Mise en Place: Where World Building Starts with a Feast


“First we eat then we do everything else.” – MFK Fisher, American food writer

 

The feast is a grand tradition in speculative fiction. The journeys of both the characters and the reader often begin with a gastronomic spectacle. In speculative fiction, writers often start their mise en place[1] not just with plot and characters, but also a niche of setting- world building. World building is the crafting of a physical and social world for a work of fiction. Writers either carve their characters and story into the world we occupy, or they craft entirely new universes for their narrative.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction says: “World building is the one aspect of writing science fiction and fantasy that makes them more challenging to write than most other genres of fiction. A richly realized world is not more important than compelling characters, good writing, or creative, well balanced action, but its creation can be more complex” (Athans 66).

Adding to the complexity of this venture is an analysis of one of the most basic needs to sustain life: food. Writers of speculative fiction have often highlighted gastronomy in their world building craft for the reader. Taking something that is commonplace for everyone—food and eating—and making it a critical part of the writer’s craft. This engages the reader’s sense of taste vivifying the story and bringing a new world to life.

When asked to think of a work of fantasy or science fiction many people today will name J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. These examples are among the most popular speculative fiction titles, having been adapted to the big screen and television, but still were highly successful before their cinematic adaptations. These works are distinguished by their fully realized worlds in addition to their vivid stories and characters.

Some worlds come from almost complete imaginative scratch like Martin’s Westeros or Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. In these novels, before we are given the details of the setting, there are maps showing the lands conceived by these authors. These new worlds are enriched by their invented lands, languages, and creatures we can only fathom through their works.

In some novels, instead of being given maps, we are given clues to locations in the text. Rowling’s wizarding world exists alongside 1990’s Britain where Muggles are dependent on computers and wizards on magic. Harry Potter grew up in a fictional town, Little Whinging, in Surrey, a real county in southern England. Hogwarts, the school for British witches and wizards, is a day’s long journey north by train and is surrounded by mountains.

Collins’s trilogy takes place in a dystopian future nation called Panem, built on the existing landscape of North America. After the narrating heroine, Katniss Everdeen, gives us the feel of living in constant fear of starvation, she tells the readers “In school, they tell us the Capitol was built in a place called the Rockies. District 12 was in a region known as Appalachia” (Collins 41).

The journeys to the Lonely Mountain and Mordor begin in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring with meals. Hobbits build their entire day around their half-dozen or so meals. Devout fans of Martin’s books counted more than one hundred and sixty different dishes described in the first four novels of the “Ice and Fire” series (Rosenberg). The contrast between the Muggle world and wizarding community for Harry Potter is most prominent when the reader vicariously encounters the meals Harry has with the Dursleys versus those at Hogwarts (and later in the series with the Weasly family). Katniss’s experiences between settings are also contrasted by the ingredients in the meals she consumes at home or in the Capitol. Not only does Collins use food like silent characters in her trilogy, but almost all of Katniss’s social interactions are based around food.

In all four examples readers open their book, or power on their e-book, and while they are swept away to places where there are castles, swords, magic, authoritarian or monarchic governments, and magical creatures (some anthropological, some not) they are also greeted with food.

The first chapter of The Hobbit is titled “An Unexpected Party.” One day while Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is sitting lazily and enjoying pipe weed a wizard appears. This wizard, Gandalf, had appeared in the Shire before, and Bilbo recognizes what this means. Gandalf is stirring up something that would lead to an adventure, something no respectable hobbit like Bilbo would partake in. After their conversation though leaves Bilbo flustered, he ends up inviting Gandalf tea. “‘What on earth did I ask him to tea for!’ he said to himself as he went to the pantry. He had only just had breakfast, but he thought a cake or two and a drink of something would do him good after his fright” (Tolkien 8).

Bilbo’s confusion is expanded as a company of dwarves come into his house one by one and tea expands into supper. The party of dwarves call for ale, porter, and coffee and cakes from their unexpected host. After Thorin Oakenshield “an enormously important dwarf” arrives the menu expands even further with red wine, raspberry jam, apple tarts, mince pies, cheese, pork-pie, salad, eggs, cold chicken, and pickles. “‘Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!’ thought Mr. Baggins” (12). After supper Thorin initiates a song that stirs Bilbo with descriptions of the lost home of the dwarves. “…the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick” (16).

