I have a lot of very vivid memories of reading A Game of Thrones – the first book in George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire – for the first time, but one of the most vivid involves food. Of course, I remember all the blood and the palace intrigue and the swords, too, but reading Tyrion Lannister’s call for breakfast in the dining hall of Winterfell – “Bread…and two of those little fish, and a mug of that good dark beer to wash them down. Oh, and some bacon. Burn it until it turns black.” – really stuck with me. It made me hungry, but more importantly it made the world richer, and it’s a part of what made me keep reading. A Song of Ice and Fire is filled with references to fantastic foods – honeyfingers, lemon cakes, The Old Bear’s mulled wine – and now two food bloggers and history buffs have made them all real. Clever, rich and surprisingly accessible, A Feast of Ice and Fire is about to become an essential part of every nerd’s kitchen.
Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer have been celebrating and recreating the foods of Westeros (and beyond) at their blog The Inn at the Crossroads for quite a while now, and many of us Ice and Fire superfans have been following excitedly. So when news came that they’d landed a book deal from Martin’s own publisher, I was naturally itching to have a copy of the official cookbook – complete with an introduction by the creator himself – in my hands. But I worried a little too. Inn at the Crossroads has always felt like more than a nifty little niche blog for foodie fantasy nerds. Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer are certainly supergeeks when it comes to food, fantasy and history, but they’re also creating something intimate and fun and much more than simple fan pandering. They’ve given fantasy food that’s previously existed in name only a context and a flavor and a user-friendliness that few creators of fictional universes could ever hope to see.
But what if the cookbook isn’t like that? What if publisher pressures transformed this into nothing but a cheesy tie-in book packed with pictures of characters from the HBO series eating something or other? What if it’s just for people who have to have everything that says Game of Thrones on it? The Inn at the Crossroads is a magical place, and I worried that magic might not extend to a new format.
From the very first page my worries were gone. Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer have not only taken the magic of their blog and replicated it in book form, but they’ve gone beyond it. From the simple honeybiscuit to the elegant (and daunting, if you’re pastry-challenged) cream swan, they’ve taken these things we’ve only read about and given them a new tangibility. And lest you think this is just a pair of fans trying to make it up as they go along, this book (just like the blog) is full of the homework the authors did to back up their dishes. Because A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a decidedly Medieval fictional universe, Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer root their cooking in medieval (and even some Roman) culinary traditions, going back to primary sources to learn how and why the food was prepared the way it was, and then applying all of that to every single dish. Within these pages you’ll find that dishes are not limited to single recipes. You can make the Medieval, rustic, rough-hewn one, sure, but the authors have also modernized the Ice and Fire foods to suit more elegant tastes. All this takes the book beyond mere fan fetishizing. They’re not just looking to Martin for cues on how to make these things. They’re blazing their own trail. Food is broken down by Westerosi region, each region is given its own culinary context, and that context is then grounded in historical food traditions. From there the recipes flow like Dornish wine from a King’s Landing decanter.
But do the recipes work? Yes, they do. These ladies have done more than simply copy down moldy old bread recipes from Dark Age cookbooks and hope you like them. They’ve tested each dish rigorously, and I’ve found so far that everything I’ve made both from the blog and from the book has turned out beautifully. Which brings me to another point about why this tome is so great: There are recipes in here for every skill level. Some things only have a handful of ingredients and take a wonderfully short time to complete, while others will tax both your pocketbook and your culinary skills. From drinks to roasted meats to desserts, it’s a wonderfully diverse palate.
In short, if you’re a fan of Martin’s series, buy this book. If you’re a fan of cooking, buy this book. If you’re a fan of Medieval history, buy this book. If you’re fan of eating well, buy this book. That should cover just about everyone. Buy this book.
A Feast of Ice and Fire is available in bookstores everywhere May 29.
(Thanks to Bantam/Random House for the advance reading copy.)