Friday 2 December 2016

Food in fiction, from fantasy stew to johnny cakes, by Gillian Polack

This last fortnight I’ve been indulging in comfort reading and comfort cooking. I need a couple of hours safety in my day in order to cope with our current interesting times. My reading time has been spent about equally in fantasy worlds and in the world of Georgette Heyer. All of this convinces me that it’s time to talk about food again.

Medlars, picture by Gillian Polack

One of the ways in which I judge the success of the invention in a novel (any novel) is how well the writer handles food. Georgette Heyer is comfort reading partly because she understands that food and the social habits that surround food are essential to her stories. She skips over many things, but seldom food. 

She doesn’t describe it rapturously or gluttonously: she uses it as an essential part of the lives of the characters. Her female characters can go whole days without ever needing to use a toilet, but when Elinor Rochdale rocks up to a strange house in The Reluctant Widow and no-one is prepared for her coming, there are only cold meats and maybe bread and butter on offer. In a well-run household there would be more choices, but the house Elinor discovers is not well run in any way. People must eat, even in poorly-run households, but people may not eat safely or may not have much in the way of choices but starvation is just that and only applies to those living in appalling circumstances. Heyer’s Regency is imaginary and so a lot of the ugly side of society is missing: no-one starves, although people may skip meals or have sadly restricted choices. Food is at the service of story.
Food in a good novel is always at the service of the novel. Even if the author doesn’t mean it to say something, it is part of the story. When an author doesn’t consider food properly and just shoves it in willy-nilly, it’s the reader who pays.

Dried barberries, picture by Trudi Canavan

Until Diana Wynne Jones mocked the ever-present stew in adventure fantasy travel in her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland travellers eating stew appeared far too often in a certain kind of fantasy novel. It was important to feed people felling tyrants or achieving noble quests, and ‘stew’ was a simple concept that worked for those who had never made a decent stew from scratch. By ‘from scratch’ I mean ‘first trap your hare and wild-harvest your carrots’. Decent stew is not a recipe suitable for exhausted people who need nourishment instantly and who are on the run or on a quest.

The writers who used stew in this way had a particular need in their writing. It wasn’t just to feed travellers. Others have used random nuts discovered (in or out of season) or stale bread to serve the same function in the story. They might be depicting a sense of camaraderie around a campfire, a feeling of solidarity or a moment of hope. A hot meal in the midst of panic gives that moment of comfort and equates in reading terms to my choice of novels right now.

Food isn’t just for keeping people alive. Not in fiction and not anywhere. It tells us what level of luxury we live in, what friends we have, how far we’re social beings and far solitary, how much we as individuals luxuriate in or ignore our senses. So if stew can’t be used in quite the way it has been in fantasy novels, what can?

Dried white mulberries, picture by Trudi Canavan

There are many choices, and they all relate to the function the food serves at that precise moment and also to the culture drawn on for the novel. When I was a child, damper was our stew-equivalent for a moment of camaraderie around a fire. Or, if we had a pan, johnny cakes. Johnny cakes are ‘journey cakes’, I suspect (though have never actually demonstrated). 

I and my friends took our sense of mood form the folklore and folksongs we were taught. This is how that bonding can be developed, even if there’s no time or capacity to cook a stew. The song that pushed me to think about journey food was called “Four little Johnny cakes” and a version of it can be found here. It’s all about comfort. All about a pause in travel for refreshment, physical and emotional. The food can be cooked quite quickly, on a single pan, or has been pre-cooked. It has associations with wandering the roads and carrying a swag: the food of swaggies or stockmen.

I’m using Australian terms quite intentionally here, for another thing that writers do when they haven’t thought through things properly is to use the language of their youth or of the fiction they write. How many US readers however, know what a squatter is or care about swaggies? The rules were different. The history is different. The words we write with are not culturally neutral. 

Picture by Gillian Polack

It’s easier to remember that these terms are not culturally neutral if I use less-familiar ones. Saying “johnny cake” in my fiction would have to be backed by some suggestion as to what a johnny cake is, for my readers might not have grown up with (probably didn’t grow up with) that song. I could use the song, or I could joke about the griddle cake Alfred burned (if it was historical fiction) or I could describe the delectable aroma, or... there are many techniques open to writers. The trick is to remember to use them. A good historical fiction novel will use a dozen in a chapter, for they are what bring the detail to life for the reader when one is talking about a distant time.

Flour and water and a bit of salt and a bit of raising agent and maybe a few currants and you have a johnny cake. It takes a very few minutes over a hot pan. If you don’t have a hot pan then you find a stick and make damper. A somewhat wetter dough, wound around the stick and then cooked over a hot fire. These are the travel foods of my childhood. We drizzled honey over our lightly burned damper and made a wonderfully sticky mess. Damper can be savoury and it can be cooked in a dying fire or a dutch oven. 

Flour and water are the traditional cooking ingredients of many travellers, because flour could be carried in a small flour bag and water is a survival necessity. Much more real than stew, in that way.
Alas, for flour and water, the writer has to work that much harder to get the sense of camaraderie around a campfire, or eating a hot meal together I a time of difficulty. Not all foodstuffs serve the same narrative goals with the same ease.

