What exactly is a culinary ethnography?
Food is many things, to many people. What exactly that thing is, says a lot about that group of people as a whole. What we eat is a huge part of who we are, who we’ve been, and what we experience as we encounter the new. In my 90 years, I have done my best to experience first hand the many, many ways that each denizen of the Forgotten Realms decides to break bread.
This is by no means a rule book, as if I am some sort of dictator of what is, and isn’t proper for a member of a race to do in the kitchen. Rather, it is a collection of observances in regards to commonalities and trends among members of the same race. While my own experience is obviously limited, and there are plenty of individuals I have yet to dine with and learn about, I would like to offer up what I have learned so far.
-Adelbert Boffin, Halfling Culinarian
First things first, as a disclaimer of all Culinary Ethnography entries, let’s set some caveats. Who are Elves? Am I including Half-Elves? Drow? All those of Elven lineage? All those of Elven parentage back to the Fae themselves? While I would like to eventually include more varied looks at the similarities and differences between all of these groups, for the purposes of this analysis, I will be looking at those Elves that live in, or near the Faewild in particular. As always, this is a look at some of the major trends I have seen occur. It is not a rulebook that one must follow to be a “proper Elf” in the kitchen. Food is as much culture as it is history, geography, necessity, community, and personal freedom. With that out of the way, let’s give this culture a respectful look.
Living off the Land
To truly understand the cuisine of the Elves, it is important to first understand where their sustenance is derived from. While this maxim is true of all races, it holds even greater weight with Elves. Food culture is derived from the culmination of necessity and environment and the environment that most Elves live in is one of true bounty, allowing for a more “particular” palate. After all, it is much easier to only eat things that taste good, when starvation is not on the line. Not many races can claim the same abundance, leading to a rather unique culinary culture.
The first subject of note is that Elves do not take part in animal husbandry. From Dwarves, to Humans, to Orcs, you can see some sort of animal that is a mainstay in their diet in some form or another. As always, this is completely regional, Dwarves for instance can range from Rothes, to Yaks, to Spiders as their beast of choice, but Elves instead have no truly cultivated beasts. This is completely by choice, and not by ineptitude. There are plenty of Elves that could easily speak with an animal of choice, talking with the herd to instruct them. But “Elven shepherds” are such a rare sight that some cultures use the term as a contradiction.
In fact, Elves have an interesting relationship with animal products in general. In my own dealings with Elven communities, the common opinion seems to be that animals are not commodities to be traded or made the most of. Instead, Elves see themselves as caretakers of whatever environment they are in. Animals are not raised and slaughtered, they are instead hunted down when necessary to balance the ecology of their environments. When meat is acquired, it is seen as a gift from nature and is prepared rather ceremoniously. This meat can be anything that runs rampant in the forest, from rabbits, to moose, to fowl.
The discussion of consuming meat is a nuanced one to elves. There are certain animals that are completely taboo to different tribes. For example, many Wood Elf tribes find the idea of consuming Owl to be completely abhorrent, the same way that a human might look at the idea of consuming their trusty family dog. Plenty of Elves eschew the idea of consuming animals altogether. When these tribes need to hunt to control populations, they instead offer the animals as burnt offerings to their gods, or clean the corpse of any arrows and say a prayer before leaving them to the forest.
Some Elven societies have a combination of meat eaters and those that abstain, though I have never seen any contention from these differences in opinion. One time I did hear of contention however was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Allegedly, certain Elves develop a true taste for the flesh of animals. Most are able to curb this desire, simply being grateful for when nature offers its bounty to the hunters. However some can not control this hunger, hunting animals more than is deemed necessary. To many Elves, the manipulation of your environment for personal gain is among the highest of cardinal sins. If such an act is discovered, it often leads to exile. If one would act in such a way after all, they are better off living with the other races that also plunder nature for all she is worth.
