"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." — J.R.R. Tolkien
Each year, I swear I will never do this again.
And yet, for the third year in a row, I am preparing to host a day-long Lord of the Rings movie marathon - and cooking up a seven-course hobbit-themed feast, plus dessert, to serve my guests. Maybe it's because, like Tolkien, I too would like the world to be a merrier place.
This week's repast will help me and my fellow fans ready ourselves for the release of the new movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, opening Dec. 13. If you're familiar with either J.R.R. Tolkien's novels or Peter Jackson's film adaptations, then you know how important food is to hobbits.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbits Merry and Pippin fret that Aragorn, the human ranger who has joined their expedition, doesn't know about - and won't make time for — second breakfast, or elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper.
Purists will note that Tolkien only wrote of six meals. (Jackson's films added the seventh). But since my hobbit meals are eaten during movie viewings, I keep to the films' seven-meal menu — and add in dessert.
Judging from Tolkien's writing alone, one would think the man was an epicure of, well, epic scale. He did, after all, pen the line, "When he heard there was nothing to eat, he sat down and wept." And he chose to begin both The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring with food-filled parties — the first an unexpected dinner for dwarves, the second a grand birthday feast for Bilbo.
And so it's not surprising that for some fans of Middle-earth, myself included, food has become another bridge into the world that Tolkien so masterfully created.
If you are putting together a hobbit homage menu, there are many sites offering inspiration. One site, from Warner Brothers, allows fans to submit and rate recipes. Another, from Strange Horizons, offers a detailed exploration of food in Tolkien's novels.
But hands down, the best place I've found for recipes that are both tasty and feel authentic to the hobbit world is Middle-earth Recipes. It features contributions by the Fellowship of Middle-Earth, an online fan community.
"The recipes on our site were designed by lovers of the books who tried to recreate the specialties that are described in the book," says "Doctor Gamgee" — in real life he is Dr. Joseph Crabtree, a voice instructor from Laredo, Texas, who helps oversee the site.
"Lembas" - a special bread made by elves that could stay fresh for months - "would be a good example of one that was a favorite, 'wonder-what-I-would-take' creative sort of fare," he says.
Such efforts, he says, are "love for the books being created in food."
I love these recipes because they obviously come from fans, and you can find footnotes like this: "Okay, maybe hobbits didn't have such an exotic Southern fruit as bananas — let's just say a travelling fruit-salesman from Far Harad came through."
Based on my experience hosting hobbit-themed feasts, and marathon movie viewings, here are a few tips.
- Watch the extended editions of all three Lord of the Rings films — anything less and you can't call it a true marathon.
- Wear comfortable clothes and have your guests bring blankets and pillows for the inevitable food coma to follow.
- Don't plan on doing anything else that day, and remember to pace yourself while eating.
- You can vary the start times, but essentially, plan on serving a new meal about every two hours, depending on how early you want to begin. But really, elevenses should start at 11.
- Remember that each individual dish does not have to fill your guest - they'll be getting seven in total!
- Look for recipes that you can prepare at least in part the day before. Otherwise, you'll be stuck be in the kitchen for 12 hours and miss all the fun.
By the end of the day, you will have newfound respect for hobbits and their seemingly bottomless ability to graze.
If you're looking for some inspiration, scroll down to find the menu I used for my hobbit feast last year.
As for what libations to serve? My friend Jim Crute, the head brewer at Poway Lightning Brewery in San Diego and a past attendee of my hobbit feast, has a suggestion:
"Hobbits would only drink ales, since lagers are not found on Middle-earth."
Note: All of these recipes are from Middle-earth Recipes. I've provided links and noted here where I've made tweaks to the original.
First Breakfast, 8:00 AM
Beorn 's Honey Nut Cake served with Bilbo's Orange Marmalade
Coffee and teas
A sweet way to start your hobbits off. Start light and simple to ease into the 14 hours of food.
Second Breakfast 9:00 AM
Start Fellowship of the Ring, Extended Cut, 208 minutes
My tweak to this recipe is to add cinnamon, vanilla and maple syrup to the eggs and soak the bread overnight before cooking. And always serve with meat — sausage or bacon. Or preferably both.
