Always Coming Home: The Pleasures and Challenges of Writing Fictional Food
How Ursula Le Guin Crafts Imaginary Cuisine with Californian Ingredients. Words by Eli Lee; Illustration by Sinjin Li
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“For fantasy is true, of course,” Ursula Le Guin reminded us. “It isn’t factual, but it’s true”. If fantasy functions as a commentary on the real, then how should we read its food? In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made a distinction between the familiar food of Hobbits and Men and the fantasy food of Elves and Ents to foreground that while Elves and Ents were no longer of this world (their semi-magical foods, lembas and Ent-draught, had passed from memory) there was a temporal lineage between the world of the book and the world we live in today. The Shire, in particular, is a stand-in for England, and a lost England of a particular time ─ its feasts of cold meats, pork pies, scones, thick cut bread, seed cake, mince pies, cream and berries would not look out of place in an Eliza Acton or Isabella Beaton cookbook. Good times are associated with abundance ─ the main crime of the Scouring of the Shire is the rationing and theft of food, and the war’s end coincides with the most extraordinary harvests the Shire has seen. You don’t need to have an imagination to work out what Tolkien was really referring to here.
Food acts similarly in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, who, like Tolkien, was affected by the scarcity of food during the war and the decline of the British larder. The cuisine of Jacques’s woodland creatures is as nativist as Tolkien’s (both try to exclude the New World, although Tolkien can’t help but include tobacco and Jacques potatoes) except Jacques’s cuisine is more radical. The cuisine in Redwall did not exist when Jacques wrote it. It completely eschews meat, focusing instead on native vegetables and fruits and foraged items, decades before this became the remit of Noma or every trendy wine bar in your city. The various sub-cuisines eaten by different creatures ─ the pie and tuber based food of the moles (West Country), the coastal cuisine of the otters (Cornwall) ─ are stand-ins for the regionality vanishing from British cuisine, as distinct as their accents. It is a vision of Modern British as distinct as the ones set out by Alastair Little or Fergus Henderson.
Today’s newsletter by Eli Lee is about two other writers who use real food to create imaginary worlds, and use those imaginary worlds to say something about our’s. One is Lee herself, whose novel A Strange and Brilliant Light comes out later this month. In Lee’s world, a cuisine takes on the hyperregionality of one single person, blending different experiences across time and space and resolves them to create something completely new, something which is based in reality and yet does not exist. The second writer is Le Guin herself, whose novel Always Coming Home (yes, I know) takes a real hyperregional cuisine and fictionalises it, neither anticipating change (like Jacques) nor looking back with nostalgia (like Tolkien) but re-imagining a California as it perhaps should have been. It is a cuisine of utopia, but as Rebecca May Johnson, who edited today’s newsletter, says, “Utopia does not come from nothing. We can make utopias from the materials already there”.
Always Coming Home: The Pleasures and Challenges of Writing Fictional Food, by Eli Lee
My debut novel, A Strange and Brilliant Light, is literary speculative fiction about family, friends, love and loyalty in a world where artificial intelligence is slowly taking over. It’s set in a made-up country called Iolra, which is in some ways familiar to us and in other ways not at all. To bring it into being I used worldbuilding, the technique employed by science fiction and fantasy writers in which you construct an imaginary world bit by bit. Iolra is a country like any other, and so my worldbuilding works via creating its own geography and culture. This focus on specific material things – on where the sea and mountains are, and on what people fish out of that sea, and eat in those mountains – helps make it concrete.
When I consider my writing influences, my choice to worldbuild through food and landscape feels inevitable – for decades, the science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin has been my main literary inspiration. As I’ve made my way through her work, from essays to short stories to novels, I’ve learned that creating a world requires depth, detail and imaginative vision. In the mid-‘80s, she wrote what I consider to be her masterpiece – Always Coming Home, over five hundred pages of intricate world-building that barely resembles sci-fi at all. It’s full of cattail marshes, seed meadows, buzzards and coyotes. These marshes and meadows are home to a people Le Guin calls the Kesh, who, she says, ‘might be going to have lived a long, long time from now’. Where they are is a version of Northern California, the Napa Valley of her childhood, which she knew ‘stone by stone’.
Always Coming Home is an eco-utopia – Le Guin called it ‘a pure utopia, my utopia, my dream world.’ To make it believable, and perhaps achievable, too, she described it in such specificity that you can easily imagine yourself there. These minutiae matter because for all of Le Guin’s brilliant vision, she was also a realist. Just as The Dispossessed (1969)is a blueprint for a future anarchist society, Always Coming Home can be read as a practical guide to an ecologically sustainable existence. A big part of this is how the Kesh live day-to-day, including how their food finds its way from the field to the table.
Soon after the novel begins, we are introduced to the Kesh valley’s ‘poor, opinionated, cranky dirt’, which you have to ‘dig when it’s like wet cement and water when it’s like dry cement’. Corn, beans, squashes, melons and potatoes can be grown in it, but wheat cannot: ‘It spits wheat out.’ On the horizon, there are olive trees, almond orchards, wineries and barns, sheep and cattle. Each detail here adds verisimilitude; this imaginary world has its roots firmly in the real.We are told that the Kesh are farmers and gatherers; the gathering is a ‘major source of food’ and they collect acorns, greens, roots, herbs, berries and many kinds of seed, ‘not at whim but methodically’. With this kind of information, the roots in the real grow deeper and as a result, this imaginary world becomes more vivid. The Kesh utopia is both an ordinary world, where when people have dinner they ‘sit on the floor and eat with their fingers’, and also an extraordinary one – a distant fantasy, one of Le Guin’s fullest and most profound visions.
