A Food History Lesson from Game of Thrones

Written by West Side Spirit on . Posted in Dining Our Town, Dining West Side Spirit.


Francine Segan pulls recipes and culinary inspiration from the popular HBO series

A few chapters into reading “Game of Thrones,” food historian and Upper East Side resident Francine Segan recognized dishes and food customs she encountered when researching medieval recipes and dining traditions.

Medieval Food photo 1_opt“He’s done his research,” Segan said about series author George R.R. Martin.

Segan spoke at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, March 11 about the food, feasts and flagons that populate Martin’s fantasy series and the hit HBO show of the same name. Martin, she said, must have spent some time hitting the history books, and perhaps even historical cookbooks.

“He pulls really true, well-researched information on dining and all sorts of food customs from not only the European Middle Ages, but also the Asian Middle Ages and earlier,” Segan said. “India, China, even medieval Africa.”

For a series featuring dragons, sorcery and some very cold zombies, “Game of Thrones” has roots in historical events, from the War of the Roses to Scottish massacres. Though the locations, characters and events are fictional, the world of the series is made up of distinct geographic regions, all with different climates, customs and food. According to Segan, even the castle kitchens have historical ties. The wealthy, power-hungry Lannister family “feels very European medieval,” Segan said, while Daenerys Targaryen’s rituals evoke ancient Mongolian and Eastern European customs. Fans of the show will remember when a pregnant Daenerys ritualistically devoured the raw heart of a horse, a common custom for pregnant women in ancient Turkey, Africa and Mongolia, Segan said.

Less gruesome delicacies are the lemon cakes favored by Sansa Stark, a wealthy, aristocratic girl who fantasizes about chivalric knights and evenings spent in the King’s company.

Medieval Food photo 2_opt“That’s a cute little food history wink,” Segan said. “Historically, lemons were really expensive and revered, and that was something for the nobility in the Middle Ages.”

The sumptuous depictions of extravagant meals found in both the pages of the books and on the television show inspired an official cookbook, A Feast of Ice and Fire, and a companion blog, The Inn at the Crossroads, featuring recipes such as pigeon pie, grilled snake with fiery mustard sauce, and direwolf scones. The latter recipe references a scene in from the show, when a young baker presents Arya Stark with bread in the shape of a wolf, her family’s sigil, as a parting gift. The scene, Segan said, also points to a historical custom.

“That’s something they used to do in medieval times,” said Segan, who has written several cookbooks herself, including Shakespeare’s Kitchen, a collection of Elizabethan recipes, and The Philosopher’s Kitchen, featuring ancient Greek and Roman culinary treats. “To honor the guest, they would make the bread in the shape of the coat of arms of the guest of honor.”

A pie baked with 100 live doves, served during a “Game of Thrones” wedding feast, has both historical and modern references, Segan said.

“In the book, they talk about a wedding feast where 100 live doves were released from a pie, and we still do that today in weddings,” Segan said. Though we won’t encounter doves baked into pie crusts, doves are sometimes released during wedding ceremonies as symbols of peace and fidelity. “That idea of putting doves in a pie so they could fly away is absolutely from a medieval cookbook.”

Season four of the HBO series premieres on April 6, and fans of the show don’t need a pocket full of gold or a castle-sized kitchen to dine like a Lannister during the premiere. For anyone throwing a viewing party, Segan recommends Tuck Shop (in Chelsea Market or at 68 E 1st Street) for Australian meat pies remarkably reminiscent of a medieval meal. She bought a tray’s worth for a viewing party of her own.

Medieval Food photo 3_opt“Then get some interesting beer, like Dogfish Head,” she said. “Hunks of cheese from a great cheese shop, and big bunches of grapes that everyone can pull off.”

“Game of Thrones” offers Segan a virtual feast of mouth-watering historical references. But she thinks the series can turn any fantasy fan into a foodie.

“Food is something that’s easy for everyone to relate to,” she said. “Even if you weren’t into food, when you started reading the book or watching the show you’d get into food because of such rich descriptions. It’s a fun way to look at history, to feel the past in a very visceral way.”

Spring is on the horizon, but in the world of Westeros, winter is coming. And, if history repeats itself, it will be delicious.

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