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Random Thursday - Alpennian Cuisine: food and world-building in fantasy

Thursday, April 23, 2015 - 09:41

So I was contemplating a Random Thursday blog topic on my homeward commute, listening to SFF podcasts as is my wont, and what should I be listening to but Rocket Talk, which started in on the crimes against world-building committed in the name of food and feasting scenes in fantasy. The general consensus (and I’m only halfway through the episode at the point of writing this) was that nobody writing epic fantasy does any decent food-related world-building, and everyone is just repeating lazy stock tropes of Renn Faire turkey legs and whatnot. I noticed that by some strange, totally random quirk of fate all the authors they gave as examples of poor food-related world-building happened to be male writers of grim epic fantasy. Maybe, just possibly, they might have found some better examples by diversifying their scope a little, but never mind that. (Why, yes, I do take mental notes on gender balance in the spontaneously-cited authors in SFF podcasts. Doesn’t everyone?) It’s not my podcast, but this is my blog, and since I was brainstorming for a topic for tomorrow, food as world-building seemed as good as any.

I think I’ve blogged previously about hunting for historic cookbooks and references that are appropriate for Alpennian cuisine. (I envision the upscale cuisine as being thoroughly French-influenced, while the lower and middle classes would follow a variety of local regional styles that I have yet to need to develop in detail.) But here I’m more interested in the ways food and dining are used in the context of story.

The opening scene of Daughter of Mystery is a good example: we have the old Baron Saveze dining alone at home, in a formal setting of butlers and footmen, being served a succession of fancy dishes produced by his imported French chef, and complaining of his inability to enjoy them (implicitly: due to his health problems). Here is a man who takes for granted the enjoyment of the best things -- or at least access to the best things, even if he doesn’t enjoy them. One suspects the chef, Guillaumin, may be frustrated to have his talents wasted here in the baron’s exile from the court, but Baron Saveze had been a mover and shaker in Rotenek and there is no doubt that he would have been entertaining lavishly at a level that would have made such an employee an essential staff member. And the taste issue is meant to be part of the foreshadowing of just how bad his health has become.

After Margerit Sovitre inherits the baron’s household, there is one initial meaningful scene involving food. Margerit makes her first furtive visit to the mansion she has inherited and is having difficulty believing that she is truly mistress of a great estate now. LeFevre’s insistence that she permit Guillaumin to pull out all the stops for an impromptu luncheon serves to punctuate the resources she now (theoretically) has at her command. But when she moves to the capital, she allows one of her new social connections to hire Guillaumin away from her, in an act both of practicality and social economy. Margerit is in an awkward position with regard to entertaining. As an unmarried, underage woman of the middle class, it would be impossible for her to host any sort of formal entertainment. And her nominal chaperone, her Aunt Bertrut, is in little better position in the unfamiliar environment of Rotenek. So the household makes do with an ordinary cook, probably a woman (though I don’t know that I ever say), rather than a higher status male chef, just as was the case in her Uncle Fulpi’s household in Chalanz.

Food and dining are more meaningful during this period in their absence than their presence. When Aunt Bertrut becomes betrothed to the well-born but impoverished Charul Pertinek, Margerit takes note of the changes it makes in her dining-related social life:

What she enjoyed most, so far, from Aunt Bertrut’s betrothal was a new opportunity for socializing that fell between the routine of a dinner at home with only her aunt for company and the rigors of an evening out in society. Margerit had found herself missing the Fulpi family dinners in Chalanz, formal though they may have been. She didn’t mind not having the position to host elaborate events but she did wish on occasion that the rules of society made allowance for a quiet evening with a few friends—something more than the rituals of afternoon visiting. She wished even more that Barbara’s strict propriety would allow her to join them at the long empty table. Hadn’t she said that she’d shared the baron’s table on occasion when they were informal at home? But the farthest she would unbend was on those rare occasions when Aunt Bertrut went out alone and Barbara would consent to share a supper sent in to the library while they studied.

And that is the dining situation for most of the remainder of the book. Margerit’s social position restricts her to quiet domestic entertaining, though of course she is often a guest at other people's formal dinners. Dining, as with every other social ritual, is a bit of a battleground between Margerit and Barbara, with Margerit’s impulses towards egalitarian fraternization being resisted by Barbara’s strict insistence on maintaining the distance of their social roles.