After only a few pages the reader is lulled into vicarious food coma with Bilbo. Of course we will keep reading to follow the hobbit, wizard, and dwarves on their mission.

The second chapter of The Hobbit is titled “Roast Mutton.” The dwarves spot a light and send Bilbo, their “burglar” to investigate and it turns out to be the feast of another party. “Three very large persons sitting around a very large fire of beech-logs. They were roasting mutton on long spits of wood, and licking the gravy off their fingers. There was a fine tooth-some smell. Also there was a barrel of good drink at hand, and they were drinking out of jugs. But they were trolls. Obviously trolls” (33).

Bilbo is caught by the trolls as he tries to burgle some of the mutton and beer. When the dwarves try to rescue Bilbo they are overwhelmed by the massive trolls and soon the hobbit and the dwarves are about to become additions to the menu of the trolls’ next meal.

Here in Tolkien’s world the first two chapters are concerned with meals and food and the start of an adventure. The Hobbit was written before the epic “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The reader first meets three strange creatures with an affinity for the epicurean – hobbits, dwarves, and trolls. Gandalf is clouded in a puff of pipe weed, but his push to start the journey begins with getting Bilbo Baggins to invite him and in a sly turn the dwarves, for afternoon tea.

For Tolkien food is about communal experiences. The first two chapters are not only about launching the story but reigniting the idea that while reading is a solitary experience, what we take away as readers (and writers who start cooking up their own world) can start a conversation anywhere, but especially at the dinner table with loved ones.

Two different feasts in two different continents begin the epic series in Martin’s first “Ice and Fire” novel A Game of Thrones. In the cold North of Westeros, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, greets his old friend King Robert Baratheon and the royal family after the death of their mutual friend. Food is served and eaten in the hot springs heated cavern-like room. “The Great Hall of Winterfell was hazy with smoke and heavy with the smell of roasted meat and fresh-baked bread” (Martin 49). Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned, enjoys his newly refilled cup of summerwine, his excess intake of alcohol exceeding his half-siblings who are only allowed one cup of wine.

Another royal feast is taking place in Pentos, a city of the neighbouring continent, Essos. Princess Daenerys Targaryen, whose father was usurped by King Robert, is to be wedded to Khal Drogo, the leader of the nomadic Dothraki. “They gorged themselves on horseflesh roasted with honey and peppers, drank themselves blind on fermented mare’s milk and Ilylryio’s fine wines, and spat jests at each other across fires, their voices harsh and alien in Dany’s ears” (101).

The two feasts show contrasts between the two different lands in this new world of Martin’s creation and that of the reader’s own world. The welcoming feast of the king takes place in a candle lit grand castle where the winter never quite goes away. Whereas the princess’s wedding feast is one in the open of a Mediterranean-like climate.

The courses don’t end in the first chapters though. Martin continues to introduce dishes with a foreign and historical flair. Daenerys eats more horsemeat while Sansa Stark, the eldest Stark daughter, discovers a love for decadent lemon cakes in King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros. “Later came sweetbreads and pigeon pie and baked apples fragrant with cinnamon and lemon cakes frosted in sugar, but by then Sansa was so stuffed that she could not manage more than two little lemon cakes, as much as she loved them” (300).

During the climax of A Game of Thrones the Stark family is separated in King’s Landing when Ned is arrested. Arya, his youngest daughter, finds herself trying to survive in Flea Bottom, the slums of the capitol, hiding from the false king. “In the Bottom there were pot-shops along the alleys where huge tubs of stew had been simmering for years…Arya would have given anything for a cup of milk and a lemon cake, but the brown wasn’t so bad. It usually had barley in it, and chunks of carrot and onion and turnip, and sometimes even apple, with a film of grease swimming on top. Mostly she tried not to think about the meat. Once she had gotten a piece of fish” (719).