This mindset of stewardship is core to the Elven version of agriculture. While agriculture as we see in other realms is based around planning the growth of a specific crop in a designated area, the Elven approach is completely different, if it can even still be called agriculture. Instead, Elves merely forage through their realms for whatever can either be salvaged without harming the main plant, or finding what needs to be cut back and harvested. These plants are then replaced or cultivated for further development as is deemed necessary. As such, the foodstuff of Elves is far more sporadic than the other races. While humans may expect to have a large stockpile of wheat by fall, Elves live off of whatever is yielding good amounts that day. Elven ingredients are also much fresher in general when compared to other races, with a large part of their vegetables being made up of fresh greens. I am currently working on a supplemental resource on the many individual ingredients you would see over the course of a year in an Elven kitchen, called “Dining in the Faewild” if you would like to know more on this topic. For brevity’s sake in this text however, allow me to categorize the fresh ingredients into a few different categories: Various types of onions from chives to leeks to spring onions, “light greens” or the fresh clippings of various vines and plants, ”new shoots” or the immediate shoots of recently planted seeds such as peas and different seeds, wild greens for salads, ”flesh roots” or tuber vegetables that are used for consumption on their own, “spice roots” or roots that are used for flavoring other dishes, a variety of mushrooms and various fruits. This only scratches the surface when it comes to the variety present in Elven diets, and none of this even mentions the more unique oddities that pop up in the Feywild such as the variety of strong flavored mosses, or the importance of pollen to many seasoning blends.
When it comes to the culinary culture of the Elves, their style of cooking follows their style of agriculture. Most meals are completely dependent on what is available and fresh that day. Elven spreads rely on a variety of individual dishes, rather than on being built around centerpiece entrees. Some large hunting festivals may make exceptions to this generalization, but your average Elven dinner will have 1 to 2 small dishes per person at the table, which everyone shares from. Elves love variety, and in their fickle nature, they can get bored of a single dish by the time the meal is done. Even with the large number of dishes, Elves seldom eat to the point of overstuffing, and the flavors of Elven cuisine reflect this. Elven flavors are generally light, either due to inherently less intense flavors, or as an effect of being brightened with sharp acidity or herbaceous greens. Elven dishes can generally be split into 4 categories: vegetable based dishes, meat or protein based dishes, fruit based dishes, and baked goods.
Vegetable dishes make up the majority of what you’ll find at an Elven table during mealtime. Breads and jams will be present, as will different drinks to quench your thirst, but the different vegetables are certainly the star of the show. These can all be prepared in a variety of ways, some are eaten raw, or close to raw. Carrots and cucumbers may just be sliced up into chunks to be crunched on. A large array of salads can be found, with anything from leafy greens, to vine ripened tomatoes, to different types of ferns, to an array of allium, or members of the onion family. Alliums are of particular note in Elvish cuisine, coming into play in all kinds of different forms. Chives can be eaten raw, whether sliced up into a salad or chopped up into a garnish for another dish. Spring onions are sometimes eaten raw, their flavor far sweeter and more mild than what are found in other lands. Other times they are roasted along with leeks and other wild onions, or they may make their way into a creamy soup. Sometimes onions are tossed with vinegar and oil, making a dressing for other salads. One particular dish I had while in the Elven lands truly showed their appreciation for this group of vegetables: onion salad 4 ways. A salad of thinly sliced spring onions and chives was tossed with chunks of roasted leek, dressed with a wild onion vinaigrette, and topped with crunchy lightly fried onions. It was surprisingly well balanced and delightful, but left my mouth with a fiery stench, and left me questioning why this affliction never affected the Elves that consume it.
New shoots are another ingredient that is commonly used in the Elven lands, and to my knowledge has only recently made its way into kitchens in other areas. It is important to note that the majority of Elven ingredients come from pruning and managing the lands they inhabit. New shoots are the first leaves and shoots that develop on a plant, coming from a variety of sources such as peas, cress, beets, and many other vegetables. These little greens only take on a very mild amount of flavor from what they will eventually mature into. They are commonly used in salads and as garnishes for other dishes. It is surprising to see an Elven dinner without either new shoots or some edible flowers adorning one of the dishes. Aesthetics are just as important in a dish as taste to an Elf, and so these garnishes are a vital part of the full eating experience. I made this mistake once, serving a hearty stew straight from the pot. The host looked visibly abhorred, and then went to their cabinets to grab some dainty porcelain dishes to ladle the soup into smaller portions. They then adorned it with some fresh herb cuttings, and all of a sudden it was palatable again.