Stew is not impossible while travelling. Soup is even more possible. But they need planning, time and cooking equipment. This is where it’s really handy to look at what travellers actually ate at various times in various places in history. How far from village to village, farm to farm was it? Was it customary for stray travellers to be fed if they arrived when a meal was being served or (for whatever reason) were travellers left unwelcomed? Did voyagers steal chickens from farmers or buy them or forgo fresh meat? Did they walk into a shop and buy equipment and did that equipment include special bags to carry flour and salt and ground coffee and travel soup? Did they travel with a cart, a mule, a horse, a boat? The reader doesn’t have to know all this – if a writer develops the right model for their tale, it will make the story a lot more evocative and mean that food can be used in all the various ways: it’s not just a matter of making sure that characters don’t starve.

Research doesn’t have to be theoretical. Right now, I know a bit more about portable soup than I ought. This is because I’ve been making it. A lot. I know that chicken doesn’t work so well (the bones are too brittle) but that duck is splendid and beef bones with a little meat on are best of all. Of all the beef I tried, Belted Galloway farmed in an old-fashioned way made the best portable soup. I know the exact mount to cook it down to in order to make ‘soup glue’ which has so little moisture that it can be packed in paper and taken on board ship. One smallish cube of my portable soup makes 2-3 mugs of real soup. And I can make quite tasty soup this way. In fact, I have duck soup in my freezer right now and am using it instead of stock cubes in my stews. It makes the best stews ever. My version, however, takes three to five days to make, over low heat. There’s no way of speeding it up and still having a safe and tasty end-product. I’ve tried. It’s wonderful travel food, but it takes planning or resources.

I cook things like this on writing days. This is the wonder of the modern kitchen. I have to keep an eye on my big saucepan, but I don’t have to tend a fire. Before iron stoves were invented quite recently, it wasn’t so easy to make.


This explains the bread and the mutton and the johnny cakes and the fish. It also makes a kind of travel stew possible if you have a pan and a fire and some meat and some vegies. If travellers carry enough baggage and have a good cook in the company, it’s possible to have the comfort food.
It takes a lot of set-up, however. A slice off a piece of mutton bought from a farmer and a piece of bread or damper to eat it with, or a johnny cake (or four) – these are more likely for that Western European based fantasy world than a travel stew. Georgette Heyer, of course, simply finds an inn for her travellers and, if they arrive at an odd hour, someone has to argue with the innkeeper until food is produced. Food is at the service of story in a good novel, always.


Unknown said...

Thank you, for also showing how thoughtless I am as a reader, for if it says stew, I don't stop to think about ingredients and pans.

Gillian Polack said...

It's not thoughtlessness so much as following what the story tells you. For me, food has its own story. I see mention of something and want to cook it! This is one of the things I challenge, because the stories have to work together.

Alison Morton said...

Food shows not only status and wealth (or lack of either), but how time rich or poor characters are, the level of complexity in a society, what crops are grown, their traditions and expectations. A real window into the world.

On a journey, it has to be simple, sustaining and nourishing. One of my heroine's lovers makes and eats pogača, an oval pastry made of herbs and cheese, baked and eaten 'on the hoof'.

Food is essential in any novel, although I admit I don't mention travelling stew a lot.

Sue Bursztynski said...

In Lord Of The Rings, Frodo is lucky enough to have Sam Gamgee along. Sam does take his cooking equipment with him, along with whatever ingredients he can get and a precious box of salt. It's only towards the end, approaching their final destination, that he sadly abandons his pots and pans, knowing he will not be able to use them any more. By that time, they're down to the lembas and miruvor anyway. Tolkien does a lot of thinking about food, which plays an important role in his work, and says something about the people eating it, whether it's the contents of Bilbo's pantry or the mushrooms the four hobbits have for supper or the food at the inn at Bree or Elven feasts.

Yes, I read the Diana Wynne Jones book, very entertaining!

AnneMarie Brear said...

Interesting blog post. Thank you.

Mike Hall said...

To add to Sue’s comments: a version of the maligned “fantasy stew” is actually cooked by Sam at one point – a rabbit stew in fact - though Tolkien ensures that the episode is entirely credible.

“Damper” sounded strangely familiar though I am pretty ignorant of such Australian fair. I then realised that it was a childhood memory, from by Richard Jefferies' “Bevis”, suggesting that damper would be familiar to English boys of the 1880s. Were adventure stories back in the day using it to suggest the strangeness of life in the antipodes?

Becca McCallum said...

Great post about food in books. When I saw the title I thought it was going to be about cooking food from books. I have a lovely cookbook called 'Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer' - all about food in traditional children's fiction.

The first time I can remember reading about something and wanting to 'cook' it was when I used to get a paper comic and it had 'Nurse Nancy' and her little brother making toast on a proper fire, sitting on little stools, and they spread it hot with butter and dollops of strawberry jam.

Michalea said...

Speaking of cultural differences, a johnny cake in the US is made from cornmeal, not flour, and is a flat bread. It was called a hoecake in the South, and was quite "popular" during the War between the States as it was cheap and easy. It's still served, although it has morphed into a pancake.

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Margaret Pinard said...

Love this considered essay, and love reading about historical or fantasy food! It particularly caught my attention in The Thief Taker by Gleason. :)