The “bowls o’ brown” Arya eats in hiding is the feast that starts a new journey for the Stark family, which will continue into subsequent novels. Martin’s descriptions of food may seem a bit superfluous. Many reviewers and readers have commented on this particular attention to detail in his world building throughout the publication history of “A Song of Ice and Fire.” He gave a rebuttal in the introduction of A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Companion Cookbook:

“When I read, as when I travel, I want to see the sights, smell the flowers, and yes, taste the food. My goal as a writer has always been to create an immersive vicarious experience for my readers. When a reader puts down one of my novels, I want them to remember the events of the book as if he has lived them. And the way to do that is with sensory detail…

“And the meals I describe do other things as well. World building is part of what gives epic fantasy its appeal, and food is part of that. You can learn a lot about a world and culture from what they eat (and what they won’t eat). All you really need to know about hobbits can be learned from ‘nice crispy bacon’ and ‘second breakfasts.’ And orcs…well, no one is likely to be doing The Orc Cookbook anytime soon” (Monroe-Cassel ix-xi).

For American readers there are two strange worlds in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter Series.” There is the wizarding world that unfamiliar to Harry, and to an American reader the British world is also a different. Tasty and delicious food may be a homecoming sign for Harry, but for some readers kippers might seem as fantastical as Bertie Bots’ Every Flavor Beans. In the end what matters the most about the tasty morsels in Rowling’s prose is that not only are characters transported to magical realms via magical meals, but the reader is as well.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone big events happen after or in congruent with meals. The second chapter is about Harry’s cousin Dudley Dursley’s birthday. Harry describes him as looking like “a pig in a wig” (Rowling 21) and food is the center of Dudley’s life. Bacon and eggs are served for the “massive” Dudley’s birthday breakfast and then the family is off to the zoo. Uncle Vernon buys Dudley and his friend, Piers, “large chocolate ice creams” and Harry is given a “cheap lemon ice pop. It wasn’t bad, either…” (26). The smorgasbord continues with lunch where Dudley complains about not having enough ice cream in his sundae and Harry gets to finish it when Dudley gets a second. The zoo trip ends in disaster when Dudley and Piers find themselves falling through vanishing glass into a boa constrictor’s tank.

After this strange happening Harry ponders the odd events that have happened to him throughout his ten years at 4 Privet Drive. During another breakfast Harry receives a strange letter that is taken from him but more and more letters arrive. Uncle Vernon then attempts to flee the mass of letters and tries to hide the family on a rock off the shore. A great half-giant named Hagrid arrives to tell Harry the truth about his parentage. Before he even gives Harry his Hogwarts acceptance letter, Hagrid first gives Harry “a large, sticky chocolate cake with Happy Birthday Harry written on it” (48) and he cooks him some sausages over a magically conjured fire. Harry’s introduction to his true identity, the transportation from Muggle to a student at Hogwarts, is not conducted on a broomstick or scarlet steam engine train, but in the treats and feasts.

Over the next several chapters Harry’s experiences with magic are highlighted with a new appreciation for food. New magical sweets are the first thing he shares with his soon to be best friend Ron Weasley, on the Hogwarts Express. The boys enjoy an array from the trolley cart that includes “Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, Chocolate Frogs, Pumpkin Pasties, Cauldron Cakes, Licorice Wands…not wanting to miss anything, he got some of everything…” (101). Arriving at Hogwarts the students are sorted into school houses during the Sorting Ceremony by the magic Sorting Hat. Harry is welcomed into Gryffindor and seals his new camaraderie with food that magically appears before his eyes.

Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” trilogy has a relationship to food that is different than many of those who read her tale. Martin gives a picture of starvation in his series when he speaks of the contrast between the extravagant royal meals in the Red Keep and the bowls o’ brown in Flea Bottom. The same contrasts are highlighted in Collins’s trilogy between the Districts and the Capitol.

