Monday, August 02, 2010

Top 5 Feasts of SF

Yesterday we were up in Whistler for the Canadian National Barbeque Championships that are held there every year over the August long weekend. With most of the teams giving out samples to the spectators after each meat was turned in to the judges, we were able to gorge ourselves on a seemingly endless parade of pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken, and ribs, and even a little bit of bison. A feast of meat that had us staggering back to the car wondering if things called vegetables that we seemed to recall were merely figments of our imaginations. At any point, once the smoked meat-induced fugue wore off, I got to thinking about some of the best feasts depicted in science fiction and fantasy books, tv and movies, and decided that this would make a pretty good list topic for last week (even though it's a tad late). So, without futher ado, allow me to serve to you:

The Top 5 Feasts of SF:

5) The Great Feast on Rigel IV - The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror I - "Hungry Are the Damned"
When aliens Kang and Kodos - and let's not forget Serak The Preparer - come to Springfield for the first time, it's to take the Simpson family to a celebration where not only will they be fed well (and stuffed to bursting on the trip out as well), but they'll be treated like gods. Sounds like the ultimate feast - except that we never actually get to see it. Clearly, it's not the case that Lisa was right - the aliens were not planning to serve the Simpson family up as the main course, otherwise, they wouldn't have returned them to Earth (unless there's something especially tasty imparted in them by abrupt suprise when they're wheeled into the kitchen to be prepped, something that would be terribly lacking if they already knew the truth). But because we haven't actually seen the Great Feast, there's no way to know how great it actually is, if it's even great at all, in human terms. Sure, the Rigelians know how to feed humans, but their entire concept of a climatic great feast could amount to a tablespoon-sized portion of something entirely unappatizing like spinach and tofu. The Great Feast on Rigel IV sounds pretty awesome, but without having seen the event in question, it's impossible to say whether it actually lives up to all the hype. That's why it's at the bottom of the list.

4) the kids' dessert feast - Jurassic Park
After a long day of being chased around a tropical park by re-engineered dinosaurs run amok, young Lex and Tim Murphy think they've hit the jackpot when they make it back to the resort and find every cake, pie and tub of ice cream in the joint laid out on the table in the dining hall. This kind of spread would pretty much be heaven to any kid, and let's face it, most of the adults I know (especially me). Of course, their indulgence in unrestricted junkfood gluttony is spoiled when the 'raptors show up with dining ideas of their own. You may wonder why this dessert feast gets the nod, instead of the one in Pan's Labyrinth. But the difference is that the setting for the table of goodies in PL was intensely creepy in and of itself, with waaaaay too much red in the room and in the food, and then there was the downright terrifying thing with eyes on its hands seated at the head of the table. The dining hall in JP has nothing on the scare factor in PL, until the dinos show up, and really, wouldn't you rather take your chances with a couple of raptors than with Mr Hand-Eye Coordination? Vicious critters or monsters aside, the dessert feast in JP looked absolutely delicious.

3) The Centauri celebration of life - Babylon 5 - "Parliament of Dreams"
The Centauri are a people who really know how to throw a party (except weddings), and for the residents of their republic, no party is greater than their annual celebration of life, when they feast and drink to excess. It's a party with its roots in an ancient war against another intelligent species, the Xon, which co-evolved on their world. At year's end, the Centauri would count the number of their people who survived and celebrate their good fortune. Anyone who's watched this episode has to admit, this looks like the feast to end all feasts. But I can't rank it higher on the list because, ultimately, the Centauri, at the point in their history when the epi takes place, are celebrating not just their survival, but their total victory over the Xon, and a feast that rejoices in the total destruction of an entire race is enough to turn the stomach.

2) The feasts of mourning/feasts for the ghosts - "Closing Time" by Matthew Johnson
In this magnificent short story, a young restaurant owner in a fictional version of ancient China has a problem on his hands: his elderly father has just died, but his stubborn ghost just doesn't want to move on. This is bad for business because our protagonist can't get on with things until the honours and formalities are concluded when the old fellow leaves, and in the meantime, every day, at increasing expense, he has to cook elaborate feasts for the ghost - and the old man's crowd of still-living friends who show up without fail to continue to enjoy the old man's company and, most of all, the free meals. To make matters worse, his culinary mastery comes to the attention of the Emperor himself, who's dealing with his own ghost problem. Not only is this a great story, but it's one that never fails to make me hungry. As someone who's married to a Chinese lady, and who lives in a primarily Chinese part of the Lower Mainland and has visited Hong Kong and Beijing, I can say recognize a number of the dishes Johnson describes as authentic. Those that I don't recognize might still be authentic, or at least are very much in the spirit (pun intended) of the real thing. This feasts in this story could only be better if their original intent was for the enjoyment of the living, rather than to placate the dead. It's a close call, but this feast is going to have to have to take second place.

1) Bilbo's birthday party feast - The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
When you're celebrating your eleventieth birthday - that's 111 as non-hobbits count years - it pays to pull out all the stops, and old Bilbo Baggins does just that. No expense is spared as Bilbo brings in food, drink and pipeweed from everywhere to entertain most of the Shire. For human beings, this would be a big feast, but considering that hobbits live to eat to the point where they've invented addtional meals to create opportunities to indulge their gluttony, this is a truly staggering amount of food. And there's no ulterior motive here - Bilbo's hosting this party to show his fellow hobbits a good time, to celebrate his birthday, and to say goodbye. Sure, he gets a little drunk and flubs his speech, and yeah, he pulls a disappearing act (literally) and bails on the party, but there's no arguing with the fact that Bilbo knows how to host the feast to end all feasts.

Now, what's your opinion? Should I have included every meal magically set upon the tables at Hogwarts in JK Rowling's Harry Potter books? Do you think that Bilbo's meal with the dwarves before leaving on his quest to steal from Smaug somehow outrated his birthday dinner? Was there an exercise in Harkonen gluttony before their downfall on Dune that I missed? Or a raucus night at Hrothgar's meadboard prior to Grendel's depredations should have ranked somewhere on this list? I'm not talking a nice dinner at Treetops in the Hyperion universe, or a meal around the table aboard Serenity, or even a bit of a splurge at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I'm talking about full-on, enough food to sink a space battleship, no-holds-barred feasts. What feasts of SF have whetted your appetite in the past?
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