What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank • A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide

When I first heard about What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide, I knew it was going to be brilliant.

I’m in a writers’ group with its author, Krista D. Ball, and when she explained what she was working on, I wasn’t alone at being filled with a mixture of excitement and envy.

I wasn’t jealous because I could have written this book – I couldn’t have – but because it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime fantastic ideas that you know is going to be a hit.

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a writers’ guide, a cookbook, and a history of food all rolled into one. Its primary aim is to help authors of fantasy (and historical fiction) be more accurate in their use of food. Underneath that is an entertaining, anecdote-filled adventure into our culinary past.

And it’s funny too – sample chapter title: There Is a Horde of Orcs Chasing Me. Can We Stop for Some Rabbit Stew?

I bought my copy the second it came out and I’m about a fifth of the way through. In short, it’s brilliant. Krista has a light touch and squeezes in a ton of useful information – which makes an entertaining book for writers and readers alike. It’s clear from reading it that some of the research was very… hands on.

I asked Krista to come along and explain a little more. Here’s Krista:

What Kings Ate by Krista D. Ball

Research is one of those love it-hate it-avoid it choices that many genre writers face at some point. Research can be as simple as a web search about how viruses are transmitted to something as complex as the socio-political impact of the French Revolution on peasant farmers. From that sentence, you can probably guess where I lean!

In 2011, I was asked to write a non-fiction writer’s guide about food history – What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide.

I knew there was a need for such a book; I’d done time as a slush reader. The internet is littered with incorrect information concerning food history. Plus, many people don’t know where to even start. They base their assumptions on movies and television, or other novels where the accuracy may or may not be above par.

I’ve personally received many emails over the years asking for help on various topics such as what sailors on a Man-of-War would eat, or if a Regency heroine could drink coffee with her breakfast.

It has been a while since I’d gotten deep into the research, so it was good to be back at for this book. I learned a few things quickly, however. Information access has sure changed since I was in university. Back then, I’d be reading newspapers from the 1850s and carts full of books. Now? Whenever you ask a question online, someone “helpfully” tells you to Google it – and usually provides you a snarky link of them searching for the topic.

But, did you know that the internet can be wrong? It’s often wrong, in fact, if you are looking in the wrong places. It’s difficult to tell who is writing the information. While researching my book, I had people share their favourite links on various topics. One of them? After some digging, was written by a group of junior high students as a class project. Most people just look at content, when they should be looking at source.

Part of my frustration with research is that I only learn how things were done. People boiled pig fat and made lard. Ok, great, but what is that process like? For me, that’s a question I had to find out. After all, I was writing What Kings Ate, and doing the research so others wouldn’t need to, right? And aren’t all of the writing gurus telling we writers to address all of the senses? I could not not investigate food history without providing the scents and textures!

I purchase a whole pig every year from a free-range farmer and had asked them for the kidney fat; apparently, the best for flaky pie crusts. I chopped the fat up, giving myself carpal tunnel. I didn’t wear gloves, so my hands had a grease layer. Worse, I kept touching my face (a bad habit) and a week later had an acne outbreak that rivaled that of any teenager.

I got the oven heated up and started rendering the fat. The smell…oh wow. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs. Elton talks about wax candles in the schoolroom. I never really got why that was a selling point. Wow. If tallow candles smell half as bad as that behind-the-fast-food-joint grease stench that filled my house, ugh. Wax me up!

I got my hot fat cooled enough to handle and started pouring it into a funnel. Of course, I bumped the edge of it and coated myself, the floor, the stove, the fridge, and the dog in about two litres of cooling pig fat. The dog was very, very happy about this situation and spent the day happily licking her paws. The cats were equally amused, as the dog’s back end provided a communal lardpop to lick as they walked by.

Yeah. It was a mess. Don’t try it at home.

Undeterred, I tried my hand at milling my own flour. Fifteen minutes to grind two tablespoons of flour with a bunch of rock chips in it. Or, what about when I tried to make mushroom ketchup so that my readers would know what it tasted like? Here’s a hint: fermenting mushrooms on a countertop is bad when you have cats. Really, really bad. However, bone marrow cooks up well in the fireplace, as long as you wrap it in birch bark. Bet you didn’t know that!

So why am I saying all this? Well, sometimes I think we writers need to experience the things we write about. Instead of just reading about horseback riding, why not go take a lesson? Sure, you might be terrified of horses, but you’ll know how it feels being at the mercy of a one-tonne animal. Try some boiled salt beef and tack bread (called hard bread where I’m from) to see how your guts feel; your hero’s story will be all the more authentic.

