Food and Fantasy: Reading Cuisine and Empire (#SFWApro)

I love it when nonfiction gives me ideas for stories, even if I don’t know what they are yet. Case in point CUISINE AND EMPIRE: Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan, an outstanding history of homo sapiens, “the animal who cooks.”

Laudan looks at the development of both food and ways to cook it over the millenia, with a focus on how people have trading and swapping foodstuffs and culinary methods: conquerors taking from the conquered (or the conquered copying the trends of the current alpha class), trade in exotic new foodstuffs, and social movements including religion (Islam, Christianity and Buddhism all spread food and their concepts of the Good Meal), cfashion ommercialism, industrialization and endless efforts to reject Fancy Food for Simple Wholesome Food. It’s a good read if you’re interested in the topic, but it also left me with vague outlines of ideas in my head.

First, Laudan does an outstanding job showing how much backbreaking labor was involved in cooking for much of our history (and in some places still is). The amount of human effort devoted to gathering or farming, then preparing and cooking, is intense; early methods of grinding grains or corn to make them edible are unbelievably exhausting. That’s useful stuff for historical fantasy. It reminds me of the complaint I hear from some fantasy readers or critics that we rarely see the agriculture or farms that have to be around to support the nobility or the cities, though I admit I’m not hugely bothered by that. I know absolutely nothing about the economy or agriculture of Conan’s Hyborian Age, and I’ve never felt that was a problem. Still, while these issues are often pointless nitpicking, it’s something to keep in mind.

I think I was more stimulated, though, by some of the quasi-scientific theories talks about. For much of history, philosophers and scientists saw cooking as deeply symbolic. Just as alchemy brought out the hidden essence of physical substances, so cooking refined the raw materials of food into its true nutritious essence (the idea that raw food was more natural was alien). Just as we cook meat until its well done, so does exposure to the divine power “cook” our spirits, turning us into something better. Just as fire and water are necessary to create food, they’re also “cook” and drive the entire universe.

There’s definitely some potential for a novel sort of magic in all that.  Now I just have to figure out what it is. But even if I never do, the book was still worth reading in its own right.

(Cover design by Claudia Smelser, woodcut by Yoshikazu Usagawaa, all rights remain with current holders)

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Filed under Reading, Writing

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