As a homeschool family, cooking projects are a favorite part of experiencing literature in our house. (If you asked either of my kids what their favorite part of kindergarten was, they would both say Ziggy’s ABC Snacks!) This year, we’re “touring” the world via library books and a cookbook. (So far, German pretzels and Irish soda bread have been the favorites. Neither of the kids would eat ratatouille, though my husband and I liked it. And I’m really looking forward to all the places in the world we can eat curry…)
If you asked real world travelers about their favorite ways of experiencing new places, many would name “food” as an important part of getting to go places and try new things. Since Trinka and the Thousand Talismans is a journey through a variety of fantasy lands, the food Trinka encounters on the way plays an important supporting role in all the new places and cultures she experiences.
Trinka awoke the next morning to find that a heavy mist had settled all around the ship. It not only blanketed the surface of the deck but crept into every nook and niche. It filled Trinka’s mouth and lungs, and as she breathed it in, the heavy mixture of water and air sent a damp, chilly thrill all through her. Its taste was somehow familiar too. It had the clear, fresh smell of the water and winds of Brace and some of the thickness and lightness of Ellipsis. Its taste was refreshing―almost delicious―and it filled her up inside like a mouthful of cake, not just a breath of fresh air. (The Shimmering Path)
In the most fantastical setting in Trinka’s world, people don’t need to eat food at all, since they obtain all the nutrients they need from the mists that permeate this city in the clouds. As Trinka later learns, Ellipsis is not a natural world, but was actually created by elitists from Apostrophe, who had learned to rely on “after-dinner mints” to fill them after feasting on insubstantial genie-created delights. Instead of using this nutritional wonder to gorge themselves on nothingness, they went in the opposite direction, and incorporated it into the air around them so they would never have to stop their studies and bother with eating.
They do, however, eat “vanity cakes” on special occasions—a food whose inspiration could not be more down to earth. If you have read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek, or checked out The Little House Cookbook, you’ll recognize the pioneer-era pastries Ma made for Laura’s birthday party. The cookbook states that Laura herself once described vanity cakes as “so light, really a bubble that they seemed almost nothing in one’s mouth.” However, it seems few bloggers have had success with this recipe, and some suggest vanity cakes may be more like French beignets, South American sopaipilla, or even Indian puri—all versions of deep-fried hollow pastries.
Since I can’t picture the people of Ellipsis having deep fried foods, I think their vanity cakes are more like the “resurrection rolls” made at Easter to commemorate the empty tomb. These rolls get their empty bubble inside from a melted marshmallow.
Despite the fact that it’s May, we finally got around to making resurrection rolls (that’s okay–we celebrate that Jesus is alive all year!). The main reason I haven’t made them before (besides, well, laziness) is that most recipes call for pre-made crescent roll dough. So I was pretty excited to find this homemade resurrection roll recipe. Although it also has a link to making your own marshmallows, the vegan marshmallow recipe I found called for vegan gelatin, which I couldn’t find. It was easier to just buy a bag of vegan marshmallows instead. Just look at that happy marshmallow!
Our attempt came out looking pretty good. Only two of them really oozed marshmallow. They were pretty hollow inside, especially once I scooped out the melty marshmallow glop. The ones that didn’t ooze had a whole marshmallow still intact inside, which left a very nice hollow “cave” once removed.
Vegan alternatives (yes, vegan cheese, we are talking about you) are kind of known for not melting like the real thing, so that may have been the issue here. In any case, my kids declared them “awesome!”
Or perhaps “vanity cakes” on Ellipsis are more like vanilla meringue cookies. Although not exactly hollow, they definitely fit the description of light pastries, as they’re just whipped egg whites and sugar baked very slowly until they harden. Even a box of them hardly weighs anything. Since Ellipsis does have indoor gardens with doves and orchids, it’s plausible that they use dove eggs for the egg whites and grow their own vanilla, and import the sweetener from Apostrophe. Since dove eggs are tiny, it would make sense that these are only an occasional treat!