Smell the rosehips. Make your own ink. Bake a loaf of bread. Live your fiction for a couple of hours. Don’t just experience life; experience history, too.

About What Kings Ate Author Krista D. Ball

Krista was born and raised in Deer Lake, Newfoundland, where she learned how to use a chainsaw, chop wood, and make raspberry jam. After obtaining a B.A. in British History from Mount Allison University, Krista moved to Edmonton, AB where she currently lives. Somehow, she’s picked up an engineer, two kids, six cats, and a very understanding corgi off ebay. Her credit card has been since taken away but you can find her causing trouble on Twitter and at her website.

Final Note From Dave

The paperback will be out in a few weeks, and I’ll be ordering a few of those as well for Christmas presents.

If the above hasn’t given you enough impetus to check out What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank let me say this: once you read the blurb, you will check out the sample. And once you do that, you will be buying this book. It’s that good.

A huge amount of research has gone into it and it’s worth every penny because you won’t just read this once, you’ll return to it again and again. And it will make your books all the richer.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

75 Replies to “What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank • A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide”

  1. I love this book’s concept and my hat’s off to Krista for trying out the authentic methods. I can relate with the lard story. My kitchen counters still have stains from the stearin candles we made at home for last Christmas. One copy sold right here 🙂

    1. Ugh yes! I am going to attempt traditional candle dipping this December for my Yule dinner and *shiver* I’m stocking up on the newspaper now to combat the mess.

  2. No need to read the blurb – I was pretty much sold on the title and was drooling about half way though the post *grins*

    So happy to see there is a paper back on it’s way!

    And I have actully taken the advice she gives at the bottom there – I spent two days at a Amreican Revolution reenactment. I wore the cloths and I made the bread… well someone else cooked it, but I promise I’ll do that eventually too. If only I had an actual fireplace in my house to try cooking on. :}

  3. Krista, I was reading Sir John Froissart’s description of the food eaten by Scottish armies which made me think of you. “They brought no provisions, nor did they encumber themselves with carriages. On his saddlle each man had a metal plate and behind his saddle a little bag of oats. so that when occasion needed, cakes were made and baked upon the plates; for the most part however, they ate the half sodden flesh of the cattle [cooks in pots made from the untanned skin of the same cattle] they captured and drank water.” Sounds yummy. 😉

    I hope your recipes are as good.

    1. Jean le Bel actually gave a somewhat more detailed description. Both men fought the Scottish armies while employed by thre English. He gives a thoroughly amusing description of the English army which was not exactly making good time in their march so the king ordered their supplies left behind: “We were to mount without delay and rally to our banners, carrying just a single loaf of bread strapped behind us like poachers…” This plan did not work extremely well according to le Bel who commented later: “we had nothing to eat all day or night except the loaf we’d strapped behind us — which was soaked with our horses’ sweat.”

      This particular campaign is one of my all time favorites for pure comedy.

  4. I am the furthest thing from a cook, but my husband is a WOW playing, Harry Potter lovin’, Battle Star Galactica watching geek who happens to love being in the kitchen. Christmas present purchased!

  5. I lived some of this, growing up on a farm (use a small meat grinder before rendering the fat). I’ve also banged out my own chain mail back in the 80’s that I used on the cover image for my 3rd Swords&Sorcery book http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008QOK4BM/

    Love the concept for this food book, I’ll have to check it out.

  6. An awesome idea. This is a great reference book. I’ll wait until the papercopy comes out, so it can sit on my shelf for years to come. I’ve gathered various books like this to use in my writing. I agree, it’s great to get hands on experience to make writing more authentic. I’m currently experimenting with simple soups to cook while travelling. I’ve done the horseback riding (got one out in the backyard) and am learning more about other farm animals. I get to milk my first goat next spring if our doe kids. Then I’ll make goat milk soap and cheese.

    Love the title of this book, too, and the fact that you’re from Newfoundland. I’ve been there a few times, travelling from one end to the other. Me mum’s from there.

  7. I love hands-on history! I waste hours trying to find out how people used to do things for small details in my books. I’ve been researching early use of gunpowder in mining for the past two years – using the internet, visiting mining museums, reading dry-as-crackers technical volumes… I learnt more in ten minutes when some extremely lucky channel hopping presented me with a guy actually blasting a rock face with a tube of gunpowder. It’s so hard to get the sensory details from most kinds of research.
    I will be getting this book 😀

  8. Reblogged this on it's about writing and commented:
    Can’t wait for this read on research and writing. What a timely work, at least for me personally, and I’m sure for many of you that would like to try your hand at genre/period writing. Check this one out. 🙂

  9. Wow. I don’t write fantasy nor historical fiction but this book sounds like a great read. Kudos, Krista. And thanks David for showcasing it.

