Food for Thought: Narrative Through Food at Larps

Food for Thought: Narrative Through Food at Larps

Food is an essential part of any culture. Taste and smell may be some of our more abstract senses but they have the power to bring us closer to memories and common experiences than many of the other senses. Anyone who pretends to be an intellectual knows about Marcel Proust and his Madeleine biscuit; how the taste of the madeleine brought forth memories of the protagonist’s childhood with crystal clear vividity. It is our belief that food has this power. Food is very strongly culturally bound. What is deemed edible or taboo is strongly rooted in us, and often it does not matter that we intellectually know that something is safe or even tasty. If our culture has taught us that dog meat or insects are taboo we will have a very hard time bringing ourselves to try them. Simply put, food is a strong carrier of both memories and common culture.

Eating food is also often a social ritual. The time during the day when we gather together, and share our experiences with each other. In all these ways food and eating are excellent tools to carry a narrative. To enhance an experience of being in an alien or different culture, or even literally to act as plot-tools. Still it is our experience that a lot of larp designers forget about the power food can hold over the participants experience. Below, we will share our experiences as both organisers and kitchen helpers/volunteers. We hope that our experience and creativity both will bring food to the forefront when it comes to narrative tools but also inspire more larp-designers to use the kitchen staff and the food as narrative tools. If they do it is our belief that they deeply will enhance the larp experience for their participants.

The Food

We are very emotional about what we eat. This is natural since we quite literally would die if we did not eat. Getting food when we are really hungry is among the most pleasurable experiences in the world. Likewise the disappointment of realising you cannot get food when you are really hungry can be devastating. There are very clear cultural connections to food. What is supposed to taste good, and what is expensive. Even if we try to pretend that champagne and caviar are really cheap in a certain larp culture the larpers will have a hard time accepting this as truth. Likewise, presentation means a lot for the eating experience. Texture, colours, the way it is presented and plated. If you understand this you can start to really play around with the food to create the feeling you yourself envisioned as a organiser and larpwriter. We will now present some case studies of how we have used the food itself to enhance a narrative and in some instances even created narrative with it. We have made jello to make a larp about American gods feel more American and we have made hundreds of fluffy little cakes to give a mad hatter feeling to a mental ward in fable inspired fairy tale larps. Food is a way to involve another sense into a full body larp experience and we want to tell you a little about the way we have done that in the past.

Beyond the Barricades — Literally Putting the Narrative in the Food

Beyond the Barricades (Göthberg and Wei, 2015) was a larp inspired by Les Misérables, it took place during the French Revolution of 1832. The players portrayed the revolutionaries on the barricade and all either deserted the cause or died heroically in the ending scene. The wish was to create a feeling of constant pressure from the outside, both from other barricades to stay strong and from the military to give up. We also wanted to serve very simple food, something that made the characters, all from different socio-economical classes contrast each other. Some saw it as luxury dinner, other as basically inedible garbage. The meals were very simple, a french onion soup without the garnish or quite literally lentils and garlic. It was carried in beyond the barricades by the kitchen staff in buckets and served together with loafs of bread. However, in some of the breads letters from another barricade were hidden. This created hilarious discussions between the NPC players, organisers and kitchen staff regarding how to pace the NPCs dramatic curve alongside the dramatic curve served to the players in the breads, making sure that the NPC’s portraying revolutionaries from the same barricade as the letter inside the breads followed the same narrative curve as the letters we served up for lunch or dinner. It also helped giving a feeling of a meaningful surrounding outside the barricade and created some nice scenes when the bad news of the other barricade falling under the military attacks were delivered in a bread during the last day. The kitchen staff also used the food to guilt the players characters into doubting their commitment to the revolution. By blaming the revolutionaries for cutting off supply lines resulting in less profits for the poor workers that made the food for them, and the further the larp went bringing in more and more meager supplies the food became a symbol for the fruitlessness of the revolution. This was possible to do since there was extra food available in the off-game area, and we also served up a feast on the evening after the larp ended.