In Kesh cuisine, the ingredients are familiar but the dishes and their names are not. Líriv metadí, the valley succotash, is small red beans cooked with mushrooms, corn, tomatoes and chilli. Hotuko is chicken cooked with sasí rice (‘rare, long-grained, very fine-flavoured, grown farther south and east of the Inland Sea’) vegetables, tarweed seeds and currant jelly. There are recipes for these, and others, in a section of the book called ‘What they Ate’.
Kesh food is filling, nutritious and wholesome. I can see myself sitting on the floor around a low table together with them, knowing where the rice came from and that the corn and tomatoes for the líriv metadí were grown in nearby gardens and fields. I might not know what personal association Le Guin has with these foods, but Always Coming Home paints such a complete picture of the local ecosystem and their role in them that her intentions are transmitted anyway. This is a depiction of the kinship and connection that I yearn for from cooking and eating, from knowing where my food comes from, or from having grown it myself.
Always Coming Home is deeply rooted in a few specific influences. Le Guin was a Taoist, and you can find Taoist principles and philosophy at the heart of her novel. The influence of her father Alfred Kroeber’s academic research can be seen too, especially in Le Guin’s depiction of Kesh food and agriculture. Kroeber was an anthropologist at Berkeley who worked with Ishi, the last surviving member of the indigenous Yahi people, who were killed in the California genocide in the 19th century. Take the ‘hwovwon’, the acorn flour that the Kesh turn into soup, porridge, batter, bread and cakes. It’s based on ‘wiiwish’, a staple food for indigenous Californians. Elder, madrone and manzanita berries were all part of indigenous diets and are used by the Kesh as food, too, as is the soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), which grows throughout the region. There’s borrowing like this, from indigenous foods and traditions, all over Always Coming Home. For me, the novel works as an act of homage as well as an apology. If you are curious to read more about Le Guin’s complicated relationship with indigenous California and her father’s work, a paper I co-wrote is being published later this year in a book about her legacy.
In A Strange and Brilliant Light, I wanted to make up food from scratch, but that’s impossible. It has to have an anchor in the real, because without a reference point it could taste like anything (and so, nothing). Like the Kesh, my characters often eat real-world food with new names. Labrhai, for example, is a stew of beans, garlic and mushrooms, eaten on a cold night in the foothills of a mountain. The familiarity of the ingredients helps root this dish in things readers already know, whilst the new name and context are part of the novel’s worldbuilding. Inventing a specific cuisine helps to create a more complete world.
I created Iolran cuisine by exploring the space between the real and the imaginary; every imaginary food in my novel has its antecedents somewhere. After a bad day at work, one character comfort eats made-up snacks: moiet balls, sarnda fritters and dulac cake. I give detailed descriptions so the reader can imagine those comforts too: moiet balls are plain, lightly seasoned round dumplings, sarnda fritters are crispy fried vegetables, and dulac cake is a golden, squidy, seriously sweet treat. These invented foods are also products of my family history. Moiet balls I imagine to be like kneidlach – the simple, homely Jewish food my grandmother used to make. Moiet balls mean the bright familiarity of my grandparents’ dining room, where Holocaust survivors sat at the end of the table talking, as always, about their lives. They mean a sense of reaching back through history to the heavy, traditional Ashkenazi cooking passed on from my Lithuanian ancestors.
Sarnda fritters come from visiting my dad in the suburbs of northern Bangkok, where he lived for over a decade. In the evenings we would get in the car and go to the local street market for dinner, stock up on staples and head home with bags of food. Like Lal, my character in the novel, I ate them in front of the television, unsociable but happy. And each summer my mum, who has been a beekeeper for almost thirty years, hands me jars of honey from her Cricklewood beehives. The fragrant white honey, made from nectar of lime tree blossoms, white clover and blackberry flowers, is the taste I imagine for the dulac cake.
Creating an imaginary cuisine is a chance to play with my personal history of food and bring it, like an undercurrent, to the novel. Take the angko, a thickly-sliced smoked fish to put in sandwiches, which has three inspirations from three different dishes, from three cuisines eaten at three different times – one, a piece of Sally Barnes’s salmon at a recent Christmas table, eaten with bread and butter; another the salumi I’d sliced when I worked at the Ham and Cheese Company; and the other a 5am sashimi breakfast in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, after the rain. These antecedents are woven together to create a new fictional item in the same way we invent dishes in the real world of our kitchens, threading together ingredients, ideas, and traces and echoes of foods eaten before.
Anchoring my imaginary food in the real means that A Strange and Brilliant Light works both as a storehouse of my own food memories and as a chance to alchemise them into something new. In Always Coming Home, Le Guin did the same, using personal and cultural memory of the Napa Valley to invent the cuisine, and the world, of the Kesh. Transmitted between the two are tastes, textures and smells, sensory specificities that make the novel’s food substantial and tempting. But borrowing from real foods also brings real-world issues into your fiction – and what you do with them is up to you. In Always Coming Home, Le Guin took difficult histories and her own past and, meal by meal, created her vision for a better future.
Eli Lee is a novelist living in London. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram. Her debut novel A Strange and Brilliant Light is out next Thursday 22nd July on Quercus Books. You can order it here.
The illustration is by Sinjin Li, a multidisciplinary illustration and art entity based in London, UK, with a particular interest in science fiction, the speculative and folkloric traditions. Their work was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Best Artwork 2018 and 2020 respectively. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
This newsletter was edited by Rebecca May Johnson, a writer and academic who is working on her first non-fiction book Small Fires. Pleasure and Resistance in the Kitchen.
The author would also like to thank Jonnie Wolf, Virginia Hartley, Katie Stone and Kiran Dhami for their help with writing this piece.
All photos taken from Always Coming Home.