Posted: June 2nd, 2009 under Background, Life beyond writing, the writing life.
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Those of you who’ve read Diana Wynne Jones’  The Rough Guide to Fantasyland know that the typical food of fantasyland is stew.  Maybe with bread.  Maybe, if you’re really lucky, bread and cheese both with stew.  Or alternately.

I’m not a foodie (lack the qualifications), but I do like to eat, and when I started writing the Paks books, I didn’t know about the “stew” convention.  Even though there’s some stew, it’s because I felt it fit that location (and pocketbook) and I had great fun inventing other dishes.   Food preferences and eating styles reveal character and offer multiple thorns for plot and character and setting to attach.

At the time I was writing the first Paks books, I had been baking bread for the family for years, had put up preserves and (some only–no pressure cooker) vegetables.   I had even made jam from wild strawberries over a campfire (it was difficult, because we kept eating the berries instead of c0oking them into jam.   I think we got a whole three half-pint jars of jam out of the experience, but it was delicious.   So were the berries we ate, sitting in the berry patch and picking as fast as we could while more civilized persons drove past, averting their eyes from the peasantry.

Anyway.   When first writing Paksenarrion’s story, certain foods recommended themselves and others refused to take part in the books.  I could have the old-world grains, wheat, oats, rye, spelt…but not the American corn (the term maize has now become as confusing as “corn” once was:  Zea mays, the familiar stuff you eat off a cob, is maize in Europe, but in the U.S. “maize” is another grain entirely.   I could have cabbage and onions and beans, but not tomatoes and potatoes.   Fruit followed an even more interesting pattern: the familiar Rosaceae fruits almost all fell into the book easily–apples, peaches, plums, pears, the brambly berries.  Tropical fruits, no.   Perhaps they were never shipped that far north?  Surely that world has tropics, and tropical fruits…but they haven’t shown up yet.  Sometimes the plant was acceptable, but the common name we know wasn’t…usually because it implied too tight a connection to specific localities here.  That world is not this world; there are conceptual overlaps but not identify, so those people would call an apple an apple: they would not call an oilberry an olive.

Sometimes books insist and the writer never knows why–even a writer who knows not to call a rabbit a smerp may be stuck with a book that refuses to call a rabbit a rabbit for some reason that may (or may not) come out later.    And speaking of animal life…why are there no bison?  I don’t know.  What replaced them here?  I don’t know.  Both old and new world had bison of various types…why no bison?  Again, I suspect it is the tight association with specific places here–and the human cultures associated with them–that the book refused, just as it would have refused a wayside inn with golden arches out front, if I’d tried to put that in.

But back to food.    In both history and art classes, in my first run through college,  I was explosed to medieval and Renaissance food preferences and preparation, as part of the culture of the time.   The food mentioned wasn’t, for the most part, poor peoples’ food….but it was fascinating in its variety, in the elaborate preparation, in its abundance (on the tables of the rich, at least), in the sensory terms used to describe it.  Food items were traded widely, even in the ancient world (there’s a  jar that once held  fish sauce from Tunis in a museum in Carlyle, complete with advertising declaring it to be best-quality, renowned, etc., for instance.)  Agricultural experimentation and knowledge grew, often from monastic establishment “demonstrations.”  (Fish-farming, the change to a 3-crop rotation, the northward expansion of herb gardens and medicinal herbs, etc.)

Some of the food activities and food traditions of Gird’s day come straight out of medieval texts, including peasant and landlord attitudes; for Paks’s books, we’re up to late medieval/Renaissance when it comes to food, with considerable trade between north and south.  There will be differences in inn cuisine north and south of the Dwarfmounts, but not absolutely so: more dairy in the north, more herbs and fewer spices, but always some.  Preservation in the dry parts of the south is often by salting and drying–in Andressat, high and dry much of the year, thin-sliced fruit and meat can be sun-dried and keep long–but in the wetter east and north by cooking with honey to make preserves of fruit, or layering with fat to exclude air, or with salt and smoking (for fish and meats) , or pickling (for vegetables, mostly.)

Some foods showed up without much background.  Redroots, for instance.  They aren’t carrots, exactly, and they aren’t beets.    They don’t taste good raw, but they’re good when cooked (boiled or roasted)  and have a fair bit of starch in them.   Oddly enough, I know what they smell like and would recognize them if I smelled them–which, since they’re imaginary, I won’t.   Then there’s sib.  It’s not coffee and it’s not tea–it’s like one of the substitutes for tea or coffee that people have contrived in times of shortage–maybe more like old-fashioned root beer, only as a steeped hot drink, not a fermented one.  Bark, roots, twigs, herbs.

But this talk of food is making me hungry–I think I’d better bake some bread today; it’s been too long and it’s good baking weather.   (And Happy June, by the way…)

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