Saturday, April 07, 2012

A to Z: Gagh!

There's an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Commander Riker takes part in an officer exchange program and goes to serve on a Klingon vessel for a time. As part of his effort to familiarize himself with Klingon food, he goes to Ten Forward and orders himself up a smorgasbord of Klingon food, all of which looks very odd. The most notable dish here is Gagh, which he later learns is "best eaten live". (When he looks askance at eating live Gagh, a Klingon japes, "Perhaps we can arrange for one of the females to breastfeed you!")

So what is Gagh, anyway? Well, the experts, Gagh is:

A Klingon delicacy of serpent worms (pronounced "gawk"). Connoisseurs of Klingon cuisine claim that gagh is best served very fresh — i.e. live.  But it is sometimes served stewed. Gagh is one of the most popular foods served aboard Klingon warships.

Apparently the chief appeal of Gagh is its unique mouthfeel as the live worms pass through your mouth and into your digestive tract to die. Awesome! (It also turns out that in Klingon, Gagh is spelled qagh, so I could have done this one under Q. I haven't yet pre-selected my Q entry for this series, so I've missed an opportunity!) But even vegans don't have to feel left out, as they can simulate Gagh thusly.

Which brings up the more interesting topic of fantasy and sci-fi food. Food is one of the best ways to convey an alien quality of any situation, which is why we're told that Klingons like to eat a dish of live worms because they like the feeling of slithery things going down their gullets. "Normal" food in science fiction? Never! There's not a whole lot of food in Star Wars, but there is "blue milk" at Luke's table on Tatooine. Jabba the Hutt likes to eat little beasties live, and so on. And Star Trek was forever giving us different alien foods, some of them live, like the eggs that the Cardassians like to eat, the ones that you crack open and see the embryo squirming about inside.

Of course, science fiction food used to be all about taking pills. You'd take a single pill and there's all your nutrition! Food would be a thing of the past in our technological future. And then you have food, real food, used as a way to suggest certain luxuries. Witness Firefly, when Shepherd Book's ability to cook with a few actual spices is welcomed warmly, and when he is able to partially guarantee passage on Serenity by giving Kaylee a single strawberry.

Fantasy food tends to be different. In fantasy, food is often where some of the magic happens. The Lord of the Rings gives us lembas, the Elven bread that can sustain a grown man for an entire day in a single bite. In the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, one of the main foods is aliantha, the berries of The Land, which provide sustenance in much the same way as lembas does. Magical foods abound, and turn out to be an outstanding way to get magic into the story without resorting to wizards and spells; the magic in food is a part of the fantasy world itself, and not a creation of the people in it. There's even food inside the computer, as TRON indicates, as the programs have to stop and drink some pure energy after escaping the Game Grid.

Guy Gavriel Kay's use of food is tied to themes of nationality, a common theme in his books. For example, in A Song for Arbonne, much is made of Cauvas Gold, a wine that is especially beloved in the land of Arbonne. And then there is George RR Martin, who provides a lot of descriptives for the foods served in A Song of Ice and Fire. There, food creates mood: when writing about highborn characters in their castles, he lovingly describes a lot of gourmet-sounding foods; on the other hand, when characters are out in the wilderness or among the 'smallfolk', the food is characterized as 'rustic', at best. So descriptive can Martin be of his food that there's a blog devoted to recreating it.

Why is food so central in storytelling? Because food is tied to so many prime emotions. Spirituality? Food is a central part of Christian ritual. Food's a part of football – just try throwing a Super Bowl party with little or no food. Food as love? There's your chocolate. Food as laughter? My beloved pie in the face. Food as horror? Well, what does Dracula need to live?

Food is also a gateway to character. Jean-Luc Picard has to have his tea (Earl Grey, hot). James Bond and his vodka martinis. When you think about it, food does an awful lot of heavy lifting in stories, doesn't it!

So next time you're watching a fantasy or SF show or reading a novel, pay attention to the food! And if you engage a story with little or no food in it, ask yourself if that world seems quite as real as others that tell us what their people are eating.

And you know...I'll bet with plenty of hot sauce, gagh would be just fine.


M. D. Jackson said...

Excellent post, my friend!

Call me Paul said...

Yea, but for 'Q' wouldn't you talk about, oh, I don't know, "Q?"