Themes: Food

squire: Is there any other chapter in The Lord of the Rings that is as much about food as this one?

 MerryK: Really Squire! This is a family board! How are we supposed to answer questions about how Sam handles tender coneys or the responsive way the fire builds under his knowing ministrations....?!

Oh.  I guess I could answer like dernyn and farfromhome and notice that the pleasures of the very simple meal here are going to make a sharp contrast to the hardships ahead.  

Too bad I can't seem to come up with a link to that fairly well known essay about the subtext of Tolkien's warm meals and soft beds.  Anybody else have it?

N.E. Brigand: [modded up!] Perhaps this? "Warm Beds Are Good" by Ty Rosenthal, aka Tyellas, appeared in an issue of the Tolkien Society's journal Mallorn and also here.  I've never read it, so I'm only guessing that it is the essay to which you refer.


Hobbits and Food


squire: A. Why does Tolkien make his hobbits “a merry race of boring gluttons”?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] Home-cooking To be more like us?


Real food v. lembas


Lembas, by Nasmith, Howe, New Line Films


“ . . . he had begun to long for a good homely meal, ‘something hot out of the pot’ . . . . ‘you don’t like our food, and I’d not be sorry for a change myself’.” – Sam, ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’.


Treebeard's draughts may be nourishing, but one feels the need of something solid. And even lembas is none the worse for a change.” – Merry, ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, Chap. 9, Book III, The Two Towers.


squire: Hobbits agree: lembas is not enough! But:


The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam's mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. – ‘Mount Doom’, Chap. 3, Book VI, The Return of the King.

squire: B. Is it his hobbit-nature, or the circumstances of the detour through Ithilien, or perhaps some other factor, that makes Sam reject the lembas in this chapter?

           *muffled chewing*


squire: C. Can you imagine what lembas tastes like? Can you imagine getting sick of it?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] Well, as Pippin says later, hobbits "can't live long on the heights". Too much of a good thing can still get boring, and the simple food of home starts to look awfully good. I even get that on holiday - I get sick of even the best of restaurant meals and just want some plain home-cooking for a change.


What Gollum eats


     ` Sméagol doesn't like smelly leaves. He doesn't eat grasses or roots, no precious, not till he's starving or very sick, poor Sméagol. '

squire: D. No veggies, no carbs. What does Gollum live on? Can he physically survive on such a diet? Knowing what we do about what he will eat, did you imagine there was anything he wouldn’t eat?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] He's a carnivore. They get the vitamins and stuff they need from the digestive systems of their prey (or so I understand). Pretty gross, but that's how it is...

Lúthien_Rising: As for Gollum, his diet is woefully deficient in most vitamins and has no fibre at all. That poor creatures digestive system must be a mess - but we also see that he suffers physically, and not just from lack of sunlight. (He certainly ought to have a major case of rickets!)

drogo_drogo: Gollum's diet is no doubt causing his body to waste, but he's still under the influence of the Ring which gives him life even in an emaciated, nutrient-deprived shell.  This goes along with the UUT that he would have turned to dust if he had not fallen into the lava when the Ring was destroyed.


Cooking coney


Sam was a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning, and he had done a good deal of the camp-cooking on their travels, when there was a chance.

squire: E. What “camp-cooking” has there been during the entire adventure, prior to this scene?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] I don't recall any camp-cooking scenes, in contrast to the movie where Sam appears to be chief cook from day one. But the camp-cooking is implied, as for example: "That morning they lit a fire in a deep hollow shrouded by green bushes of holly, and their supper-breakfast was merrier than it had been since they set out." (The Ring Goes South, the Company reaches Hollin).


He still hopefully carried some of his gear in his pack: a small tinder-box, two small shallow pans, the smaller fitting into the larger; inside them a wooden spoon, a short two-pronged fork and some skewers were stowed; and hidden at the bottom of the pack in a flat wooden box a dwindling treasure, some salt. But he needed a fire, and other things besides.  He thought for a bit, while he took out his knife, cleaned and whetted it, and began to dress the rabbits.


beautiful meat… young, tender, nice


squire: F. Ever dressed a rabbit? Simple directions here (not for the tender of stomach, by the way). Why did Tolkien skip over this part, hm? Gollum wouldn’t have.

FarFromHome: [modded up!] I've never even cooked a ready-dressed one! But we're pretty squeamish these days. I bet Sam had dressed game plenty of times, and thought little of it. It's surprising to me that Gollum didn't eat the raw leftovers at least. He probably thought Sam was throwing away the best part!

drogo_drogo: As for why the preparation of a coney was left out, I suspect Tolkien wanted to gloss over the parts that would offend his "gentle readers."  After all, he discusses eating and drinking, but not what comes after that!  This is a slightly censored, clean-up version of life in the wild!



`What a hobbit needs with coney,' he said to himself, `is some herbs and roots, especially taters - not to mention bread. Herbs we can manage, seemingly.'…‘A few bay-leaves, some thyme and sage, will do - before the water boils,’' said Sam.


