Friday, June 22, 2012

Menu-planning in Historical Fiction

L.G.C. Smith

Judy’s post about food in Roman Britain inspired me. We know about what people ate in the past from different sources: archeological remains, texts, art, and even things like pollen analysis and field system patterns. Climate and trade routes are important. I take all those into consideration, and then add that one thing writers can’t resist—imagination.

 Pear tree and drying onions in a Yorkshire garden

When it comes to research, imagination can get a writer into trouble. Other fiction writers can be so evocative it’s easy to let their work seep into the imaginary meals my own characters eat. This is where historical fiction is more demanding than some genres. We have to stick fairly close to the world as we know it was. If I let Tolkien’s visions of The Shire with Sam’s gaffer tending his ‘taters override what I know about food history, namely that potatoes were a New World import to Britain in the 16th century, I risk serving a time-traveling meal in 600 AD. Since almost all North American school kids have at least three study units on Native American foods by the time they finish high school, readers notice. Historical writers learn to sweat the small stuff. 

 Anglo-Saxon demonstration garden at Bede's World

I almost always include scenes in my books that show people eating together because it’s a way to simultaneously draw readers into the past and to mark some of the distinctions from our own lives. Imagination plays a big part of defining each character’s life, and this holds true for what’s on their tables as much as for what’s in their hearts. In “The Renegade’s Secret Bride,” which will be out later this summer, the hero, Gus, has a wicked sweet tooth. There aren’t a lot of ways to indulge it in Nebraska Territory in 1863, but the heroine, Genny, has a stash of jam. Gus gets his fingers right into it (and a lot of other things). A jar of jam isn’t a big deal for most of us, but it was a rare luxury in Gus’s nomadic life. His response—stealing it and eating the whole thing in one sitting—tells readers a lot about him.

 A nice pig at Bede's World

Sometimes I veer off the strictly documented details of what a character might have in their pantry. In my historical fantasy novella, “Eve of All Hallows,” Gwyn is a secret druid queen who lives in a remote valley in the Welsh mountains. In the seventh century, history tells us her diet would have been drawn from mainly bread and porridge made from wheat, barley, oats and rye. She's have also had lots of dairy products, eggs, fish and meat, along with peas and beans (often dried). 

Good-looking British chickens (not from Chatsworth)

She’d have had carrots, turnips, parsnips, onions, garlic, leeks, cabbage, lettuce, nettles and various wild greens. She would have had nuts, fruits such as sloes, crabapples, pears, medlars, rosehips, and berries. Honey was the only sweetener, but she might have used many herbs and spices: cumin, cinnamon, coriander, dill, rosemary, thyme, mint, parsley, pepper and others, some fresh, some traded over long distances. Food was local and seasonal, but Gwyn has some special items because she travels widely, and is frequently sought out by visitors from other lands. When those special items, such as fine wine and olives, make their way to the islands they often come to Gwyn as payment for the unique work she does. 

reconstructed Anglo-Saxon oven at Bede's World

Here’s a short description from “Eve of All Hallows” of the meal Gwyn offers the young Bernician king, Æthelfrith, when he comes seeking a boon.

She hadn’t known such uncertainty for many years, in truth, not since she had been a girl. These old magics of breeding kings and queens and heroes for future needs were a little wild. Difficult to fully fathom. Otherworldly, they were wrought in times and places beyond the reach of even the most powerful among the Tiluith Teg. If the Fair Folk could not master them, Gwyn knew better than to expect to understand it all. And still, she had to work them, as best she could.
To that end, she finished laying the table with a generous slice out of one of her best wheels of cheese. She had a nice piece of ham and a delicate bit of smoked fish. A plate of sliced sweet onions and fennel covered with parsley and mint and a drizzle of cream. Olives from Spain, walnuts from her uncle’s farm, apples and honey from her own orchards. And rich red wine from Occitan, poured out into fine goblets. It was a feast when all he had a right to expect was pease porridge and maybe a cup of milk.

Apples grown on a trellis against a garden wall in Wales

Three hundred years earlier the olives and wine wouldn’t have been as unusual in Britain, but times had changed. Trade was more erratic. The climate had shifted into a cooler, wetter phase, and not as many crops could be grown as widely as during the Roman period. With grass as the most reliable crop in marginal lands, sheep and cattle were easier to raise than wheat. 

Black sheep on a Yorkshire small holding

Despite so many changes, the specter of Roman times still defined luxury and plenty for many Britons. As I imagine him, Æthelfrith seeks to recreate the order and grandeur of that Roman past, so finding olives and French wine on Gwyn’s table brings his goals forcibly to mind. And that’s exactly what I want when Gwyn is there to challenge them. What looks at first glance to be a simple meal captures a moment in history wedded to an imagined clash between Anglo-Saxon and British cultures.

Whew. That’s some complicated menu-planning. I think we’ll be having popcorn for dinner at my house tonight.

 Leeks in a kitchen garden


  1. Loved your post. The history of food is amazing. And you're right. Historials are all about details. But being a lousy cook, I find this detail/food difficult. Especially with Romans. They did love their eating.

    1. Lol, Judy. I'm a good cook, but I've always been a picky eater. Nothing sounds nastier to me than garum, aka Roman fish sauce. And there's no way I'd eat Gwyn's raw onion salad. Or her Spanish olives (or any other olives). I have to transcend my own picky palate to write historically accurate food. But the research is lots of fun.

  2. I love reading about the history of food. It always fascinates me to learn how certain foods were discovered and others invented. I enjoyed the photos too.

    1. Thanks, Shelley. One of my sisters is an organic farmer, so we visited a couple of farms the last time I was in the UK. Those photos came in handy for this post. :)

  3. Enjoyed your post. You're right that banquet scenes necessitate a good deal of research, but I love re-reading those scenes in my medieval novels. I've always wondered what swan tastes like!

    1. Swan probably tastes like chicken. :) Well, actually, my guess would be more like goose but fishier. Young swan was supposed to be better. I've heard it compared to beef, but I really don't know.

  4. Great post! I'll be retweeting it. You've made me hungry, but not for Roman fish sauce! What are some of the sources you used for Eve of All Hallows? (Which by the way, is going on my Goodreads list right now!) I'm writing in the late fifth/early sixth century(Britain), and have found it hard to find good resources on food during that time.

    1. Thanks, Nicole. I started with a base of research on food in Roman Britain because that was easier to find. Joan P. Alcock's "Food in Roman Britain" (Tempus, 2001) has a lot of info. For the sub-Roman years and into Anglo-Saxon times, I've used the not very academic booklets I pick up in the giftshops at places like West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, Bede's World, Chysauster, and the like. I have one called "Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England" by Mary Savelli, published in 2002 by Anglo-Saxon Books. They also have a couple of more extensive books by Ann Hagen on Anglo-Saxon food. And I read a lot of British archeology on late-Iron Age, Roman, sub-Roman, and Anglo-Saxon sites. As with other aspects of life in poorly documented times, I always have an eye out for anything that helps me understand day to day life.

      Best of luck with your books. I'd love to read them. Fascinating period. :)

  5. What an interesting post. I often wonder how food was prepared, seasoned and preserved in less modern times. You planned a delicious meal with lots of variety.