Being allergic to eggs I couldn’t try these myself, and they were not a hit with my husband or kids. (My husband described them as “like astronaut ice cream without the flavor.”) I think their appearance sets up an expectation of “soft,” while they’re actually hard and crunchy. But, if they were the only food they ever got to eat, they might just learn to look forward to them. And maybe the people of Ellipsis find a way to make these treats keep their shape while still tasting like a mouthful of fluffy frosting. (One can always fantasize…)
It felt like a rock between her fingers and even more so in her mouth. Trinka rolled it back and forth on her tongue for a minute before finally crunching it between her teeth. It crumbled into sharp, bitter-tasting bits… Although the lagou also looked like rocks, they felt slightly squishy. Cautiously, Trinka took a bite, causing it to ooze a sticky, cloying syrup that immediately fused all her teeth together. Unused to food that didn’t just melt in her mouth, she chewed and chewed, unable to swallow. (Traveling Tents)
When Trinka travels to Bedrosian, she is faced with having to eat food to survive for the first time, a reality she finds hard to chew… literally. Her brother’s wife, Tarian, offers her an appetizer of akenes and lagou. In botany, “akenes” or “achenes” are a dry fruit that is mostly filled with seed. Buckwheat and strawberry “seeds” are edible examples in our world (many others, such as the fruit of buttercup and clematis plants, are not). Sunflower seeds, while technically cypsela, are often called achenes as well. In a sunflower seed, the hull (that we throw away) is actually the fruit, and the kernel, or seed, is the tasty part inside.
The achenes that Trinka tries to eat (available only in this fantasy world, sorry) are about the size and crunchiness of almonds, with the bitterness of walnut skins. To someone accustomed to eating only fluffy pastries, if at all, you can see why this would come as a surprise. (Would you be equally surprised to know that strawberry “seeds” or achenes are the actual fruit of the strawberry? That sweet juicy red stuff is just an accessory fruit that holds up the real ones.)
“Lagou” is actually a variety of date grown in Tunisia. While similar to our palm dates, the lagou Trinka eats are more syrupy inside–rather than having a large pit in the center, it’s filled with a goo containing the tiny seeds. So while Trinka wonders if her sister-in-law is trying to get her to go away, she’s actually just offering her a nice, albeit unfamiliar, snack of fruit and nuts.
The taste was almost like breathing in a cloud of thought. She could picture the rich, brown land she had walked on as she savored the warm, underlying aroma. The tiny flecks of black, russet, and gray-green that had floated in the drink added vivid flavors that made her mouth prickle with heat, which was quickly cooled by overtones of soft, golden tastes. The tea left a tang in her mouth even after she had swallowed—tart, but not unpleasant, as if she had just drank sunlight.
I didn’t have a particular tea in mind when writing this description of the tea Trinka’s sister-in-law Tarian offers her. But then a friend kindly gave me a box of fancy-schmancy Smith tea called Meadow, which suggests on the label “you may need a sun hat” while you drink it. I have to admit, even the bag is nothing like I’d ever seen, and the bright flavor fits the description of Bedrosian tea pretty well.
Food for the road
One of my two major culutural inspirations for Bedrosian was the Salish, natives of the Pacific Northwest renowned for their goat hair weaving as well as for their use of local foods. Although “pemmican” comes from a Cree word and was often made from the meat and fat of buffalo or deer, the Salish also made it from dried salmon and berries. When Trinka spends the day herding goats with her brother, he offers her pemmican and dried lavosh.
If you haven’t tried lavosh yet (also spelled “lavash” and a variety of other ways), you can travel to Armenia… or pick some up at Trader Joe’s. This flatbread is great for wraps and pizzas (it even makes an intriguing twist on PB&J sandwiches), but Trinka eats it dried like a cracker, so that it splinters in her mouth. Great for traveling. Not so great for a food newbie.
Full meal deal
A single, oval-shaped dish took up most of the low, laden table between them, heaped with piles of dark, irregularly shaped chunks surrounded by what looked like hundreds, if not thousands of tiny, pale brown pebbles…. The little pebbles turned out to be soft, but they lumped together in a texture that nearly set off her gag reflex. (Traveling Tents)
The other major culture that influencing my thinking on Bedrosian was the Bedouin culture, in which meals play an essential role in hospitality. (Like the Salish, they’re also known for weaving goat hair.) When Trinka goes to visit Tarian’s parents, a meal is immediately part of welcoming her into their home. So if you want to have a Bedrosian style, you can try a large communal dish packed with flavors. (And don’t forget a generous dose of kindness and generosity.)
