The incredible power of a simple meal.
I’m reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy with my daughter. It’s probably my favorite part of the day, the evening meal and a glass of wine coming a close second. Our M.O. is to settle in her room for the evening and read a chapter or two. She’ll usually extract one of her guinea pigs to play with while she listens. She’s trying to get them used to being handled for when she shows them in the upcoming county fair. Incidentally, one of the guinea pigs is named Frodo, and he’ll be showing in the ‘senior’ guinea pig category, which is an indication of how long we’ve been at these books. Reading The Lord of the Rings out loud is not a short-term undertaking.
We’re into The Two Towers now. And it’s some fairly heavy stuff. We’ve read books like The Hunger Games and My Antonia, our tastes ranging from our current cultural fascination with post-apocalyptic teen angst to classics that carry more moral weight than an eleven-year-old typically needs to process. But she likes stories that make her think and cry. We all tend to love things that break our hearts.
With their diminutive stature, hairy feet and penchant for good food, second breakfasts, beer and “pipe weed,” you’d think these tales would be a bit less weighty, but now as Frodo and Sam trudge toward the dark swamps toward Mordor and their expected doom, I’m realizing the absurdity and irony in the fact that I’m reading a book about self-sacrifice and the end of civilization to a child as she hums to herself and plays with rodents. That’s some heavy shit to hand a kid on any given weeknight. And we wonder why they can’t get to sleep.
So our tiny, peaceful hobbit friends are marching on their sacrificial journey to save races of people who, if they don’t look down on hobbits they don’t even know or care that they exist, and the enemy troops are massing, the dark tower is smoldering, the ring wraiths are riding giant evil bird creatures through the sky scanning the wastelands for Frodo’s ring and their only companion is a duplicitous, slimy, hairless little Gollum, who eats slugs and raw fish and hisses and crawls on the ground and wants desperately to either have what poor Frodo is carrying or throttle him in his sleep.
So in the midst of this endless, bleak parade of drudgery, there’s a brief moment of reprieve that, being a foodish person, I especially appreciated. They make it through the wastelands eating only old bread and Frodo finally gets some sleep in a thicket of ferns, and Sam, who, like most of us, is typically thinking about what he’s going to eat next, convinces Gollum to catch a pair of “coneys” or rabbits. Frodo’s strength is waning, and their spirits are low, and Sam, who is a good cook “even by hobbit reckoning,” is certain that a bit of cooking will help them forge ahead. Fortunately he’s prepared:
“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.”
What a great bit of optimism, to “hopefully” carry the tools of cookery across a barren wasteland on the odd chance that they’ll find something to cook up along the way. Sam is my hero for this small but bold act of optimism.
When Gollum agrees and drops the two limp rabbit bodies on the ground at Sam’s feet, he decides to take out his pans and stew them. Sure, a fire could alert the enemy to their location. And the distraction of cooking a meal could also make them less alert for prowling orcs.
It’s a dangerous time to cook, but oh, is it worth it. As Sam brings the water to a boil with some foraged herbs, you can feel the weighty funerary pall of their desperate journey lifting. You can feel the simmering, smell the herbed broth and taste the stew and, for a moment, there is a reprieve. It’s lovely little moments like these that show how deft Tolkien is as a storyteller. And lingering on these quiet interludes that don’t make it into the movie version of the story are what make novels so wonderful. When Frodo awakes to the smell of stewed rabbit, Sam apologizes for not having onions and potatoes. But still it’s a miraculous meal:
“Sam and his master sat just within the fern-break 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.”
Their respite doesn’t last long. In any good tale, you don’t want your reader to have too much of a break. And Sam’s little cooking adventure does have repercussions when a patrol of heavily armed men spot the smoke. But it’s oh so worth it, that relief from the burden of being a small creature in such a vast, dark world.
And I think it’s a lovely little metaphor for what a good meal can accomplish on any given day. We all have our bad days. We all feel like hobbits, trapped and shaped by forces far beyond our control. Whether it’s the medical test results or the crazy boss or the latest mortgage statement or the endless flood of emails that need answering or the new testing regime at the elementary school or the melting glaciers and droughts that are being ignored by half of the shitheels in Washington or the angst of the nightly news and the trolling parade of irony and negativism of the Internet—there are so many forces that pile up to make our personal Dark Towers of Mordor, that blazing eye that’s always scanning, seeking us.
But every time we settle down together for a meal as a little family, or with friends, or slink into the refuge of a restaurant, or maybe it’s only a quick, personal omelet with shallots on a buttered, toasted bagel with Gruyere, a tiny oasis of flavor before the day’s march across the wastelands–wherever, whatever it is, a meal can solve or at least be a reprieve from so many worries. What a wonderful magic is food.
Hobbits understand this. They are “little fellows in a great big world, after all,” or so Gandalf tells them. But then aren’t we all? So why not embrace our stature and look to the hobbits for guidance. Let’s take a little more pleasure in each meal. Let’s break from the madness and savor something simple and delicious. Let’s anticipate it, imagine it and talk about it while we slog along across the broken volcanic rock amid vaporous swamps, and when the opportunity arises to break our fasts, we should light a fire and stew a little rabbit and cook something for our fellow travelers on this often bleak but sometimes miraculous journey we’re all making.
Hope is carrying two pans, a wooden spoon and a box of salt in your pack on your way to the dark tower in the odd chance you’ll get to use them. Let’s have a little hope. Time to light a fire.