In the end he had to find what he wanted for himself; … For a while Sam sat musing, and tending the fire till the water boiled. …. Soon the rabbits cut up lay simmering in their pans with the bunched herbs. Almost Sam fell asleep as the time went by. He let them stew for close on an hour, testing them now and again with his fork, and tasting the broth.

squire: G. Would this work? Has anything been left out of the recipe? Isn’t the musing part fun? Herbs, shmerbs: How would those coneys have tasted without salt, which Sam miraculously happens to have?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] With all fresh ingredients, which is what Sam has, and eaten in the open air after a long slog on basic rations, this would surely have tasted better than any stew made in a kitchen and eaten as a regular meal!

dernwyn: Salt is good, but not absolutely necessary.  This is fresh coney, naturally tender.

My best stew recipe starts off like Sam's: the meat is simmered in a mixture of herbs for 1 and 1/2 hours, before any root vegetables are added.  If Sam had cut the coneys into small or thin pieces, they could have been easily cooked within the hour.

Lúthien_Rising: the prehistory of stew is what this is. Plentiful salt (salt was a luxury item, along with spices, until more modern times; herbs were common), good fat in which to sear meat (wild rabbit isn't fatty), a variety of domesticated vegetables - all these are modern, luxurious additions to the stew. Your basic stew - a simple pot, some water, some meat, a wild root vegetable, some herbs - is the Ur-stew of Hobbit cuisine - or a little advanced from it, given Sam's smart supply of salt (humans need salt - smart man, that).

And never underestimate the power of a little bit of salt and some fresh sage and thyme.




squire: Added due to popular demand. OK, folks bring out the recipes you like – but please limit yourselves to rabbit stews that you yourself have cooked, so you can tell us how they taste. Do consider also posting them for Fiesta on Main if you think they have promise.


For some reason, no cookbook or site had “Stewed Coney served by S. Gamgee”, but here is one that could possibly be modified to match Sam’s field cooking, simply by eliminating ¾ of the ingredients and 2 of the 4 steps:


Wild Rabbit stew with root vegetables


Ingredients (Serves 4):


2 wild rabbits

2 onions

3 carrots

3 parsnips

2 turnips

200gms of mixed wild mushrooms

4 roosters potatoes

100gms smoked bacon

1 small tin of chopped tomatoes

1 small tin of tomato puree

2 sprigs of rosemary

2 sprigs of thyme

2 sprigs of sage

4 cloves of garlic

100mls of red wine

Salt and pepper


1. Debone rabbit and portion. Put bones in oven and roast. In a pot put onion trimmings, herbs, tomato puree and roasted bones. Top up with water and simmer for as long as possible. Sieve and put aside.

2. Peel all vegetables and cut into appropriate seizes and put to one side Trim up bacon and clean the mushrooms.

3. In large pot sauté off the diced onions, trimmed bacon, all the herbs and the garlic. Add the tomato puree and tin of tomatoes. Add bottle of red wine. Add rabbit stock and bring up to simmer.

4. On a hot pan seal the seasoned rabbit portions and add to pot. Simmer for about 30mins. Add all vegetables and potatoes and simmer for a further 40 mins and serve with a good fresh ciabatta or other rustic bread.

                From Jon Kenny's Menu


squire: H. Would this recipe work with only Sam’s ingredients: rabbit, bay-leaf, thyme, sage, water, salt?

dernwyn: Mmm...stew... Nice recipe you found!

drogo_drogo: yummy Thanks for the stew recipe, that looks delicious.  Too bad they probably didn't have any wine handy!

Penthe: Rabbit stew Yummy. Haven't had it for years. My grandma used to make it.

Maybe you can cook the giblets when they don’t come wrapped in plastic?

Eurgh. I hope not.



squire: I. How important is it to sear the meat before boiling it in a stew? Does Sam do that step?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] It would have been easy for Sam to sear the meat over the fire first, which would have improved it immensely, I think, much more than searing it in a pan. I would guess the charring of the fire-seared meat would have helped compensate for the lack of salt, if Sam hadn't happened to have some handy.

dernwyn: Searing meat - cooking it over high heat in a small amount of fat - "seals in" the juices.  The text does not specify what Sam does before adding water to the pan, but he probably did sear the meat in a bit of rabbit fat first.




Rabbit stew


Sam and his master sat just within the fern-brake and ate their stew from the pans, sharing the old fork and spoon. They allowed themselves half a piece of the Elvish waybread each. It seemed a feast.

     'Wheew! Gollum!' Sam called and whistled softly. 'Come on! Still time to change your mind. There's some left, if you want to try stewed coney.' There was no answer.

     `Oh well, I suppose he's gone off to find something for himself. We'll finish it,' said Sam.

