Eat along with Lord of the Rings
Traditional fairy tales and fantasy stories had a somewhat mistrusting attitude towards abundant and tempting food. Originating in an era where a lot of food could be scarce and difficult to come by, mythical stories treat a lot of food, whether a gingerbread house for Hansel and Gretel or pomegranate seeds for the goddess Persephone, as bait to lure the protagonist into a trap. As a result of this modern fantasy storytelling has often adopted this trope even when written in an age of more readily available types of food. Arguably the best fairy tale fantasy movie of the last decade, Guillermo del Toro’s dark vision of fascist Spain Pan’s Labyrinth, invokes this in what is probably its best remembered scene.
I’ve never been entirely able to forgive C.S. Lewis for making the never terribly tasty turkish delight sound like the most delicious thing in the world when it is used as the thirty pieces of silver to tempt Edmund into becoming The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe‘s Judas.
For Lewis’ contemporary and fellow Oxford Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, however, food offered a different kind of story device. The Lord of the Rings is packed with scenes of cooking, eating or simply discussing food and drink. It is a subject used to ground the story in an earthy realism and show the common, every day concerns of the hobbits, whose preoccupations are gardening and cooking, against the grand epic events around them.
When it came to adapting The Lord of the Rings for film, director Peter Jackson brought this food iconography even further to the fore. Characters’ appetites and the culinary preferences of Middle Earth’s different regions and races are used as a short hand to understand them. The more food focused characters are the ones we are supposed to relate to more, with the hobbits’ theories on what constitutes proper meals being a recurring joke.
There’s quite a few movies out there that create their own “drink along with…” drinking games where the audience is supposed to match the on screen characters drink for drink (most notably, and liver damagingly, Withnail & I). Lord of the Rings, however, is the only film that suggests rather an “eating game”, an attempt to match the onscreen dining meal for meal. I’m obviously not the first person to have considered that the marathon length of the entire film trilogy lends itself quite well to a meal per movie. So, without further ado, here, for the final week of movie month, I’m going to eat along with Lord of the Rings.
1. “Juicy tomatoes, sausages, nice crispy bacon”
Breakfast – The Fellowship of the Ring
From even before the film starts the gastronomic obsession is apparent, the DVD menu panning across apples before you ever get to play it. Then we are straight into the action, the epic prologue of the ring’s backstory narrated in the ethereal, lyrical voice of Cate Blanchett’s elf queen Galadriel contrasted with Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins introducing us to the concerns of hobbits. Where Galadriel’s history is one of great battles and violent deaths, Bilbo’s begins with the ploughing of fields and cajoling of livestock. The hobbits’ home in The Shire is a rural idyll, in many respects much more modern in fashion, design and domestic arrangements than the pseudo-mediaeval worlds of the rest of Middle Earth. Much of the way Jackson chooses to present this is in their love of good, hearty food and a drink in the local pub.
Frodo (Elijah Wood) is joined on his quest by Sam (Sean Astin), the hobbit hero being the only character to get to bring a servant on his adventure, who is very much there to take care of him. Although described often as his gardener, Sam is just as much a cook, shown preparing food for Frodo before they’ve left the Shire and their adventure has really begun. It’s on this path that they are joined by the other lead hobbit characters, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), when the two attempt some unlicensed foraging on the land of the unseen Farmer Maggot (portrayed only as the looming presence of a scythe above the corn field and some muffled shouting) and take a shortcut to mushrooms.
The first half of this first movie centres almost entirely on the hobbits, while in the second they form four ninths of the eponymous Fellowship, along with various less gastronomically enthusiastic races. Given that, it’s the first half of the movie that features the greatest amount of foody content. The hobbits’ camping food seems to consist of a good fry-up and there are a couple of occasions where they are seen cooking one up during the first half of the film, so this seemed a good option for breakfast. In the first example, Sam can be seen thoroughly fulfilling his servant role by cooking for Frodo before a procession of elves distracts him.
In his pan you can clearly see tomato, bacon and sausage and, sure enough, these are the three things that Merry, Pippin and Sam offer to Frodo later in the film when they take the occasion of a night’s rest on the ruined watchtower at Weathertop as another opportunity for a proper meal.
So, nice juicy tomatoes, sausages and crispy bacon it is. Simple, fatty and tasty, this made up an appealing and filling breakfast and made me feel definitely more on side with the three greedy hobbits than Frodo whose first reaction to an offer of tomato is to extinguish the fire in a, fully justified as it turns out, panic at the light attracting unwanted attention. Despite the obviously filling nature of a big fry-up, we felt it only fair to the hobbits to follow this with a second breakfast a short while later. In honour of the scene in the clip at the top of the page (and our lack of desire for another huge meal so soon) this consisted of an apple.