There are plenty of different soups and stews that focus on vegetables or mushrooms as the forefront. These can range from incredibly light to packed with flavor. Lighter broths are commonly consumed as palate cleansers or simple additions to meals. Sometimes they are almost used as the main drink for Elves to quench their thirst. Other times vegetable stocks are brewed low and slow to extract all of the depth that their ingredients can offer. These are commonly made with root vegetables and mushrooms and can turn out with such intense and deep flavor that outsiders may assume they must have been stewed with meat at some point. These stocks are then used to create rich soups and stews that round out otherwise light meals.
While vegetables are eaten in plenty of different manors, there are two very common methods that are surprisingly absent. Deep frying is almost non-existent in Elven cooking, and most frying is incredibly shallow, after which the chef does their best to blot off any excess oil. The reason for this is simple: greasy foods are rather unpleasant to most Elves.
The next notable absence is many commonly used preservation methods. You’d be hard pressed to find the wide array of pickling and fermentation that you could find in the realms of Humans or especially Dwarves. In fact, those funky smells and tastes that come with these preservation techniques, are oftentimes repugnant to Elves, making them think of rot and decay. In their minds, if those foods should have been eaten months later, they would last that long normally. Another reason is the simple lack of necessity for it. Time and time again, preservation methods are developed out of a requirement to save food from times of plenty for seasons of scarcity. Why would Elves need to do that when most of their lands have access to the bounty of nature all year round? While there are a few dishes based on preservation, these are much more commonly developed for travel than they are for making it through the winter, and each of these focus on making a dish that does not change much with time. The one constant through all Elven cuisine is the value of freshness.
Elves have a unique relationship with the beasts in the lands they live, viewing themselves not as masters of flocks or owners of livestock, but rather as stewards of the lands they live on. As mentioned earlier, the question of eating meat has different answers to different Elves, with some abstaining from the act altogether.
When meat is consumed, it is based on whatever animals are necessarily hunted. Just as with vegetables and their other foods, Elves take from the forest only what is in surplus, or directly harmful to the natural cycle. Elven hunting missions focus on game that is multiplying in excess. Due to this style, Elves are some of the more varied eaters when it comes to meat. Many races that rely on animal husbandry develop culinary traditions solely around their main beasts of burden, or the few animals they grow as livestock, but Elves have specific dishes for dozens if not hundreds of different animals. Some of the most commonly seen on the dinner table are boar, deer, owlbears, rabbit, small fowl, and different types of fish. But keep in mind this is far from all you might be eating if invited to a Faewild party. Be ready for moose, snake, beaver, dragon, muskrat and whatever else was hunted that day. Yes I said dragon. Anything that is currently being a nuisance to nature can be considered for the hunt, and then for the dinner table.
Due to the large number of different dishes, I won’t go into them all in depth here. You can see my separate work, “Dining in the Faewild” for a more comprehensive cookbook. Diving in at great depth is also unnecessary, as there are trends among Elven meat dishes. Elves primarily employ four main cooking methods for meats: spit roasts, pot roasts, soups, and sears.
Spit roasts involve an animal placed onto a metal spit either over fire or glowing coals. Spit roast meat is often spiced, with a seasoning level depending on how flavorful the meat is. For example, small fowl such as partridge can stand on its own and isn't commonly seasoned heavily, but snake is often given a full dry rub of different herbs and spices.
Pot roasts have the meat placed in a heavy clay pot and then cooked in the oven or by burying the pot in glowing coals. This is commonly done along with a bed of vegetables and herbs. I also lump braises into this category as Elven braises are done the same way, just with the inclusion of some liquid such as stock and wine.
Soups include a variety of different styles, ranging from light, clear broths, to heavier stews. Stews are much less common at the dinner table for Elves than they are for other races, but certain meats such as muskrat and beaver, are traditionally prepared in thicker stews. Light soups are very common at the dinner table, often functioning as just another liquid to wash down other foods. Soups are often created by simmering offal and bones of whatever was cooked in other ways, an effort to show thanks to the land by leaving no part of the animal to go to waste.
Sears involve flat bottomed pots or pans and some cooking oil. This cooking style is rather quick and used for types of meats that overcook easily, but still benefit from browning. Examples include some of the fattier and more tender cuts from large game like venison or owlbear, or parts of larger fowl like turkey. These meats are often then drained off on racks or cleaning towels as Elves truly dislike oily feeling things. Oil is necessary to prevent browning and sticking, but its use is very limited. In fact, an Elven kitchen might have no more than a small bottle of oil in the entire pantry.
