"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 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 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
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
Mrs. Maggot's Cottage Pie
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 its 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.
The recent, very public ouster of North Korea's Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of Kim Jong Un and formerly the country's No. 2 leader, has been noted with some concern in China, which is more or less Pyongyang's only friend in the region.
As we wrote last week, there were reports that Jang had been relieved of his post for alleged corruption and that two of his top aides had been executed. An extraordinary photo published by the official KCNA news agency on Monday, showing Jang being unceremoniously escorted from a Communist Party meeting by two armed guards, left no doubt that he had become persona non grata.
Jang was accused in state media of a litany of charges, including womanizing, drug abuse, being "affected by the capitalist lifestyle," pretending to "uphold the party and leader," and perhaps, most Orwellian of all, for "dreaming different dreams."
As significant as such a high-level shakeup might seem inside reclusive North Korea, The New York Times says "nowhere is the downfall more unnerving than in China."
"Despite Chinese irritation with North Korea's nuclear tests and other bellicose behavior, China had built a good relationship with Mr. Jang as the trusted adult who would monitor Mr. Kim, who is less than half his age."
"While there is no indication that the Chinese intend to change their view, it seemed clear that even Beijing's top leaders were surprised by Mr. Jang's abrupt downfall."
"Jang was once seen as a regent to the young dictator [Kim]. He also had strong patronage networks of his own, and within the ultraconservative halls of North Korean power was seen as something of a liberal. He visited Seoul in 2002 and has made several official trips to China, most recently in August 2012."
He was also reportedly a supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms, according to The Associated Press.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: "We hope North Korea can maintain national stability, the people's well-being and economic growth. China will remain committed to developing the friendly relationship between China and North Korea."
India's The Hindustan Times points out that Beijing's unease with the changed dynamics at the top of the government in Pyongyang were reflected in an editorial in the state-run nationalist tabloid, the Global Times, on Tuesday.
"As Jang was viewed as the second-most powerful figure and is North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's uncle, this announcement is considered a significant political event," it said.
Even so, the newspaper acknowledged that the two countries "have long taken different paths" and that their mutual interests were not about ideology.
"A friendly relationship between China and North Korea is not only critical to the North, but also a strategic and diplomatic leverage for China. With China's rise, its diplomatic leverage will become greater, yet the impact of bilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific region is irreplaceable," the editorial said.
Using data from a NASA satellite, scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) say they have now pinpointed the coldest place on Earth.
On a 1,000 kilometer swath of the highest section of the East Antarctic ice divide, scientists measured temperatures of -134 to -137 degrees Farenheit.
That is about 8 degrees lower than the coldest temperature ever recorded. The AP reports the old record — -128.6 degrees — was measured by thermometers in Vostok, Antartica, in 1983.
"Ice scientist Ted Scambos at the National Snow and Ice Data Center said the new record is '50 degrees colder than anything that has ever been seen in Alaska or Siberia or certainly North Dakota.'
"'It's more like you'd see on Mars on a nice summer day in the poles,' Scambos said, from the American Geophysical Union scientific meeting in San Francisco Monday, where he announced the data. 'I'm confident that these pockets are the coldest places on Earth.'
"However, it won't be in the Guinness Book of World Records — or recognized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the official keepers of world weather records — because the readings were measured by satellites, not from thermometers, Scambos said."
If you're staring out a window and looking at some snow right now, you might be wondering just how different 20 degrees feels from -137 degrees. In a statement Scambos said: "I've never been in conditions that cold and I hope I never am. I am told that every breath is painful and you have to be extremely careful not to freeze part of your throat or lungs when inhaling."
Scambos explains that conditions have to be just right to reach this extreme:
"Under clear winter skies in these areas, cold air forms near the snow surface. Because the cold air is denser than the air above it, it begins to move downhill. The air collects in the nearby hollows and chills still further, if conditions are favorable.