    1. Thanks 🙂 I tried very hard for this book to appeal to writers and readers. If I’ve done my job right, anyone who likes history or fun facts, fantasy or history books or movies, should all find something in this book to make them laugh.

      Of course, that’s always a big if!

  10. The book was as good as sold as soon as I saw the title and read enough to be certain it was indeed a reference text. Then I scurried over to the link, paused all of ten seconds at the price (brain had to consult with fiscal-brain and verify purchase), took a few seconds to skim the table of contents, and then purchased. THEN finished reading this post.

    Thanks for the heads-up on this one!

  11. The book sounds awesome! On my to-buy list. I really hate having to make stuff up when it comes to food. Thankfully, it’s never been an issue, and now it won’t be.

    Hope she included something about chocolate…

      1. You be awesome. Maybe now I can figure out if growing chocolate in the setting region of my novel is possible. Because a universe without chocolate is chaotic and evil!

  12. Beware! I tried the ‘experience’ of skinning & tanning for my Native American historical and ended up bcoming a historical re-enactor. Start a fire with flint & steel anyone? Or a bow-drill? Fantastic displacement activity for your writing.

    Looks a fantastic book Krista. Noting it now.

  13. Thank you David! What a great find! I just bought my copy and I think the descriptions of how to GET the food will help immensely to add authenticity to the story.

  14. Cool book! And the research sounds great fun – especially for the dog and cats 😉
    I’m just getting my author blog up and running, and as my specialist area of knowledge is horses, (professional rider for my day job) I’m including a ‘From the Horse’s Mouth’ tips for writers of historicals, fantasy, westerns, even contemporary country-set fiction.
    Perhaps there’s a book in it…..

    1. *puts up hand*

      I’d buy it in a flash. Horse-riding scenes are especially tricky for me, given that my knowledge extends to hanging on for dear life while cursing the lunchtime beer…

    2. Yeah, I’d find that useful too. I recently needed to write about a horse being reshod, and found an excellent video on uTube of a guy shoeing a horse and explaining what he was doing. I knew nothing about it in advance, and was amazed it could be done so quickly.

  15. I usually render fat by chopping it and then boiling it in water …. the fat floats and then if you cool it you can lift it off (in case you want to try it again, that is)

  16. Reblogged this on Tammy J Rizzo and commented:
    I have got to admit, part of me would like to see Krista singing on YouTube, but the larger part of me wants to read her book. Now. I have ground my own flour, made my own bread, spun my own yarn (and still do), and tried many other things that I was likely to have my characters do. It was immensely helpful, and I feel enriched by the experience. I’m sure Krista would agree.

    Still … YouTube. Choices, choices.

    1. I learned a lot about how removed so many people are from their food in the process of writing this book. It was so sad to hear how many people has never smelled what baking bread was outside of a grocery store. Wow. That’s a smell everyone should experience at home at least once. Low carb diets be damned!

      1. Krista, I work at a natural foods co-op and I’m regularly taken a back at how much more I know about food and where it comes from than people that are decades older than me. I have grandmothers asking me how to make things; I thought it was supposed to be the other ways around.
        And I agree, the smell of baking bread is irreplaceable.

        Thanks for writing such an interesting book. I can’t wait to buy it and read it!

  17. Krista – I’m a sucker for this stuff, thanks. Just finished writing an historic thriller set in ancient Alexandria and it was hell to research clothing and food. A lot of details like that are lost or disparate. Picked up a cool book on the subject – Courtesans and Fishcakes (wait for the movie version!). Next book I’m working on is an historic fantasy so your timing’s perfect.

  18. This is fantastic! I’m about to go purchase a copy. This is exactly the kind of reference book I’ve been looking for.

    David (or Krista), can you recommend any other reference books for writers that cover other subjects, like natural settings, historical clothing, weapons, etc.? I mean books that would serve a writer looking to be accurate in his or her descriptions.



    1. Hi there! Here are some of the books (not exhaustive) that I find very interesting and useful:

      Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770
      The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
      If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home
      Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual (Unofficial Manuals)
      A History of Ancient Britain (TV show)
      A History of Ancient Britain (book)

      Those are great reads to begin with, and even if you just skim, they offer a lot.

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