Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a guest post by Arianne "Tex" Thompson.
Arianne "Tex" Thompson is a native and lifelong resident of Texas. After earning a bachelor's degree in history from UT Dallas and a master's degree in literature from the University of Dallas, she went on to become a community college professor, teaching the fundamentals of English to adults writing below the eighth-grade level. Now a master teacher for academic tutoring and test prep services, as well as the managing editor for the DFW Writers Conference, Tex is a regular feature at high schools, writing conferences, and genre conventions alike. With her first book, a 'rural fantasy' novel called One Night in Sixes, Tex joined the growing ranks of Solaris authors committed to exciting, innovative and inclusive science fiction and fantasy.
Click here to visit the author's official website.
GUEST POST: Fine Dining in Fantasyland by Arianne "Tex" Thompson
Okay, so you know that thing, where we joke about George R.R. Martin's legendary eight-page descriptions of heraldry and stew?
I have to confess – I actually like the stew parts. And Firefly's not-exactly-cake birthday cake. And that one fabulously grotesque feast in The Dark Crystal, with tiny terror-stricken furry things skittering down the table as the Skekses stab at them with their sinister silver fork-claws, hooting and gurgling "More food! More food!" (Preach it, scary vulture-Muppets. Hang it up!)
And maybe that's not very surprising – I mean, fantasy is fantastic, and food is great, so how could fantasy-food be anything less than fantasti-great?
But it's still a little surprising to me how often we just don't hear about it. So many times it seems like the good guys get a brief mention of hardtack and cheese (or nutritionally-balanced protein rations from the repli-mat) while the bad guys gorge themselves on unicorn eyeballs marinated in virgin-blood – usually a cheap shock-and-disgust shortcut to assure us that we're not supposed to empathize with Those People, because they're weird and gross and probably smell funny. (Hmm. Now I kind of want to write a short story about an orcish fourth grader who gets picked on because of the fairy-cakes her mom packs in her lunch.)
And I mean, I get it: the food's not usually a plot point, and you don't want to stop the story for an episode of Diners, Dungeons, and Dives. But so much of what we love about fantasy and sci-fi is feeling truly transported, being able to believe that the strange other-world really exists. And food is a huge part of that! I don't believe it's an accident that so many of the greatest, most successful SFF franchises are those with the biggest, richest, most interesting worlds – local delicacies included. For example, if I mention Bertie Bott's Every-Flavor Beans, you know exactly what train we're boarding. If there's a ring burning a hole in your pocket, you know not to leave home without your lembas. Shoot, Westeros has its own cookbook – and you can actually cook with it!
And the best part is, when done well, those things aren't just flavor-text. (See what I did there?) They're part of the fictional cultures they come from. I didn't really appreciate that link until I decided to throw fishmen into my fantasy Western world, and sat down to work out they would eat. After all, just because you spend half your time in a river doesn't mean you're going to shove fistfuls of raw fish and algae in your face – but cooking over a fire might not be the most convenient method. So how else do we prepare food? Well, there's drying, of course – but there's also a whole world of salting, souring, pickling, and fermenting. "Eureka!" I thought. "Sauerkraut, sardines, and sake for everyone!"
And that's not all: when you're visiting another world, what you eat might not be as important as how you eat it. For our doughty band of freshwater adventurers, dinner is a full-contact sport:
They crowded together like so many amphibious vultures over a kill, their meal wholly invisible behind a wall of wet, color-shifting flesh. One turned its head and spat something at its neighbor's ear-hole – a bone, maybe – and was promptly rewarded with a slap. But that left an opening for another sibling to reach across and seize some tender morsel, its victory announced by a brief upcurling of its muddy tail, and the aggrieved darkening of the loser's skin.
She was lucky not to have to wade into that scrum to fight for her share. Still, it was impossible not to feel a pang of nostalgia at the sight. What fun it had been! Cooking was a sacred art, yes, but eating was a sport, its strategies and alliances shifting by the minute. Grab an egg and stuff it in your mouth – throw another to Pate-a-Choux, whom you were trying to sweet-talk into helping you clean out the storeroom – snatch a rice cake from Mille-Feuille, who had tattled on you in front of Mother, and give it to Petit-Four, because the poor runty thing would never get enough otherwise.
I know it looks odd in excerpt form, but the names are connected in their own way too. Each house names its members after elements of a different art form – and an art as delicate and difficult as patisserie is treated as reverently in their world as it is in the most elite restaurants of ours. For them, pretty little pastries are as far removed from the things they normally eat, and the way they eat them, as communion wine and wafers are from Pizza Hut and light beer. In both cases, experiencing formal or ceremonial eating along with everyday grub is one way to help ground yourself in a culture – and like Persephone snacking on pomegranate seeds in the underworld, once you've tasted another place, it never really leaves you. (Or in her case, you never really leave it. Oops.)
I think that's a big reason why we get so passionate about food here in the real world. It's certainly a huge part of why I love Martin's interest in Westerosi cuisine, and why I want to see more fantasy feasts and pan-galactic gastronomy in general: they're interesting in their own right, but they're also evidence that the writer dedicated real passion and thoughtfulness to their world(s) and the people who live there. And let's face it – the fruits of that kind of labor are always delicious, no matter how you serve them.