On Colonial Nostalgia and Food in Fantasy Writing
Lizzy Saxe Considers a Disneyworld Menu and the Tools for Artful World-Building
In Roald Dahl’s beloved novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, young Charlie Bucket discovers a coveted Golden Ticket and finds himself immersed in a magical world of sugar and shenanigans.
There are glow-in-the-dark lollipops for eating in bed. The wallpaper is delicious. The sodas are so carbonated they make you float up into the sky. The chewing gum tastes like a three-course dinner. There’s a chocolate river, the grass tastes like peppermint, and the toffee apples grow on trees. Wonka even has special stickjaw candies to keep annoying parents from talking too much.
And in the first printing of the novel, all the labor that went into creating this phantasmagorical factory, this dreamscape full of everlasting gobstoppers and candy pencils for sucking in class, was done by pygmies “from the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no White man had been before.”
That’s right; those mysterious, adorable, green-haired, orange-skinned, cheery Oompa Loompas were originally Black Little People. Even in the version on your kid’s shelf right now, Wonka claims that the Oompa Loompas voluntarily relocated their entire tribe to work in his factory. Why? Because they’ve been offered an unlimited supply of cocoa beans—which are also the only form of currency the eccentric chocolate mogul uses to pay them.
I bring up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in large part because of this retrospective ick factor, but also because more than possibly any other piece of popular fiction ever written, it seamlessly combines my two favorite genres. It’s a fantasy novel, but it’s also a passionate piece of food writing.
Food, as charming librarian Horace Portacio articulates in Robin Sloan’s 2017 novel Sourdough, “is history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice—and does so more vividly than any other artifact;” except, perhaps, for books. And in both food writing and fantasy writing—history-obsessed genres that celebrate excess and nostalgia, escapism and wonder—writers have a remarkably consistent tendency to prop up Western ideas of who deserves to be in charge.
Whether it’s a review of an Indian restaurant that frames the critic as “wanting to feel like Churchill commanding a verandah” or the weird caricature of the Mongolian diet the Dothraki eat in The Song of Ice and Fire; when writers divorce food from its context, they tend to play into narratives that reinforce racism, colonialist ideals, and white supremacy.
In recent years, writers have increasingly blurred the lines between these two genres, infusing more and more ostensibly nerdy things with foodie elements and vice versa. John Layman’s popular comic Chew follows Tony Chu, a cibopathic detective who solves crimes by getting psychic impressions from food—including dead bodies. Every popular fantasy property now seems to require a companion cookbook. Indie video game Battle Chef Brigade lets you both hunt magical creatures and prepare them for dinner. After Anthony Bourdain’s untimely death, The New Yorker highlighted a piece of fan fiction that imagines the intrepid chef on a visit to Narnia. And I haven’t even mentioned the real actual Wendy’s tabletop RPG.
Fantasy stories—especially ones set in medievalesque, pastoral, imagined worlds—are primed for this blurring of genres. Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market” frames fresh fruit: “Crab-apples, dewberries, / Pine-apples, blackberries, / Apricots, strawberries; / —All ripe together” as a dangerous magical temptation. The Redwall novels frequently include lavish meals like “shrimp garnished with cream and rose leaves, devilled barley pearls in acorn puree, apple and carrot chews, marinated cabbage stalks steeped in creamed white turnip with nutmeg.” The Song of Ice and Fire books abound with food descriptions so detailed that HBO put together a promotional food truck catered by Tom Colicchio for the first season of Game of Thrones, still sells branded beer, wine, and whiskey, and even ran an over-the-top pop-up restaurant in London called All Men Must Dine.