Elevenses 11:00 AM
There are multiple recipes for lembas bread (one bite is meant to sustain a man for a day) online, and two are available at Middle-earth Recipes. Elves keep this recipe secret, so you can't be sure which recipe is most authentic. The tricky part is finding fresh, clean Mallorn leaves to wrap them in. In a pinch, you can wrap them in parchment paper or banana leaves from the Asian market or make your own. Do not confuse lembas bread with cram, which is similarly good for long journeys but is "more of a chewing exercise," according to Tolkien.
For an adult party, feel free to spike the mulled cider with some Irish whiskey. Again, this is a nice light but sustaining food break.
Luncheon 1:00 PM
Start The Two Towers, Extended Cut, 223 minutes
I added a whole head of roasted garlic to this recipe and served it with toasted bread topped with Gruyere or Irish white cheddar cheese.
Afternoon Tea 3:00 PM
I definitely prefer the lemon zest and lemon for the tea cake, and frost it with a simple confectioners' sugar and lemon juice glaze. The lavender and lemon muffins smell heavenly and will draw hobbits to the table.
Dinner 5:00 PM
Start Return of the King, Extended Cut, 250 minutes
Heading into the home stretch now. Be aware that Balin's Spiced Beef needs to marinate for 12 hours, but once you prep it, you can forget about it till it needs to go in the oven. Add vegetables to the pan while it bakes for a heartier dish.
Supper 7:00 PM
Here's my variation on Mrs. Maggot's Cottage Pie, since I need to make two large pans of this to feed my hungry hobbits. Cook the following in bacon fat and set aside: 2 celery stalks, 4 carrots, 2 onions, 1 can of peas. For the mashed potato topping: one five-pound bag of Klondike potatoes, steamed and mashed with 1 cup butter, 1 cup heavy cream, salt, white pepper, and infused with crushed garlic. Four pounds ground meat cooked and drained, and then mixed with 1 1/2 cups broth, a few dashes of Worchestershire sauce, salt, pepper, sweet paprika, thyme, nutmeg, one small can tomato sauce, sherry, parsley, and 1/2 cup cream. Combine everything but potatoes and place in two 9x13 glass pans and top with mashed potatoes and lots of butter.
Dessert Immediately Following Supper
I love this recipe in part because of how it is described by its contributor, Ashlyn: "for Rangers in the field who only have one measuring cup with them." I omit raisins and increase the amount of chocolate chips and nuts.
In the opening chapter of her latest book, novelist Delia Ephron writes that losing her older sister, writer Nora Ephron, was like "losing an arm, it's that deranging." Nora, who wrote When Harry Met Sally, died of acute myeloid leukemia in June 2012. Delia and Nora were writing partners; they co-wrote the movies You've Got Mail and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as well as the off-Broadway hit Love, Loss and What I Wore. Delia was an assistant producer on Nora's film Sleepless in Seattle.
But for all their collaboration and closeness, Delia acknowledges that sister relationships are complicated. "With sisters, is the competition always marching side-by-side with devotion? Does it get to be pure love when one of them is dying, or is the beast always hidden somewhere," she wonders. Her new book, Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.), is a collection of autobiographical essays.
On writing about sisterhood after Nora's death
[Writing] was just a way to get through the day. I would just go into my office at 4:00 in the afternoon and it was a way to be together. I would write about us. I tried to make sense of it. But I think that I have probably thought about sisterhood and sisters and what that's about more than probably anyone. It has been such a big part of my life. How great it was, how difficult it was, how complicated it is, how uncivilized it is. So when I started to write about it, it was like I almost knew what I wanted to say.
On trying to differentiate herself from her sister
I spent my entire 20s avoiding the entire problem as a way to differentiate. ... [W]hen I did start writing, the first time I understood who I was, I was 32 years old and I wrote something called "How to Eat Like a Child" and it was 500 words about how children eat food. It was very funny, it was on the last page of The New York Times Magazine, and when I wrote it, I looked at it and I thought, "Oh, this is who I am." ...
