From Farm to Fable: Food, Fantasy, and Science Fiction
Food is one of our most basic desires. It’s the first thing we ask for after being born, the fuel for our work and our reward at the end of a long day. Because of this, it’s been an integral element of storytelling since Eve ate the apple, and science fiction and fantasy are no exception. It’s true that food has had a lower profile in the fantastic genres than in literature as a whole—but while it’s rarely the star of the show, food frequently plays an essential role.
Perhaps the most common use of food in SF and fantasy is to ground a work. Taste is our most intimate sense, the only one that we experience by taking things into our bodies. For this reason, food imagery can make the most outlandish setting more real and immediate by tying it to familiar sensations. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, had his characters eat essentially the same foods he enjoyed, and there is a strong connection drawn in his The Fellowship of the Rings between food and home: the last scene set in the Shire is a dinner with Farmer Maggot, whose famous mushrooms Frodo was beaten for stealing many years before. The basket of those mushrooms that the hobbits are gifted with serves as a reminder of what they are leaving behind. It is the homeliness of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit—in which Bilbo’s first challenge is to cook breakfast for thirteen hungry, fussy dwarves—that helped set those books apart from Tolkien’s earlier work and contributed to their accessibility and timelessness.
The association of food and home is a natural one. Our notions of home are made up largely of the flavors and smells of what we cook and eat. This applies on the level of a family—most of us have experienced the mild culture shock of visiting a house that uses margarine when we are used to butter, or white bread instead of brown—but it is even more powerful in defining a whole culture. It’s the smells of different foods—say, of certain spices or kinds of meat—that can sometimes cause friction when peoples from different cultures are forced to share space.
SF and fantasy writers take advantage of this phenomenon when they use food to establish distance rather than familiarity, as George R. R. Martin does in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. While the largely authentic medieval cooking he describes is not strange enough to make his setting feel entirely alien, it communicates a powerful sense that the novels’ world is different from ours—partly by featuring foods that have fallen out of favor, such as lamprey pie (see the excellent Inn at the Crossroads blog for recipes and more information on the use of pies in Martin’s series), but also by highlighting the regional and seasonal differences in food. As Waldo Jaquith points out in his essay “On the Impracticality of a Cheeseburger,” the biggest gap between the present and the past is not what we eat but when we eat it. Until the development of railroads, canning, and refrigeration, along with the complex financial infrastructure that makes it profitable to ship and store food around the world, only a tiny number of foods could be eaten out of season. As a result, our ancestors’ meals were deeply rooted to the time of year in a way that we can hardly imagine.
Using food in this way, to highlight cultural differences rather than similarities, is a common SF trope. Works of SF nearly always include some token examples of foods that are exotic on a surface level—an obvious one being the blue milk in Star Wars—but this technique may also be used in a more thorough way to make aliens seem more alien. In particular, aliens’ eating habits are often shown as being disgusting to humans. For example, Klingon food in Star Trek is generally used as a challenge or an obstacle to the humans who must eat it: Our first introduction to Klingon cuisine on Star Trek: The Next Generation comes when Commander Riker eats a Klingon meal, to the open disgust of his colleagues, in order to accustom himself to it before serving as an exchange officer on a Klingon ship. The archetypal Klingon food—a living (and still moving) worm called gagh—is an example of a classic cultural slander: To accuse others of eating their food raw is to claim that they either have not developed or worse have rejected the use of fire for cooking—making them so savage as to be barely above the level of animals.
Historically, the only food-related slander worse than saying that people didn’t cook their food was to accuse them of eating the wrong things entirely—like other people. An example in fantasy is Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose eating habits—implied by his name, which is a near-anagram of “cannibal”—justify Prospero’s conquest of the island and Caliban’s enslavement. The ingestion of human tissue is, of course, a frequent activity of certain monsters, most notably vampires and zombies. In both cases the bite may transform the victim as well, a common feature of cannibalistic monsters. The Wendigo, according to the Algonquian peoples, was most often a malevolent spirit, but it could also be a person transformed by eating human flesh. In SF, humans are more likely to be victims of human-eating aliens—as in (spoiler alert) the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”—than to be cannibals themselves.
