Monday, January 24, 2022

Food and magic: guest post by Alex Evans, author of Experimental Magics

Apart from a few exceptions, food is never a topic in fantasy or SF. Surprising, if you compare it with another common life activity such as, say sex: after all, we eat every day! 

Yet magic/religion and cooking have been linked together right from the start! Not only does cooking involve transformations, transmutations and mixtures, but it is closely associated with two major magic and symbolic elements: fire and water. Meals were also taken collectively, with a whole range of social, emotional, and religious interactions. I am not even talking about collective drinking or food poisoning!

We don't know how the idea of cooking food came to prehistoric men or women. Did they find a half-burnt carcass after a forest fire? Has some clumsy person dropped his/her meal into the fire? Did an individual full of curiosity hang a piece of meat/fruit above the flames?

Still, they discovered not only that cooked food had a different taste, but also a different texture. Meat became easier to chew, cut, eat by young children etc... It also kept longer, so the remains of the mammoth could last for a few days. I'm sure there were great philosophical debates between the conservatives, holding to raw food, and the progressives, proponents of cooked food. There must even have been extreme progressives who wanted to cook everything, including fruits and berries. As usual, the progressives won and embarked on various experiments. Some plants with a mediocre taste, or even poisonous in the raw, became delicious and edible when cooked, potatoes or carrots being a prime example (prehistoric carrots were little more than stringy roots). 

With the arrival of agriculture and cattle breeding, we moved on to much more elaborate processes: making yogurt, cheese, bread, preserving with salt... Before the invention of the fridge and freezer, cooking was not just preparing the evening meal in a hurry, but preserving food for weeks or months. That took days and the combined efforts of several people. We do not know when cooking became perceived as female activity. But as the status of women deteriorated, processing food, although vital for everyone's survival, also lost its prestige. On the other hand, when cooking was a fee-paying job, like making meals for a king or a lord, it was suddenly fit only for a man!

Certain processes which bring about a spectacular transformation of the original ingredients were perceived as somewhat supernatural. Take fermentation: you leave a mixture of honey and apple juice to stand and after a few days, you get a liquid full of bubbles making "bloop, bloop" noises. There must be spirits playing inside! If you drink the stuff, it has a different taste, a bit of a bite, and you feel euphoric. A little more of that potion and you look possessed by a playful spirit and finally, if you really drink too much of it, you pass out… Isn't it magic?

Therefore, making of beer/wine/mead/chocolate (yes, it was also fermented) etc around the world was quickly associated with various rituals: to be started at full moon, after prayers and offerings or magic spells. Only water from some sacred spring was used, etc… Ethyl alcohol itself was isolated by Arab or Persian alchemists in the Middle Ages and baptized "spirit of wine" in Europe. Moreover, in legend, alcoholic drinks (wine in Greece, chocolate in South America) often have a legendary and divine origin. 

Same thing for bread: you take seeds, you grind them into powder, you add water and you get an elastic paste (dough). Then after a few hours it rises, changing volume, texture and becoming full of holes (another fermentation). Finally, you cook it in the fire and get bread, a totally different substance. Almost alchemy!

And what about jam? You take sugar, a cristalline powder, a bunch of fruits, you heat them to the boil and you end up with a gelatinous substance. Isn't it magic? Add the fact that sugar was an expensive stuff brought all the way from India in medieval times and you can understand why even an alchemist like Nostradamus wrote a series of jam recipes . 

Bread and wine: the union of these two highly elaborated foods requiring a mountain of work over a long period of time is finally found in the communion at the end of the catholic mass, where eating becomes a collective and mystical experience. Admittedly, it's a bit minimalist as a meal. What about the Japanese tea ceremony?

Certain foods and their manufacture became associated with particular rituals: flat breads, pancakes/blinis etc were made since the Neolithic, long before bread. In Russia, they were eaten for Candlemas, which celebrated the end of winter. Their round shape symbolized the sun. To prepare them, the housewives had to make a new leaven. For that, they went in secret, at full moon, to take running water from a stream or river (in February, the rivers are frozen, so do not forget an axe and warm clothes). While collecting the water, they had to whisper magic formulas and stay on the lookout for hungry wolves. They then prepared the leaven with other formulas. Finally, the pancakes had to be cooked over a newly lit fire (a complicated process before matches were invented).

Food substances found themselves endowed with magical properties outside the kitchen: garlic protected against vampires, of course, but also against the evil eye, hexes and bad luck in general. This plant has the property of repelling a lot of weeds and pests from the vegetable garden. Hence the reasoning: "if it protects the vegetable garden, it must also be able to protect humans"! Along the same lines, salt, which protected food from rotting, should also protect against bad luck.

Some cooking-related items had their own magic: the Russian witch Baba Yaga does not move on a broom, but sits in a mortar and wields a pestle. In Eastern European folklore, the domestic spirit, protector of the house, takes up residence behind the stove where the cooking is done (I don't know if in modern apartments they have moved behind the microwave). And what about the cauldrons and grails, symbols of transformation? The Renaissance Cauldron of Mabinogion resuscitates the dead. The alchemists' anathor transmutes lead into gold. In short, any self-respecting witch must have one!

Finally, let’s not forget the various diets that existed long before our modern time. Monks especially debated at length about what was permissible to eat at Lent, what was nutritious food, what food elevated the spirit etc... More prosaically, there were diets for pregnant women (lots of beer, to have the smallest possible baby who would come out safely), diets for women who wanted to be pregnant (plenty of stone fruits), diets to get wavy hair, diets to get flat hair (leek), diets according to your temperament (sanguine, bilious…). 

And finally, the broth for people "with nervous disposition": a fashionable condition at the beginning of the Romantic period. The first modern european restaurants were luxury establishments which only served "special broth" to "restore health" for wealthy hypersensitive young people. 

About Alex Evans:

After travelling around the world, Alex Evans has settled down to juggle an absorbing job, a lively family and the craft of writing. She loves folklore, ancient history and hates clichés.

Alex’s latest novel Experimental Magics was published on July 8th, 2021

Her blog in English and French can be found at

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