Different categories of meat are generally cooked the same way. Fish are commonly either spit roasted over flame, or incorporated into some sort of soup or stew. The same goes for most reptiles such as snakes and lizards. Small game and fowl are generally either spit roasted whole, or incorporated into some sort of stew. Larger fowl are sometimes spit roasted whole, and other times broken down into smaller cuts for searing and pot roasting, with offal and bones being reserved for stocks. Larger game is broken down into different cuts and each cut is then cooked according to its own properties. Tender cuts are seared, tougher cuts are either stewed or slow cooked in a pot roast or braise. Offal and bones are reserved for stocks.
One thing is true for all animals, and that is to leave nothing behind. While Elves may be considered picky eaters based on their choices of ingredients and flavors, they are not going to shy away from the parts of an animal that other races may find a bit more unappealing. All parts must be used, whether that is offal and bones going into stocks, or organs being seared off or ground up into forcemeat to be made into meatballs or cooked into meatloaves. Don’t be surprised to see the head of an owlbear roasted whole and then picked clean at a festival. If you’re going to use an animal’s sacrifice, then honor it by using it all.
While vegetable dishes are the basis of the meal, fruit dishes are often the highlight, and are usually served last, or are the focus of their own meal or gathering. Elvish meetings, whether friendly or for business, commonly take place while slowly enjoying something sweet and seasonal. And in the Elven lands, there is plenty to choose from. Various types of berries, apples, grapes, pears, melons, the list goes on and on. There are countless fruits that specifically grow in the Elven lands as well, and so I will just mention just one of the mainstays of Elven culinary culture: the Roseapple. This fruit looks rather similar to an apple in appearance, with the main difference being the color. Instead of reds and greens, Roseapples are a shimmering gradient of blue and purple. However, as similar as they may look in form to the apples we know, they are a completely different fruit, growing on twisting vines instead of trees. The taste of a Roseapple is incredibly delicate, filling the nostrils with an almost perfume-like aroma of flower and fruit.
Roseapples, along with other fruits, are prepared in a variety of ways. Jams and jellies are some of the most popular. You may remember me mentioning that Elves do not employ preservation techniques, however, that is assuming that Elves create jams and jellies for the sake of preservation. Rather, the usefulness of preservation is purely second hand to the culinary aspects that Elves look for in jams and jellies. They enjoy the intense saccharine sweetness that these methods imbue upon the fruits. There are tales that some Elven clans never utilized these methods until contact with Halflings, who are the true masters of jams and jellies. After that initial contact, they were hooked. I would still need to do some digging to check the validity of the claims, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this theory holds some kernels of truth.
Another method of preparation is drying, and any Elven home will have jars of different dried fruits and berries, oftentimes offered to guests and young, or put in a bowl in the center of the table for guests to snack on. Dried fruit is also a large part of travel rations for Elves, and can be seen in the pack of any Elvish game warden. Dried fruits are often just sun dried on their own, but sometimes are seasoned with salt or different spices for an extra kick. Yet again another method that Elves would swear is not for preservation, but rather “concentration of flavor”. Trust me, I’ve had this debate with Elven chefs, and this is a hill they are willing to die on for some reason.
Fruits are also often juiced to make different drinks, but I will go over that in more detail in the Drinks section. Finally, although fruits are prepared in all of these ways, the most common way that fruit is consumed is simply raw. Many Elves believe that no amount of culinary prowess can truly exceed the taste of fruit as nature intended, and after having fresh Roseapples in the Faewild myself, I can’t disagree with that viewpoint.
As much as Elves truly love fresh and simply prepared bounties of the wild, many have a large sweet spot for, well, sweets. Elvish grains are rather different from those of humans and halflings. In the realms of other races you’ll find fields of wheat and barley that spread for acres, are harvested in the fall, and are then stored in silos for consumption through the year. Elves on the other hand, only utilize whatever they come across. Wild rice, a patch of buckwheat or rye, maybe some stray spelt, anything is fair game. Plenty of Elven flours actually rely on nuts such as acorns and hazelnuts as well. These flours are then made into a variety of baked goods, such as tarts, galettes, cakes, biscuits, and breads. As is common in Elvish cooking, these dishes normally showcase a certain ingredient that the Elf is excited to have gotten their hands on.