Made in Hessbrand — Starvation and Disgust

Made in Hessbrand (Zeta, Johnsson, Modin and Isaksson) ran in 2015 and was a part of the long going fantasy campaign, Heart of War. The setting was far away from the war in question. Deep in the countryside of Hessbrand, a country visually and culturally inspired by Ireland in the 14th century. The story was something along social revolt and miserable failure. The players portrayed Hessbrännian workers and a manufacture for buttons or supervisors from an occupation force. During the larp the players made a revolt, barricaded themselves in and finally got completely massacred by arriving soldiers. The feeling the organisers wanted to communicate was one of poverty, sickness, working too much in the factory and oppression. We tried to make that happen through the food serving, but in the same time we wanted to serve tasty food so that people could eat their full. We started of presenting ourselves and the food to the players before game start. We played disgusting and filthy characters. Everyone had probably seen me sneeze in the pots. We asked them to actively play down the food as weird looking and disgusting. The food served was “Fishys mush” which was named after the colour they had, green and yellow. They were served together with honey glazed fried cabbage, bread, hummus, and fried bacon. The compliments were tasty and therefore made it possible for players who have a hard time to stomach the mush on account of them looking almost inedible to still get a decent meal. The green mush was green lentils cooked in garlic and olive oil until it turned into a porridge and the yellow mush was simply mashed potatoes with a mushroom sauce mixed into it which gave it a greyish colour and lumpy texture.

This meant that the food was very tasty even if it looked horrible. This together with the player actively joking about how disgusting the mushes were and the kitchen staff portrayal of thieving lying entrepreneurs happy to make money out of others misery helped create a feeling of the food as a horrible thing you did not want to touch with a ten foot pole, but the only nutrition to get within walking distance. It increased the players’ feeling of being abused by a system and the feeling of poverty. In the same time the actual food was really tasty and filling.

Last Will—The taste of something different

Last Will (Stenler, Strand and Gamero 2014) was a larp set in a dystopian future when Chinese culture had grown in importance together with American. This created a vision of the future where a lot of texts were written in Chinese and Chinese culture was present in name culture and such. Last Will was a larp about modern day slavery and the loss of democratic rights, set in a dystopian future Sweden, in a gladiator stall. The players portrayed slaves of free workers (who lived under slave like conditions). They were not allowed to leave the gym where they lived on plastic mats behind plastic sheet walls. Their whole life circled around making sure the fighters were good enough to survive the gladiator-style fights. Food was served from “upstairs” quite literally as both the in-game administration and the off game organisers were sitting up the stairs from the playing area. The organisers had a clear vision of what they wanted the food to say. It was suppose to speak industry, impersonal, calculated nutrition and Asian. This was very well achieved. The food was simple lentil stews with potatoes and other root vegetables. Added in was also seaweed which gave the food an unpleasant slimy texture and a slightly Asian flavour. It was served in vacuum packed bags of plastic, the food weighed by me and the other helpers to make sure it was more or less the exact amount of an adult’s daily intake or calories, supervised by the cooking organisers. It was then frozen and thawed in water baths before served at the venue. Together with your allotted plastic bag you would get seaweed crackers and some of the characters even got “vitamins” to moderate their health. These “vitamins” and the calculated sizes of the food gave the players a feeling of being under constant supervision and moderation from the people upstairs. The Asian flavours helped create a feeling for the culture that larp was portraying and if you could not stomach the seaweed lentil stew and felt you needed something else to eat the players could go to the off game area where there was plenty of fruits, sandwiches, chocolate and hugs. This made it possible to serve food that was a bit strange in flavour because if the players could not stomach it there was a backup solution.

