Tolkien and the Humble Tater: Thoughts on Food and Fantasy


I always loved the fact that the original Japanese version of Iron Chef started with a epigraph from the nineteenth-century French gourmand Jean Anselme Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Besides being the perfect pretentious opening for one of the most beautifully bombastic television shows ever made, the sentiment has always rung true for me … and unlike many pithy aphorisms, does not start to crumble under examination.

In my other life where I’m still a university professor, I’m a food historian or possibly food anthropologist (as opposed to my other other life, in which I’m a military historian). This is, I should add, a relatively recent enthusiasm: moving to Newfoundland has been something of a catalyst in this regard, as there are so many examples of this province’s history built into its food traditions. Go into the liquor store and you find nearly an entire wall given over to rum—which at first glance is odd, as you wouldn’t think liquor made from sugar cane would have such a foothold in this northern clime. By the same token, the presence of salt cod in so many traditional Caribbean dishes is similarly counter-intuitive, considering the bounty of fresh fish readily available. But both of course are legacies of the trade routes running salt cod south and sugar and rum north, and both are deeply and unfortunately entwined with the horrors of slavery and the depredations of colonialism.

Perhaps it is because of this dilettantish enthusiasm for food (though I stop well short of calling myself a “foodie”) and its history, but I find myself noticing it a lot in fiction … or in some cases, noticing its absence. I always tell my students: pay attention to the stuff. That is, pay attention to what a given author foregrounds, what he or she chooses to devote especial attention to. If that happens to be food, all the better: why, for example, does someone so parsimonious with detail as Ernest Hemingway devote so much attention to what his characters eat and drink (especially drink)? Or consider our first introduction to Mr. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Bloom is, above all else, a sensualist, a man whose tactile and sensory relationship to the world is placed in contradistinction to the moody and cerebral Stephen Dedalus; a partiality to inner organs of beasts and fowls is eminently appropriate to a man with a more visceral experience of life.

Fantasy as a genre has a particularly interesting relationship with food, for the simple reason that the creation of an alternate world requires some benchmarks for readers rooted in what Tolkien called the “primary world.” The most obvious example today is A Song of Ice and Fire, in which George R.R. Martin lavishes loving detail on (it sometimes seems) every single morsel of food his characters consume (seriously: Every. Single. One). On one hand, it is the prose of an author who himself obviously loves good food; on another hand, it is a shrewd and pungent way to establish regional identity in a world that, as the series progresses, just keeps getting bigger.

Indeed, food plays a prominent enough role in Martin’s novels that one of the promotional gimmicks for HBO’s adaptation was a series of food trucks roaming New York and L.A. selling “the food of Westeros” … food inspired by the series and devised by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio:

feastoficeandfireMartin’s preoccupation with food has also spawned a Game of Thrones cookbook, A Feast of Ice and Fire—itself the product of a blog, Inn at the Crossroads, which has for several years been approximating meals from the novels like almond-crusted trout, honeyed chicken, honey-spiced locusts (which are probably best to avoid, and not just because they’re insects, as readers of the books will attest), and of course Sansa Stark’s beloved lemon cakes.

But in Tolkien? Not so much. If we are, as I enjoin my students, to pay attention to the stuff in The Lord of the Rings, our attention is drawn predominantly to descriptions of landscape. The most descriptive passages tend to focus on the terrain through which the main characters pass. This preoccupation is perhaps unsurprising, considering that Tolkien was an avid hiker and loved a good walk about as much as George R.R. Martin likes a good restaurant; but more specifically to the novel, landscape in its various iterations becomes deeply significant in its oppositions between the pastoral cultivation in the Shire and dangerous wilderness; between plain and forest; and most crucially between a utopian, idyllic world of beauty, and the blighted, dystopian spaces of Mirkwood or Mordor.

Food is of course present in the novel, but usually in passing and rarely with any detail or description. It is indeed rare that we even know what characters are eating (lembas excepted). There are no Game of Thrones-esque scenes in which “Pippin tore a crisp leg, sticky with honey and crusted with herbs, from the roasted capon.” And what specificity we do get with food tends to rest with the hobbits—the lavish feast at Bilbo’s birthday party, for example, or the hobbits’ two meals of mushrooms. Hobbits, as we are told repeatedly, are small creatures with capacious appetites, so it stands to reason that they’ll be more preoccupied with meals than stern men, stoic dwarves, or ethereal elves.

Hence, when Sam determines to cook a meal for Frodo and cajoles Gollum into catching some rabbits for the task, the scene stands out. And we get a fun little insight into hobbit priorities:

All hobbits, of course, can cook, for they begin to learn the art before their letters (which many never reach); but Sam was a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning, and he had done a good deal of the camp-cooking on their travels, when there was a chance. He still hopefully carried some of his gear in his pack: a small tinder-box, two small shallow pans, the smaller fitting into the larger; inside them a wooden spoon, a short two-pronged fork and some skewers were stowed; and hidden at the bottom of the pack in a flat wooden box a dwindling treasure, some salt.