"'The record-breaking conditions seem to happen when a wind pattern or an atmospheric pressure gradient tries to move the air back uphill, pushing against the air that was sliding down,' Scambos said. 'This allows the air in the low hollows to remain there longer and cool even further under the clear, extremely dry sky conditions,' Scambos said. 'When the cold air lingers in these pockets it reaches ultra-low temperatures.'"
NASA put together this video to give you an idea of where this place is and what the topography looks like:
Another day, another GOP primary fight.
This time, it's John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Republican in the Senate, who's receiving a challenge from the right in 2014. Rep. Steve Stockman, a conservative firebrand, made the surprise move to enter the March 4 race Monday evening just before the state's filing deadline.
The Lone Star State is now poised to become the latest battleground — and the first Senate test — in the ongoing civil war between the Republican Party's establishment and Tea Party wings.
Six other GOP senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are facing reasonably competitive primary challengers next year. But the race in Texas is the only one where a GOP congressman is taking on an incumbent senator.
Stockman is no insider. After serving in the House for a single, controversy-filled term in the mid-1990's, he was returned to Congress in 2012 to represent the newly-created, East Texas-based 36th District. In his second tour, Stockman has picked up where he left off.
He has called for President Obama's impeachment, compared him to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and established a brash Twitter presence. More recently, he came under fire for not properly disclosing his financial information.
Stockman's bid against Cornyn, who's seeking a third term, appears to be a fairly steep uphill climb. For starters, his fundraising hasn't been up to par for a statewide hopeful: At the end of September, his campaign had just $32,000 on hand and was $163,000 in debt. Cornyn, on the other hand, had nearly $7 million in his campaign coffers and no debt.
Stockman's hopes will depend on his grassroots support, and he'll likely need some assistance from influential conservative outside groups — the kind that have already backed primary challengers to veteran GOP senators elsewhere this year.
One of those organizations, the Club for Growth, released a statement Tuesday saying it would not get involved in the Texas primary battle. The Tea Party-aligned Senate Conservatives Fund, which has expressed dissatisfaction with Cornyn in the past, and Madison Project have yet to announce their plans.
Another factor working against Stockman: time. Texas scheduled its primary for the first week of March, making it the first Senate contest of 2014. That means he has less than three months to organize a campaign infrastructure, raise a hefty amount of cash and make his name known statewide.
But Stockman's campaign may have the Tea Party faithful thinking back to Sen. Ted Cruz's rise in 2012, when he earned conservative grassroots support and defeated the favored establishment candidate in the GOP primary. For his part, Cruz has declined to back Cornyn's re-election effort.
The Stanley Parable is an interesting animal in the gaming zoo. Billed as a "first-person exploration game," it is honestly much, much more than that.
Originally created as a fan modification (mod in gaming parlance) for the popular game Half-Life 2, it was recently given its own HD standalone release for Windows PCs.
At its core, the game is an existential experience for both the player and Stanley, the game's pseudo protagonist (but we'll get to that). The game is also an examination, albeit a humorous one, of choice and free will in video games.
It's an opinion column, wrapped in an adventure game, wrapped in a piece of interactive fiction; a gaming Turducken if you will.
Wait, Let's Restart
This is a story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a big company in a big building, where he is known as employee number 427. His job was to push buttons on his computer. He was given orders on which buttons to push, when to push them and how often.
This is what Stanley did, day after day. Until one day no orders came, and Stanley ventured out of his office to find out why.
It is at this point that you take control of Stanley, sort of. As soon as you walk out of Stanley's office to search for his missing co-workers, the narrator begins telling the story, Stanley's story, as it happens.
It is when you get to your first choice between two doors that the true charm of this game comes alive. The narrator, brilliantly voiced by British actor Kevan Brighting, tells you what Stanley (or you) did in this part of the story. "Stanley went left," for instance. But here's the thing, you don't have to go left of course. You can go right, or back the way you came, or not do anything at all, and the narrator responds, often frustrated with you for not following the "rules" of the story.
It's in this way that the narrator somewhat becomes the antagonist of the game; guiding you, or telling you, what to do, what you did, what Stanley is thinking or is not thinking and what the narrator himself thinks of all of the choices you make as you explore the office and try to find the narrative thread.
