Warning: mild spoilers for Game of Thrones and 1Q84.
Question: are food descriptions necessary, or just dead weight in a book? After finishing Haruki Murakami’s latest, and reading a few book reviews of 1Q84, I’m reminded of complaints about the food descriptions in Game of Thrones. While on different ends of the literary spectrum, both George R. R. Martin and Murakami are authors who have been criticized for writing about food too much.
(Heck, GoT has even inspired its own food blog, Inn at the Crossroads, and lovely cookbook, and Murakami’s prose has also inspired two volumes of recipes.) Is it just filler? Or, does the long descriptions of ingredients, preparations and cuisine in those stories have something more to them?
I’m thinking that to both Martin and Murakami, food isn’t just about not being hungry. For both authors’ characters, food isn’t just about sustenance— it can foreshadow danger, or signal the moral leanings of a character. Though these author’s stories inhabit two different worlds— a mythical, medieval world and a surreal modern Tokyo— in both, good food signals comfort and safety, and bad food signals uncertainty and peril.
For example, the disgusting food of the infamous Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords reminds me of the lonely dinners of Ushikawa’s instant noodle cups, clashing with the meals that Tengo carefully prepares for himself and Fuka-Eri. The Red Wedding’s feast is in stark contrast to the mouth-watering descriptions of other meals in GoT’s world. The horror of the massacre was prefaced with unappetizing food: “thin leek soup,” ”jellied calf brains” and “string beef,” to name a few of the unsavory dishes. All the food dishes sound awful, and were paired with unappealing adjectives.
Murakami does something similar in 1Q84: his antagonist, Ushikawa, subsists on a sad diet of instant soup and cold packaged food, while the main characters of the story sit down to well-prepared meals. Aomame and her friend have a ritual of sharing dinner together, and when she goes into hiding, she’s protected by her delivered cache of groceries. The message is clear: when the food stops, so does the safety. Also, with winter coming in Game of Throne’s universe, what will happen to the food supply? Those lovingly described feasts and simple yet hearty meals will slowly fade to hunger and famine.
Of course, in Norwegian Wood there is the loving descriptions of the meals made in the Kansai style for the novel’s protagonist, the fistfulls of spaghetti made by narrator in A Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and of course, the comforting, well-stocked kitchen at the house in A Wild Sheep Chase. There’s also the lovely, poetic short story “Year of Spaghetti” which deals with life while single.
And you could write for pages about the opulent food of the castle and nobility, the simple food of the country and traveling, and the spicy, exotic food of the Dorne as well as Daenerys Targaryen’s desert lands in Game of Thrones. I’ve even tried two of the recipes from Inn at the Crossroad’s cookbook, a gluten-free version of Sansa’s lemon cakes as well as Dany’s cold fruit soup.
Of course, if you’re not into food, then the descriptions of meals can make you wish both writers’ had more aggressive editors.
And it’s never a good idea to read these books on an empty stomach, or you’ll find yourself craving cheese and onion pie with mead, or a bowl of miso soup with tofu and wakame, washed down with a cup of barley tea.