When everything turns upside down towards the end of the book, that social distance still keeps them separated in the realm of dining. Margerit breaks through only by introduction of a deliberately informal (if exceedingly elaborate) picnic, carefully planned so as to be available spontaneously on a carriage ride. In this context outside of social hierarchies, the two women can once again come together over food and dine together as if equals.

When the story rolls over into The Mystic Marriage now we have three food-related economies to track. Tiporsel house has now settled down into the culinary routine of an established upper-class household. Between Barbara’s social cachet and Margerit’s money they are able to invite, organize, and implement any level of culinary entertainment they desire. But, with the exception of Margerit’s hosting of the Floodtide party at Chalanz, we rarely see the more formal entertainments. Rather we are shown the more informal, intimate dinners that Margerit still loves to use to level social distinctions and which she and Barbara--being at the upper end of the power structure--have both the ability and standing to implement. An example would be the dinner party Margerit hosts toward the end of the novel to officially welcome Serafina Talarico to Rotenek, and to introduce her to some of the scholarly women who will become her future comrades.

Jeanne de Cherdillac represents the middle ground. As a well-born widow there are no social limitations on who and how she entertains, but being of merely comfortable financial circumstances she isn’t position to host the lavish banquets and dinner parties that Margerit and Barbara could throw if they chose. Jeanne keeps a female cook who is quite well versed in haute cuisine but we never see Jeanne entertaining formally. Instead, we see her using food to create illusions, beginning with the scene where she is unexpectedly entertaining the destitute Antuniet and skillfully provides her with a filling meal without embarrassing her by taking note of her hunger.

Jeanne continues to use food to create an illusion of normal social interactions with Antuniet: the “cozy little dinner” when she is reporting the results of her attempt to find Antuniet a sponsor; the picnic meals she brings down to Antuniet’s workshop, which are not simply an acknowledgment of Antuniet’s inability to provide such hospitality, but an excuse to draw Antuniet out of her work.

We get the sense that Jeanne’s social life is largely lived in other people’s spaces--that her extroverted performance as a social butterfly is done on larger stages. There is a strong implication that Jeanne keeps her own house as an intimate space, not only to keep a close check on her spending, but to reserve some part of her life private. Her repeated maneuvering to place Antuniet within that intimate space should have been a clue to Jeanne herself long before she realized it. The details of the little menus that Jeanne offers in this space are provided to reinforce the image of offering, not just a shared meal, but the substance of that upper-class life that Antuniet has lost any other access to. Antuniet accepts it from Jeanne where she might refuse it from, for example, Margerit, precisely because she recognizes that Jeanne is peddling illusions, dreams, and memories, and not everyday substance.

Antuniet stands at the bottom end of the culinary scale and this is emphasized by the way she is repeatedly connected with “bread”. This is still an era when the basic staple of the impoverished was bread, and the quality of life depending on what quality and quantity of bread you were able to obtain. Even when her life achieves a temporary equilibrium under the subsidy of her patron, her household does not extend to maintaining an independent kitchen. The basics of life come from the bakery across the street and other foodstuffs are brought in from the 19th century equivalent of fast food joints.

But it isn’t only her financial status that equates Antuniet’s life with bread. In her interactions with Jeanne, she envisions herself as “bread, not cake”, as being able to provide nothing more than the very basic necessities of social and emotional interaction. This sets up a key metaphor in their relationship where bread is contrasted with two very different alternatives. Antuniet sees herself as falling far short of the cake that Jeanne is accustomed to in her glittering upper-class world. But Antuniet’s bread is also contrasted with the emptiness of emotional starvation--with the husks a starving man will use to trick his belly into believing it's been fed.

And in the context of a devoutly Catholic society such as we find in Alpennia, the ceremonial partaking of bread becomes far more than a matter of mere nourishment. There are points where biblical bread references start flying thick and fast, from the baker’s quip about “Man does not live by bread alone, but it’s certain he can’t live without it” to Antuniet’s agonized “I needed bread and you offered me a stone!” And I don’t think I need to say much about the key scene where Antuniet and Jeanne share and feed each other fresh bread after a night of alchemy working the Mystic Marriage.