By the time Nora and I began collaborating I had established an identity, but I absolutely knew that I had to keep writing books because I knew I could get sucked right into hers, that it was never easy. ... It's like having a sister who knew everything she wanted to do from the second she was around and it was such an overwhelming sister to have. And yet, the most loving. ... She was published very young and knew and said, if not in print then certainly to me, she knew that she was going to be successful, very early on, that she had a destiny.
On lessons learned around the Ephron dinner table
I think everything started at the dinner table in my family. I've always wondered about the dinner table in everyone's family because of it. When I was young ... we always had dinner together and we told stories. Whatever crazy thing had happened to me that day I would come home and say it and my father would shout, "That's a great line! Write it down." And he would say, "That's a great title. Write it down," if I said anything that sounded like a title. I had titles for things before I had any idea I'd be a writer. And we sang songs, we sang rounds, we played charades and 20 questions.
My parents ... had this radical past. Here we were in Beverly Hills in this fairly large Spanish house ... all having dinner that my mother had not cooked. She was very proud of the fact that she had made a lot of money and someone else cooked dinner. So there we were singing union songs. They taught us "There Once Was a Union Maid." And they taught us "We Shall Not Be Moved." And we would belt them out. ... I think that's where I learned I knew how to tell a story. That's where I learned I was funny and that it was worth something.
On Nora keeping her cancer a secret
I think that's how she wanted to live. She didn't want that fact to be part of her life. If you're really famous life is very different. Everybody in the world knows "you are a famous sick person," and everyone wants to comfort you. And there's probably no moment of the day where someone isn't going to walk up to you and either give you their sympathies or say that they've also had this problem or that their sister or brother or somebody in their family did. But for Nora she was very private. It wasn't just about illness. ... She just didn't like you to see weakness. ...
She had a play called Imaginary Friends that got a terrible review in The New York Times, unfairly, I thought; I loved the play. I worked with her the next morning, we were collaborating on something then ... and she didn't mention it the next morning. She didn't mention it to me. It's this strange thing with sisters because you're so close, it's like I'd open a refrigerator and take whatever I want but the quality of privacy that we both had — I mean, I never discussed my husband's illness with her because I thought she'd think I was weak because I was worried. ... That's because Nora valued strength among all things. So that choice to me seems the only choice she ever would've made, was to keep it private.
On writing about her parents' alcoholism
I am the child of alcoholics — two alcoholics, actually, but more importantly my mother. I was 11 when my parents became alcoholics. ... I believe that nobody has the same parents, that you're born into a family at a different time; that your parents relate to you differently depending on what your personality is and how they connect. I was 11 when this happened and I really had much more time to live in that house. And when you're the child of an alcoholic you are worried all the time. All you can think is, "Are they gonna start drinking tonight?" This is the hardest thing I wrote in the book by far, writing about my mother, and I felt it was so important because of the isolation you have as a child like this. You're always keeping the family secrets. I just don't keep them. I feel really passionately about that. So I became someone who was always trying to figure out what was going to happen. I was a watcher. I was on hyper alert.
What happens is you grow up and you're still worrying. You're looking left and you know something is coming from the right. So you're trying to look in two directions at once, which is completely impossible, as we all know. Those things you develop as a child, those survival things, they hang on and they stay in your life and I really needed to write a lot about that to sort of exorcise the demons.
On how her sister's death changed her view on getting older
I do feel that I have to do everything quickly. I hate to waste a day. ... What I feel now, and I feel much more strongly certainly since Nora's death, is that all we really have is process. How did the work go today? How did the writing go? How did the lunch go with your best friend that you usually love to spend hours talking to? Did you wring every ounce of fun and intimacy out of it? ... When you walked down the street did you notice things? Did you have a good time? Was it crisp out? Was it hot out? What I think happened to me is that I got very focused on the day and making the day matter.
When I was 13, sex was something I was very interested in, but in a studious way. I wanted to know what had been done to me, as someone researches the keyhole surgery on their knee, after the event.
I had entered the second year of the six years when I didn't speak of the-thing-that-happened-to-me-when-I-was-11, and I was looking for explanations of that thing. And I was looking for ways to introduce the subject to my parents, so they would say, "Oooh, I understand," in an unemotional, chatty way, and we could get that thing out into the open.