     `And then you must take some sleep,' said Frodo.

squire: J. Why does Sam even think of sharing the remaining stew with Gollum at this point? Why doesn’t Frodo make the offer?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] Sam's carrying on his earlier conversation with Gollum, wanting to convert Gollum to his own way of thinking (and eating). I really like the dynamic between them in this scene. Sam is like an older worker trying to get the hopeless rookie to shape up a bit. He's half-friendly, half-challenging - if Gollum will see things from Sam's point of view, Sam's more than willing to meet him halfway, even make him fish and chips some day. But first Gollum has to see things Sam's way.

dernwyn: As to why Sam offered some to Gollum: I imagine it was for the same reason he really offered him the fish and chips - personal pride in his culinary skills.  Maybe he was, uh, fishing for a compliment?

MerryK: I think you ask a good question about why Frodo doesn't play an active role in trying to make sure Smeagol is fed.  Although it would be a very Frodo-esque thing to do, perhaps we need to see that it is becoming a Sam-esque thing as well.  Eventually, Gollum's fate is going to be in Sam's hands alone and the reader needs to see some evidence here that the hobbit has the capacity to treat the creature like a person.

FarFromHome: [modded up!] "Gollum's fate is going to be in Sam's hands alone."

I was just thinking about this last night, after trying to absorb two weeks of posts into my jetlagged mind.

Squire asked about other soliloquies like Sam's over the dead Southron, and I was reminded of Sam's musings on stories on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. What struck me was how Sam has the insight to ask about Gollum, "I wonder if he thinks he's the hero or the villain?" - rather as he sees the Southron, in fact.

At the end of the Stairs scene, just as he does at the end of this coney scene, Sam calls and invites Gollum to join the private moment he and Frodo have been having - but both times, Gollum is absent. You do wonder, if only Gollum had been there to take up either one of these invitations, how things might have been different...

Farawyn: A few thoughts:

I think the reason Sam offers the stew to Gollum is because he is the provider, nourisher and servant. He cooked the meal, he wants everyone to eat it, like the old Italian grandmothers. And like the old Italian grandmothers, he is looking for compliments- "yes, there were no taters, but look what I did with the herbs! I know it's not good, but tell me it's good. eat, eat!" Gollum has the same attitude when he catches the rabbits initially; he is the hunter "Eat them, Eat them!" It's about providing and it is basic to both of them, being the same way deep down and all.




     Sam gathered a pile of the driest fern, and then scrambled up the bank collecting a bundle of twigs and broken wood; the fallen branch of a cedar at the top gave him a good supply. He cut out some turves at the foot of the bank just outside the fern-brake, and made a shallow hole and laid his fuel in it. Being handy with flint and tinder he soon had a small blaze going. It made little or no smoke but gave off an aromatic scent. He was just stooping over his fire, shielding it and building it up with heavier wood, when Gollum returned, carrying the pans carefully and grumbling to himself.

squire: K. Why does Tolkien spend this much time describing the building of a fire? And why no mention of Mr. Frodo’s hatchet, as what seemed no use against the old Willow?

            *crackling flames*


Potatoes as anachronism


‘I’d make him look for turnips and carrots, and taters too, if it was the time o’ the year. I’ll bet there's all sorts of good things running wild in this country. I'd give a lot for half a dozen taters.’

     ‘ . . .  What's taters, precious, eh, what's taters?’

     ‘Po-ta-toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won't find any, so you needn't look. But be good Sméagol and fetch me the herbs, and I'll think better of you. What's more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee.’

squire: Potatoes were introduced to Europe from South America after 1500. By any measure, and like the Shire’s tobacco (later renamed “pipeweed”), they are a virtual anachronism in Tolkien’s imagined ancient pre-Columbian Europe known as Middle-earth. ‘Fish and chips’ likewise casts us forward into modern times; as does the phrase ‘served by S. Gamgee’.

L. Or do they? Is this a hot potato, or a red herring? How do you feel about Sam’s and the Gaffer’s explicit knowledge of “Taters”?

FarFromHome: [modded up!] 'Fish and chips' sounds like an anachronism to me. The fact that Sam adds "served by S. Gamgee" makes me imagine a WWI private teasing a comrade who doesn't share his working-class background. This article suggests the early 19th century as the date fish and chip shops, beloved of the English working class, first made an appearance. I'm sure this is the kind of fish and chips that first occurs to readers when they read Sam's words. But neither the fish nor the chips would have any logical place in the Shire - the potatoes being from the New World, and the fish from the Grand Banks or other ocean-fishing grounds that the Shire would have no access to.

Of course, Tolkien avoids all this by having Sam talk of making the fish and chips himself, and hinting that the 'translator' may have used the word 'potato' to translate some other root vegetable with similar properties. And we can imagine freshwater fish instead of the normal English cod or haddock - how about some golden perch for example?


squire: It just wouldn’t be right at this point to exclude this.

  Owlyross: Love the What's taters song!

Farawyn: Thanks for the link! I mentioned I got a new computer, and I lost the Taters song. Now my boys can dance again.


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