Muse of Research II: Food As World Building (Lev Mirov @thelionmachine)

One of the things that draws us inexorably into another world is the food. From Marcel Proust’s cookie that launched a million words to the favorite treats of space station dwellers thousands of years in the future, what we eat both draws us together and marks the boundaries of Home and Away.
The first interview in this new series is with my writer-brother Lev Mirov, whose practice as a historian of material culture, an innovative cook, and a gluten-free baker informs his fiction in fascinating ways.
Talk a bit about your own practice as a cook and/or baker. 
I do about 60-70% of the cooking at home, and all of the baking. I bake gluten-free and mostly vegan, because of foodsensitivities, which I’ve been doing for about 5 years. I cook most of the meals in the house, though not all of them; my wife is also an incredible cook and makes amazing curries. Among the things I do the most, I make my own blends of flour in baking, and rebuild recipes from the ground up to make them gluten-free, kosher, or egg and dairy free.

What do culinary traditions tell you about a culture (real or fictional)? 
The food people eat tells you about a lot of different factors. It tells you about what kind of ecological and economic climate people live in — what food grows locally? What food can they import in? What technology do they have for cooking with? A chickpea-and-rice eating culture is going to be substantially different from one where the staples are beef and rye bread.Food also gets served, as well as cooked, and how food is served tells you about what a culture values. Do people eat alone? In a group? Quickly, or in long, protracted meals? Of course, a single society contains a lot of meals, cooked by all kinds of people at all different levels of class and training.

Favorite examples of food as world building, in fiction.
The classic example is probably Brian Jacques with Redwall, which I grew up on, and the Shire in Middle-earth, where foodplays an important part in establishing the cultural norms. But I love the use of food and eating as magic in Catherynne M Valente’s “Palimpsest”, and in her short story “Golubash”, which is themed around a wine tasting menu. In the latter case, the history of wine growth and shipping becomes the lens through which to see for a culture war.

How do you use food as world building in your own fiction? What kind of questions do you ask about cuisine,food-centered ritual, etc?
Food tells me a lot about the history, culture, and peopling of an area. Who lives there, what the landscape is like, who they are descended from, what the local climate is like. What taboos the culture has; their attitudes towards their bodies, towards death, towards other animals and the environment. Food also tells me who people trade with, who they’ve come in contact with; we are, as eaters, sticky thieves, who pick up dishes from everywhere we go, we fall in love with food we encounter and we take it with us. A thing I like to know is what food and drink characters routinely consume; these foods define the “norms” of their life, where they grew up, where they live now.
For worldbuilding in secondary-world stories, I tend to be pretty liberal about “if I can think of a reason the food is here, they’ll eat it”. Historically, I try to get away from food “everyone knows” we ate (no medieval turkey legs!) and focus on recipes attested in history, and the chains of connection that tell us about that food and why it was important enough to preserve that way. I think a lot about the whole-systems of food; for most of European history we have eaten humoreally,food has been our medicine, and so I am always trying to sort out what holistic systems food plugs into. Cultures that think spices are medicinal, for example, will use them very differently than cultures that feel strong flavors are dangerous for the health. People have always been very concerned with what they put in their bodies, so I learn a lot about a society knowing if an individual character is vegetarian, if they have a strict diet, if they’re allergic to milk, if they can’t help themselves around sweets, if they drink too much coffee.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in your culinary research?
I love the intersection of food and medicine beliefs, so I’m inclined to say some of the things I’ve researched about food and medicine are “most interesting”. I made a thesis out of ritually eating food as magico-medical practice, so when I find these sorts of things, they tend to loom large for me. Food is magic, in a very literal sense, and the food we make to make ourselves feel better is a very powerful magic.
In a personal sense, while doing research for something else, I learned that the beef stew my father made growing up is so different from local varieties because it’s based off a Spanish method of stew-making popular in the Philippines — I love the moments that food research connects me to people in my own historical tradition. That moment is always really special. I love the sense of eating something that my ancestors before me also ate.
Almost impossible question, but try it anyway: favorite recipe? most interesting recipe?

Favorite recipe:
How to quantify favorite! A recipe I make the most? A recipe I always devour?
A recipe that ties me back to my roots and makes me circle around the world isn’t so much a recipe as it is a common cooking method. When I was growing up, sometimes my father would call my mother and tell her he was having a bad day. My mother would make one of two dishes to comfort him: chicken adobo, or hamburgers on rice with brown gravy.
This recipe for chicken adobo is pretty close to the one I have always made, though I don’t do any marinading. The chicken pieces go into the pot whole and I cook them down until they shred easily or fall off the bone. It’s a reassuring one-pot comfort food when I am feeling sad or homesick. I eat it with rice and peas, and I feel connected deep in my bones back to the world that made me.
Most interesting recipe?
The sticky, tricky thing about recipes is if you understand how to read between the lines, they’re all interesting. The blandest 50s recipe tells you about the world it came out of; a book of recipes is a key to unlock the past, in a lot of ways. I am very fond of Soviet cookbooks (and retrospectives about Soviet cookbooks) because I am always trying to unlock how the past lived, and these kinds of histories are always intensely personal, which is the kind that appeals to me the most.
That said, the history of these medieval Egyptian gingerbread cookies is pretty fantastic, a hit with everyone who eats them. No denying they are more storied than your average cookies. The original recipe is here:
Favorite books about cooking, food preparation, gardening, foodways and food history.
This question is basically fatal for me. I have a house full of cookbooks and am always collecting more. But here’s a brief list of some favorites:
Culinaria Russia (about much more than Russian foodways, though!)
A Drizzle of Honey (the history of Spanish Jewish foodways)
Sheherazade’s Feasts (medieval food from the Arab world)
Art, Culture, & Cuisine (ancient & modern food as culture)
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1 Response to Muse of Research II: Food As World Building (Lev Mirov @thelionmachine)

  1. Pingback: Available Now: Myriad Lands 2 in print! | Lev Mirov

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