As the film progresses away from the home comforts of The Shire and through the monster filled mines of Moria, food takes a bit of a back seat in proceedings. When we do arrive at further food scenes, it is with something a lot less familiar.
Lembas, the ultra-sustaining miracle food of the elves given to the Fellowship by Galadriel, is a recurring element of the films that are to follow, so I decided to make some to nibble on for the rest of the day. The only thing is, it doesn’t really exist. Tolkien describes this waybread as “very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of a cream”. On screen it appears to have a consistency slightly similar to shortbread. Fortunately for anyone attempting to dine like an elf there are plenty of recipe ideas online. Using one of these, I made some sweet scone-like cakes and popped in the next DVD ready for episode two and some lunch.
2. “There’s only one way to cook a brace of coneys”
Lunch – The Two Towers
In the second episode the adventure becomes harder and the food becomes nastier. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene in which the people of Rohan leave their homes and head for the safe haven of Helm’s Deep. En route, Éowyn tries to serve Aragorn a meal that appears to just be a big blob of fat floating in water.
Oddly just a few scenes earlier in the hall of King Théoden he and Gimli are seen enjoying a hearty drink and some decent looking cheese. So, either the people of Rohan have more important things to carry with them than proper food, or Éowyn’s devotion to breaking down Middle Earth’s gender barriers extends to a strong desire to disprove the idea that women belong in the kitchen. Either way, you have to assume that Aragorn, after years of living rough in the wilderness as a ranger, must have eaten some pretty terrible food in his time, so the fact that he tries to get rid of this speaks volumes about its appeal.
Meanwhile, we get a greater degree of characterisation of some of the monstrous orcs and their appetites as they abduct Merry and Pippin. While the opening scenes of this film show Sam and Frodo managing to enjoy some of their lembas, as we did ours (“I don’t usually hold with foreign foods, but this Elvish stuff is not bad” says Sam), when we cut to Merry and Pippin they’re being fed some dubious “medicine” by their orc captors. Actually, though, despite their somewhat creepy desire to dine on “manflesh”, the orcs have just the same dinner concerns as the more attractive races of Middle Earth. “We ain’t had anything but maggoty bread for three days” one of them complains in the distinctive orc accent (which sounds almost as exactly like cockney as the hobbit accent is west country).
It is none of these meals, though, that most comes to mind when most fans think of the cooking in The Two Towers. That honour goes to the scene in which Sam utters his deep and abiding desire for potatoes (“boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew”).
The development of the rivalry of Sam and Gollum (Andy Serkis, probably the star turn in the whole film) and the relationship with Frodo will come to centre largely on food. The difference between Sam’s wholesome Shire tastes and Gollum’s foul cave dwelling ones comes up more through food with worm eating Gollum stressing that he “can’t eat hobbit food” when offered some of the ever present lembas (a detail that will become important later).
It is a sign of his increasing desire to fit in and have the hobbits approve of him that has Gollum bring them a “brace of coneys”, leading to Sam cooking them in a stew much to the disgust of the chip dismissing creature.
So, it was a rabbit stew that provided our Two Towers lunch. Having acquired a whole rabbit (a brace being perhaps a little much for the two of us for lunch), I proceeded to butcher it as Frodo, Sam and Gollum crossed the marshes outside Mordor. Having never really worked with a whole rabbit before, I didn’t really know what I was doing and probably ended up not using half the meat that Sam could have got off it. Nevertheless, I managed to get a decent amount of rabbit meat, enough to concern myself with what to put it with.
Despite his enthusiasm for taters, it’s pretty clear that Sam has none of those available (and if The Lord of the Rings is supposed to represent an alternative pre-history myth of western Europe, how there are ever potatoes available is a bit of a mystery). What he does obviously add in is some herbs. In the book Sam sends Gollum to look for herbs saying: “I want some herbs. A few bay leaves, some thyme and sage…I’d make him look for turnips and carrots, taters too if it was the time o’ the year”. Throughout the book, Tolkien makes a point of Sam carrying his pots and pans everywhere along the journey. More important than that, though, is his greatest treasure – a small box of salt.