Tre Kronor, Lindängen and the luxury of the upper class

Just as it is hard for players to really immerse themselves in an experience of poverty and hunger if the food offered is a cornucopia of delights, playing on themes of luxury and richness will also be enhanced and helped by the right food. More than that, food can work as a nice divider between rich and poor at larps where different economic classes mingles. Tre Kronor (Linder, Wånngren and Ahlbom, 2012) was a small one night event. The setting a high status upper class freemasonry lodge’s yearly banquet. During the larp the kitchen staff were players as well, but we paid less than those playing upper class. A professional cook planned and executed lavish multiple course dinners for the upstairs crowd that the staff heated and served during the larp. The downstairs staff got simple soup and cheap alcohol. This created a nice division between player groups, a feeling of entitlement in the upper class characters and a feeling of oppression for the downstairs crowd. The kitchen, dressed up in uniform clothing helped to create an atmosphere where any wish or demand was upheld.

Another larp where the players portrayed the upper class was Lindängen Boarding School (Elofsson and Lundkvist, 2013). In this section I want to concentrate on the food and how it acted to help create a feeling of luxury for the players. Sometimes you might not have the possibility to get a real chef to make the food, but there is a lot you can do to play around with the feeling of more luxurious food for the participants even as a volunteer with no formal training. We will talk more about the different way we choose to portray Lindängen below but there is still some interesting points to be made about the food itself on the different runs. During Lindängen 1 (2013) we opted for classical dishes from Swedish schools but in a fancier setting. Green pea soup with white wine instead of the traditional brown pea soup. Salad served in pretty containers, and homemade bread (cheap and luxurious) gave a feeling of more upper class establishment. During Lindängen 2 (2014) the kitchen chose to be even more upscale, with a lot of energy going into making food from scratch which made it possible to serve food that usually is quite expensive even if it did not cost that much since it was made from cheap ingredients such as gnocchi and stuffed peppers. For Lindängen 3 (2016) the homemade croissants were a hit that gave a quite ordinary breakfast spread a more fancy tone, together with the attention to details such as cheese roses and whipped butter.

The Fluffy Muffin Plot — When you Cook up Larp Magic

Sometimes just the presence of the most mundane normal thing will create game for a large group of players. These stories are never planned but happens in the moment. Some might even argue that this is the basic strength of larp as a medium. We are as larpers hyper-aware of any possible storyline and we tend to try and make sense of the random. During Lindängen 3 this happened to great effect in the many twists and turns of “the fluffy muffin plot.” It is—as are so many of these larp stories—too long and too personal to be of a broader interest in its entirety but we will try to give you the boiled down version here, to explain how you can create play with food at larps.

One player (who portrayed a very stern and scary teacher) asks the organisers one morning for some “fluffy muffins.” He was going to make a psychological experiment. The organisers were a bit confused but asked the kitchen staff to make some fluffy muffins. The thought of a very stern and sadistic teacher playing around with six fluffy muffins generated a lot of laughter in the kitchen. The kitchen obviously made sure to have the windows open and to talk about this very loudly to spread the rumours about the fluffy muffins and their longing to spit in them. By the time the muffins reached the teacher who ordered them, the rumour that the kitchen spat in them was already in motion, and therefore by larp magic became true. The kitchen totally DID spit in them.

The psychological experiment is done and create an interesting scene for the players and that could have been the end of the fluffy muffins. However there were five muffins left so the teacher served them to the five students with the highest status in the third year. They were of course terrified to accept such gifts from their horrible teacher, but decided after much anguish that to eat them was better than to not eat them. However one of them was so curious about what these muffins actually meant that he sends a younger student to find out about the muffins (since speaking directly to the kitchen was forbidden.) The student who was sent to find out the truth misunderstands him though and just ends up ordering more muffins. Since the kitchen was well staffed it had the time to bake new fluffy muffins and serve them. Through the inner working of status fall and reputation this last serving of the fluffy muffins resulted in the fall from grace of some students, the rise of others and some scenes of oppression. All very welcome at a larp about pennalism and boarding schools.

At the same larp we also let some students make a hat out of cheese that they used to bully another student. And on earlier Lindängen frozen peas, spinach and at a memorable occasion frozen scones has soothed black eyes of students. The importance of this story is to show how much you can do with food and kitchen staff to create game and dynamic. The so called “Fluffy Muffin Plot” ended up being one of the most retold narratives in the debrief group, and would never have happened had not the organisers planned for a big enough kitchen crew that a person could be spared to make the muffins in the first place.