These baked goods can be either sweet or savory. Sweet goods are commonly accompanied by a special type of cream, known as “glossia”. Elves don’t commonly consume dairy as they do not keep the requisite beasts of burden to harvest it from. Glossia instead is processed from the viscous liquid of the glossus plant, a delicate plant with long thick stalks that sprouts at the water’s edge of clean rivers that are rich in silt. The thick liquid is similar to that of the milkweed plant, but rich and smooth in flavor. This sap thickens quickly with heat and then holds that consistency even after cooling. Elvish cooks mix in sugar and other flavorings, before gently heating the sap to the desired consistency. It is then spread on cakes and shortbreads or dolloped on fruit tarts.
Savory baked goods are often very herbaceous, or focused on garlic and onions. You will commonly see thin pastry brushed with oil, dotted with herbs, and then baked off to crisp perfection served along with afternoon tea. There are many riffs on this simple dish, changing the thickness of the pastry, the herbs, or adding other toppings. This is also just as commonly done with bread instead of pastry, with chives and garlic being a favorite addition. These are either stuffed into the bread to bake with it, or mixed with a little oil and brushed on right after it comes out of the oven. Suffice to say, all of these variations are delicious.
One specific Elven bread is worth a spotlight however: Elf Bread. This is, admittedly, terrible nomenclature. Elves make plenty of types of bread, but if you mention Elf Bread in a capital city like Beluir, minds will be set on one thing: the intensely filling and long lasting bread that Elves make for long journeys. Admittedly, even I don’t know the secret to this recipe. As many drunken revels as I have been to in the Faewild, that is a piece of information I have been unable to coax out of even the most jovial and inebriated Elves. Whatever it is that goes on in its creation process, the bread is incredibly delicious. It breaks apart like a soft shortbread, the fine grains dissolving in your mouth and leaving a simple sweetness complemented by a rich nuttiness and hints of forest herbs. What it is most well known for however is not taste, its efficiency. Just a few bites will fill up a ravenous man for a whole day. Furthermore, the leaves it is wrapped in allow the bread to keep fresh for weeks.
One final note on pastries is the lack of truly flaky pastries in Elven culture. This is due to the lack of butter or many animal fats used in the baking process. The plant based oils that Elves used doesn’t have the exact same effect. Because of this, many Elves have found great interest in the incredibly flaky and buttery pastries of the Halflings and Humans, taking true joy in the new experience.
To Elves, the drinks accompanying a meal are often just as important, if not more important than what’s on the plates. Many meals are just excuses to have small treats while savoring a well made drink. “Tea time” as it is called, is a very important ritual when it comes to community, even if tea is not always served. Rather it is an excuse to converse with a friend or two while sipping on something tasty and having a few snacks.
As for the drinks themselves, the best place to start our discussion is the source: water. I mentioned the importance that water plays in Dwarven drinks as well in my analysis of Dwarven food culture, however there is a stark difference here. To a Dwarf, good water is characterized by the flavor imparted by the vitamins and minerals that are present in the underground springs it is sourced from. To an Elf, good water is characterized by a complete lack of those and all other things. Pure, clean, spring water is what is found in the Elven lands, with much of the best water sources coming directly from snow runoff that makes its way into meandering streams. For this reason, an Elf may find Dwarven spring water to be disgusting, all riddled with impurities and dirty tasting. A Dwarf may find Elven spring water just as repulsive, lacking any of the qualities they look for in a good drink and unbearably bland.
But Elves drink far more than just plain spring water. One of the most common is different “slakes'' as they are referred to in the Elven realms. These are simply spring water that is filled with some fresh ingredient, whether that is herbs like mint, crushed fruits like berries, sliced vegetables like cucumbers, or even other ingredients. One such is the lightly pounded needles or bark of some trees, like pine needles or sprucebark. The clean spring water takes on most of the flavors of whatever is submerged, yielding incredibly simple refreshments. Many of these slakes are also heated and steeped to produce teas. A cup of Elven tea could be anything from actual tea leaves, to nettles, to wild grains, but all are delicious.
