Cram and lembas are pretty close counterparts to our own hardtack that was circulated as military rations; and it shows in their very descriptions. Cram is “more of a chewing exercise than an actual meal”, meant to be a sustainable biscuit of some sorts for long journeys — which is perhaps a rather fine example of our own hard tack, a biscuit twice baked and dried to endure trips for years. Hard tack needs to be reconstituted before consumption and finds its way in many soups and other recipes that require long-cooking or a flour substitute of some sort; cram certainly finds its place amongst these sorts of long-lasting foods that weren’t as tasty as a nice piece of mutton (Although a troll will contest that).

lembas-bread

Lembas is a little tricker; I mean we may love Tolkien for his fantasy world, but we also cannot forget his Catholic roots. Lembas, also known as “waybread”, is an Elven food-stuff that was used for long journeys. It’s a much tastier version of cram that is meant to stay fresh for months at a time as long as it is kept within its leaf-wrappings; fans of the Jackson movies will remember the cute and functional little packets that were issued to cast members of lembas. (Note: Lembas is lembas, not “lembas bread”, I assume to prevent confusion they added “bread” so people would know what it was exactly)

Of course, when going back to the books there is much to note here about how Tolkien uses these little moments of food description:

The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind. — The Return of the King, pg. 213

Using the same kind of vocabulary common to my Medieval Literature 101 class, Tolkien here offers a bread that is in its own way a metaphor for the Christian Eucharist. It’s a bread that satisfies the spiritual needs, or in this case, it satisfies the body’s fatigue, yet it does not satisfy the sort of physical hunger that plagues poor Frodo and Sam during their last leg of their journey. We see what you did there, Tolkien, and honestly it does satisfy the sort of mood that LOTR evokes — a fantasy epic that may or may not be a Catholic metaphor. And as much as we love the “epic”, it does not necessarily evoke the “whimsical”, with its concerns thrown towards a lofty peak of allegory at times — or well, at least within the realms of Tolkien’s writing.

But fear not — for Tolkien has his hobbits to lighten up the atmosphere. As we’ve learned from stubborn old Thorin at his deathbed, there is much to admire about hobbits and their desires for good food, a warm hearth, and all the comforts of home. The world would perhaps be a better place if that was a first concern instead of the sort of power struggles that plague Middle Earth. This whimsical sort of contentment manifests itself in the hobbit diet: seven meals a day plus snacks would certainly make some people–foodies included–quite happy. And as much as LOTR is about that journey moreso than the minute details of it, some moments spared for the hobbits are devoted to their inclination towards foods and this sense of “home”–from a dinner with Farmer Maggot, to Jackson’s interpretation of Sam holding close comforting remnants of the Shire within a small box filled with salt.

Merry and Pippin up to no good

Merry and Pippin up to no good

We may not get the same sort of “look” in the carefully hoarded lifestyles of dwarves, and elves, but we can certainly relate to a hobbit — and the food definitely helps with that. Hobbity food has all the comforts of home, with pantries heavily laden with foodstuffs, and all sorts of cakes, pies, and cheeses, etc. hidden inside of Bilbo’s larder that is unceremoniously raided by some hungry dwarves. There is also pride in the things that are grown in the Shire, things that are coveted (See poor Farmer Maggot and the fact that all the hobbits fleece him of his crop) and extolled as some of the best in Middle Earth. It is a diet based on an English ideal of the pastoral life, with the sort of hearty farmer’s fare that just seems “better”.

But  again, this is not a representation of all Middle Earth food — there is still room for fan leeway to come up with their own ideas, to rely on their own headcanons for foods. Because again, creating a habitable world isn’t Tolkien’s main concern — you are drawn up into the whirlwind of Middle Earth without having to imagine it in so tangible a way as through food and eating. But hey, at the very least, there are some bits of nostalgia for something far away–the pastoral–that creeps up within those few lines devoted to hobbit eating practices.

Pastoralism is a strong component of the British identity; at several points there are movements towards going back to the “rural”, or thinking of England as a country that is defined by its farmers. Tolkien himself is a strong proponent of nature/farming/simplicity over industry, and it’s shown in the sorts of few foodstuffs mentioned within The Hobbit. So some speculate that when he speaks of things like “pork pie” (See Bombur in “An Unexpected Party”), he’s actually referring to the Melton Mowbray pork pies and food that was actually  available to him instead of food that would be available in a prehistoric pseudo-medieval fantasy world.

Soooooooooooooooooo – what have we learned from this ramble?

Food is a unique component in fiction; it evokes wonder and fancy when it comes to worldbuilding. Because you can either think of food as a source for inserting such-and-such metaphor (*Cough*) or you can use food as a means to make a fictional world seem more whimsical – magical even with incredible feasts of plenty.

Which then provides a challenge for the foodie wanting to base a feast around these works of fiction — but hey, if you can’t make food based off of the meagre descriptions in the books, at least there are the movies to try and imitate! Arguably what we have learned from this addition of Fantastic Feasts is that it’s kind of hard to try and recreate “Tolkien” meals — but with a little bit of creativity and more knowledge of the food-stuff around Tolkien’s childhood and life, as well as maybe some information on soldiers’ rations, we can probably make it work!

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

Latest posts by Fenrir (see all)

Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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