Sunday, May 6, 2012

Inspired by a book series, bloggers produce a culinary phenomenon


Engrossing works of fiction inspire all manner of reader reactions. But hunger? That’s a surprisingly common takeaway for obsessed fans of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,’’ the fifth book of which, “A Dance With Dragons,’’ hit shelves this summer after HBO’s adaptation of the first book, “Game of Thrones.’’

Millions of readers around the world have been devouring the epic fantasy phenomenon — some more literally than others.

Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer, two women who met by chance when they became roommates in Allston last year, were so inspired by Martin’s descriptions of the food in his realm of knights, lords, dragons, and meat pies, they decided to create the dishes themselves. That includes pigeon pie, potted hare, even honeyed locusts.
The result is the blog Inn at the Crossroads (www.innatthecrossroads.com), launched in March, where the two have been detailing their attempt to cook almost every meal mentioned in the series. The blog has gotten so popular that its authors just landed a book deal with Random House’s Bantam Books, which publishes Martin’s series. “A Feast of Ice and Fire’’ will be come out next September.

The food blog-to-book project is reminiscent of Julie Powell’s “Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen,’’ which chronicled her experience cooking her way through the first volume of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.’’ There are a few glaring differences, though. Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer have had to dream up their own recipes, as there are none in Martin’s books. Also, there’s a dearth of dragons in Child’s oeuvre.

“It all happened very quickly,’’ says Lehrer, 25, a personal assistant at an investment banking firm. “We’re a little blown away by it but very excited.’’ She began reading the series earlier this year after Monroe-Cassel, 26, a longtime fan, recommended it to her and their four other roommates.

“I was a very quick fan of the books,’’ says Monroe-Cassel, who’s now focusing full time on the cookbook. She began reading them about seven years ago. The first book, “A Game of Thrones,’’ came out in 1996.

“I think like a lot of people I started reading the first book and thought, ‘I know how this is going to go, typical fantasy story.’ You get to, like, Page 50 or something and Martin throws the first monkey wrench in there and breaks the rules. That’s when I was really hooked.’’

Lehrer grew up reading fantasy books, but “then I kind of got out of it,’’ she says. “It’s weird that this is fantasy because it’s not like typical magical fantasy. I think the story lines are a lot more in depth than a lot of fantasy novels, and the characters are more well-developed.’’

That may be why fans have become so invested in the characters. And their eating habits.

“I was tickled by it. It seemed like a fun idea,’’ Martin says by phone, of the Inn at the Crossroads blog. “There had been other people that had written to me over the years that said they were trying to cook some dishes from the [books], but the two women from the Inn at the Crossroads are the ones who really took up the ball and ran with it and began cooking all the dishes. But I had to warn them right away that they shouldn’t cook all the dishes.’’


Like the seagull, he says. Or peacocks served in their plumage. Or rat on a stick.
Obviously grotesque options aside, Lehrer says she is not very squeamish about most of the dishes they’ve whipped up. She’s even looking forward to making eel pie. “There’s pretty much nothing that I won’t eat,’’ she says. “I’m the one that’s going to be making the lamprey pie when my lampreys arrive.’’

Monroe-Cassel, on the other hand, says that while there are a few things she does not want to try (jellied calves’ brains), they draw the line, of course, at ingredients that are hard or illegal to acquire, such as horse meat. (Nor would they ever attempt to cook camel, dog, or heron. Blech.) But a lot of simply exotic fare doesn’t scare them off. Honey-spiced locusts, for example.

“We used crickets, figuring it was pretty close,’’ Monroe-Cassel says. “They were actually very good. A little nutty, very crunchy.’’

It’s been a steep learning curve for two people with no formal background in cooking. “All I know is what my mama taught me,’’ Lehrer says. That was a mix of old Jewish recipes, French-Canadian fare, and traditional New England dishes.

Martin himself is even less skilled in the kitchen. He says all of the food references in the series serve a literary function.

“I do describe [the food so thoroughly] in the books, because it’s part of my general philosophy as a writer,’’ he says. “I really want to put my reader in a story, want them to experience it. It’s a much more vivid sensory input, the smells, tastes, and sounds of a story that make the story come alive.’’

The dishes are not all arcane. Recipes for corn fritters, rustic breads, baked venison, and seafood stew are also on the blog. The first recipe the roommates attempted was the iconic lemon cake, often associated with the romantic character Sansa Stark. The cakes’ importance in the book goes beyond nourishment, the cooks say. They serve as a literary device.

“I think in the books they’re representative of Sansa’s naivete,’’ Monroe-Cassel says. “There’s a moment where [her sister, the defiant] Arya is out on the streets of King’s Landing in Book 1. She’s dirty and on the run and she sees a tray full of tarts and lemon cakes. She wants one, and it’s kind of a longing for her previous life that’s clearly gone now.’’

Roy Kamada, assistant professor in the Writing, Literature and Publishing department at Emerson College, says cooking the dishes described in a book series is another way for readers to bring the books they adore to life. He compares it to people who journey to Stratford-Upon-Avon for Shakespeare festivals, or take tours of Dickens’s England, or learn to speak Elvish.

“When you read, you ingest the language and the world of the author,’’ Kamada says. “But to literalize it like this is a particularly powerful way of bringing a book into your world.’’
Cheryl Apicella, 31, of New York, heartily agrees.

“While reading the book, I’d always wished I could make the tasty-sounding food described in it,“ says Apicella. “I’ve been possibly [the blog’s] biggest fan ever since and cook meals for my family from it regularly. I was always surprised that it took this long for a site like this to happen.’’

Loving both the books and to cook was not enough to get the blog started. It required much research by Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer. While “A Song of Ice and Fire’’ is not set in the world we know, the culinary landscape is a rough equivalent of medieval Europe. For added “authenticity,’’ Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer look to medieval cookbooks for ideas on how to best organize their recipes. That’s where Martin gets much of his culinary inspiration, too.

“That’s why we wanted to do a medieval and modern version [of each dish] to take a look at how food preferences have changed over time, if they have, and to see how far back you can trace a certain dish,’’ Monroe-Cassel says. “It’s really neat to have the two of them side by side and compare. We get into some fierce debates in the house over which dish is the better version sometimes. People pick favorites quickly.’’

Boston Globe

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