Black swan. Unborn puppies. A hundred live doves "baked into a great pie" and prepared to "burst forth in a swirl of white feathers."
Those are some of the dishes I decided not to attempt for my Game of Thrones-themed dinner party.
George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" books are famously long (1,040 pages for the latest installment), and roughly 50% of the word count is devoted to describing what the characters are eating. One wedding feast features an ode to most of its seventy-seven courses; even a rundown of frozen defense outpost's dwindling supplies is good for a three-page litany about storerooms filled with "potted hare, haunch of deer in honey, pickled cabbage, pickled beets, pickled onions, pickled eggs and pickled herring."
The HBO series embraces the books' gluttonous spirit: The producers got a castle banquet into the very first episode.
For food fans, this is clearly a challenge. A thrown gauntlet. One week ahead of Game of Thrones season 3 premier, I rounded up a few of my geeky friends - and some novices we hoped to convert - for our own recreation of a Westerosi feast.
My usual version of a "dinner party" is ordering pizza or making a big pot of pasta. This was the first time I attempted to serve guests anything with actual courses, so I started by drawing up battle rules: nothing I hadn't made at least once before, nothing with finicky timing, and no baking. I have a decent repertoire of soups, salads and dinners, but I'm totally hopeless at dessert.
Of course, the next thing I did was start breaking those rules. I had a few dishes in mind I knew I'd incorporate, like a deceptively easy roast-duck main I make every winter and a blood-orange salad that bears a glancing resemblance to a salad of "spinach and plums, sprinkled with crushed nuts" served at the Starks' first Winterfell repast.
But there were some holes. I need appetizer inspiration and ideas for side dishes. So for that, I turned to the experts: Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer, creators of the Inn at the Crossroads. Two years ago, the pair set out to devise recipes for "just a few" of the dishes Martin chronicled in his books. That project grew into an extensive blog documenting their medieval-cookbook explorations, and recently morphed into A Feast of Ice & Fire, an "official companion cookbook" for the series.
The cookbook is admirably adventurous. One recipe calls for "1 rattlesnake, cleaned and gutted"; another describes how to get your honey-and-pepper coated "freeze-dried crickets or locusts" to bake crisply enough that "the bugs are no longer quite so sticky." I stuck to the tamer sections, and on page 193, I found my missing appetizer link: dramatically marbled hard-boiled eggs, seeped in a soy-sauce-and-spices mixture.
The recipe calls for gently cracking the eggs with the back of a spoon to create "spiderweb-like lines all over the shells." I "gently cracked" and accidentally smashed almost a dozen eggs before I got five more-or-less intact ones able to stand up to the boiling.
There were also some unexpected successes. I broke my no-baking pledge to try out the cookbook's "Elizabethan Lemon Cakes" recipe, because I grudgingly decided that no Games of Thrones party could get by without lemon cakes. (Martin seems especially obsessed with them - he keeps every castle kitchen stocked with a supply.) I'm not usually a big lemon fan, but these cookie-like cakes are basically addictive crack. I made them the morning of the party and went through at least half a dozen that day while I prepped the rest of the courses.
I had the "ice" part of the menu fairly well covered - a roasted meat-and-veggies main, with wintry oysters and stew - but I spent a few weeks trying to figure out something theatrical enough for the "fire" side. Dragons are a key part of the Games of Thrones storyline; clearly, I had to get flames or smoke somewhere into this meal.
The perfect solution arrived by serendipity. Earlier this month, a German friend arrived at a post-rock-concert, late-night-drinks gathering wielding a bottle of rum, two oranges, a half-gallon of red wine and bag of supplies. For a crowd of a dozen, he prepared a Feuerzangenbowle: A traditional German holiday drink in which a rum-soaked sugar loaf is dangled over a pot of mulled wine and set on fire.
It's awesome. As melted sugar lava and streams of rum run into the pot, the flames go dancing across the wine's surface. Every time you add a fresh ladle of rum to the mix (the ladle frequently catches fire), a tongue of flames shoots up. The whole thing always looks like it's seconds away from requiring a fire extinguisher, but it actually burns pretty evenly, thanks to the metal Feuerzange holding the sugar in place.
The Feuerzange is a special piece of equipment designed exclusively for Feuerzangenbowle. It's a single-purpose device for creating just one drink. This is German engineering at its finest. The sugar loafs are also custom inventions; they're called Zuckerhut, and Americans can order them online from imports site GermanDeli.com. I bought four.
I was so fascinated by my friend Christian's Feuerzangenbowle that he kindly let me kidnap his Feuerzange and bring it back to New York with me - along with detailed instructions on recreating the drink. The key point: Get 54% rum, he instructed. The more common 40%-alcohol rum won't burn; anything closer to the 60% range, sold as "navy-strength," will turn into a fireball.
Germany might have plenty of 54% rum, but New York City, it turns out, does not. We had a brief day-of-party crisis after my co-host/sous chef/fetcher-of-forgotten-ingredients discovered that none of the liquor stores within a mile radius of my apartment carried anything stronger than 47%.
"BOOZE SOS!" was the subject line of the email I sent out to the dinner guests about an hour before our kickoff. Happily, New Yorkers are really good at solving booze crises. One of our crew arrived soon after with a bottle of 50% rum - not the exact mark we'd been aiming at, but it burned just fine.
Three hours after we started dinner, fortified by hot mugs of Feuerzangenbowle, we settled in to re-watch the last few episodes of season two. A giant vat of booze is exactly what you need for the battle scenes of Blackwater.
"Don't watch this bit!" we warned Mindy, our squeamish-about-violence friend, roughly every five minutes, while we tried to catch Nicole, our GoT newbie, up on the key political machinations. (We gave up when we came to Arya's parting with Jaqen H'ghar. It's impossible to explain that one when you're drunk.)
We've got three days left till winter returns. So fire up your DVDs, make yourself a nice Dothraki blood pie, and get ready to head back across the sea and beyond the Wall.
A Game of Dinner Menu
Pre-dinner snacks: lemon-mascarpone stuffed dates, grapes, cheese and boiled "dragon" (ok, chicken) eggs
Oysters two ways, raw and in leek stew
Blood-orange and arugula salad
Roasted duck breast with fennel and rosemary, served with caramelized cauliflower and black riso venere rice
Feuerzangenbowle mulled wine
Lemon cakes from A Feast of Ice & Fire