Guest Post: Food and Politics by Juliet Kemp

I’m a city person (despite the occasional dream of country solitude), and a crucial part of the worldbuilding for my Marek series of fantasy novels has been the city of Marek itself. It’s been a lot of fun to create. As well as having its own unique form of magic through its cityangel, it’s a port city and the only outlet to the Oval Sea for Teren, the country to which Marek notionally belongs (in practice it’s largely independent, which becomes an issue in the latest book, The Rising Flood). Marek’s trade is lucrative, especially for those belonging to its founding Houses, who act as middlemen between the craft Guilds and the ships from the islands of Salina who monopolise sea transport. Marek grows little of its own food and relies heavily on imports—basics from Teren shipped along the river, more expensive options from elsewhere around the Oval Sea.

At one point in The Rising Flood, Marcia, Heir of House Fereno, is seeking votes in the ruling Council to block a bid to censor some political newspapers. She asks Andreas, Head of House Tigero, the father of her forthcoming baby and also her co-parent-to-be (two slightly different things in Marek) to host a political dinner. As well as providing an opportunity for political debate and canvassing, the menu for dinner gives Andreas an opportunity to demonstrate the strength and prosperity of House Tigero…

Dreaming up the menu for this was a lot of fun!

To drink: Exurian wine or fruit juice

Fertile Exuria grows many of Marek’s fruit and vegetables; they have grape terraces around the base of the mountains between Exuria and Teren. The Vintners’ Guild imports wine from Exuria and from the grape-growing regions inland of the Crescent Cities east of the Oval Sea, as well as making more complicated beverages of their own.

First course: salted rice dumplings, pickled vegetable rolls, honeyed goat’s cheese with rosemary crackers

Andreas is terribly on trend: this Salinas-style course, with several dishes on the table from which guests help themselves, is a current fad. The Salinas eat this way because it’s practical on board ship, and their cuisine is heavy on finger food. Andreas’ version wouldn’t all be at home on a Salinas ship; the Salinas grow rice but don’t trade it, so these are Crescent-style rice dumplings. Pickled vegetables are eaten on Salinas ships, but would be wrapped in flatbread rather than thin pastry as here; the goat’s cheese comes from the herds on the precipitous far side of Marekhill.

Second course: barley stew with whole new beets and broad beans, spiced with cumin

Balancing the modern first course, the soup course is very traditional. The barley and vegetables are Teren (and thus Marek) staples. There’s a twist, though: cumin is a brand new spice from beyond the Oval Sea. The Salinas have only recently begun to bring it in, and the Spicers charge through the roof for it. Andreas is showing off.

Third course: hot-pepper lamb skewer, summer squash and peppers fried with wild mustard, wheat rolls

Teren soft wheat rolls, tasty if predictable, with new Exurian lamb (born early spring, best eaten at the start of summer) and summer vegetables, brought by a fast Salinas ship. (In another month there’ll be a glut of summer vegetables in all the markets, but right now, they’re expensive.) Wild mustard is another popular Exurian herb, which has recently come down in price after Marcia sent a team to find a new route over the mountains to Exuria. The route is too narrow and challenging for anything large, but will work for some mountain herbs and spices (culinary and medicinal), and for other small luxury goods. Andreas is giving a subtle reminder of Marcia’s competence.

Final course: preserved berry pastries

Pastries are sold from carts on every street corner, and even the Houses love them (though theirs come from their kitchens, not the carts). These are sweeter than the street versions at this time of year (they’ll be selling goats’ cheese pastries instead), as the berries are preserved from last year’s Exurian crops. A popular note to end on with a touch of luxury; then apple brandy or hot infusions afterwards.

Even the place settings have something to say: Teren porcelain (from the clay deposits in parts of the river basin upstream of Marek); cutlery of Crescent silver; the pastry-platter from the Woodworkers’ Guild, of Exurian wood with silver inlay; and Marek glassware with its unique blue tinge and inlaid copper wires. Andreas is keen to demonstrate his House’s links with both Guilds and foreign traders—the cutlery was a gift from one of their Crescent trading partners, though unfortunately he doesn’t get a chance to mention that.

So, does it all work? Do Andreas and Marcia get the support they need? And how does Marcia handle Andreas having invited his friend Daril Leandra-Heir, wielder of no small political power, and long Marcia’s nemesis (not to mention her ex)?

Well, you’ll have to read the book and find out.

BIO: Juliet Kemp is a queer, non-binary, writer. They live in London by the river, with their partners, kid, and dog. The first book of their Marek fantasy series, The Deep and Shining Dark, was on the Locus 2018 Recommended Reads list. Their short fiction has appeared in venues including Cast of Wonders, Analog, and Translunar Travelers Lounge, and they were short-listed for the WSPA Small Press Award 2020. They can be found online at The Rising Flood is available now from your preferred e-book retailer or in paperback from December.

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