In Maya Angelou, I found some answers. Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explained more to me than the Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins novels that we passed around the classroom ever did. Maya Angelou told me quite clearly — your body is yours. But when I started to speak about it, there was no "Oooh, I understand" from my parents. Instead, I remember, there was a row.
There were a lot of rows at our dinner table. We were a political family in the '70s in London; the wrong color, but denying we were the wrong color. My parents were upper-middle class, intellectual, longing to step down a level and belong to the petite bourgeoisie that surrounded them in our leafy suburb. The church socials were still policed by women in hats and white gloves whose noses practically spelled "snooty" in the air.
We were three girls, going to school where teenage pregnancies were commonplace and boys and girls went off at the drop of a hat to join a band or hitch to Australia. My mother wanted us safe, passing exams, getting to university, wearing matching outfits on Sunday. Maya Angelou's wayward life was distant and not required: Her experiences were seen, I think, as a threat.
And yet, in the lusciousness of her language, my 13-year-old self found freedom and kindness and a way forward, a way to hold my head up. In the row, at one point, my mother said: "She once worked as a prostitute! And this is the role model you choose?!" I nodded, and grasped Maya to my heart — her beauteous, succulent words, her cadences singing out to me, a freed bird, winging around my cage.
In reading Maya Angelou, I became more grown-up than the grown-ups. I realized that I understood something that they had not: that pain can be visited on you at any time, child or adult, and it was within you that the answers to that pain were.
My mother loves Maya Angelou now. I didn't win the argument back then, but I feel Maya won it for me in the long run, by living her life so beautifully. And even back then, while I may have lost the row, my mother didn't take the book away. She and my dad were liberal, and approved of us reading anything. The end of the argument went something like, "I wish you'd read something proper" — Mum meant Jane Austen, I guess.
I say the same thing to my kids now, and when I say it, I'm pointing at Maya Angelou.
Since the death of anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, tributes and memorials have poured in from around the globe. Mourners count among their number leaders from dozens of countries, including American presidents and Iran's Hassan Rouhani.
Commemorations such as these may serve to remember the man, but they also seek to understand his complex legacy, known as much for unbending principle as for compromise. With each new obituary and official statement, Mandela's life comes more clearly into view, even as the context that gave shape to his struggle risks getting lost behind his iconic stature.
That's why, on weekends on All Things Considered, reporter and writer Kevin Roose suggests a book to cast light on the South Africa in which Mandela came of age. Published well before many Mandela obits open, Alan Paton's seminal novel explores the human anguish wrought by an inhumane system.
This Week's Must Read
If you want to understand the world Nelson Mandela grew up in, there's no better book than Cry, the Beloved Country. The novel predates Mandela's career as an activist; it was published in 1948, just months before apartheid was made law in South Africa. But it gives a haunting image of a truly divided society.
The book, by white South African writer Alan Paton, begins with the story of a black South African priest, Stephen Kumalo, who goes to search for his lost son, Absalom. Kumalo is a quiet, unassuming man who relies on his faith to get him through tough circumstances. And when he finds that his son has been arrested for the murder of a white activist for racial equality, and is scheduled to be executed, he begins working for reconciliation and justice.
It's a beautiful book — lyrical without being maudlin, lofty but unpretentious. And Paton captures perfectly the difficulty of non-violent resistance. In one scene, Kumalo, speaking to a farmer who he fears has become too radicalized, says, "I cannot stop you from thinking your thoughts. It is good that a young man has such deep thoughts. But hate no man, and desire power over no man."
Paton later became an anti-apartheid activist, and even testified on Mandela's behalf at his sentencing trial. But that sentence — "hate no man, and desire power over no man" — is what makes Mandela's legacy so remarkable. Throughout it all, he never lost the ability to love even those who oppressed him.
Kevin Roose is a writer for New York Magazine and author of the upcoming book Young Money.
When writers finish a book, they may think they've had the last word. But sometimes another writer will decide there's more to the story. The madwoman Bertha from Jane Eyre and the father in Little Women are just two examples of secondary characters who have been given a fuller life in a new work of fiction based on a classic novel.