The Kitchen

All larps that provides food for their players needs some kind of kitchen crew. These are often volunteers, or even organisers, who have a huge responsibility to make sure everyone is fed (preferably food that is sufficient in nutrition and quantity and on time ) and who because of that often spends most of their time off game without being a real part of the larp and the story. We would like to propose different ways to use the kitchen as a play area and the kitchen crew as proper characters. People who are responsible for feeding the rest of the larp (as well as with other kinds of practical off game duties) should of course never get involved in the game to an extent where it interferes with those responsibilities but there’s still plenty of room to create characters that contributes to the setting and fills an in-game purpose without interfering with the actual cooking.

Lindängen — One Larp, Three Different Kitchens

One larp that has already been mentioned in this article is Lindängen, a larp about an upper class boarding school revolving around themes such as bullying, peer pressure, social status and the never ending upholding of a system that keeps hurting the people within it. It’s been run three times and one or both of us have been a part of the kitchen crew each time. What’s particularly interesting about this larp is that the way the kitchen was used as a play resource and the role it filled in the game varied a lot between the different runs.

For the first run, we were aiming to create a contrast between the upper class students and teachers of the school and ourselves, as well as offering a safe space for those characters (and players) who suffered the most from the bullying. The kitchen staff were portrayed as working/lower class who sold home made booze and listened to loud socialistic punk music. Being in the bottom when it came to status and influence also created the opportunity to actually question what was going on in the school. The kitchen itself became a place where all the “outsiders,” the ones who didn’t want to play along with the system and those who it affected the hardest, could come to breath or hide out for a moment. Within the kitchen walls, no one could hurt them and to it’s staff they could reveal how they really felt about the school. In the end the kitchen staff also worked as a reminder on how status is the only thing that matters within the system when their attempts to actually make a difference and create some justice miserably failed.

The kitchen in the second run was rather another tool to uphold the system than a contrast to it. Not only was the food fancier, the kitchen staff themselves had a much more polished and professional approach with more of a personal distance (at least officially) towards the students. The kitchen also played a role in the actual bullying through the use of kitchen duty as a penalty for students that misbehaved. While the kitchen in the first run was a place to hide from oppression it was now a place to be even more oppressed. In a similar way the kitchen during this run amplified the need of upholding a surface. They would be very professional towards the player until they were sent to kitchen duty when the facade would be lowered and the player now forced to mop the kitchen floor had an opportunity to hear conversations between people who came from a different social background and had a different view of the world. This suppressed form of dislike towards the school and its traditions worked well in giving the players a feeling of another world outside of the school, but a world that was judging, different and impossible to be a part of.

For the third run, the role of the kitchen was pretty much set by the players themselves. During the pre-game workshop they decided that one of the unofficial school rules would be “no personal socialising with the kitchen staff” and even though this rule wasn’t upheld at all times it contributed to an us and them-division between the kitchen and rest of the school. This was even more established through for example a scene where the career counselor used a member of the kitchen staff as an “example of bad character” before a group of students. The kitchen staff was in many ways more looked down upon than in the previous runs but still filled the purpose of being the harmless adults, the ones you can turn to when one of the games has gotten out of hand and someone is actually hurt without risking getting in trouble for it.