There are exceptions to this rule, though, one of the most famous being the film Soylent Green. Although Harry Harrison complained about the changes made to the source material for Soylent Green—his novel Make Room! Make Room!, which did not contain any references to cannibalism or even the phrase “soylent green”—those changes give the movie a deeper currency than the novel. By juxtaposing heavily processed food with cannibalism, Soylent Green’s very title has become a shorthand for the way in which our industrial food system, thanks to which we may go our entire lives eating food that has been picked, processed, cooked, and packaged out of our sight, distances us from our moral responsibility toward what we eat—leaving open the possibility that what we eat could be soylent green without our knowing it.
Like the Wendigo’s cannibalism, the invention of soylent green is caused by famine. This illustrates another way in which SF uses food: to speculate about scarcity and abundance. One of the building blocks of SF is the question, “What happens if this goes on?”—and many writers have explored the idea that developments in technology, society, or demographics might lead us to either critical shortages of food or to a future where those shortages are a thing of the past. Both visions exist side by side in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Musing on the increasing economic disparity of his day, Wells describes a life of ultimate leisure for the indolent, upper-class Eloi. While all their physical needs are tended to, however, the Eloi themselves end life as food for the subhuman Morlocks—a situation Wells likely imagined as both an echo and a reversal of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which satirically suggested that Ireland’s potato famine could be solved if the Irish were only willing to eat their own children.
Genuinely endless food supplies are not often found in SF, and when they do they are rarely the central idea of the story. Rather they are devices that keep the writer from having to deal with food as an issue, such as the food dispensers in Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld and the replicators in Star Trek. Nevertheless, food pills and machines have become fixed in the general public’s mind as one of the key elements of SF. Rather than being created by SF writers, though, the idea of the food pill more likely arose from nutritionists of the 19th century, who attempted to solve hunger by boiling down food (in some cases literally) to its supposedly essential elements. The fact that those who embarked on these diets often became worse off eventually led to the discovery of vitamins. Ironically, the isolation of vitamins in pill form encouraged a widespread belief that a complete food pill was on its way, whereas the truth was that people needed vitamins to supplement the heavily processed and barely nutritious “food pills” they were already eating.
For most contemporary readers, especially those in more developed areas of the world such as North America, the notion of a food shortage is so distant that fantasies of abundance have little power. What has taken their place is the imagining of food that is not just free but guilt-free—such as meat that can be eaten without killing animals. This, too, may be played straight or satirically, but it is the satirical examples that have endured. For instance: the vat-grown meat found in Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants and William Gibson’s Neuromancer; the Chickie Nobs in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, genetically engineered to have no heads and therefore feel no pain; and of course the sentient Meat served in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which introduces itself to diners and, in an effort to soothe their consciences, tries to reassure them by insisting, “I’ll be very humane.”
One place the fantasy of an endless food supply is still alive is children’s fiction. Food is a major part of the power dynamic between adults and children, who learn early that the pleasures of dessert only come after the sacrifice of eating vegetables. This dynamic is reproduced in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, where the impoverished Districts make do with fish and greens stew (and, no doubt, broccoli and Brussels sprouts) while the rulers in the Capitol enjoy such exotic treats as a purple-fleshed melon. With a few exceptions (such as foie gras, surely chosen for its associations with gluttony and cruelty), nearly all of the foods associated with the Capitol are sweets: melon, pancakes, marmalade, and orange juice—as close to candy as is possible in the world of the series. Because it is controlled, withheld, and only occasionally doled out by adults, candy is a natural focus for children’s fantasies. When British author Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964, many readers had vivid memories of wartime shortages (the rationing of candy had only ended in England in 1953), making the image of endless chocolate extra appealing. But the novel’s fantasy goes beyond mere abundance: It also imagines that all the restrictions adults place on eating candy may be removed by such magical treats as caramels that fill the dental cavities they create.
