In Defense of Stew

From Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland:

Stew is the staple food in Fantasyland, so be warned.  You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out.  Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time.  Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in camp you are likely to be attacked without warning, and in an inn prone to be the centre of a tavern brawl, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak.  But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food.  The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables.  Do not expect a salad on the side.

So many conventions of epic fantasy make so much less sense when viewed in the harsh light cast by The Tough Guide.  But is stew really one of them?  Many people seem to think so.  You can hardly have your characters sit down to a meal of stew these days without someone in your writers group pouncing on the supposed error.

And yet, I would argue that complaining too much about stew in historically-based fantasy novels shows a basic lack of understanding of food around the world in general, and of the history of food around the world in particular.

From Volume 2 of Don Quixote (1615):

[Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have stopped at an inn for the night, and Sancho Panza asks the innkeeper, or landlord, what they have for food.]

The landlord responded that he could have anything and could ask for whatever he wanted:  the inn was stocked with the birds of the air, the fowl of the earth, and the fish of the sea.

[This is followed by several paragraphs of Sancho saying, “Okay, we’ll have this,” and the landlord responding, “Oh, actually we’re out of that”, a la Monty Python’s cheese shop skit.  Finally…]

“Let’s settle this, for God’s sake,” said Sancho, “and tell me once and for all what you do have, and enough talking, Senor Landlord.”

“What I really and truly have are two cows’ heels that seem like calves’ feet, or two calves’ feet that seem like cows’ heels; they’re stewed with chickpeas, onions, and bacon, and right now they’re saying, ‘Eat me!  Eat me!'”

Sounds to me as if stew is actually a fairly authentic meal for your characters, if your imaginary world is at least somewhat based on pre-Industrial Europe.  On the other hand, of course, since Don Quixote is a parody of heroic quest tales, maybe the joke about characters not having anything to eat except stew is older than people realize.

Obviously, no one’s going to be cooking up a pot of stew over their campfire after marching 20 miles.  But in an inn or tavern, where the proprietor and staff have been there all day?  Perfectly reasonable.  Far more reasonable than steak, in fact.  For one thing, most of the meat on a cow (or any other quadruped) isn’t tender enough to be turned into steak.  It requires long, slow cooking in some kind of liquid (also known as “stewing”).  Even more so before the advent of modern factory farming and feedlot practices.  And, before the invention of refrigeration, most of the meat people ate would have been salted, dried, and/or smoked.  Salted meat especially needs to be soaked and boiled before it’s palatable again–an excellent candidate for stew.  It doesn’t make sense to kill a large animal for fresh meat unless there are enough people around to eat it before it spoils.  So you might do this for a wedding or other special occasion, but the suggestion that a typical inn serving ordinary travelers should specialize in steak instead of stew is a bit ridiculous.

Another set of issues around fresh meat, at least in temperate climates, are seasonal.  Late fall is the traditional time to butcher large animals, for several reasons.  One is that it’s cool enough to allow you to clean and cut up a cow or pig (or sheep or goat or deer) before the meat spoils (it might even be cool enough that you can safely hang the carcass in a shed for a few days).  But it’s not so cold that your fingers are likely to freeze before you’ve finished.  Also, it’s expensive to keep animals alive through a cold winter, and most of the calories they consume (provided at your expense and inconvenience, since there isn’t any grass for them to graze on) go to maintaining body temperature, not putting on muscle mass (i.e., meat).  Food-to-meat conversion is much more efficient during the summer and early fall, since warm-blooded animals aren’t burning calories to keep warm.  Which means that fresh meat is going to be less available and more expensive through the winter and early spring months, until the animals have had a chance to graze again and put on some of that weight they lost during the lean time.

What about chicken?  Chicken was also a food for special occasions before factory farming made chicken the cheapest meat.  Chickens were mostly for egg production.  Sure, if you wanted more laying chickens and let your hen sit on her eggs to hatch them, half of the offspring would be males, so you might as well raise those for food and eat them while young and tender.  But once your female chickens got too old to lay eggs, they were too tough for roasting.  That’s why a mature female chicken is referred to as a stewing hen.  If you remember later verses of the song “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” (believed to have been written during the late 1800s), one line goes, “We will all have chicken and dumplings when she comes”.  Chicken stew, in other words.  (Although in the song, it isn’t a stewing hen, but “the old red rooster” who gets the axe.)

Stew is common in traditional cuisines around the world.  Pot-au-feu in France, cozido in Portugal, Moroccan tagine, Mexican pozole, Hungarian goulash, Persian khoresh (I made a very good one with beef and okra recently, from this excellent cookbook), South Indian and Sri Lankan sambars.  You could argue that most South Asian and Southeast Asian curries are basically stews:  meat and/or vegetables cooked in liquid until everything is tender.  Stew makes sense if you don’t have a lot of fancy kitchen equipment.  Put everything in a pot with some liquid; cook it for a long time.  And humans have been making clay pots for 20,000 years or more.