Coven — Increasing the Creepiness

Coven (Häggström and Falk, 2015) was a larp inspired by the show American Horror Story: Coven and centred around a small coven of witches with the task of both educating people with magical powers as well as hiding them from witch hunters. The larp started with a group of teenagers who had just learned about their powers and the whole existence of the witch community arriving to the coven, their new home. The feeling of the coven was supposed to be eerie, freakish and unpredictable for those who were new to it and one element that was used to create this was, of course, the household staff.
The household did not only provide the food but also other chores like tidying up the sleeping quarters, making beds and assisting in magical rituals. The kitchen was not only a place where the food was prepared but also the place to go to if you needed to get blood, salt or plastic covers for said rituals. The staff itself were portrayed as emotionless, ageless and it was uncertain even to ourselves if they even were human. We spent a lot of time stone faced staring out the kitchen window, sweeping the same spot of the floor over and over again, making beds extremely neatly, folding the players clothes and reorganising their personal belongings when they weren’t looking, wiping blood of the floor without showing any sort of emotion and so on. We even listened to the same song on repeat in the kitchen throughout the whole larp. For the players this created a feeling of having walked straight into a horror movie. The knowledge that the household always saw you became very powerful, and the players experienced a feeling of loss of personal space when their belongings would be reorganised as soon as they turned their head. The almost mechanical movements of the household, paired with the same song going on repeat really made you doubt if they were real people. It became very effectively a way of entering into a magical circle of belief as the characters tried to accustom themselves to a new reality where magic was real and dangerous.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Kitchen Work at Larps

We have during our unofficial career as kitchen volunteers gathered some overall valuable lessons that make life easier for everyone, participants as well as organisers, that are listed below. We hope that these tricks of the trade will help others, organisers and kitchen volunteers alike to make their work easier.

Three Things You Never Should Do

  • Poison your players.[1]We have all done it, but try your best and never do the same mistake twice. Like Siri did. With this we mean, do not serve food that the player in question is allergic too. Make sure to clearly mark allergy-friendly food, or serve it separately for the larper in question. Most modern settings will allow to mark the food clearly with a name sign using the player’s in game name.
  • Not having enough food to feed everyone. This means that during starvation larps there should be access to food off game that has not gone bad or is disgusting but good, preferably warm, food, ready to help players through a taxing time. If this is not going to be available, clearly communicate this to the players in advance and make sure there is a convenient way for them to stash off game food for themselves if they need sufficient nutrition to handle the larp.
  • Understaff your kitchen. It creates anguish, pain, stress and bad role-playing on behalf of the staff. Mistakes happen more easily when the kitchen staff have not had sufficient sleep. Better to have space in the budget for a person too many than to have too few in the volunteer group. That way you can have some designated to do the actual cooking, one to do last minute shopping (which will happen) and some more focused on creating the right atmosphere and role-playing if you want the kitchen to actually enhance your game.

Three Things You Should Always Do

  • Appreciate your kitchen staff. Do not underestimate the importance of good kitchen staff. They will be able to help you create the right ambience and make sure organisers and players are well fed. All they want is some cred and maybe some chocolate, energy drinks or other poisons of their choice. Make sure to thank them after the larp and give them a small token of appreciation and they will be happy to go the extra mile for you.
  • Clearly communicate to the players how much food will be served, what kind of special diet you will provide for/not provide for and so on. It’s never okay to let the players discover they won’t have enough to eat after they have paid a full participation fee and arrived to the larp (you can of course serve any food you like but tell the players about it). This means be clear if there will be dietary options available, if there will be off game food in cases where the scenario doesn’t leave room for a lot of food etc.
  • Work with the players special diets instead of against it. Look at the players needs before setting the menu and try to make sure as many as possible will be able to eat as many meals as possible. A lot of vegetarians? Make all food vegetarian! Gluten allergies? Serve rice instead of pasta. If you make the food vegan it will also work for lactose and milk protein allergies. This will most likely save you not only time but also money.

Conclusion

We hope this advice will be helpful in your future culinary endeavours. We truly believe food is an essential part of any larp experience. If we allow it to be. Let texture, flavours and presentation play towards the atmosphere of the larp, and make sure to staff your kitchen with enough people so that they will have time to help you create the feeling and game play that truly supports the story you want to tell.

Bon Appetite!

