"We are plain quiet folk and have no use of adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" exclaims Bilbo Baggins.
It's probably the most famous quote from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," and it introduces a major theme in Tolkien's work: the importance of food and fellowship.
Fans of Tolkien, whether the books, the movies or the video games, have taken this message to heart. The food of the Shire has been re-enacted in all sorts of venues, from food blogs and cookbooks to catered "Lord of the Rings" movie marathons and book-group dinner parties. Interest in hobbit food, which could be categorized as Victorian British cuisine with a few Viking and idiosyncratic touches thrown in by the author, has grown with the release of the Peter Jackson movies.
Boston food blogger Heath Dill catered a "Lord of the Rings" movie marathon at Washington College in Maryland last year. After convincing a theater full of college students to try coney (rabbit) stew and pork pies, raising funds to publish a Tolkien-themed cookbook seemed easy. It was. Once Dill posted a project proposal on Kickstarter.com, contributions to his project quickly surpassed his $10,000 goal. Contributors worldwide eagerly pledged money, wrote encouraging messages and sent requests that favorite foods mentioned in the books be included.
Chef John Bullington, former executive chef of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Mars Restaurant in Austin, Texas, created a menu focusing on authentic Middle-earth foods for his movie house's "Lord of the Rings" marathon. The event has become so popular that the marathon is now held four times a year and tickets usually sell out within an hour.
Food from the forest
So, what are Middle-earth foods and why are so many people drawn to them?
"I think of foods that Bilbo Baggins would be able to find in the forest or grow on his farm. I emphasize fresh and carefully prepared," said Bullington. "People enjoy the food because it's good and they are sharing an experience with fictional characters who have become a part of their lives. They see Samwise eating coney stew on screen and they're having it, too."
No doubt that Bilbo Baggins was a locavore, but what he was able to grow and gather is debated among Tolkien scholars. Whether or not tomatoes are part of Middle-earth has been the subject of academic debate. (Tolkien removed mention of them in a revised version of "The Hobbit.") Tolkien food lovers aren't quite as concerned. Heath Dill said, "I'm pretty bent on the idea of using authentic, available ingredients for all of the recipes that are sourced directly from the books. But I also want to make these recipes easily accessible to people who may not have lard or other authentic ingredients sitting around, so I will certainly include some alternatives and substitutions."
Food blogger and gamer Audra Thorn also tries to stay within Tolkiensian guidelines, but for her, those are dictated by the foods mentioned in the online game. Her blog, TheHungryHobbit.com, combines her "Hardcore Hobbit" recipes, scrupulously modeled after what is known to be part of Middle-earth, with guidelines for healthful eating. "Being a gamer can lead to being pretty chunky," Thorn candidly admits, "but if I can eat like a hobbit and lose weight, it's just win/win to me."
Dining from the past
Minneapolis fantasy writer Karen Englesen is not surprised at the interest in the food of Tolkien's world or at people's desire to re-create and experience that food. She has extensive experience cooking for medieval historical reenactments. "People enjoy putting themselves into an author's milieu and understanding all aspects of the characters. Food is just one more aspect of that," she says.
She read "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" early in life and has reread the books many times. It's a world that has a powerful appeal to cooks and writers, she noted. And for good reason.
"Cooking and discussing Tolkien is an opportunity to invite people into your home and to your table," said Heath Dill.
Thorin Oakenshield (in "The Hobbit") would agree. As he lay dying after a battle to regain a mountain of gold, he tells Bilbo,
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."
Carstens Smith is a Minneapolis freelance writer.