Food and culture are inseparable. Here in the US that’s perhaps more noticeable during this week than at any other time of the year, as tens of millions of us plan to break bread together in observance of Thanksgiving. But I’ve spent most of a decade considering it in the context of a culture that doesn’t actually exist: Thedas, the setting of BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise.
I’ve been part of a devoted Dragon Age tabletop campaign since 2015. Our group has spent days on Discord discussing ultimately made-up questions that still echo real life. Where does rice come from? (Antiva, because it’s far enough north to have the tropical mix of wet and dry seasons you need to grow it.) Can you have lemonade in Denerim? (Yes, but the lemons are imported from Rivain, which is temperate enough to grow citrus and friendly enough to trade with, and it’s sweetened with honey, not sugar.) How expensive is chocolate? (Very — the most suitable climates for growing cocoa beans are in semi-hostile Tevinter or Qunari territory.)
This isn’t just nerdy pedantry. Food is how we come together, but it is also where we find our differences. Food traditions speak our stories to one another. Does your Thanksgiving table have squash on it? What about ham, macaroni and cheese, or tamales? Is your turkey brined, deep-fried, or made of tofu?
If you want to make an imagined world feel real, you need to think about its food.
BioWare, too, has now given some detailed thought to these questions, in an official Dragon Age cookbook. The book, which hit store shelves in October, is full of the kind of recipes you might expect from a franchise tie-in, featuring a mix of foods that are directly mentioned in the video games together with foods that feel like they might as well be.
But it’s not Dragon Age without a strong narrative through-line. To that end, the book is narrated by a new character, Devon, who features both in an introduction as well as in all the blurbs heading up each recipe. Devon is the child of Nan, a minor character from the human noble origin in Dragon Age: Origins who worked as Castle Cousland’s cook. Devon travels Thedas, following in the footsteps of the games’ heroes and villains and eating their way around the world.
“Food is a very interesting way of establishing details about a world, and in a very subtle way,” the author behind Devon, Jessie Hassett, said in a phone interview. “A particular dish that you choose to include in your fantasy world can say a lot about that world.”
Writing the blurbs was like having an opportunity to write “canon fanfiction,” Hassett said, and that meant staying true to characters and cultures that have shown up in the games so far.
“You really have to put yourself into this mindset of: Okay, I’m this character in the world of Thedas,” Hassett said. “How do I perceive all these various things, and then how do I communicate that in a way that feels like the character’s voice?”
Many of the peoples of Thedas admittedly derive from well-worn Europe-centered fantasy tropes — you have your fantasy England, your fantasy France your fantasy Roman Empire, your underground dwarves, and so on. In the 14 years (yes, really) since Dragon Age: Origins was released, both developer BioWare and a deeply passionate fan community have worked to slowly branch out from the franchise’s initial faux-medieval English stomping grounds to make each culture feel lived-in, distinct, and whole. The cookbook continues this trend, expanding at least into other parts of European and Mediterranean cuisine with dishes such as paella, lentils, and couscous. (Although the cookbook features tomatoes, the powers of Thedas have not yet ventured across the Amaranthine Ocean to see if there is a continent on the other side, and so they must be a local fruit.)
The dwarves of Orzammar, for example, live firmly underground; the games repeatedly reinforce that to see the sky is taboo. The overwhelming majority of fruits and vegetables they consume, therefore, must come from trade with the surface. That, in turn, would make them highly expensive, visible indicators of class and status. So when writing a description for the “Dwarven Plum Jam” recipe, Hassett described the price of importing jam to Orzammar as “eye-watering,” and invented an enterprising merchant trying to import its ingredients instead.
The dwarves of Thedas would of course also have access to ingredients that we in the real world do not, such as a recipe for “Fried Young Giant Spider.” We happily have a dearth of six-foot-tall spiders in the real world, and so Devon writes that since sourcing spider legs aboveground is “not nearly so easy,” the recipe works with king crab as well. Another underground favorite, nug, is described in the games as tasting like “an unholy union of pork and hare,” making Devon’s two substitutions of pork for nug meat fairly straightforward.
Dwarven culture in Dragon Age has a highly competitive streak, and so Hassett fleshed out the world and the spider leg recipe by inventing a fierce dipping sauce competition. It follows that those who come up with the most desired sauces would guard their recipes jealously against “many a nefarious plot to acquire them,” as Devon puts it.
Hassett described the sauce wars as one of her favorite parts of the book. “Spider dipping sauce is serious business,” she said.
Orlais, Thedas’ France analog, is all about that kind of conspicuous consumption. An entire main plot quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition — still the most recent game in the series, while fans impatiently wait for Dreadwolf — revolves around maintaining the good opinion of courtiers at a fancy ball, while your spymaster observes whose clothes are too expensive for their station.
Much like our real France, Orlais is a wonderful country for growing grapes and making cheese… but not a place you’d be able to sustain a cacao crop. “And yet,” Hassett observed, “there are a lot of Orlesian recipes that have chocolate.” Why? Because all those nobles are showing off. “Orlais is all about appearances. You have The Game, especially among the nobles — it’s all about displaying your wealth, your power.”
In the end, of course, any cookbook is only as good as its recipes, so I flipped to “Varric’s Favorite Pastries” and got baking.
I am happy to report that Varric has good taste. His favorite pastries are sweetly almond-flavored, like a fractionally chewier biscotti, and are not particularly difficult or time-consuming for a home baker. I will definitely be making them again, especially since both my children think I haven’t noticed them sneaking some from the container.
As for the other Varric-themed recipe in the book, “Varric’s Favorite Cinnamon Rolls,” there was only one thing to ask Hassett:
“That’s Merrill, right?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I agree.”
Alas, the book inexplicably does not include a recipe for either Sera’s loathed cookies or Sten’s favorite ones, but it has still added food for thought to my group’s endless friendly dickering over agriculture and trade routes. Did our characters learn to eat shellfish on their long journey from Denerim to Hasmal? What food will we be able to find when we end up in the deserts of the Silent Plains? And perhaps most importantly: when we end up in Orzammar in our next season, how many favors will our tight-fisted GM allow us to buy with all the jam we’re now going to carry in?