In Neil Gaiman’s satirical short story “Sunbird,” he describes The Epicurean Society, a group of rich foodies who travel the world in order to eat everything from vulture to flash-frozen mammoth to “unicorn flank tartare.” In a colonialist impulse to explore and consume, they become dreadfully bored, convinced they have tasted every creature on earth. To combat this malaise, they travel to Egypt in search of the Suntown Sunbird, the taste to end all tastes, ultimately self-immolating as they dine on an exquisitely flavored phoenix. Gaiman is making fun of them, but the misty-eyed, novelty-driven way these characters conceptualize consumption smacks of an elitism endemic to a certain kind of (thankfully passé) food writing—anyone remember Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything?
A clearer example of this insidious tendency comes to us from the aforementioned novel Sourdough.In recent years, writers have increasingly blurred the lines between these two genres, infusing more and more ostensibly nerdy things with foodie elements and vice versa.
Sourdough follows Lois Clary, a new hire at a buzzy San Francisco robotics startup who subsists exclusively on Slurry, a thinly-veiled allegory for Soylent. Eventually, she gets fed up with this bland monotony, and in an impulse painted as rebellion, orders delivery from underground restaurant Clement Street Soup and Sourdough. What she receives from the unplaceably foreign delivery guy is a soup that “dishwaters pho.” An “elixir” so exquisite, so spicy and restorative, that she orders it—and the extraordinary bread that goes with it—every single night for a month.
In that time, Lois not only finds a new lease on life through this mysterious cuisine, she develops a friendship with Chaiman and Beoreg, the brothers who run her favorite restaurant. She becomes their most loyal customer, their “Number One Eater.” But then, disaster strikes. A Visa issue leads the pair—members of the Mazg, a secret fictional gypsy culture with a “vaguely Cyrillic-seeming” alphabet from a European island that conveniently no longer exists—to vanish from her life just as abruptly as they entered it.
When they leave; however, they gift her a sourdough starter. A magical sourdough starter. A “culture” that produces loaves with creepily intricate faces. Microorganisms so fussy she’s given a playlist to entertain them. A starter so superlative that despite never having baked bread in her life before receiving it, Lois—like many a well-intentioned white chef cooking a cuisine not her own—quickly becomes one of the most lauded bakers in a town internationally known for its bread.
The book is a fun ride. Sure, it frames its main character as, to borrow a term from fan fiction, a Mary Sue, and it never fully addresses the fascinating questions it raises about automation, the future of food, and the murky line between science and magic. But the real problem with Sourdough, an issue that many fantasy writers will be sympathetic to, is its world-building.
If you’re going to make up an entire people from scratch—or write about any culture not your own—you need to do it well. By underdeveloping the culture of the Mazg people, Sloan allows the reader to imagine Beoreg and Chaiman as less than real; as quaint providers of delicious mysteries.
Another story that insufficiently explains the culture and cuisine of its invented people is Avatar. James Cameron’s take on the standard FernGully narrative was apparently not supposed to turn out like the appropriative, hurried mess it became; regardless, the final product left much to be desired. So when Disney’s Imagineers set out to create a section of Disneyworld based on the film, they didn’t have a ton to go on besides blue aliens and trees.
The movie, despite its runtime, does a haphazard job of communicating Cameron’s obsessive worldbuilding. As a result, the menu at Pandora—the World of Avatar is possibly the purest example of exoticization in food I’ve ever encountered. Bridging the line between the real and the imagined, the Sat’uli Cafe serves such culturally dubious treats as “cheeseburger pods” (Chinese steamed buns with burger filling), “pongu lumpia” (Filipino lumpia spring rolls filled with pineapple and cream cheese), “teylu” (Hong Kong-style hot dog pastries), and uses random boba pearls to garnish savory dishes.
Each of these real-world examples—served at a restaurant whose name translates to “heritage” in Na’vi—rips an Asian technique out of its original context, framing it as so strange as to be from another planet. The laziness here is particularly striking since they serve comparatively unremarkable dishes like barbecue pork ribs and vegan meatloaf with names pulled from the franchise in the Star Wars area at Disneyland. These dishes do not feature in the actual movie, and indeed the Avatar theme park is set in a future where the Na’vi and humans have reached a “new friendship and cultural understanding.” In serving them, Disney is telling parkgoers that they not only don’t care about respecting non-Western cultures; they consider them utterly foreign.
