Updated: Jul 26
When you’re planning an immersive event based on a book or story, serving food from that world goes a long way toward making your space feel real.
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Do you remember, when you were a kid, reading about various meals in your favorite books and wishing you could eat them? When I was about nine, I was obsessed with the descriptions of food in the Little House on the Prairie books, to the point where I actually got hold of a Little House cookbook and tried to make some of the dishes. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for a 9-year-old to - you know - make cheese from scratch, but tasting those foods that I had imagined Laura and Mary eating really made me feel like I was in that covered wagon out on the prairie. And to this day I still feel the same way - I actually made the sauteed apples & onions dish that Almanzo loves so much in Farmer Boy and brought it to Thanksgiving a few years ago at my cousin’s house - and the reception was fantastic because her family has actually gone and visited several of Laura’s houses, so they all had the same sentimental affection for Laura and her food. Plus it tasted really good :)
So what do YOU need to know to successfully make and serve refreshments themed to a fictional world? There are three questions you need to answer before you start to plan this part of your event:
What will you serve?
How will you create it?
How will you serve it?
This may sound pretty basic, but if you’ve ever been to a restaurant where you had a bad experience, you know that crummy food and/or crummy service can really ruin your night. Planning the simple, granular details from the ground up will really pay off for you in the end with a flawless product. The reason that excellent restaurants (or parties for that matter), run smoothly and consistently turn out an outstanding experience is that a ton of detailed preparation has been completed beforehand, which allows the final product to seem effortless. And just as an aside, I grew up in the restaurant business, so this I know. As a little kid I used to sit underneath the tables in my family’s restaurant and just watch, and then I worked there as a bus-girl, as a server, in the back office, and then at the Storyteller’s Cottage I hosted a gazillion literary themed events for small and large crowds … so today I can share with you everything I’ve learned and you can learn from my mistakes!
So let’s start with Question number one: WHAT WILL YOU SERVE?
The first choice you’ll make is whether you want to reproduce actual food mentioned in books, or would you rather make something you know is delicious and just give it a book-related name. For example, if you’re planning a Harry Potter event, you could make chocolate frogs and butterbeer, which are obviously mentioned in the books, or you could just make your favorite sweet and sour meatballs and call them Basilisk Balls, or make chocolate dipped orange slices and call them Half Blood Oranges. It’s completely up to you. Your choice here will depend on the specific world you’re trying to build, since some fictional worlds describe their foods in detail and some don’t.
It will also depend on how comfortable you are in the kitchen, how much help you have, and what resources you’re working with. So let’s set this decision aside for a minute and talk about the next two questions you will have to answer before you start to plan.
Question 2 - HOW WILL YOU CREATE YOUR FOOD?
Your options here, are:
1) Cook it from scratch
2) Buy it from some other source, or
3) Modify store-bought food in your own kitchen to bring it more in line with your theme.
If you’re planning this event at your house, and you have an efficient kitchen, and plenty of time, and you enjoy cooking, you might be excited to find some recipes from your fictional world online or in a themed cookbook and make some of your favorites from scratch.
On the other hand, if this is going to be an offsite event, let’s say something at school or outdoors or somewhere where you don’t have easy access to a kitchen … or maybe you don’t like to cook, or you just don’t have time to put together a five-course meal for ten people … well then you’ll be wanting to find a place to buy the items you need, or … and this is my favorite option … you can buy SOME of the foods you need then modify them at home to fancy them up a bit.
One example, to stay with the Harry Potter theme, is pretzel wands. You can buy them completely made, or you can get some plain pretzel rods from the store, spread some ready made frosting on them, and roll them in colored sugar and sprinkles. It’s quick, easy, and can be done ahead of time, and they look adorable. There’s a lot you can do in this vein, and I'll talk more about that later in this post, but I have one more point to make about food creation, then we’ll complete the last of our three important questions.
As you’re deciding on your menu, make sure to consider how much time you have to prepare all this food. Are you doing this all yourself? Is your event on a weekend night so you have all day to cook, or is this event happening on a weekday morning? Depending on your circumstances, you may need to lean more heavily on foods you can make ahead of time. You don’t want to be so flat out and flustered that you can’t enjoy your own party.
So, keep the food creation options in the back of your mind and let’s consider
Question #3 - HOW WILL YOU SERVE YOUR FOOD?
Depending on how many people you are expecting and how much space you have, you’ll need to decide whether you’ll be serving a full sit-down meal, a buffet, or some kind of cocktail party style option where everyone is standing and holding their food. This will inform whether you’ll be offering just finger foods, or just desserts and drinks, or family-style trays of food, or several plated courses.
Also, think about whether your food needs to be transported (so, stay away from big wobbly cake towers and ice cream sundaes), and think about what options you have available to you to keep your food at the proper temperature once it’s out on display. So if you’re having an outdoor event, stay away from the mayonnaise-based salads, or plan to set up trays of ice to set serving bowls in, or if you’re serving soup for example, make sure you can get it straight from the stove to the eaters, or plan to get some warming trays... this kind of thing.
BRAINSTORMING YOUR MENU
Now with all those conditions in mind, you can start to brainstorm your own menu. Write up a list of everything that would be fun to make, then pare it down so it’s realistic. Plan to offer enough variety that everyone is full, but not so much that you need a week’s vacation afterward. Think about balance as you add and subtract various dishes to create a complete picture. Think about how you’ll balance proteins and sides if you’re creating a meal, or balancing your light dishes and heavy dishes, or finger foods vs. foods you’ll need a fork and knife for, what kind of drinks will complement your food, and don’t forget about options for special diets - think about whether you’ll need to offer something gluten free, nut free, or vegetarian.
