A Song of Ice and Fire and Soup

What’s behind George R.R. Martin’s obsession with chowder in bread bowls?

Creamy seafood stews served in hollowed-out loaves of bread are Martin’s true subject.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO, Thinkstock.

In its six-season run, HBO’s Game of Thrones has brought the complex world of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels to the screen with remarkable fealty. Nearly all Martin’s major themes are there on the screen: incest, rape, torture, slavery. The cost the powerless pay for the maneuvers of the powerful. The ethics of mind control. Pyromancy. But there is one crucial element of the novels the show has consistently shied away from, one passion of Martin’s too hot for TV: soup. Specifically, seafood soups. Creamy seafood stews served in bowls made out of hollowed-out loaves of bread are Martin’s true subject, and they’re nearly absent from Game of Thrones on TV.

By slimming Martin’s work, HBO’s showrunners have turned his sprawling story into a taut, addictive, and (mostly) sequential narrative. But those cuts come at some cost. Martin has invested his world with a level of detail that is staggering and, sometimes, perplexing. Martin’s backstory goes back 10,000 years. Ironborn electoral bylaws, the genealogy of minor houses in the Vale, the aquatic life of the Rhoyne River watershed—all of these get described with a punishing level of exactitude.

Above all, Martin describes the food. Indeed, if Martin has a single go-to move as a storyteller, it’s to lay out a splendid feast and spend 20 pages drooling over it before committing a couple of murders. And if any one foodstuff serves as his leitmotif and idée fixe, it’s soup.

Soup is everywhere in Game of Thrones. It’s a marker of regional difference. It’s a test of character. Honorable men share their soup. Bad ones bogart it. Bad soups foretell bad things: The canny reader knew the Red Wedding would go bad long before the swords came out, thanks to that thin leek soup the Freys served.

A soup shop is the scene of an assassination. Soup is also an instrument of peace. An onion broth helps end a war. One character even makes himself into a porridge to save another (probably—it’s controversial).

The sheer variety of soups in A Song of Ice and Fire is dizzying. Martin describes broths made from ginger, seaweed, sweetgrass, peppercrab, frog, fish, mutton, venison, dog, and elephant. Every area of the Seven Kingdoms gets its own soup. So do the free cities of Essos. In the North, they eat a lot of beef and barley stew. In the slums of Flea Bottom, the beggars gulp greasy bowls o’ brown and feel lucky if they find a smidgen of meat. Up at the Wall, the members of the Night’s Watch nourish themselves with cups of thick bean-and-bacon soup. On the Iron Islands, they break their fast on “a broth of clams and seaweed cooked above a driftwood fire,” which sounds a lot like something they would serve at Noma.

In Dorne, a fiery-hot stew includes seven different sorts of snake, slow-simmered with dragon peppers and blood oranges and served with a dash of their own venom for kick. In Volantis, they make a cold soup out of beets, “as thick and rich as purple honey,” which is to say, borscht. How decadent is the Slaver’s Bay city of Astapor? Oil your hair, slip into a linen gown, and help yourself to the local specialty, red octopus and unborn puppy stew.

What P.G. Wodehouse is to butlers, what Jane Austen is to eligible suitors, what Cormac McCarthy is to horse carcasses, George R.R. Martin is to soup. But there is one thing he likes to describe even more than soup, and that’s soup served inside of bread. His characters are constantly hacking at loaves of bread and hollowing them into trenchers and then ladling soup into the space made therein. (While I’m OK with the unborn puppies and the snake venom, this is where I balk. Soup should not be served inside of bread.) Martin’s obsession with soup reaches its apogee in A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in the cycle.

The first three books in the cycle are masterfully plotted, propulsive adventures that hardly give a reader space to breathe. Book 4, A Feast for Crows, isn’t. Often that book feels as if Martin is just killing time until something exciting can happen. And so I purchased A Dance With Dragons the day it came out and took it with me on a plane to London, desperate to find out what happens next to the characters I loved and hated the most. Instead, I found myself reading a sequence I now think of as the Chowder Hunt.

Its protagonist is Davos Seaworth, smuggler, sailor, and hand of the king to Stannis Baratheon. (In the books, Stannis is still alive.) Davos, making his way north by sea to secure an alliance, finds himself on the Sisters, little islands off the coast of the Vale with a Western-Isles-of-Scotland vibe.

Once there, he goes to a tavern. It’s dingy but amply supplied with soup. Soon he’s captured and led before the local lord, a villainous old cove named Godric. More soup gets served, Sister’s Stew, “in a trencher hollowed out of a stale loaf.” Now Martin gets to work:

It was thick with leeks, carrots, barley, and turnips white and yellow, along with clams and chunks of cod and crabmeat, swimming in a stock of heavy cream and butter. It was the sort of stew that warmed a man right down to his bones, just the thing for a wet, cold night. Davos spooned it up gratefully.

Now that we’ve met the soup and learned about all its ingredients, it’s time to really dive in:

“You have tasted sister’s stew before?”

“I have, my lord.” The same stew was served all over the Three Sisters, in every inn and tavern.

“This is better than what you’ve had before. Gella makes it. My daughter’s daughter. Are you married, onion knight?”

This goes on.

“A pity. Gella’s not. Homely women make the best wives. There’s three kinds of crabs in there. Red crabs and spider crabs and conquerors. I won’t eat spider crab, except in sister’s stew. Makes me feel half a cannibal.”

We now know the soup’s ingredients, its parentage and its heraldic import. But we’re not done yet. These dudes have only begun to soup.

“Is it saffron that I’m tasting?” Saffron was worth more than gold. Davos had only tasted it once before, when King Robert had sent a half a fish to him at a feast on Dragonstone.

“Aye. From Qarth. There’s pepper too. Cracked black pepper from Volantis, nothing finer. Take as much as you require if you’re feeling peppery. I’ve got forty chests of it. Not to mention cloves and nutmeg, and a pound of saffron. Took it off a sloe-eyed maid …”

On that plane to London, I recall, I read this section in disbelief. Why? Why this? What does it all mean? Where were the battles and crises of conscience and ice zombies from the North? Why was I reading a prolonged chowder taste-off?

I’ve long held that the more extraneous a detail is to the plot, the more personal it probably is to the author. Think of Haruki Murakami’s fixation on jazz, or the way Nabokov hid references to butterflies in his novels. The simplest answer to the question why is there so much soup in Westeros is that George R.R. Martin really likes soup. Whatever his version of Proust’s madeleine is, I think he encountered it in a quayside bar, served inside a sourdough loaf.

But on another level, I think there is a purpose to the ocean of broth spilled in these pages. I think even Martin needs a buffer against all the killing and torturing and monster-summoning in his books. And what better refuge from a medievalesque hellscape than a soothing, creamy chowder? After all, power is an illusion. Chaos is a ladder. Winter is coming. But soup warms a man to his bones.