Many of these ingredients are also juiced, or macerated in honey sugar. These juices are often drunk directly, or thinned down with spring water if they are too potent. Few Elven drinks are as saccharin sweet or intense as those of the Halflings or Humans, instead aiming for more mild flavors. These juices include just about any fruit you can find in the Elven lands, especially some of the more exotic ones, like the golden skinned citrus of orosks, or the large ruby red resmers which grow in bunches on creeping vines in the forest. These juices are also commonly fermented into different wines. Elves are arguably the masters of wine making, and their lands are plentiful with different fruits to ferment. There are many more varieties than just simple grape wine, such as wines made from melons, citrus, various berries, and even honey, as is seen in Evermead, a delightful drink that tastes like it looks: pure gold.
One such wine which deserves specific attention is Elverquisst, a wine made of the aforementioned resmers and orosks. The combination of these yields a ruby colored liquid that is flecked with gold. It has a full bodied taste like a red wine found in the Human realms, but much lighter with almost no hint of alcohol. Though that’s not to say that alcohol isn’t present, as can be seen by the after effects of many Elven festivals. The end notes leave a flavor of warm tangy citrus dancing on the tongue. Some say that it's “distilled from sunshine” and I must say that is an apt description. It is incredibly enjoyable and prized among Elves, with some festivals dedicated to its consumption.
Elvish culinary culture is by far one of the most developed, and this is largely due to Elves’ ability to learn their own tastes over such a long lifespan. As Elves age, while some deem food to be mere fuel, many continue to seek out the new and interesting. Due to this, Elves commonly follow the developments of gourmands from different cultures and races with great fervor. In large cities, many well-to-do chefs are funded by the patronage of Elves who are constantly searching for not only a new dish to savor, but a new dish to show off to their peers. The work that I have done in visiting different cultures has undoubtedly been undertaken before by certain Elves who find their thirst for the nouveau to be insatiable, however despite their own undertakings, these experiences are seldom recorded or published. A true shame for the world of culinary academics.
As in almost all cultures, food is a communal experience for the Elves. It is also one tinged with prestige. In many upper crust circles, eating is about what amazing things you can show off to your guests. Meals are generally hosted, with the goal to wow and amaze the individuals that attend them. Of course this is a matter more reserved for the rich and influential, but this method of viewing it permeates through society. Just take a look at an Elf when they invite you to dinner and wait for you to take the first bite. They are more excited for your reaction than they are to eat the food themselves.
This communal nature is not just a matter of eating in one on one or small group settings. Elves are famous for their absolutely enormous festivals. Celebrations of bounty that put many other races’ to shame. These are commonly held at the ends of seasons, when the growing seasons of specific plants are about to come to an end, and as a way of utilizing the large amount of produce and ingredients that will go bad unless used quickly. I know that Dwarves are the ones with a bad rap for gratuitous drinking, but in my honest opinion, that honor should be hoisted on the Elves. While Dwarves drink more commonly, when Elves do, they drink until they can’t see straight and then pass out. Then they wake up and continue in the revelry. Needless to say, these are amazing parties.
The life of Elves influences their consumption of food very strongly. Their choice of ingredients is completely determined by their connection to nature and belief in stewardship. The abundant bounty they are surrounded by allows many of their flights of fancy. Their tastes are defined by their long life spans, oftentimes changing with trends each century. One such Elvish clan leader I know is currently in a ”Gelatinous Cube” phase after his recent trip to the capital. Quite, an interesting one he is, but who knows what he’ll be interested in 100 years from now? It would suffice to say, that if you put any other race in the Faewild and saw what culinary culture developed, would it even be the same as that of the Elves? Elvish cooking is just that, utterly Elvish.
Well I am glad to be back from my break. My job has a pretty busy season at the end of the year, but I will be back to weekly posting, with some new changes coming up as well. Feel free to check out eatingthedungeon.com for more posts like this one, or if you would like this in a different format, I have also put it up on homebrewery!
I also made a cliffnotes version of this text for easier refererencing, that can be found here.
Let me know in the comments any of your thoughts or how you work with Elven food culture in your own games! This is by no means a set of rules, just a fun jumping off point for good discussions.
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Culinary Ethnography of the Elves" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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