If you’ve been reading the Charmstone blog for a while, you probably picked up that I love thinking about fantasy food. I’ve written on the food chain in the underdark, where you can get a bite to eat in a fantasy setting, and we had all those D&D beer pairing collaborations. I think food and drink have a special way of immersing players in a gameworld. It’s impossible for me to resist any local delicacies a DM throws my way. I even ate the meat pies in Curse of Strahd (even after finding out what’s in them I have no regrets).
Of course, I was very excited when Heroes’ Feast, a Dungeons and Dragons inspired cookbook, was announced. My mind boggled dreaming of all sorts of exotic fantasy dishes. I just got a copy and I’d like to give it a review. The book is broken up by a few of the playable races in the game plus a section for beverages, so I’ll break down my comments along the same lines.
But before I get into that, I want to start with one big caveat. This is a pretty basic cookbook. Most of the recipes are pretty doable even if you have zero experience preparing food. If you disregard the D&D theme, you could probably sell this as a standalone book of recipes for beginners. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but I was disappointed that there weren’t more adventurous ideas explored in it.
Each section starts with a little explanation of the tastes and preferences for each group. As expected, humans have broad flavor preferences and have extremely varied diets. Heroes Feast drops an interesting anecdote about how humans in Toril tend not to have long preparation times, so no prolonged periods of brining, fermenting, or aging. However, the book curiously doesn’t include any elvish of dwarven recipes that feature any of these methods.
The human selections are sort of a grab bag of different ingredients and styles. It’s got everything from soups to potroasts, but most of the options don’t have a distinct in-world feel to them. The most interesting picks for me are the “Knucklehead Trout,” “Vedbread,” and “Tavern Steaks.”
The trout stands out because it’s not a super-invogue protein right now, so it’s a more unique choice than most of the fare in the book.
The “vedbread” is a savory bread roll with cheese, mushrooms, and thyme. I haven’t made it yet, but it looks incredible. This also highlights one interesting aspect of Heroes’ Feast: it features a lot of mushrooms. I love mushrooms, so this is a huge plus for me. If nothing else, this book includes a ton of interesting ways to prepare mushrooms up to and including a mushroom tea, which I’ll touch on again later.
The “tavern steak” is another bullseye for me. It’s an open face burger with a yogurt sauce and fig spread on a hearty, toasted piece of bread. Not only is it a pretty bold mix of flavors, I could absolutely picture a group of famished adventurers savoring these after weeks on the road. I would have loved to see more items like this that assemble well-known foods in imaginative ways.
Every chapter ends with a menu from an iconic D&D tavern, which is a nice touch. I imagine this could bail out stumped DMs when the players ask what’s on offer at the inn.
The elven cuisine is definitely a low point for me. I think it would have landed better if they decided to stick to a clearer theme. It heavily features vegetarian/vegan recipes, which makes perfect sense, but they don’t stick to it exclusively. There’s a couple pescatarian options in the elven chapter- a fairly standard salmon dish and a pointy-ear take on paella. But randomly they throw in bacon wrapped asparagus. It’s supposed to represent half-elves and bridging their human pork-loving side with the elf love of fresh vegetables. It makes sense, but I would have enjoyed this section more if they just left meat out all together.
My favorites here are the “Drow Steaks,” which are seared portobello caps and the “Qaulinesti Vegetable Stew.” The first is pretty self-explanatory, but I love the nod to dark elves. The second makes use of squash, zucchini, and chinese eggplant, so it’s got some exciting things happening.
The dwarven chapter is just pub food, and that’s awesome. There’s a take on bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, and onion rings. It’s exactly what you’d expect dwarves to love eating. But this works out to be a double edged sword because you could swap many of these recipes in with the human chapter and not really notice. The intro explaining dwarven culinary notions is very evocative of the sturdy undermountain folk, but it doesn’t pay off on many of the most interesting aspects. They mention the dwarven love for dark bread, but there’s no recipe for it. They talk about intricate marinades, but no recipe has one. However, there’s an out of nowhere duck l’orange in the chapter that has great lore tied to it, and it saves the chapter in my mind.
“Orange Mountain Duck” is apparently a vaunted delicacy to dwarves. The description mentions how they’d come to blows for a taste of the crispy skin alone. Since most people don’t often eat duck, and duck l’orange is rarer still now, this is the type of dish you could serve and have it be a memorable experience. Again, I wish this book featured more things like this.