Many writers are attracted to the world of Jane Austen. Jo Baker is a big fan of Pride and Prejudice, but there was something about the book that bothered her: the servants. And if you don't remember any servants in Pride and Prejudice, well, that's what bothered Baker. The servants were so invisible — and she just knew someone was washing all those muddy petticoats.
"There was a line in Pride and Prejudice that just stopped me dead, and I couldn't get past it on one of my re-readings," she says. "It's that period leading up to the Netherfield ball when it's just been raining for days and days, and there's no way the Bennet girls are going to venture out into the muddy roads ... but they need these decorations for their dancing shoes. And the line is 'the very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy,' and I just thought, who's proxy?"
Baker may have been more sensitive to this than most people — but with good reason. Her relatives, including her grandmother, were in service. So she wanted to know more about the other people in the room who were standing by, waiting to pick up the clothes, do the laundry and cook the meals. Longbourn, the novel that grew out of that curiosity, is not a cute Upstairs, Downstairs kind of thing: Now it is the Bennets who are largely invisible while the servants have complicated, messy, interesting lives that are every bit as compelling as the Bennet girls's quest for husbands.
"It was important for me emotionally that they have their own lives and that they have their own stories," Baker says. "For me, the events of Pride and Prejudice have an influence on what's going on, and there are these movements up and downstairs. But it was very important to me that these characters who are silent presences in Austen ... actually got to be active, dynamic and fully realized in their own right."
That impulse — to find out more about minor or secondary characters — has inspired many books over the years. Baker took on characters that most readers would barely notice. But some writers decide to fill in the blanks for characters who have become literary icons. Ronald Frame did just that in Havisham, a novel based on the strange and mysterious Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. "I didn't want to clutter the book up with references that you needed to understand by going back to Great Expectations, no, not at all," he says. "I just wanted to give Miss Havisham back her youth."
Frame says his own image of Miss Havisham has been influenced by the many portrayals of her in movies and on television, especially David Lean's 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations. When young Pip first meets her, Miss Havisham, left at the altar on her wedding day many years before, is living in a darkened room, dressed in her wedding gown and surrounded by the trappings of that ill-fated day.
The Miss Havisham in this film is old, but in fact, Frame says, she was probably only in her 30s — and Dickens provided her with a fairly rich back story. The Catherine Havisham he's created is a combination of the given facts and his own imagination. She is the daughter of a wealthy, widowed brewer, who sends her to live with an upper-class family to be educated and introduced to society. But Catherine falls in love with the wrong man. Heartbroken and bitter, she raises her adopted daughter, Estella, to break men's hearts. Frame says he wrote the book so Catherine Havisham could tell her side of the story.
"What I thought we had in Great Expectations was Pip's version of the story," he says. "I was also of course just fascinated with why a character like Miss Havisham, Catherine Havisham as I called her, who seemed to have everything going for her ... why she turned into this character a mere 10 or 15 years later."
Frame's book is set in Dickens' world, but his language is modern and spare, a far cry from the dense descriptive writing of Great Expectations. Daniel Levine took a different tack in the forthcoming novel Hyde, which is based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. "My interest was actually in keeping to the original as much as possible because what interested me was things that Stevenson left out, because I sensed that Stevenson wanted to say more," he says.
In telling Hyde's story, Levine had an added challenge since Jekyll and Hyde are two sides of the same person who have come to embody the very idea of good and evil. But Levine says it's not that simple. "The story is not really about Jekyll who is pure good and Hyde who is pure evil. Jekyll does many things in the Stevenson version that when you look at them are very suspect and very self-destructive ... and so we know that Jekyll is not pure good. And so by default we know that Hyde is not pure evil — and in my version I was really trying to make him a real person."
All three authors say their books can stand on their own. But, Jo Baker adds, as much as she loves the characters and story she has created, they wouldn't exist without the original. "It just emerged so organically ... out of the world of Pride and Prejudice that I don't think I could have written it in any other way. ... There was this itch I needed to scratch. ... That's what this book came from, so it wouldn't have got written."
There is one thing no one will ever know about these books: Whether the original authors approve of what has happened to their creations — or not.