Science fiction and food pairing is out of this world

September 16, 2013

While we were in San Antonio last month, we attended the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. For those of you who may have never heard of such a thing, this is a conference organized for creators and fans of science fiction in its myriad genres. Exhibit space is filled with memorabilia from past years’ events, as well as artwork, crafts and books for sale: everything from chain mail jewelry to oil paintings to recently released novels and anthologies.

Each day’s schedule is filled with readings, author autograph sessions and panel discussions. You can hear presentations on learning to speak Klingon, NASA’s plans to lasso a near-Earth asteroid or what life might be like 200 years hence. My favorite moments centered on eating, especially a talk on food in science fiction.

This wide-ranging commentary covered the use of food scenes in storytelling. Four panelists agreed that much of hard-core science fiction places less focus on eating and greater interest in showcasing unique technology. Food is more of a sidelight because it’s often readily available, perhaps created with a 3D printer or a replicator (as in Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard asking for “Earl Grey, hot”).

On the other hand, a fantasy writer typically uses dining (and signature banquet scenes) as an opportunity to portray characters bridging cultural differences or establishing common connections between imaginary races. One of the panelists joked that she started a search for candied chestnuts because she’d read of them so often in fantasy fiction.

There was animated commentary about the responsibility of writers to give their invented worlds realistic difficulties with food supply chains and to depict the consequences of scarce resources as a way to educate readers about the challenges faced by many people in the world today. And then we debated the best way to make chocolate bonbons with a 3D printer.

As an avid fan of George R. R. Martin’s HBO series based on his collection of fantasy novels, "A Song of Ice and Fire," I looked for a copy of "The Official Game of Thrones Cookbook" for sale in the dealers’ room. Martin’s rich descriptions of scenery, characters and all the unusual foods they eat have had such an influence on his fans, they’ve written this cookbook as well another, known as "The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook."

Once we returned home, we decided to compare the recipes in each book, starting with a dish prepared by one of the most complex characters, Queen Cersei Lannister. She is beautiful and nasty and always unexpected, so the meal she serves is a mixture of subtle tastes, balanced texture and a bit of surprise. For her recipe of greens dressed with apples and pine nuts, we preferred the official version. As you can see in the photo, the unusual presentation is a stack of apple slices rather than wedges, and each slice is covered with creamy cheese to contrast with the crisp crunch.

Many of the characters in the series have to trek long distances between battle sites or to make their way home after a journey to rescue one of their far-flung clansmen. To feed these weary characters, there is frequent mention of oatcakes and barley bread - dry rations that travel well. When we compared the two cookbooks, each had a version of brown bread, but once again, the official cookbook’s recipe seemed more authentic (easier to make, fewer ingredients and nothing fancy).

For those of you looking for some meat in your fantasy fiction, consider the recipes that feature aurochs (extinct wild cows, ancestors of our modern cattle) or goat.

I wouldn’t recommend the unofficial version of Aurochs Joints roasted with Leeks, because the recipe in that book didn’t include any leeks, but you may want to visit the Official Game of Thrones food blog for inspiration:

Cersei’s Greens Dressed with Apples and Pine Nuts*

1 red apple
1 green apple
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 C pine nuts
2 C spring mix lettuce
4 T soft cheese (chevre or brie)
1 T honey
2 t Balsamic vinegar
1 t olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
2 to 4 figs for garnish

Slice the apples crosswise into 1/4-inch thick rounds, removing the seeds and core. Place apple slices in a bowl and sprinkle with lemon juice, tossing to coat the slices; set aside. Toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium-high heat, about 3 minutes. Spread 4 salad plates with lettuce leaves. Spread all but 4 apple slices with a thin layer of cheese; reserve the lemon juice. Stack the apples, alternating red and green slices, using those without cheese for the top layer.

Sprinkle the plates with pine nuts. Combine the honey, vinegar and olive oil with the lemon juice; whisk to emulsify. Drizzle dressing over apples and lettuce; garnish with fig halves. Yield: 4 servings

Brown Oatbread*

2 C boiling water
1/2 C molasses
1 T butter
1 C rolled oats (not instant)
1 T yeast
1/2 t kosher salt
2 C flour
1 T melted butter

Pour the boiling water over the molasses and butter in a mixing bowl; stir until smooth. Add the rolled oats and stir until combined. Allow the mixture to sit for about 25 minutes. When no longer hot, but still warm, stir in the yeast. After sitting for about 15 minutes, the mixture should be bubbling (if it’s not, this means the yeast is dead). Stir in salt, then gradually add the flour, mixing until dough forms.

Roll dough into a ball and place in a greased bowl. Brush top with melted butter and cover with a dishtowel. Once the dough has doubled in bulk, transfer to a loaf pan and brush top with melted butter. When loaf has doubled in size, bake at 350 F for 40 minutes. Yield: 1 loaf.

* adapted from "The Official Game of Thrones Cookbook"

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