In just six weeks, the Night King will have either frozen over Westeros or melted into a puddle, and there will be no more Game of Thrones. No more giant dragons spit-roasting peasants like tiny game hens. No more petty drama among the squabbling nobility. No more clashing armies. And, most of all, no more of the greatest feasts on television: a parade of pigeon pies, lemon cakes, truly natural wine, and six whole aurochs roasted over a very live fire. You can keep your battles and your intra-sibling sex scenes: for me, food was the most enjoyable part of nearly any episode.
The show’s love affair with feasting, and its use of food as a world-building device, began in the very first episode: a raucous feast is held in honor of King Robert Baratheon, coming far north to see his old friend Ned Stark at Winterfell. There is honey-roasted chicken and roasted onions with gravy, copious drinking, and plenty of revelry. There is a brief food fight when Ned’s daughter Arya rockets food at her sister Sansa from a spoon, and we quickly learn about the discomfort that Ned feels around others when his brother Benjen says, “You, at a feast. It’s like a bear in a trap.”
The recurring theme that might resonate even more now than it did when the show debuted in 2011 is the pleasure that characters take in eating in an uncertain world. The Dothraki feast on horses and blood pies while getting rowdy with fermented horse milk. We learn about the north’s hardier food not only from the feast for Robert, but when Jon Snow laments to Sansa, “You’d think after thousands of years, the Night’s Watch would’ve learned how to make good ale.” When Theon Greyjoy returns to Pyke after a decade, the books show us the severity and austerity of the ironborn through a meal made for people who clearly don’t give a damn about flavor. And it is just so fitting that the conniving Little Finger’s favorite dish is a savory pie stuffed with bloodsucking lampreys.
Throughout its run, Thrones has seen fit to explore its many characters’ tastes and relationships to eating — this is even more the case in George R.R. Martin’s effusively sensuous prose in the Song of Ice and Fire books — and to let those attitudes advance the story. When the orphaned Sansa Stark is brought to Lady Olenna Tyrell, the group wants to get info out of Sansa about the vicious King Joffrey. Olenna draws Sansa in quickly, by asking her if she’d like her favorite food: “Should we have lemon cakes?” It’s seduction by sweetness — at least until Olenna curtly demands that the servers also bring her some cheese, immediately.
The dwarf Tyrion Lannister, meanwhile, is treated with scorn and embraces carnal pleasure. When the treacherous Janos Slynt jokes that he should poach Tyrion’s cook — referred to in the books as the best in town — he responds by saying, “Wars have been started for less.” You’ll also find a tidy summation of Cersei’s bountiful malice in the way she gleefully reports having eaten the boar that mauled her late husband Robert: “There has never been a boar so delicious,” she tell Tyrion. Two seasons later, it seems her glee hasn’t subsided as Tyrion suggests that their brother, Jamie, try some boar: “Cersei can’t get enough of it since one killed Robert for her.”
The food is often bountiful in the show, of course, and part of what makes it great is the obvious orgy of excess that informs so much of the series, not just the food. But the otherwise simple acts of eating and drinking are given so much weight in Thrones that they are impossible to separate from the story itself. Even when it depicts the simplest pleasures, like Sansa’s treasured lemon cakes, Game of Thrones shows us how important and complicated our own relationship to food can be — and that it can often tell us all we need to know about the world we inhabit.