Muse of Research II: Food As World Building (Heather Rose Jones)

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.

This week’s interview is with historical fantasy writer Heather Rose Jones, author of the Alpennia series.


Talk a bit about your own practice as a cook and/or baker.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic and experimental cook, but what relates most to my writing is my love of historic cookbooks and re-creating historic cuisines. Both in the context of historic re-enactment and simply for my own amusement, I’ve produced meals based on everything from a collection of Mesopotamian recipes written in cuneiform on clay tablets, to the Roman cookery of Apicius, to participating in full-scale “performance art” banquets in the style of 15th century France or 16th century Italy where everything from the crockery to the table linens to the way the dishes were carved and served was done according to historic manuals. In the last decade or so I’ve joined a growing re-enactment movement of “cooking as performance” where not only the recipes, but the cookware, techniques, and heat sources are historically accurate. Part of the fun of doing background research for my Alpennia books has been inventing a cuisine for early 19th century Alpennia, based on French, English, and other cookbooks of the era.

What do culinary traditions tell you about a culture (real or fictional)?

Food is as much ritual as it is nutrition. Who does the cooking? Where do the ingredients come from? What is locally sourced and what are exotic imports? Do people primarily cook their own meals or is it done by professionals? It sometimes surprises people to discover that ordinary citizens of Imperial Rome did very little home cooking, but rather relied on “fastfood” vendors. In the time and place of my Alpennia novels (early 19th century western Europe), the questions of who did the cooking and how meals were served depended on social class and the size of the household. So my various protagonists have quite a variety of experiences.

Favorite examples of food as world building, in fiction.

I love when historic writers get the “feel” of the food right. There’s a delightful episode in one volume of Lindsey Davis’s “Marcus Didius Falco” Roman murder mystery series where Falco is given a present of a fresh turbot — a rather large and awkward fish — by someone important, showing the difficulties he goes through to cook and serve it with the honor it deserves, because it would be unthinkable to refuse the gift, but dealing with it is completely outside what his household can manage. As another example, it may sound silly, but I like the way food is used in the Harry Potter books to help establish the sense of a world that’s like our own but just shifted somewhat into the peculiar.

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?

I’ve written a couple of essays on food in Alpennia (such as this one: A good example would be the way I use three different cuisine-related themes to show differences in social station in The Mystic Marriage. The protagonists from my first book, Barbara and Margerit, have the money and social standing to do extensive entertaining and we see them using their household as a gathering point for their circle of friends. In contrast, Jeanne de Cherdillac doesn’t have the resources to throw fancy dinner parties, but she uses food–whether an intimate dinner at home or a picnic lunch–as a way of creating social illusions, particularly in her courtship of Antuniet Chazillen, who falls at the lowest end of the culinary ladder. At the beginning of the book, when Antuniet is down on her luck, we see her making choices between eating and buying a new crucible for her laboratory. It’s relatively easy for me to come up with concrete details for the upper class meals, because I envision Alpennia following French styles, so I can simply use French cookbooks of the time and every dish I mention is one I actually have a recipe for. It’s been a bit harder to invent a more home-grown middle-class cuisine for Alpennia, but I’ve come up with a type of duck soup that’s a traditional dish.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in your culinary research?
Oh, goodness, that’s a hard question because there are so many fascinating things! I think the most interesting thing I’ve learned is how complex, subtle, and delicate historic dishes can be. You need to throw out any Hollywood notions of how people ate in historic times. There’s a recipe in the Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius that explains how to flavor a sauce by stirring it with a bundle of fresh herbs. The 6th century Byzantine writer Anthimus explains at great length how to produce the perfect soft-boiled egg. I think his explanation is more detailed than the one in The Joy of Cooking. The variety of ingredients for an Elizabethan salad would put a modern salad bar to shame. I could go on and on. One needs to approach historic cooking as if it were simply one more global cuisine. It will be very different from what you’re used to, but it will be delicious.
Almost impossible question, but try it anyway: favorite recipe? most interesting recipe?
I have a number of favorites that I make over and over again. Here are a couple of them:
Pisam Farsilem (a loaf of peas) – Classical Roman (Apicius)
Cook split peas (I usually use half green and half yellow for the visual interest) until they form a very firm mush then set aside.
In separate batches, prepare the following:
1. Cook pork belly in broth with minced leks and green coriander and chop it finely
2. Cook tiny meatballs in broth
3. Cook some chicken in the same broth and shred it
4. Cook some sausage and chop finely
5. Boil a small piece of pork in water with leeks
6. Roast some pine nuts
Now grind together pepper, lovage, oregano, and ginger with some of the broth from the pork belly to make a sauce.
For the next step, the original recipe will end up baking the result, but I generally don’t have an oven available so I just assemble the dish and serve it cold.
Take a deep mould and line it with cheesecloth then begin putting your prepared ingredients in in layers, starting with the pine nuts, then peas, then alternating the meats with the peas in thin layers until the mould is full with a layer of peas on the top.
Turn the dish out onto a plate and remove the cheesecloth.
Pour the sauce over it and serve in thin vertical slices so each serving has a little bit of every layer.
* * *
Another favorite that I enjoy cooking using historic techniques is the following:
Smale Byrdys y-stwyde (Small birds, stewed) – 15th century English
This was probably originally meant to be done with songbirds, but the smallest birds I can get commercially are quail, so that’s what I usually use.
“Take smale byrdys, an pulle hem an drawe hem clene, an washe hem fayre, an schoppe of the leggys, and frye hem in a panne of freysshe grece ry3t wyl; than ley hem on a fayre linen clothe, an lette the grece renne owt; than take oynonys, an mince hem smalle, an frye hem on fayre freysshe grece, an caste hem on an erthen potte; than take a gode porcyon of canel, an wyne, an draw thorw a strynoure, an caste in-to the potte with the oynonys; than caste the bryddys ther-to, an lete hem boyle to-gederys y-now; than caste ther-to white sugre, an powder gyngere, salt, saffron, an serue it forth.”
Thinly slice the white part of a leek and brown it in a little butter in a metal skillet.
Transfer the leeks to an earthen pot.
Sear 6 coturnix quail on all sides in the skillet, using the same butter, then add to the earthen pot.
Add about 1 cup of wine with about 1 teaspoon cinnamon.  (Have more wine available in case you need to add more.)
Simmer over a low heat until the birds are nearly fully cooked.
Add cloves, mace, pepper, sugar, ginger, salt, and saffron to taste to the pot, top off the wine if necessary, and let it simmer a while more until the sauce reduces to a thick syrup.
 But possibly the most exotic thing I’ve ever served was a roast peacock, served with its skin draped over it to look alive
Favorite books about cooking, food preparation, gardening, foodways and food history.
It’s very difficult to choose! (I own over a hundred historic cookbooks, though I haven’t cooked from all of them.) For the sheer oddity, I’ll offer Textes culinaires Mésopotamiens – Mesopotamian Culinary Texts, translated and edited by Jean Bottéro (Eisenbrauns, 1995), which I mentioned above. And for the unexpectedly varied cuisine I like The Book of Sent Sovi – Medieval recipes from Catalonia, edited by Joan Santanach and translated by Robin Vogelzang (Barcino Tamesis, 2008) which contains a great many vegetable dishes, which are often less popular in medieval cookbooks. The book I’ve used most often for brainstorming Alpennian cuisine is The Art of French Cookery, by A. B. Beauvilliers (1824, available from Google Books) which, in addition to having the advantage of being written in English (saving me a great deal of work), includes a great many suggested menus for formal dinners of various sizes.
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