I haven’t liked eggs since I was 3 years old. Eggs as ingredients don’t bother me–in cake, custard, ice-cream, meringue, chocolate mousse, chocolate soufflé, pancakes, waffles–I just don’t think of them as food. I don’t eat flour straight out of the bag, either.
Which is why characters in my pre-Industrial fantasy stories don’t eat nearly as many eggs as they should.
In my last post on food in fantasy fiction, I argued that the much-maligned stew was a perfectly reasonable meal for your characters to eat, even though they wouldn’t be cooking it while trekking through the wilderness on some epic quest; but that you, as the author, shouldn’t be lazy and write simply that they ate “stew” without telling the reader what went into it. I promised to write more about worldbuilding through food, and hinted that I might be talking about eggs next.
Humans have been eating eggs since prehistory, and chickens may have been domesticated as early as 6000 BC. The ancient Roman Apicius cookery manual has recipes for eggs. Here’s a sauce that includes egg yolk as an ingredient:
9.3.2 Sauce for stuffed squid: pepper, lovage, coriander, celery seed, egg yolk, honey, vinegar, liquamen [fish sauce], wine and oil. Thicken it.
Most of the Apicius recipes are just a list of ingredients, without quantities and with few if any instructions. But this sauce sounds suspiciously like a flavored mayonnaise. (The Romans ate many food items that would be familiar to a modern Western diner. Chicken wings were apparently a popular snack–wing bones have been excavated from underneath ancient public baths, along with lamb chop bones, olive pits, and nut shells.)
Eggs are usually the main ingredient in the ancient Roman dish known as a patina. A sample recipe:
4.2.5 Another patina, of asparagus [served] cold: take prepared asparagus, pound in a mortar, pour on water and pound thoroughly; strain through a colander. Put prepared figpecker [a small songbird] to one side. Pound in a mortar 6 scruples [1/4 oz] of pepper, add liquamen, grind again. Add a cyathus [1/12 pt] of wine, a cyathus of passum; pour into a pan [with] 3 oz of oil. Let it come to heat there. Grease a dish. In it mix 6 eggs with oenogarum [i.e., the peppered liquamen-wine-passum-oil mixture described above]; put this with the asparagus liquor in hot embers. Then arrange the figpeckers, cook, sprinkle with pepper and serve.
Apicius has several patina recipes, named after the pan they were cooked in. This was like a shallow covered casserole dish with a raised lip all around the lid that would hold hot embers on top and allow you to heat the contents of the pan from both top and bottom. As far as I can tell, the patina is a lot like an Italian fritatta. Persian cuisine has a similar dish called a kuku, and according to my Persian cookbook, it was traditionally cooked exactly the same way as the Roman patina, in the same sort of pan.
Eggs weren’t necessarily cheap in pre-Industrial societies, but they were less expensive than meat, and they stay fresh longer. Most Americans and Canadians these days keep their eggs in the fridge, but it isn’t necessary if the eggs haven’t been washed before reaching the consumer. Unrefrigerated, unwashed eggs will easily last about 3 weeks. Meat … not so much. Eggs are quick and easy to cook, requiring no specialized equipment. They might be a bit fragile to carry on a long journey, but people would certainly eat them in their own homes and in taverns and inns. In fact, “eggs and bacon” is one of the food options Sancho Panza asks the landlord about in that Don Quixote passage I mentioned in my post on stew, although as a supper rather than a breakfast item.
Eggs are popular in non-Western cuisines, too. China has century eggs and salted duck eggs, and steamed eggs (similar to an omelet) are a traditional dish. Omelet variations (including the aforementioned frittatas and kukus) are cooked and eaten around the world (from tortilla de patatas in Spain to tamagoyaki in Japan). Cilbir, a Turkish preparation of poached eggs and yogurt, goes back to at least the 15th century. Eggs aren’t typically eaten by Indian vegetarians, but egg dishes are popular among the Parsi community and other omnivores.
So why don’t more characters in historically-based fantasy fiction eat eggs? I know that I neglect to think of eggs as a viable food option for my characters because I don’t think of them as a viable food option for myself. But what’s everyone else’s excuse?
Perhaps it’s because the food described in fantasy fiction isn’t supposed to represent what members of a culture with a particular environment and technology level would actually eat. Fantasy food is either aspirational or revolting–lavish descriptions of banquets with at least a dozen courses of roast meat, or bland stews with unrecognizable root vegetables boiled into submission. And on one level, this makes sense. You’re probably not writing that six-volume epic fantasy series because you wanted your readers to imagine what the various members of your made-up society might eat for breakfast–if they eat breakfast, which not every culture does–and how their breakfasts might be different from those in Middle Earth, or Narnia, or Westeros. The problem, though, is that it’s all too easy to fall into overused food clichés, where your characters eat exactly what the reader imagined they would before ever opening your novel. And at that point, why mention the food at all?
So, next time your characters stop for dinner, whether at an inn or someone’s home, why not offer them an omelet instead of stew?