I was set for seasoning, then, adding herbs and salt to water having browned my pieces of rabbit. Given Sam’s mention of root vegetables, I felt a few pieces of carrot wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possible available ingredients and decided to add them too. It was a pretty basic lunch, but certainly one that was pretty acceptable. Certainly if we were on a dark and troubling quest to a barren land of ash and fire I could see a stew like this going down pretty nicely.
Away from the Sam, Gollum and Frodo arc, the second film concludes with a restoration of the balance of food. With the wizard Saruman defeated, Merry and Pippin expect to find nothing but “dead rats and mouldy bread” once more in the flooded ruins of his tower at Isengard. We leave them, though, discovering a veritable treasure trove of wholesome Shire food. Even here so far from their home and long before the story’s end, we are allowed at least a satisfying culinary conclusion.
3. Dinner with Denethor
Dinner – The Return of the King
As the third and final chapter begins, the descent of Gollum from a hobbit-like humanoid to the creature we see today is shown in flashback. As we watch him catch and eat a slimy, raw, wriggling fish, his voiceover tells us “we forgot the taste of bread” before we cut to the present and Sam eating further lembas (albeit with a little less relish than before). The contrast between Gollum and Sam’s appetites becomes a detail of greater significance as the film progresses. The sneaky Gollum preys on the image of Sam as a fat glutton and the knowledge of his own opposition to “hobbit food” to convince Frodo that Sam has been hogging all the lembas and that he should be left behind.
Sam, for his part, is constantly attempting to keep their small party grounded in every day realities with ideas like: “It must be getting near tea time, or at least it would be in decent places where there is a tea time.” By the end of the film a reunited Sam and Frodo make their way for Mount Doom and Sam tries to encourage Frodo with thoughts of the world that they have come to save, those idyllic images of The Shire from the start of the first film. “Do you remember the taste of strawberries?” Sam asks. “No, Sam, I can’t recall the taste of food,” Frodo responds, becoming more and more like Gollum in the film’s opening than he would have imagined.
It is the adventures of the other hobbits, however, that point us towards the final film’s most noted dining scene. Having enjoyed salted pork in the flooded ruins of Isengard, Pippin is taken by Gandalf to Minas Tirith, the capital of the kingdom of Gondor to meet the kingdom’s deeply troubled steward Denethor (John Noble). While many of the other cooking scenes earlier in the trilogy have dwelt on a great deal of preparing or discussing of food, but rarely resulting in anybody actually eating any, Denethor’s dinner scene shows off his somewhat grotesque dining habits in detailed close up.
Returning to watch the film now it’s hard not to think of Noble’s more recent performance as lovable mad scientist Walter Bishop in the TV series Fringe, especially given both characters are slightly unhinged after the death of their beloved son, have a lot of issues with their relationship with another son, and have some peculiar food fixations. For Dr. Bishop it’s all about candy and confectionery, but Denethor seems more about cold meat and juicy fruit. In fact, from the look of the juices running down his chin it seems that a love of “nice, juicy tomatoes” is something the crazy ruler and his hobbit squire have in common.
With Denethor’s dinner being an entirely visual piece of storytelling, unlike the fry-up or the rabbit stew none of the ingredients get a mention in the dialogue, I had to watch the clip above a few times to get a decent sense of what it consisted of in order to have the food prepared for the third film. From viewing the spread on Denethor’s table it looked to me, and correct me if any of you see any different, that he had pieces of chicken and grapes, tomatoes, ham, some kind of hard cheese, lettuce or similar greens and lots of bread. Fortunately, almost all of this was easy to deal with, cold snack food that could easily be enjoyed watching an increasingly lengthy film epic. As the hours of film fantasy passed, there was easily enough time for me to knead and prove some bread during the latter parts of Two Towers and have it ready to join Denethor.
I offered to bite into the fruit and have it drool down my chin for the sense of authenticity, but Professor Plum insisted that was not really necessary.
And so, many hours of film, many meals and even more discussions of second breakfast, elevenses, and afternoon tea, we saw the hobbits return to The Shire and to enjoy a pint at the Green Dragon pub. After all that adventuring, though, they finally reach a place emotionally where food is no longer at the forefront of their minds and they pay little attention to the great vegetables around them.
As for me, my desire for second breakfast is as strong as ever. With Middle Earth back on our screens, and the first film of The Hobbit series managing the almost unimaginable feat of being even more filled with food than The Lord of the Rings, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of chance to eat along with another set of movies another time.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I think I’d like to be a hobbit. One of the ones that doesn’t have an adventure, and just eats breakfast and second breakfast and elevenses and luncheon and tea and dinner and supper all day long. Yep.