A quick note on history and food in ASOIAF

As I mentioned before, I have been doing a lot of experimenting with medieval recipes in recent years.  And this includes trying many of the delicious-sounding foods from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  Thanks to the diligent work of Chelsea and Sariann, we ASOIAF fans have a fantastic resource to explore our foodie sides.  Everything I have made from their website and their book has been delicious, so seriously, try making some of their recipes.

Recently, I noticed something about George’s books that I had not noticed before: an utter lack of potatoes, Irish or sweet.  Now, at first glance this would seem to make sense, because they are both “New World” foods that would have been unknown to medieval Europe, which is the historical basis of much of Martin’s writing.  Potatoes would not be introduced to Europe until the 16th century, when the Spanish brought them over.  So no potatoes in Westeros, right?  Makes sense, right?

Yes, it would… except that there are plenty of examples of other New World foods that are present in Westeros.   So why include them but not potatoes?

OK, the historian in me needs to break this down for everyone.  Bear with me.

Beans.  Beans are mentioned in A Game of Thrones (page 343, “boiled beans”), A Clash of Kings (page 565, “white beans and bacon”), and A Storm of Swords (page 574, “salad of green beans, onions, and beets”).  With the exception of fava beans, which are definitely Old World, all other types of beans – Navy, kidney, pinto, etc. – are New World varieties.

Corn.   A Storm of Swords mentions corn (page 354) and sweetcorn (page 676).  If we are talking about maize, or Indian corn, or what most Americans think of when someone says “corn”, as in “corn on the cob”, then yes, totally a New World dish.  Europeans had cultivated a lot of grains before the discovery of the New World, but Indian corn wasn’t one of them.

Pecans.  A Clash of Kings mentions pecans (page 90).  Pecans (Carya illinoinensis, for you master gardeners) are native to central North America, as a unique subgroup of the family of hickory trees.  So again, no pecans before Columbus and friends.

Squash (including pumpkins).  A Clash of Kings mentions squash (page 91) and A Game of Thrones mentions pumpkins (page 181).  Both of these were originally cultivated in the New World and were later brought to Europe, where their use spread to many other places.

Now, I am sure this may come across as a criticism of GRRM, but it actually isn’t.  I am merely pointing out that excluding potatoes while including these others does not make sense if you are following the Old World/New World criteria.  But since GRRM is creating his own world with his own rules (can’t exactly find a haunch of aurochs at the local butcher now, can we?) he doesn’t really have to follow rules per se.  He can say that the White Walkers are hoarding all the potatoes if he really wants.*  It’s his world, after all.

With that in mind, I don’t feel bad about adding some potatoes to a few of my ASOIAF dishes.  Roast Aurochs with Leeks is SO much better with some sliced potatoes, in my opinion.

-Geoff

* – Would the White Walkers hoard all the potatoes for themselves?  Yes, they would.  They are evil.  No potatoes for you, Westeros.

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