Food and Fantasy has a relationship that does not always do justice to the realities of acquiring supplies and storing food in pre-industrial civilizations. In her Fantasy travel guide The Tough Guide to Fantasyland Diana Wynne Jones poked fun at this several times. Her entry on food read:
See STEW, SCURVY, STEW, WAYBREAD (also known as Journey Cake) and STEW - though there are occasional BIRDS, FISH, RABBITS and pieces of cheese. Generally the diet is an unvaried one, although MARSH DWELLERS can do wonders with ROOTS. Puddings are unknown except occasionally in the court of KINGS. Tourists who suffer from diabetes should be quite safe.Something must have happened in the years since she wrote that, recently a cookbook based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire was published. Martin's decadent descriptions of court food are not for the majority of the population of Fantasyland. Ball's focus is more on everyday food.
It is quite possibly to write a whole library on the topic of food in history. Ball needs to limit herself to keep the subject manageable. She chose to focus on historical pseudo medieval European settings with only minor detours to other periods or parts of the world. Until recently encompassed a very large share of what was published in Fantasy. The genre is shifting towards other settings though. Asian inspired civilizations and other time periods are becoming more common. I wonder how much this limits the use of this book as a writer's guide. There are lot of general observations that are of value in any setting but not much in the way of concrete examples outside the European setting.
Within the limited scope of the book Ball is very thorough in her examination of food and how to acquire it. Hunting and foraging, the logistics of feeding a city or an army, seasonal food and preservation methods, food as a weapon, food available to different social classes, the availability of beverages, food and health, equipment needed to prepare and carry food and even a bunch of recipes for the more daring of us to try out. I guess the most important lesson of the book is that feeding yourself in a medieval society takes a lot of knowledge and skill. The sheer amount of physical labour required to produce food and, perhaps even more importantly, preserve it before it spoils is easily overlooked. In our age of supermarkets and year round availability of fresh products we are experiencing unprecedented luxury. Perhaps with the majority of the population so far removed from the basic processes that provide our food, it is not surprising authors get so many of the details wrong. This book really impresses the value of food in a society where having enough of it is not a given on the reader.
Ball's writing style is fairly light. There's an impressive bibliography in the back of the book but she carefully avoided making it into a scientific publication. I found it to be very readable even if I at some at some points I would have wanted to know a little more. That kind of depth was, in all fairness, not what Ball was aiming for. The chapters usually include some sort of situation one encounters frequently in Fantasy. Ball then examines how food is generally handled in these situation and where more historical accuracy could be achieved. Or in some cases how blatant basic errors can be avoided. Not that any Fantasy author would (or should) let a lot of the things described in this book get in the way of a good story, but nothing makes our suspension of disbelief come crashing like a hero consuming a meal that takes hours to prepare while on the run from his enemies, or a heroine walking straight for the nearest patch of strawberries in early spring in a forest she's never been to before. This book makes you aware of all the little things that are easy to avoid once they have been pointed out to you.
One other thing this book reminded me of that is a bit outside the scope of the project is the way we only seem to use the choice parts of an animal or the best produce to eat fresh. In times when meat was a luxury few could afford on a regular basis, things were eaten that would make the stomach of more than a few picky eaters roll. Pretty much every part was used and then we are not talking about unscrupulous cooks and merchants supplementing their supplies with things that even back then were not considered fit for consumption. I guess the whole horse meat scandal that broke recently shows that in that respect at least not a lot has changed. These days we may be a bit more wasteful but especially when it comes to meat, everything that cannot be sold in any recognizable form is still processed in some product. With the increased distance from the primal process of growing our own food many people have lost touch with where their food actually comes from. The focus of this book may be on how to avoid mistakes in writing in a historical fantastic setting but, perhaps unintended, it also underlines some of the absurdities of food supply chains and the production of processed foods.
What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a humours book and not a very heavy read but it touches upon the very basics of our survival. As such it points out a lot of very important matters to us if you are prepared to read between the lines. You could read it as a writing guide or a humorous reflection on the Fantasy genre. It is both of these things, but I thought there was even more to it if you project what this book has to teach on our current food situation. Looking at it in this light, What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a surprisingly relevant book. It is one of the areas in which I would have liked a bit more information. I see plenty of opportunities to expand it, or even have a more science fictional look at the subject. Maybe food in genre fiction is just too large a topic for one volume. What Ball has produced here is an intriguing introduction to the subject however. Read it and let and let Ball tickle your curiosity. You'll never look at stew quite the same way again.
Title: What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank
Author: Krista D. Ball
Publisher: Tyche Books
First published: 2012