American food in the Lord of the Rings

Denethor eating a tomato

When I originally had this idea, it was going to be the start of a larger blog about imported foods in films. It was going to be a big discussion about what food was available when and where. It was also partly inspired by Jeff Mummert’s ‘Modding Skyrim’ piece on Play the Past, which I have already mentioned on this blog.

Unfortunately, right now I can’t seem to get past all the food in Lord of the Rings.

Lord of the Rings is set in our world, long ago. In the films this is never explicitly stated, but it’s there in the books. This is why they filmed in New Zealand; because it looks like Europe before the industrial revolution hit. Exactly when is never stated either, except that it finishes in the Fourth Age, which is the ‘Age of Men’. It is set in the fictional prehistory of the old world. Middle Earth is Europe.

I make this point because a lot of the food consumed in the films actually comes from the Americas. Take, for example, the prime pumpkin specimen being polished in the following scene from the Return of the King. It’s a member of the squash family, and it’s from North America. They weren’t introduced to Europe until significantly after European colonisation of the continent. For what it’s worth, turnips were used for Hallowe’en lanterns before this .

Sticking with the third film in the series, there is the tomato that Steward Denethor nibbles his way through after sending his son Faramir off to near-certain death. Nice one Denethor. The tomato is originally from the area surrounding the Chilean Andes, and spread to Europe much later. While I’m throwing interesting facts out there, did you know that Chile translates to ‘cold winter’? You do now!

Then there are of course Samuel ‘Samwise’ Gamgee’s beloved taters.

Potatoes are also from the Andes and, like the other foods in this blog, have become so popular in the wider world that most people don’t even make the association. It might be the strong association with Irish history that has done this. In a tragic irony, ‘Conies’ were introduced  to Great Britain by the Romans, and to the Americas by later European settlers, probably about the same time they were taking potatoes back in the other direction. Having said that, mashed potato, rabbit and a good rich gravy does work very well, so perhaps there is a silver lining.

Finally, let’s talk about pipe weed. Tolkien is pretty explicit that this is tobacco. Unfortunately, you will probably remember this as another one of the things Sir Walter Raleigh was supposed to have brought back. JRR mentions it as ‘a variety of Nicotiana’, which, knowingly or unknowingly, contains the name of Jean Nicot; the guy who introduced the plants to France and saddled them with his name.

Peter Jackson decided to go the ridiculous route, and some have argued that this is a reference to Marijuana.

The purists may not like it, but I have to give the nod to the stoners here. If they were smoking anything in prehistoric Europe, it was more likely to be marijuana than tobacco. There’s some pretty conclusive evidence that members of the cannabis family were used across Europe even in prehistory.

So there you have it, Peter Jackson can gobble carrots all day, but he still won’t know anything about the historical accuracy of foodstuffs in continental Europe. If you have spotted any other foods in films you’d like me to dissect, please give me a shout in the comments below.

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