I don’t think critics are entirely wrong to complain about all the stew eaten in fantasy novels.  Look at the Don Quixote example.  At the end of the scene, the innkeeper doesn’t say, “What I have is a big pot of stew”, he describes what went into the stew.  If you write that your characters were served stew and leave it at that, you’re missing a perfect worldbuilding opportunity.  We learn a lot about the kind of food available in inns in 16th century Spain from the description of the stew Sancho Panza is offered–cheap cuts of meat (including bacon, which we know is both salted and smoked), along with chickpeas (a staple locally-grown legume that can be dried and stored through the winter) and onions (a local vegetable that also stores well).  If you’re writing a story set in a terrain and climate that isn’t like Spain, your characters might eat stews with different ingredients.  Maybe dried peas, in a colder climate (remember the song about “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old”?).  The meat might be salted beef instead of bacon, or salted fish if the inn is near a coast or river (or if the majority of the population abstain from meat for religious reasons multiple days each week but are allowed to eat fish, as was the case for most of Europe during the Middle Ages, when salt cod was traded pretty far inland to give people something to eat on fast days).  The stew might even include fresh fish or seafood if you’re next to a large body of water.  But fresh fish is even more perishable than fresh meat, so you won’t see it even a day’s journey away.  Remember that meat used to be a lot more expensive.  Most people’s diets (among agricultural societies) consisted mostly of grains and legumes, with a bit of meat for flavor when they could afford it.  So a legume stew with a bit of meat is probably more likely than meat and vegetables.  (And vegetables are seasonal, when you can’t ship everything from California year-round in refrigerated trucks.  Make sure that whatever vegetable your characters find in the stew would actually be available locally in that climate at that time of year.)  Think about what access to spices your imaginary country might have.  Caraway, cumin, coriander, and dill all grow well in northern temperate and Mediterranean climates.  Pepper, cinnamon, and cloves?  Not so much.  But spices keep well once dried, and are popular trade goods.  So wealthy people might enjoy a spice outside its growing region, but ordinary folk would have to be satisfied with local flavorings.

And of course, there are plenty of non-stew foods that don’t show up in fantasy novels nearly as often as they should, given their popularity in peasant cooking traditions around the world.  I’ll write about some of these in a future post (eggs, anyone?).  Until then, don’t be afraid to feed your characters a hearty bowl of stew!  But be sure to tell the reader what went into it.

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6 Responses to In Defense of Stew

  1. ruthling says:

    I enjoyed reading this! Of course inns are going to have stew, a big pot of whatever is edible that they can serve as people want it. I love the idea that the writer should be more explocit about what actually is in the stew. mmm.

  2. Pauline says:

    I’m going to bookmark this. I love picking up food history for world-building. There’s some interesting tidbits (pun intended) of history at

  3. Kristin says:

    Thanks! The Food Timeline link is pretty interesting, too.

  4. This is admittedly over a year after the fact, but may I please repost this on the LiveJournal community Food_in_fiction? (LJ activity overall has been pretty sparse over the past couple years, but that community came into being in part because of Tough Guide, and “Stew is THE DEVIL!!!” seems to have become part of unexamined fannish conventional wisdom–along with, “Any female character who is or does anything interesting is MARY SUE, DESTROYER OF STORIES!!!”)

  5. Kristin says:

    Yes, please feel free to re-post it anywhere you like, as long as you include a link to the original post.

    I think the Tough Guide is correct in implying that it’s a cliche to just say “stew” without giving any details as to what went into it. That gives the unfortunate impression of something akin to a can of Dinty Moore. But the idea that people in a pre-Industrial culture would never eat anything that we might categorize as stew is just ridiculous.

  6. Posted, and awaiting moderation.

    (The literary example you cite demonstrates that specific stew can be a beautiful artifact of a particular place and time with a particular implicit history. Sukiyaki? Emperor Meiji says we’ve got to eat meat to be competitive with the Western barbarians, but we’re not used to eating (and can’t afford, and haven’t the space to cook) big slabs of dead cow. Son-of-a-gun stew (which is what the cowboys called it when ladies, young’uns and/or the preacher were within earshot)? The offal was the only part of that prime beef the people who herded it generally got to taste, 20th-21st century steakhouse advertisements notwithstanding. Buddha’s Delight? Don’t expect meat at all in Shaolin Temple–a real-world example of the “strangely spiced and vegetarian” Stew one might be served in the Hidden Retreat on the Other Continent.)

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