Ludography

  • Alma Elofsson and Mimmi Melkersson Lundkvist. Lindängens Riksinternat (run 1). Sweden: 16-20 September 2013. Cooking and serving by Siri Sandquist, Rosalind Göthberg, Samuel Sjöström, Hugo Sandelin, Elsa Broman and Anneli Friedner
  • Alma Elofsson and Mimmi Melkersson Lundkvist. Lindängens Riksinternat 2 (run 2). Sweden: 30 April-4 May 2014. Cooked and served by Siri Sandquist, John Bergström, Rune Nordborg, Mojje Mårtensson, Calle Wickström
  • Alma Elofsson and Mimmi Melkersson Lundkvist. Lindängens Riksinternat 3 (run 3). Sweden: 2016. Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg, Lukas Renklint, Elvira Fallsdalen, Erland Nylund, Emil Rogvall
  • Rosalind Göthberg and Eva Wei. Beyond the Barricades. Sweden: 4-6 June 2016. Cooked and served by Siri Sandquist and Lukas Renklint
  • Mia Häggström and Sofie Falk. Coven (run 1). Sweden: 18-20 September 2015. Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg, Sara Gerendas, Hannah Merkelbach, Elli Garperian
  • Mia Häggström and Sofie Falk. Coven (run 2). Sweden: 2-4 October 2015. Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg, Sara Gerendas, Elvira Fallsdalen, Carl Nordblom
  • Anna-Karin Linder, Oscar Wånngren and Hampus Ahlblom. Tre Kronor 2, Sweden: 2012. Cooking and serving by Siri Sandquist, Frida Karlsson Lindgren, Nicolas Lennman, Jonathan Dahlander, Severin Gottsén, Johannes Harg, Carolina Lindahl och Theo Axner
  • Anna-Karin Linder, Oscar Wånngren and Hampus Ahlblom. Tre Kronor 3, Sweden: 2013. Cooking and serving by Siri Sandquist, Rosalind Göthberg, Frida Karlsson Lindgren, Elsa Broman, Lukas Renklingt, Nicolas Lennman, Johannes Harg, Elin Gissén, Carl Norblom, Malva Tyllström and Severin Gottsén
  • Mimmi Melkersson Lundkvist, Erik Holst and Teresa Axner. Organise Safely. Sweden: 2015 Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg and Lukas Renklint
  • Lukas Renklint, Rosalind Göthberg, Elvira Fallsdalen and Eva Wei. Once upon a Time 1. Sweden: 2014. Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg and organisers
  • Lukas Renklint, Rosalind Göthberg, Elvira Fallsdalen and Eva Wei. Once upon a Time 2. Sweden: 2015. Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg and organisers
  • Lukas Renklint, Elvira Fallsdalen, Rosalind Göthberg and Eva Wei. Sigridsdotter 1. Sweden: 2015. Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg and Siri Sandquist
  • Lukas Renklint, Elvira Fallsdalen, Rosalind Göthberg and Eva Wei. Sigridsdotter 2. Sweden: 2016. Cooked and served by Rosalind Göthberg and Siri Sandquist
  • Siri Sandquist, Erland Nylund, Linnea Björklund and Thor Forsell. Dusk of Gods. Sweden: 2015. Cooked and served by Siri Sandquist and Thor Forsell
  • Siri Sandquist, Staffan Fladvad, Johan Nylin and Elin Gissén. It’s a Man’s World. Sweden: 2015. Cooked and served by Siri Sandquist and Fredrik Nilsson
  • Sofia Stenler, Annica Strand and Frida Gamero. Last Will. Sweden: 2014. Cooked and served by organisers and Siri Sandquist and Frida Karlsson Lindgren
  • Sara Zeta, Ola Johnsson, Hanna Modin and Josefine Isaksson. Made in Hessbrand. Sweden: 2014. Cooked and served by Siri Sandquist, John Bergström and Elin Holm

This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.

Cover photo: The authors posing with a batch of bread (pre-game, Siri Sandquist).

References   [ + ]

1. We have all done it, but try your best and never do the same mistake twice. Like Siri did.

Authors

Rosalind Göthberg
Rosalind Göthberg is a Swedish larpwright with a solid theatre background. She annually performs and produces plays with her own theatre society. She loves mixing larp and theatre, creating aesthetic, emotional larps with a strong story to tell.
Siri Sandquist
Siri Sandquist has organised larps but more importantly worked as kitchen staff at larps for almost four years. She works as a larp pedagouge with LajvVerkstaden and believe in creating larp magic by using all senses of The body, even taste.
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