The most lasting images from Dahl’s book (and its film versions) are not the visions of plenty, however, but those of transformation—such as Violet Beauregarde’s metamorphosis into a giant blueberry as a result of chewing experimental gum. The notion that food can change us has a long history; as the adage has it, “You are what you eat.” In some cases this means that food acts essentially as a drug. To the cyborgs in Kage Baker’s Company series, chocolate is literally a drug, intoxicating them as alcohol does normal humans. More often, though, food is seen as having a medicinal effect—a common feature of many medical beliefs, such as the medieval theory of humors and the central tenet of the health-food movements of the last two centuries. Soylent green is in part a satire of health food; so, too, is the deadly yogurt in the movie The Stuff, which is also a critique of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality that has produced low-fat versions of ice cream and mayonnaise.
In fantasy, the transformative effects of food tend to run deeper, altering the soul as well as the body. Lembas, the Elven bread in The Lord of the Rings, resembles a food pill in its physical effects, but it is also shown as lightening the souls of good people while being inedible to evil creatures such as Gollum. Underlining its healing power, Tolkien also refers to lembas as waybread—the Anglo-Saxon name for plantain leaf, an herb whose healing and protective powers were so revered that it was numbered among Woden’s Nine Herbs in the medieval English tradition. Food can also be the cause of a negative transformation, and in some cases may change a character’s identity entirely: In some Norse sources, Loki turns from mischievous to truly evil only after eating the heart of a witch. Similarly, visitors to fairyland are typically warned to avoid eating any food there, or else they will be forced to lose their humanity and remain forever—as the Greek goddess Persephone was bound to remain in the underworld for half of every year after eating six pomegranate seeds.
While Loki brought his transformation on himself, Persephone was tricked by someone she should have been able to trust—her host Hades, the god of the dead. For the ancient Greeks, xenia—the responsibility of a host to a guest (and vice versa)—was one of the highest values. The relationship between guest and host is symbolized by food. To break bread with someone is to accept them as a guest, essentially considering them a part of the family for the length of their stay. Because of this, meals are often used in fiction to bring antagonists together in a situation where their conflict must be restrained; think of all the dinners Dracula has served his guests over the years. But they may also serve as symbols of reconciliation or restoration, as the meals served at Beorn’s and Elrond’s houses in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings do, or of a restoration of the natural order. An example of the latter is the ending of every one of René Goscinny’s Asterix stories, where Asterix’s Gaulish village joins together in a feast that shows all is once more right with the world.
The ultimate expression of the idea of feast-as-reconciliation is a wedding, in which two unrelated groups are permanently joined; this is why comedies traditionally end with weddings. The symbolic power of weddings makes it doubly powerful when those attending betray the ethic of xenia, as in the Red Wedding in Martin’s A Storm of Swords. (The link between food and xenia here is underlined by Robb Stark’s request to be fed just bread and salt, which symbolize the host’s duty to his guest in the world of the series.) A similar use of xenia in play is the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Lando Calrissian ushers the heroes to dinner with Darth Vader. This serves as a dramatic betrayal of xenia, as Calrissian is violating his duty to his guests. Placing Vader at the head of the table makes the scene a parody of xenia as well, by having a host who presumably cannot eat.
To the Greeks, the greatest offender against xenia was Tantalus, who failed as both guest and host. After stealing ambrosia from the gods’ table, he served them his own son for dinner. For this he was punished by being made to stand in a pool of water that drained whenever he tried to drink it, near a fruit tree whose branches pulled away whenever he tried to pick from it—which gave rise to the English word tantalized, something which may happen to you when you read about some of the meals described in SF and fantasy.
Matthew Johnson lives in Ottawa with his wife Megan and their sons Leo and Miles, where he works as a media educator and writes fantasy and SF when time and circumstances permit. His novel Fall From Earth was published in 2009, and a collection of his short fiction will be published in 2014 by Chizine Publications. His most recently published stories are "The Afflicted" (Fantasy & Science Fiction, July-August 2012) and "The Last Islander" (Asimov's Science Fiction, September 2012.)