Cooking and magic

Apart from a few exceptions, food is never a topic in fantasy or SF. Surprising if you compare it to another common life activity such as, say sex: after all, we eat every day! 
Yet magic / religion and cooking have been linked together right from the start! Not only does cooking involve transformations, transmutations and mixtures, but it is closely associated with a major magical and symbolic element: fire. In addition, meals were taken collectively, with a whole range of social, emotional, and religious interactions. I am not even talking about collective drinking or food poisoning!
A Bit of History
We don't know how the idea of cooking food came to prehistoric men / women. Did they find a half-burnt carcass after a forest fire? Has some clumsy man dropped his meal into the fire? Has a curious individual suspended a piece of meat / fruit above the flames?
Still, they discovered that not only cooked food had a different taste, but also a different texture.  Meat became easier to chew, cut, eat by young children etc... In addition, it kept longer than raw meat, so the remains of the mammoth could last for a few days. I'm sure there were great philosophical debates between the conservatives, holding to raw food and the progressives, proponents of cooked food. I'm sure there were even extreme progressive who wanted to cook everything, including fruits and berries. As usual, the progressives won and embarked on various experiments. Some plants with a mediocre taste, or even poisonous in the raw, became delicious and edible when cooked, like potatoes or carrots (prehistoric carrots were little more than stringy roots). 
The next step was to boil the food in parallel with the development of pottery. This brought in a new symbolic element: water.
With the arrival of crops and breeding, we moved on to much more elaborate processes: making yogurt, cheese, bread, preserving with salt... Before the invention of the fridge and freezer, cooking  was not just preparing the evening meal in a hurry, but preserving food for weeks or months. That took days and the combined efforts of several people to preserve food for the winter when nothing grows, for the crossing of deserts and seas... We do not know  when cooking became  perceived as female activity. But as the status of women deteriorated, processing food, although vital for everyone's survival, also lost its prestige. On the other hand, when it was a fee-paying job, like preparing meals for a king or a lord, it was suddenly a man's job!!
Transmutations and Creations
Certain processes which bring about a spectacular transformation of the original ingredients were almost universally perceived as somewhat supernatural. Take fermentation: you leave to stand a mixture of honey and apple juice and after a few days, you get a liquid full of bubbles that makes "bloop, bloop". There must be spirits playing inside! Also, if you drink the stuff, it has a different taste, a bit of a bite and you feel euphoric. A little more of that magic drink and you look possessed by a playful spirit and finally, if you really drink too much of it, you pass out… Isn't it magic?
Therefore, making of beer / wine / mead / chocolate (yes, it was also fermented) etc ... around the world, was quickly associated with various rituals: to be started at full moon, after prayers and offerings or magic formulae. Only water from some sacred spring was used, etc… Ethyl alcohol itself was be isolated by Arab or Persian alchemists in the Middle Ages and baptized "spirit of wine" in Europe. Moreover, in legends, alcoholic drinks (wine in Greece, chocolate in South America…) often have a legendary and divine origin. 
It is the same for bread: you take seeds that you reduce to flour, you add water and you get an elastic paste (dough), then after a few hours it rises, changing volume, texture and becoming full of holes (another fermentation). . Finally, you cook it in the fire and get a totally different substance. Almost alchemy!
And what about jam? You take sugar, a cristalline powder, a pile of fruits you heat them to the boil and you end up with a gelatinous substance. Isn't it magic? Add the fact that sugar was an expensive stuff brought all the way from India, in medieval times and you can understand why even an alchemist like Nostradamus wrote a series of jam recipes. 
Rituals
Bead and wine: the union of these two highly elaborated foods requiring a mountain of work over a long period of time is finally found… in communion at the end of the catholic mass, where eating becomes a collective and mystical experience. Admittedly, it's a bit minimalist as a meal. What about the Japanese tea ceremony?
Certain foods and their manufacture became associated with particular rituals: flat breads, pancakes /blinis etc ... were made since the Neolithic, long before bread. In Russia, they were eaten for Candlemas, which celebrated the end of winter. Their round shape symbolized the sun. To prepare them, the housewives had to make a new leaven. For that, they went in secret, at full moon, to take running water in a stream / river (in February, the rivers are frozen, so do not forget an ax and warm clothes). While collecting the water, the had to whisper magic formulas and stay on the lookout for hungry wolves. They then prepared the leaven with other formulas. Finally, the pancakes had to be cooked over a newly lit fire (a complicated process before matches were invented).
Food substances found themselves endowed with magical properties outside the kitchen: garlic protected against vampires, of course, but also against evil eye, hexes and bad luck in general. This plant has the property of repelling a lot of weeds and pests from the vegetable garden. Hence the reasoning: "if it protects the vegetable garden, it must also be able to protect humans"!  Along the same line, salt, which protected food from rotting, should also protect against bad luck.
Magic Instruments
Some cooking-related items had their own magic: the Russian Baba Yaga does not move on a broom, but sits in a mortar and wields a pestle. In Eastern European folklore, the domestic spirit, protector of the house, takes up residence behind the stove where the cooking is done (I don't know if in modern apartments they have moved behind the microwave ). And what about the cauldrons and grails, symbols of transformation? The Renaissance Cauldron of Mabinogion, resuscitates the dead. The alchemists' anathor transmutes lead into gold. In short, any self-respecting witch must have one!
All Manners of Diets
Finally, lets not forget the various diets that existed long before our modern time. Monks especially debated at length about what was permissible to eat at Lent, what was nutritious food, what food elevated the spirit etc... More prosaically, there were diets for pregnant women (lots of beer, to have the smallest possible baby who would come out safely), diets for women who wanted to be pregnant (plenty of stone fruits), diets to get wavy hair, diets to get flat hair (leek), diets according to your temperament (sanguine, bilious…). 
And finally, the broth for people "with nervous disposition": a fashionable condition at the beginning of the Romantic period. The first modern european restaurants were luxury establishments which  only served "special broth" to "restore health" for wealthy hypersensitive young people. 
Okay, that's enough for today: I have to discuss tomorrow's menu with my domestic spirit, behind the microwave!

Write a comment

Comments: 0