Now, I know, this sounds like a lot of potential decision points and fussy details. At this point you may be thinking, geez, how many options are you going to throw at me? How come you can’t just give me a themed menu and be done with it? I get it, it would be nice if this was easy and one size fit all, but it’s essential that you stay within your own parameters, otherwise you’re going to have a disaster on your hands. I’m not going to tell you to build a replica of Hogwarts out of cheesecake if you’ve never baked before, your party is outdoors in the summer, and you have seven guests who are lactose intolerant. That would be a waste of all our time.
But, so you don’t get overwhelmed, I’ve linked a checklist here with all these decision points:
Just run down the list and fill in your own resources and goals. Trust me, the work you put in here is going to pay off in the end!
So, now we’ve reached the fun part - the food inspiration! Let’s run through some popular themes that lend themselves to worldbuilding, so you can get inspired for your own immersive event. For several of these themes, I’ve produced a separate post or video describing how to host an event based on them in depth, and I’ll add links to those so you can read/watch them later if you’d like more details on that specific theme, including instructions about how to make the specific food items. In some cases I've linked a themed cookbook for more inspiration.
Sometimes your fictional world features its own special food items that everybody recognizes, like the Turkish Delight in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or the sugar plums in the Nutcracker, or Raspberry Cordial in Anne of Green Gables. You can build a whole menu around that one item, perhaps a tea party with tiny scones and dainty little sandwiches, and in the case of Anne’s cordial, you can actually serve any red, syrupy drink and just call it Raspberry Cordial, then you don’t have to worry about whether it’s alcoholic. Your one recognizable food can carry the menu, and you’ll just have to choose a few complementary dishes to go with it.
Now there are other stories that mention foods, but those items aren’t so well-known that they’re automatically associated with the story. For example, in a Wrinkle in Time, Charles Wallace makes hot cocoa for Meg and his mother. Hot cocoa isn’t immediately associated with that story, but fans will remember the scene and appreciate the reference. So with stories like Little Women where Meg has trouble making jam, or Little House in the Big Woods when Ma makes the girls special heart-shaped cakes with the rare white sugar, or Fantastic Beasts when Queenie bakes apple strudel… you can build your menu around these items that call back to passages in the story, and set out little cards printed with the relevant paragraph to refresh everyone’s memory. As long as you build the rest of your menu in the same spirit as the featured item, it will come together as a cohesive whole. So, you might pair the sugar cakes with lemonade, which Laura drinks at Nellie Oleson’s party, or pair the hot chocolate with cookies -- I’d advise against serving the liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches that Charles Wallace makes for his family. There is such a thing as taking your fandom too far.
And on the subject of Fantastic Beasts, that’s a great example of food doing double duty. In that story, Jacob Kowalski spent a lot of time carrying his homemade breads around in a suitcase, and you can kill two birds with one stone by setting out an array of breads and pastries in an old suitcase as both a decoration and something delicious to eat. Keep an eye out for this kind of opportunity in any story you’re working with.
Now the last two categories of literary food I’m going to call “everything” and “nothing.” There are some stories that mention everything, and go into great detail about the food and drink in their world - I’m looking at you Game of Thrones - and some that mention almost nothing at all. Let’s take that category first.
Let’s say you want to host an event based on the Wizard of Oz, or Peter Pan, or Phantom of the Opera. What’s the first food that comes to mind when you think of those stories? Right ... nothing. So you’ll need to try to illustrate the feeling of that story with your own creative food ideas. Maybe your Wizard of Oz menu includes some fried chicken to remind us of Auntie Em’s farm, or blocks of cheese arranged to look like the yellow brick road, or guacamole labeled “melted witch”, or cupcakes topped with witches’ hats or with red sparkly frosting like Dorothy’s shoes. Taken as a whole, it’s very clear what theme you’re illustrating.
Or maybe you’d like to have an Outlander themed event. You can make or buy traditional Scottish dishes like Scotch Eggs or shortbread, or you can modify a traditional ingredient, like salmon for instance, and serve something like a salmon spread on pumpernickel toasts with something like a warm cider to give you that cozy Scottish castle feeling.
And lastly, for the stories that do describe food in great detail, you’ll actually have to rein yourself in because there will be too many dishes to make them all. Grab a themed cookbook and choose your favorites, or find the passages that describe the meals - you can use the internet for this - and try to replicate them.
The narrator in the Great Gatsby describes the fancy spread at Jay Gatsby’s party, as “spiced baked hams, salads of harlequin designs, pastry pigs, and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” Start with that list, and see what you can make or buy to replicate it.
Or in the Hobbit, Gandalf describes the “unexpected party” in great detail, “I hope there is something left for the latecomers to eat and drink! Tea! No thank you! A little red wine, I think, for me." "And for me," said Thorin. "And raspberry jam and apple tart," said Bifur. "And mince pies and cheese," said Bofur. "And porkpie and salad," said Bombur. "And more cakes and ale and coffee, if you don't mind," called the other dwarves through the door.”"Put on a few eggs, there's a good fellow!" Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. "And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!"
Hungry yet? Take all the ideas you just had, hop onto Pinterest for some more inspiration, then run down the checklist in the description to adjust your event to your personal circumstances. Pinterest is going to be a great source for you.
Some of you Lord of the Rings fans may recognize this as the Eye of Sauron, which I made here into a cheesecake based on a photo I found on Pinterest. There was no recipe attached, but I scrutinized that photo, made a few executive decisions about ingredients, and I’m pretty proud of how this came out :)
So, good luck with your immersive event, have fun eating all the leftovers, and let me know in the comments how it went! Check out my other posts and videos about hosting events based on specific themes, like Alice in Wonderland, the Last Night on the Titanic, Jane Austen, and more.