And this is how the game continues, and often ends, with you defying or obeying the narrator while searching for Stanley's story. Depending on your choices, you will encounter everything from a mind control facility to a museum of the game and its development.
OK, We Need To Restart Again
It is difficult to convey The Stanley Parable's various messages and idiosyncrasies without spoiling its surprises, of which there are many.
Behind the snarky narrator and the clever writing is an open-eyed examination of current video game narratives and their flaws. It's Monty Python meets Call of Duty.
When the narrator scolds you for not going in the direction of "his" story, the developers are taking a jab at modern games that, despite a glossy sheen of graphics, voice-acting and the illusion of choice, are still basically on rails.
Take one of the biggest hits of this year, Bioshock Infinite. It was highly praised for its story and narrative direction. But in the end, it was a very lead-you-by-the-hand adventure. There were no alternative paths; no choices that really led to a different outcome. This was also the case for The Last of Us, another critically acclaimed game. They were great games and I enjoyed both, but they were very linear in design, and this is what The Stanley Parable takes issue with.
Even Stanley's job, of pushing buttons at a certain time and for a certain duration, and only when told to do so, is a commentary on the repetitiveness and hand holding in the design of some modern games. Sure, games are getting more and more gorgeous, but are they just turning us into single-button pushing automatons? (Looking at you Assassin's Creed 4.)
The Stanley Parable even calls into question the "winnable" nature of video games as the natural ending state. Why must stories, which is what non-sports video games are now, be won? Are books always won? Are movies always won? Is the experience of looking at a piece of artwork ever won?
It's these questions The Stanley Parable asks, veiled as those inquiries are behind numbered doors and non-Euclidean hallways, that make it such an interesting and unique gaming experience.
A New Reference Point
Developer Davey Wreden, who created the original mod, says he was inspired to make a game based around narrative elements that were often a part of some games but never the main focus. The quiet moments, between the shooting, are where he found a lot of enjoyment.
"That's usually where you found interesting little bits of [a narrative] experimental game ... kind of hidden amongst another game," Wreden says. "It was almost ashamed that it was even there."
So he decided to build an entire game around those little bits.
The Stanley Parable's creation was meant to be a stepping-stone for post-college work, but it ended up taking much longer and became much more than Wreden had originally envisioned. The positive reception of the mod opened the doors to create the full version.
Wreden later collaborated with William Pugh for the game's full release.
The response in the gaming industry has spanned a wide spectrum, Wreden says, with some telling him the game changed their life, while others call it a "cancer."
"I think that people bring a lot more of themselves to an experience like this than they usually like to admit," he says.
While the game is not likely to change the gaming industry tomorrow, nor was that the intention, Wreden and Pugh say that perhaps it can be a reference point for future developers about what is possible.
"The change in the industry comes from talking about it," Pugh says. "It gives another reference point, and that helps the conversation."
Pugh cites the PS3 game Journey (which was independently developed but published by Sony) as an example of a game that took a risk on something different and really impressed him. It was a game, much like The Stanley Parable, that can't be easily defined.
"It adds to the vocabulary of the industry, and I think that's how the change will come," he says.
Wreden says he hopes big developers begin to lose the fear of experimenting with new ideas and new concepts and have confidence in taking risks with the technology.
"Most of the stuff that's in bigger games is in there because the people making them are afraid, and so here's the default. Here's what's safe," he says. It's that fear, he says, that gives him pause about playing big industry games these days.
OK, so you don't really win. But The Stanley Parable is a game worth playing, especially if you are someone interested in game design and narrative storytelling experiments. Just be prepared for something completely different, which in an era of often cookie-cutter shooters and survival horror tropes, is a welcomed change.
The description on the game's website perfectly sums up what to be prepared for when sitting down for the experience:
"You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end. Contradiction follows contradiction, the rules of how games should work are broken, then broken again. This world was not made for you to understand."
And while the world of The Stanley Parable may not be made for you to understand completely, it is a load of fun to try. Or not try.