Being a vegetarian who keeps meat preparation to a minimum, I have never roasted a goat (the “dark chunks” described here). So you’re on your own. But my kids actually adore pearl couscous, a grain that fits the base of this dish nicely. Our favorite way to cook it is just in vegetable broth (we use Better than Bouillon). Of course, it could also be pearl barley, since barley is a staple among Bedouin culture, as it’s easier to grow in their climate and nomadic culture.
I think that once Trinka got more accustomed to these unfamiliar tastes and textures, or if she ever got a chance to go back to Bedrosian, she might really learn to like many of their foods.
A little parting gift…
As Trinka leaves Bedrosian to travel to Parthalan, Tarian packs her a lunch she believes is thoughtful and culturally sensitive–since the people of Parthalan are vegetarians, she gives Trinka a chunk of what turns out to be goat cheese rather than goat meat. The smell, however, puts Trinka in an awkward situation. Although not all goat cheeses have a pungent aroma, you might want to check out this list of 17 of the stinkiest cheeses for a rundown of some of the top offenders. It’s possible that Bedrosian goat cheese is similar to #16, Tomme de Chevre, which is “grassy and nutty, but with a strong goaty smell that has a particular kind of gaminess that some people can find off-putting.”Especially when that’s a room full of kids who are used to eating fresh breads and berries…
The smell of baking bread filled the room, making Trinka not just willing but eager to eat.
“Do you want some fruit?” Oana offered shyly. “We went berry picking this morning—they’re a little squashed, but they’re still fresh.”
Trinka took a few of the bumpy little spheres and ovoids, which ranged from pale purple to deep maroon, and cautiously sampled one. Unlike the rock-hard akenes she had struggled with in Bedrosian, these immediately burst open in her mouth, sending streams of flavorful juice down her tongue. (Fields of Gold)
As a Pacific Northwest native (and a vegetarian), Parthalan is kind of my idea of paradise, at least as far as the cuisine.
Like Frances, I could live quite happily for some time eating nothing but Bread and Jam. In fact, it’s one of my life ambitions to get really good at going to u-pick fruit farms in the country and making my own preserves and fresh baked bread. (In addition to finding the time to do that, I’ll have to find a really good workout program to go with it, and um, the time to workout as well.)
I have a feeling, though, that bread and jam in Parthalan is not very much like squishy-white-bread made with sugar, dough conditioners and high-fructose corn syrup, but more like super fresh home baked bread with pure fruit preserves. It’s not fruit season yet, and we’ve long since eaten last year’s berries, but I do still make fresh rolls in the bread machine. (A little peeled and grated zucchini makes them extra fluffy!) Ahh, who needs doughnuts when you have fresh rolls and jam?
Trinka quietly savored the sweet juices, tender flavors, and fluffy breads. The platters and pedestals slowly emptied as their plates continually refilled themselves. Trinka couldn’t believe that she had eaten half of what she had. She was full enough to burst―or was she? More food had just appeared on her plate for the third time, and her cousins had eaten at least twice as much. Maybe three times. And yet, she didn’t really feel any more full than when she started. Trinka kept eating, and so did her aunt and her cousins until the last morsel had disappeared into Sabirah’s mouth. Trinka carefully set her hooked utensil down and looked at the hundreds of empty dishes thoughtfully. She wasn’t particularly hungry anymore, but at the same time she felt like she could sit down and eat that much again. What was going on?
The food of Apostrophe is the most “fantastic” in this fantasy book, but it has its origins in the persistent myth that the Romans routinely vomited at feasts in order to eat more. (Not only untrue, but… quite disgusting.) As this History.com article explains, “the myth of the vomitorium captures the decadence, debauchery and excess of many Romans’ eating habits. Feasting was an important part of a wealthy Roman’s social life, and perhaps no culture since has dedicated itself to the task quite as wholeheartedly.”
Likewise, in my fantasy world, I wanted a way for the people to eat unlimited amounts of goodies, as feasting plays an important role in their daily life and celebrations. Enter (ta-da…) genie food! Although absolutely delicious and available in almost every imaginable form of fruit, vegetable, baked good, and meat dish, food produced by genies is merely a tangible illusion. People who eat the food conjured by genies get the full experience of seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching it flavors and textures, they aren’t actually eating anything. It’s like being on a cruise ship buffet with no calories. None.