We reached out to Disneyworld concerning these menu items, and they provided the following statement, which does not address the Asian origins of the dishes in question:
In the story of Pandora—The World of Avatar, and more specifically Satu’li Canteen, we do not claim that the food is alien. The food is claimed to be healthful and nature-based. It is also supposed to reflect the multicultural make-up of the imaginary staff of ACE (our in-story tour operator) at Pandora.
Based on these examples, you might think that stories (and real-life dishes) dealing with the magic of food or food and magic are doomed to perpetuate racist narratives. But when writers take the time to seriously consider the food—and thus the people—they are writing about, things tend to come out differently.
Food is a mutable cultural artifact and a lifegiving manifestation of tradition, so in fiction, what your characters eat says more about them, and their world, than nearly anything else. Many narrative approaches recognize this and create immersive, tempting results, but they all have one thing in common: they’re specific, nuanced, and deeply considered.
In “The Lily and the Horn,” Catherynne Valente imagines a world in which, “War is a dinner party.” In Floregilium, it has become passé to fight with weapons of violence. Thus every tempting morsel of, “black pepper and peacock marrow soup, blancmange drunk with clove and fiery sumac… roast suckling lion in a sauce of brandy, ginger, and pink chilis, and pomegranate cakes soaked in claret,” on Lady Cassava’s ceremonial war table is laced with poison—and everyone knows that as they sit down to dinner.Food is a mutable cultural artifact and a lifegiving manifestation of tradition, so in fiction, what your characters eat says more about them, and their world, than nearly anything else.
In Ryoko Kui’s manga Delicious in Dungeon, a D&D-style adventuring party embarks on a quest to rescue the main character’s sister from a dragon. The problem? They’re all out of money and have to forage for monsters to survive. Despite the vaguely European setting, Kui opts for a Japanese-inspired food culture in her story, and the plot centers around the troupe’s quest to make breakfast out of mandrakes and basilisk eggs (a creepily scrumptious omelet), lunch from living armor (it’s full of mollusks), and dinner with walking mushrooms and giant scorpions (a lovingly illustrated hotpot).
Avatar: The Last Airbender treats the Asian cultures to which it pays homage with reverence. Each region of the Human Realm cooks differently. The Fire Nation loves spicy snacks. The Water Tribe—with limited resources due to their polar existence—lives on seal jerky and seaweed stew. The agricultural Earth Kingdom eats a varied, rice-based diet featuring, as any fan will know, a shocking amount of cabbage. The Air Nomads, long wiped out by the Fire Nation, were strict vegetarians famous for their confections. When Jenny Dorsey finishes the long-overdue Last Airbender tie-in cookbook, I’m picking up a copy.
Even the preeminent speculative fiction writer of our current moment, N. K. Jemisin, has gotten in on the food writing game. In her short story “Cuisines des Memoires,” Harold, a skeptical New Yorker, is taken out for a very special birthday dinner in New Orleans. At Maison Laveau, you sign a nondisclosure agreement and either choose a from a menu of important historical events (perhaps you’d like Marie Antoinette’s final dinner?) or provide the exact date for a meal in your past. Then, the magic begins.
Harold is disbelieving, rude and ornery up until he takes his first bite. In that moment, he discovers the mystical kitchen staff has perfectly recreated the breathtaking five-course meal his ex-wife prepared for her culinary school certification exam many years ago. As he “tasted each dish,” he “flinched as every bite awakened a memory.”
Food is fundamental to everything we do, and thus writing about food is always writing about people. It is culture, even when those cultures exist in the imagination. It is memory and nostalgia. Occasionally, it can get us pretty close to experiencing real magic.
We need to treat it with the respect it deserves. On the page and at the table, we need to imagine it, and our fellow man, with complexity.