My favorites in this chapter are the “Fire Lichen Spread” and “Dwarven Flatbread.” The “Lichen Spread” is really just a carrot hummus, which I’ve never seen before. Given how ubiquitous chips are at the game table, this would be a perfect compliment when physical games are the norm again. “Dwarven Flatbread” is just naan, and not a particularly exciting take. I’d recommend adding quite a bit of garlic at the very least. Despite this clashing with the dwarves’ stated love of dark bread, I like the lore implications. The dwarves have to save all their yeast for beer brewing, so they don’t add any to this bread.
In earlier incarnations of D&D, there was a conscious effort to distance halflings from Tolkien’s hobbits. Gary Gygax himself didn’t like non-human races and imposed various penalties on them in the earlier editions of the game. The pendulum has certainly shifted and halflings have shed their nomadic penchant for trouble in favor of shire-dwelling farmers. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing per se, but if you’re an old grognard this chapter probably won’t vibe with your mental picture of halflings. If you’re OK with the more LOTR version, I think this chapter gets the feel pretty right.
It kicks off with “Community Cheeses,” which is a pretty standard fondu. The name is perfect and I’d love to sit around the table dipping hot cheese with lightfoot pals. It’s a lot of fairly simple comfort foods on offer, but it’s all very warm and pastoral. Secretly, I think this is supposed to be the de facto “kid’s menu” chapter. Although the intro mentions that halflings aren’t picky eaters, this section has a lot of simple flavors that would be perfect for those on the fussier side.
The highlight comes in the form of “Honey-Drizzled Cream Puffs.” This is exactly the kind of thing you can picture adorning a table at halfling spring festival.
Again, I would have liked to see some more risks taken here, but the halfling section gets it right for the most part.
This is the miscellaneous section of the book with an assortment of recipes across different races. While it has the loosest theme, it makes the most of this random assortment. It has some of the more novel recipes that I was longing for earlier in the book. For example, the “Twice-Baked Cockatrice Wings” provide an interested variant of fried chicken. It adds a decent amount of garam masala powder for an interesting twist on a classic. More tweaks like these would have added to my enjoyment substantially. Items like “Dragon Salmon,” which is a pretty generic fish recipe, would land better with me if they incorporated more unique elements like we see in this chapter.
Like I said earlier, all the mushroom dishes really do it for me and this chapter has two of the best in “Hardbuckler Stew” and “Deep Gnome Trillimac Pods.” The stew features mushrooms, lamb, and rutabaga for a unique blend of ingredients. The pods combine mushrooms and cheese housed in wonton wrappers, which is a pretty neat idea.
Elixirs and Ales
If you like cinnamon and ginger, this is the chapter for you. Every other drink features one or both of these ingredients. I was probably looking forward to the cocktail portion the most, so I found these recipes pretty disappointing. Almost all the alcoholic drink mixes call for additional sugar, which I absolutely hate. “The Mindflayer” is probably the worst offender. I can’t think of a more gut wrenching combo than grape juice, vodka, and added sugar. Ginger of course shows up here too, which is fortunate because you’ll need some to settle your stomach after drinking one of these.
One bright spot is the “Mushroom Tea.” Although it might be closer to a broth or consomme, I think the savory flavors work really well and I could see myself drinking this on cold days. “The Potion of Restoration” is pretty inventive and ticks a lot of boxes for me. It’s not everyday you see a blackberry based cocktail and the addition of butterfly pea powder gives it a little something extra. However, do not add the extra tablespoon of sugar.
Maybe these recipes are intended to appeal to non-drinkers, so the extra sweetness may be intended to balance out the flavor profile and take the edge off the alcohol taste. If that’s up your ally, I’d suggest finding a basic recipe for simple syrup and using that in place of straight table sugar. Also, since most of these drinks are chilled the syrup will incorporate better. Regular sugar can have a difficult time fully mixing into cold liquid and can lead to a gritty cocktail.
I had a blast reading through this book and, for the most part, it succeeds in filling out the various worlds of Dungeons and Dragons with delicious food. I particularly love the pullout map of Faerun that shows the local specialties of various civilizations.
I’ll reiterate, this is a beginner’s cookbook. If you’re looking for something to challenge your skill and palette, this is not it. Ultimately though, this cookbook has more hits than misses and would be a fun surprise for and D&D players with a kitchen. Even if you don’t cook, there’s enough juicy lore tidbits for a DM to include in their next campaign. It’s not a must-own by any stretch, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.