They overcome this nutritional deficiency by eating “after-dinner mints,” a meal-in-a-pill that provides not only a sensation of fullness, but all their caloric needs for a meal. As noted above, the people of Ellipsis originally came from Apostrophe and turned this system upside down by avoiding eating altogether.
Also of note, one thing that genies cannot make is water. (Or rather they could, but having no substance, it would not quench your thirst at all, except maybe psychologically for a few moments.)
And not everyone in Apostrophe gets to eat like this. Genie feasts are reserved strictly for the upper class. The rest of those poor people have to eat real food (gasp). While lost in the local marketplace, Trinka notices:
A man with meaty hands gripped an enormous, green fruit, which he split open with one whack of his curved blade. He turned the insides of the fruit toward the street where already a small crowd was gathering. Trinka worked her way through the shoppers and bags and babies to get a glimpse of the sparkling, green slices. Hands with small clinking jewels appeared, and one by one the slices disappeared as the fruit stand man dropped the jewels into a pot and handed each customer their slice, his left hand never straying from his knife. Two women oohed and ahhed as they savored the fruit in tiny bites and carefully licked the juice from their fingers. Trinka eyed the fruit enviously…
In my first draft, Trinka actually got to help cut this fruit from trees which thoroughly protested the harvesting process. (It was a fun scene, but part of several chapters that had to get chopped, mainly due to length considerations.) I picture this fruit as being large and sweet, like a honeydew melon, but with a structure more like a citrus fruit, with pockets of juice.
On the other side of the street, a man dished out scoops of a thick, stew-like mixture for a line of hungry customers. Trinka’s nose tingled from the exotic mix of sweet and pungent spices, and her mouth began to water as the scent sparked the sensation of mild flames upon her tongue. Her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she had missed lunch and, being alone in a strange land, had no prospects of getting any dinner. To her surprise, as the customers finished gulping down their meals, they tossed their crystal dishes into a roaring fire. Another man pulled the bowls from the leaping flames with a long, sharp hook and set them on the booth again, sparkling clean.
(I’m so excited about this method of washing dishes. But it’s not as great as the cleaning genies that Trinka’s aunt also has in her palace.) I also love a good lentil stew, whether it’s Lebanese or (mildly spiced) Indian style. If you’d like to make a stew with red lentils, just put a splash of olive oil in a pan, add a bit of chopped garlic and onion and some cumin. Once they’re softened, add the red lentils and enough water to cover. Red lentils dissolve as they cook, so you can eat them as they are, or puree them for a smoother finish. Add some chopped cilantro and a splash of lemon juice for a brighter flavor. (Sadly, you’ll have to wash the dish in the normal way.)
So would I want genie food? Well, I think I’d actually rather stick with real, wholesome food, calories and all, and enjoy it in moderation. But cleaning genies? Sign me up!
“Here, have something to eat.” Before she could protest, he shoved a shallow, two-handled bowl into her hands. Its handles curved into gently spiraling wave shapes, making it look a bit like a miniature version of the ship itself. A few pieces of gray, blubbery-looking flesh and a lot of flat, stringy green and brown pieces of plant floated in a salty-smelling liquid. Her stomach grumbled and churned discontentedly.
Seaweed soup. Although people often think of Asian cuisine as the only one that uses seaweed, it’s apparently also popular in certain Welsh and Scottish dishes, such as laverbread. Being a world of water, all the food in Brace must come from the sea (although I think they’re a little more fantastic with their aquaculture than we are…) So fish and seaweed are their bread and butter, so to speak.
I’m not actually a huge fan of seaweed, except as little sprinkles on rice cakes. (My kids like it that way too.) Or miso soup. If I ever learn to like it, I may whip up a bowl of aonori misoshiru, like this one, and pretend I’m on Trinka’s father’s sailing ship.
A Taste of Trinka’s Worlds…
So there you have it. I hope that when you read Trinka and the Thousand Talismans, the food Trinka gets to taste through every step of her journey will help make you feel you’re traveling along with her. Should I say, bon voyage? bon appetit? or simply bonne lecture? Happy reading!