The resulting meal is, however simple it ends up being, among the most vividly described in the novel. More than that however, it serves to make Sam’s familiar, banal act of cooking that much more remarkable. Indeed, given the context, cooking a simple and wholesome meal is nothing short of heroic, and the attention Tolkien gives it emphasizes its thematic importance, something I’ve touched on in a previous post: the role of “home” and the “homely” as a touchstone, the manner in which it, by contrast, emphasizes just how far from home they actually are, and (of course) it serves as a concrete manifestation of Sam’s loyalty and devotion. That being said, the stew’s lack is just as significant as what it possesses. It has nothing to flesh it out besides the rabbits themselves, and the paltry herbs Sam is able to forage. It is on one hand a reminder of the comforts of home; but Sam is also keenly aware of how deficient a stew it is, with its lack of any vegetative besides herbs—and in particular, its lack of potatoes. His little disquisition on taters in answer to Gollum’s question is one of my favourite Sam moments, and one rendered very well in the film:

“Po—ta—toes,” said Sam. “The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Smeagol and fetch me some herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters on of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.”

But of course Gollum can say no, preferring his own rather gruesome version of sashimi. This little wistful ode to potatoes speaks to Sam’s rustic and rural simplicity—if we think of potatoes in cultural terms, there is much of the peasant attached to them, in part because of their colonial associations with the rural Irish. And if we can cast our minds back to the very first chapter, we recall that the list of Bilbo’s bequeathals included two sacks of potatoes for “Old Gaffer Gamgee,” Sam’s father (as well as “a new spade, a woolen waistcoat, and a bottle of ointment for creaking joints”).

There is also here yet another fun anachronism, for both potatoes and the practice of frying in oil were alien to the European Middle Ages. We might associate potatoes with Ireland, but in fact potatoes were not indigenous to Europe—they were transplanted from South America in the sixteenth century. And frying as a means of cooking, while practiced in, for example, ancient Rome, was not at all common in the Middle Ages. Certainly, the dish of “fish and chips” as we know it did not become standard fare until the eighteenth century and after. (Fun fact: initially, the batter was not meant to be eaten, but was used to protect the flesh of the fish from the hot oil). The point here being that “fish and chips” is an ahistorical gesture on Tolkien’s part that grounds the hobbits and the Shire in a particular sense of Englishness—and again, in a particular sense of “home.”

So what? (you might well ask). Tolkien isn’t writing historical fiction; potatoes and battered, fried fish might be fatal anachronisms in a novel seeking to accurately depict the middle ages, but there’s no such restrictions in fantasy. Indeed, the presence of a potato in an ostensibly medieval, vaguely European context is rather insignificant next to sorcery, magical rings, and immortal elves. Which is true enough, but misses the point, which is that this scene, with Sam’s ode to the humble tuber, is deeply significant for the fact that nowhere else is food so celebrated except in the abstract. Hobbits, as we have established, love to eat; what they love to eat is left to the imagination.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Sam’s love of potatoes speaks to who and what he is, the simple but sturdy rural yeoman embodying certain qualities of the English agrarian working class. If other hobbits (such as the Sackville-Bagginses, Ted Sandyman, or those who get in line twice at Bilbo’s party to receive gifts twice) are Tolkien’s gentle poke at country folks’ small-minded parochialism, Samwise Gamgee is his celebration of their virtues of loyalty, tenacity, and common-sense (or “hobbit-sense”). Sam is, ultimately, the novel’s true hero: it is he who gets Frodo to Mount Doom through sheer force of will, finally carrying him when Frodo no longer has the strength to walk. He also, in a moment that bears quoting in full, resists the temptation to take up the Ring himself while he bears it:

As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging from a chain around about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forebear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

There is an awful lot in this passage to parse, and I want to come back to it in a future post to talk about Tolkien’s conception of tyranny and what it means to be a “free gardener” (or “free” anything). But for now the main point is the fantasy the Ring gives Sam: that of the uber-gardener, the Great Power who will make the desert bloom. As I mentioned in one of my first Lord of the Rings posts, Tolkien’s vision of the pastoral is not an unequivocal celebration of nature, which it its wild incarnations is perilous and frequently terrifying. Rather, he romanticizes the domestication of wilderness in the form of the Shire, in which domestication is effected not by domination but by cultivation. The twinned figures of the farmer and gardener are ultimately as heroic in Tolkien’s world as the warrior.

I seem to have strayed a little from my overarching topic here, which is about the thematic, symbolic, and metaphorical significance of food. Do I derive this reading of Sam solely from his love of potatoes? Of course not. But that moment—which is, in its way, a moment of honesty and vulnerability, spoken to an unsympathetic listener—stands out for me, not least because it is one of the only instances when food is described in specific terms. “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.”


UPDATE: I had literally posted this blog entry when my friend Allan Pero posted this picture to my Facebook wall.



Filed under Return to Middle-Earth, what I'm reading

2 responses to “Tolkien and the Humble Tater: Thoughts on Food and Fantasy

  1. Matt Burt

    Well, that’s the first–and hopefully not the last–time I’ve read the phrase “uber-gardener.” Cool post.

  2. Pingback: A Feast of Thrones | it's all narrative

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