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Monday, September 25, 2017

Food In The Vorkosiverse

It's odd, really, but  the food that gets the most detailed description in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosiverse seems to be on Barrayar, the homeworld of her hero, Miles Vorkosigan, or in Barrayaran homes elsewhere.

 I've just been rereading Cetaganda, in which Miles and his cousin Ivan arrive on the capital of the Cetagandan Empire to attend the funeral of the Dowager Empress Lisbet Degtiar, the current Emperor's mother. Cetaganda is a world which specialises in genetic engineering and loves things artistic. The palace spends the days to the funeral running different events and catering for hundreds of attendees, and we're told, on the first day, that Miles and his fellow delegates are served morning tea and lunch and that it's many courses of small delicate finger-food-type things, but not what any of them are. Same thing with the early reception at the Marilacan Embassy. Yet when Miles invites over Mia Maz, a Vervani etiquette expert, to their Embassy,  she pounces delightedly on chocolate petit fours. That is, we start to get some details. There is something called zlati ale on Cetaganda, but that's a part of the plot. I won't tell you what it does, in case you want to read it - spoilers! 

Because so much is centred around the military, we do hear of ration - rat - bars. They're not very tasty, but if you're desperate, as Miles sometimes is, you're only too happy to have one. At one point, in The Vor Game, he is imprisoned in a cell on board Commander Cavilo's ship, and fed on very basic food. Cavilo was unaware of this, telling him he was being fed only what she and her men have, but orders him something better - so much better that he wonders what her soldiers have. They must be overweight and happy. In that case, there was some detail. 

But once you get back to Barrayar, the home cooked meals begin, such as those prepared by Ma Kosti, the mother of two of Miles's guards, whom he offers a job as his cook. Miles gives lunch to Ekaterin, a young widow he first met on Komarr, where her husband was working before he was killed stupidly and needlessly. Ekaterin is the woman he wants in his life, and lunch is a Ma Kosti special, with peach tarts for dessert. Actually, Ma Kosti can make a gourmet delight of a sandwich. She concocts fishy delights for the cat! Before the end of A Civil Campaign, she has cooked a banquet for Miles's guests(using bug butter from the butter bugs being raised in the basement)and created maple ambrosia for the Emperor's wedding. 

A typical local breakfast is a cereal called groats, which are also used as part of wedding ceremonies. Barrayar has been terraformed for the most part, so that Earth maple trees are there to produce sugar - they are big in Miles's district. But there are, oddly, some edible indigenous fruit, brillberries, which are eaten quite safely by the human colonists and cooked into tarts. Well, they must be native fruit, unless they've been developed from Earth berries over the centuries. 

Bujold seems to take great delight in describing her food, especially little cakes, but mostly Barrayaran treats. Otherwise, food is there because it's part of the plot. 

Maybe Barrayar is "home" to the author! 


Anonymous said...

The Vorkosiverse is well overdue a re-read...but not something I'm going to be able to correct for a while!

I hadn't really twigged the food thing, but now you mention it...I think you make an important point: to a great extent, food is really there to help drive the plot. It's really easy to get food wrong. We've recently read the Gargoyle for bookclub, and in there are some lists of food that sound like Clement Freud on Just a Minute. Very distracting. I don't know but perhaps the intent is that food is from Miles' perspective. There is odd, foreign stuff - he knows the obvious dishes that are seen across the galaxy, but the ones that don't make it off-world seem very exotic. Military fare is (usually) the same every where (Asterix warning Obelix that army cooking is deliberately bad to keep the soldiers lean mean and n their toes). Home cooking is comfortable, comforting - Miles doesn't need this until he starts gallivanting across the galaxy and getting into trouble...

Sue Bursztynski said...

Some good points there, David! I don't recall that bit about Asterix, it's been a while since I've read those books, but it wouldn't surprise me.

I have a tendency to use food to drive my own plots. My friend Gillian Polack disapproves of this. In all her books, characters sit down to delicious meals, for no special reason except that's who they are, they like to cook. It does have a connection with Gillian's own love of cooking.

But in A Civil Campaign especially, food really does drive the plot and there's no "merely" about it! There's that banquet which nearly wrecks Miles's romantic life, for starters!