The author immediately challenges her readers to imagine what a life is like with the constant and looming menace of starvation. It is one thing to say that Katniss, and her friend Gale Hawthorne, are the central breadwinners of their family, but Collins takes it a step further. She challenges most of her readers to contemplate wild dog as perfectly delectable and edible meat for the poor miners from the Seam in District 12. “We don’t hunt (wild dog) on purpose, but if you’re attacked and you take out a dog or two, well, meat is meat. ‘Once it’s in the soup, I’ll call it beef,’ Greasy Sae says with a wink. No one in the Seam would turn up their nose at a good leg of wild dog, but the Peacekeepers who come to the Hob can afford to be a little choosier” (Collins 11).

When Katniss volunteers to take her sister Prim’s place in the annual Hunger Games, almost certain death is preceded with several feasts. This journey on the train to the Capitol from her home consists of a gastronomic exhibition of several courses. Then Katniss has a lunch the next day and she contemplates what it would take to make a hunted-and-gathered version of a meal of chicken in an orange cream sauce with wild rice, tiny onions, and peas. “What must it be like, I wonder to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol…” (65)

While everyone alive has a natural and cultural relationship to food, few of the readers of Collins’s trilogy have a relationship to food and eating like Katniss. Many have never had the threat of hunger and starvation over them, so the notion that all of Katniss’s personal relationships connect with gathering and eating is a hard one to envision. Her hunting and gathering skills feed her mother and her sister. Her best friend Gale started as just a hunting partner. Peeta gave her two loaves of bread when she and her sister were starving in the wake of their father’s death and mother’s catatonia. An alliance with Rue from District 11 is bonded over roasted groosling (a wild bird). Even her newly established friendship with her mentor Haymitch is centred on survival in the Hunger Games, and when Peeta and Katniss need it the most, Haymitch sends them food. Katniss’s connection to the world and surviving in it, whether in District 12 or in the Hunger Games, is dependent on where she is going to obtain her next meal, and so the reader keeps turning the page to find out.

With the importance that writers like Tolkien, Rowling, Collins, and Martin place on food it is surprising that cuisine is only addressed in a few paragraphs in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. In section four of the book under Defining Culture, “diet/cuisine” is listed as the fourth defining criterion of what helps define a culture. “Some cultures don’t tend to identify as strongly with their cuisine as do, say, the French and the Italians. Their regional dishes are matters of extraordinary nationalistic pride. Not only what people eat, but how they eat it– with forks, their hands, chopsticks– when they eat, and where they eat, can be of vital significance to a culture…the kind of detail that can move a story forward, using customs to show readers where the characters stand in relation to each other and the plot” (Athans 104).

We readers are reminded as follow along that we are all eaters and the feast allows readers to follow characters on their journey. Food is a connection to the literary world we have chosen to immerse ourselves in for a time. As Martin wrote in A Feast of Ice and Fire, “sights, sounds, and scents– those are things that make a scene come alive…Sense impressions reach us on much deeper and more primal levels than intellectual discourse can ever hope to” (ix).

World building can be a daunting task for the writer to undertake. J.R.R Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, and Suzanne Collins have given us recipes with complex characters and beautifully rendered landscapes alongside hundreds of inspiring dishes. The feast invites readers to join in an adventure and the writer keeps the story’s energy simmering as the meal goes from appetizer, to entrée and then to more than just a few lemon cakes for dessert…why not pick something of everything from the Hogwarts Express trolley cart?

[1] Mise en place is French for “putting in place;” this refers to the practice in professional kitchens of having ingredients prepped and organized before beginning to cook a dish.

 

Works Cited

Athans, Philip, and R. A. Salvatore. The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps     to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller! Avon, Mass.: Adams Media, 2010. Print.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.

Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 1996. Print

Monroe-Cassel, Chelsea, and Sariann Lehrer. A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Companion Cookbook. New York: Bantam, 2012. Print.

Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Food in Fiction: How Cooking Brings You Closer to the Characters.” The     Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 June 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.   <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/food-in-fiction-how-  cooking-brings-you-closer-to-the-characters/240777/>.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print

 

 

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Image taken with iPhone 6 in January 2016, London, UK by Ginger Lee Thomason.

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