‘“What’s that? Tea! No, thank you! A little red wine, I think for me.”
“And for me,” said Thorin.
“And raspberry jam and apple tart!” said Bifur.
“And mince pies and cheese,” said Bofur.
“And pork-pie and salad,” said Bombur.
“And more cakes—and ale—and coffee, if you don’t mind,” called the other dwarves through the door.
“Put on a few eggs, there’s a good fellow!” Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. “And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles.”
“Seems to know as much about the insides of my larders as I do myself!” thought Mr Baggins, who was feeling positively flummoxed, and was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house.’
I love fictional food, and I have done throughout my entire reading life. I love how it firmly roots me in a scene, puts me in the character’s shoes and gets my every sense tingling, perhaps more than any other type of detail. I love feeling a character’s relief—after a challenging chapter, or three!—when they’re granted a little respite, preferably involving a warm bed, a crackling fire and a plate of something to warm the cockles.
I’d go so far as to suggest that fictional food lacks any rival for its power to simultaneously offer comfort and glimpses into fantastical worlds—or, conversely, to ground magic in a solid base of realism. This can be seen in David Almond’s Skellig, where Chinese takeaway is described as ‘nectar of the gods’ by the cantankerous angel-like creature the book is named for.
Fictional food was the theme of a recent Twitter discussion about middle grade books (#ukmgchat) when it was described as a metaphor for love, belonging and even temptation. Sometimes, the most tantalising feasts seem to align themselves with the call to adventure, and the beginning of a fabulous character arc. So here are five of my favourites!
The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien.
Creature comforts are of great import to hobbits, especially ones without so much as a whiff of Took about them. I adore this fact, perhaps because of how important they are to me (although, if we’re talking Middle Earth races I’m actually either an elf or a Rider of Rohan, opinions vary.) As we all know and trust to be an unwavering truth; ‘a hobbit-hole means comfort,’ and usually has lots of pantries, because any self-respecting hobbit will attempt to have dinner twice a day if they can. Bilbo’s initial call to adventure is linked with a fantastic feast which he, out of flustered, bewuthered politeness, provides for a wizard and a band of impressively cloaked dwarves. He runs hither and thither, answering the multiple raps on his beautiful green door, placing coffee jugs on the hearth and dealing with endless requests for more seed cakes and buttered scones, whilst the Took side of him stirs in his blood, smelling the call of the wild.
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
‘She slept a long time, and when she awakened Mrs Medlock had bought a lunch-basket at one of the stations, and they had some chicken and cold beef and bread-and-butter and some hot tea. The rain seemed to be streaming down more heavily than ever, and everybody in the station wore wet and glistening waterproofs. The guard lighted the lamps in the carriage…’
In a warm, steamy railway carriage, the disdainful, limp-haired, emotionally neglected and recently bereaved Mary Lennox finds herself the charge of the terrifyingly stout Mrs Medlock (best.name.ever?) Mary is en route to Misselthwaite Manor, to begin a remarkable transformation, becoming an energetic, rosy-cheeked, passionate child full of empathy for living things (and also one who enjoys food, where previously her appetite was absent).
I love how these descriptions plunge the reader into a vivid scene; I remember being enchanted by the atmosphere as a child. I feel so close to Mary’s perspective here.
Northern Lights, Philip Pullman.
The fare in this quote is simple and described with brevity, but there’s nothing mundane about the scene, and there’s a charm to the simplicity of Lyra’s request that says so much about her character. There’s something about the London night, and Lyra’s relief at gaining back her freedom, that’s always made the scene stick in my mind.
‘It was a fine thing to be free again. She knew that Pantalaimon, padding on wildcat-paws beside her, felt the same joy as she did to be in the open air, even if it was murky London air laden with fumes and soot and clangorous with noise…At a crossroads near the corner of a big department store, whose windows shone brilliantly over the wet pavement, there was a coffee stall…It was tempting. Lyra had been walking for an hour now, and it was cold and damp. With Pantalaimon a sparrow, she went up to the counter and reached up to gain the owner’s attention. “Cup of coffee and a ham sandwich, please,” she said.
Here we have another cold, dark, rainy night, full of mystery and adventure. Lyra has just fled Mrs Coulter’s flat, is on the cusp between brief respite and a great adventure and is only just beginning to learn about the wider, darker world beyond the spires of Jordan College.
Wildwood, Colin Meloy.
‘“Borya! Carpus!” she said loudly as she snapped her fingers at two loitering coyotes. “A bottle of blackberry wine for our guest. And greens! Dandelion and fern fiddles. And a bowl of the venison stew for the Outsider child Curtis!”’
This exotic, Portland-meets-camping-trip meal is shared inside an underground chamber with ‘dark, woody roots’ snaking across the walls and ceiling. The Governess, ruler of the coyotes, is trying to extract information from Curtis (school friend of the protagonist, Prue) and offering food and drink is part of her plan to win Curtis over to her dark cause. The move is reminiscent of the white witch’s Turkish delight, used to tempt Edmund in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or Mrs Coulter’s chocolatl, used to lure children to Bolvangar, in His Dark Materials. Curtis transforms from hesitant schoolboy to officer in the coyote army (thankfully not the conclusion of his arc!)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J K Rowling.
Well, probably all of the series, really. Butterbeer, chocolate frogs, feasts beneath a canopy of floating candlesticks, not to mention Dumbledore’s prescription of hot chocolate as a cure for all ills. Mmm! In this book we get our first experience of the magical world-building weaved into the food, when the lunch-trolley rattles through the Hogwarts Express.
‘He had never had any money for sweets with the Dursleys and now that he had pockets rattling with gold and silver he was ready to buy as many Mars bars as he could carry—but the woman didn’t have Mars bars. What she did have were Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans, Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, Chocolate Frogs, Pumpkin Pasties, Cauldron Cakes, Liquorice Wands and a number of other strange things Harry had never seen in his life.’
Harry’s circumstances are already so different here and his transformation has begun, now that he’s on his way to Hogwarts.
Do you have any favourite examples of food in literature? Post below if you want to share!