Winter Is Coming & So Are The Cheesesteaks: On Game of Thrones, George RR Martin + Food Quests
2006 WorldCon, Glasgow, Scotland, with haggis in the foreground.
Until we read Laura Miller's April 11th New Yorker piece on fantasy, horror and sci-fi writer George RR Martin, we didn't know much about HBO's new Game of Thrones, except that it's an American medieval fantasy TV show based on Martin's series A Song of Fire And Ice about seven kingdoms, a battle for a throne, and warring noble families (and that while many TV critics loved it, at least one one was spit-roasted for the crime of categorizing it as strictly boy TV).
Then something in Miller's excellent piece -- which was primarily an exploration of the fantasy fiction writer's sometimes turbulent relationship with parts of his fan base -- jumped out at us. At annual gatherings in various cities, Martin sends his followers -- more often than not people who have traveled from elsewhere and therefore are unfamiliar with their surroundings -- out to locate and bring back food for which in return they are officially knighted. The way Miller described the "quests," they sounded like a fun, low-tech, one night version of Amazing Race, or maybe a scavenger hunt that also involves eating, lots of beer, bragging rights to a crazy evening well spent, and getting a nickname bequeathed from a hero. We wanted to know more!
In our interview, we speak to David M. McCaman, a San Francisco-based marketing executive, founder of the George RR Martin internet forum, Brotherhood without Banners and a long-time Martin-anointed knight himself. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: According to lore, the quests began with a George RR Martin fan, a request and a late night drive en masse to 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly for a cheesesteak. Details please.
David M. McCaman: The first real gathering of all the fans that had met through message boards was in 2001 at the WorldCon in Philadelphia. One of our guests at our fan club party, who was also a member from the BwB message boards, wanted George to knight him. Of course, George being George said, "You can't be a true knight without a vigil and a quest..."
SI: ...and at some point, it was decided that the quest involved getting a Philly cheesesteak at Pat's King of Steaks. Why there? Was it the allusion to royalty in the name? Or is it that owner Pat Olivieri is held to be the originator of the Philly cheesesteak?
DM: In Philadelphia there is Pat's King of Steaks and across the street there is Geno's Steaks. There's always a war between Pat's and Geno's over who has the better cheesesteak. Pat's is the one George preferred, so we all went there. Around 2 or 3 a.m., George used the sword that one of the BWB members brought and knighted everyone and gave them a name, called them Ser or Dame and knighted each and every one.
SI: Wait, wait, WAIT. A sword? Someone just happened to have a SWORD with them?
DM: Someone brought a [prop] sword to the hotel room where the party was. It was WorldCon -- there were lots of people dressing up, lots of fantasy and science fiction authors. So, yes, he brought his sword along [to Pat's].
SI: So you're saying that it wasn't particularly unusual that someone had a sword with them?
DM: No, but I imagine that it was pretty unusual being in front of Pat's Steaks at 3 a.m. with [George] holding a sword, knighting people. It was the only [quest] that he actually went on. Usually the people [who are being knighted] go off and bring the food back. But that one he came out with us and shared right in front of Pat's.
SI: Let's backtrack a little bit. Describe this quest-worthy cheesesteak.
DM: It was fantastic. George recommended that everyone go with the original, which is the basic cheesesteak with [Cheez] Whiz. But other people had the provolone or with Whiz, some got them with banana peppers or hot peppers as well.
SI: How did the visit to Pat's morph into a long-held tradition?
DM: The original group went back to the message boards and were talking to each other and putting signatures on their posts like "Ser So-and-So, Knight of the Cheesesteak" and had pictures of George knighting them. By the next year, it was just an anticipated thing for new people to do. From there, it just became a tradition that after or before the BWB party, the new members who hadn't been knighted yet would go off and seek local food that George wants to have.
SI: Describe the knighting ceremony itself. What exactly happens?
DM: You get down on one knee, George will put the sword on your shoulders then he will take your name or your nickname -- most people have nicknames -- and he will give you a "Ser" or a "Dame," depending on if you are male or female, then he will come up with a second nickname for you. Like the first guy, the guy from the steaks who brought the sword, he drove George [to Pat's] in his car -- while we all took cabs -- and got totally lost. So George called him Ser Aghrivaine the Wanderer.
SI: What kind of transportation is required in a quest?
DM: It usually depends on the size. Early on it was a few taxis. Later, as it got more people it was smaller groups of people would go together -- some people would drive cars, pile into a car or truck, some people would get taxis. When there was the haggis mission in Glasgow, Scotland where a couple of guys were really smart: Instead of going out on the town for hours, trying to find the best haggis for George, these guys went down to the hotel [kitchen] and the chefs made haggis for them and they became The Knights of the Haggis.
SI: If we had attended the Los Angeles Con in 2006 what quest food would we have been seeking out?
DM: We must have had close to a hundred fans at LA Con and George sent everyone off from there to Pink's. They became the Knights of the Pink's Dogs.
SI: Pink's? Pink's is in Hollywood. The LA WorldCon was at the Anaheim Convention Center. That's a roughly 70 mile round-trip hot dog run. Are all quests distance-based -- or do they sometimes require creative problem solving?
DM: Yes. One of the toughest ones was at a non-WorldCon in Kansas City. George sent off a group of fans to get burnt ends, the ends of the brisket. It was late at night and these people traveled all over Kansas City. Places were closed. They tried going to grocery stores to buy it and cook it -- and that didn't work. They went to restaurants and they were closed. They went to late night clubs. Finally, they found a BBQ restaurant that had just closed and had set out their burnt ends outside. They brought that back and as a joke, George knighted them, The Knights of The Dumpster.
SI: Your title is Ser Lodengarl the 3-Fisted, Knights of the Cheesesteaks. Why three fisted?
DM: I was basically managing the first WorldCon party. Like any good marketing person running a party, I spent the whole time making sure everything was cleaned up, everyone was having a good time, making sure there was plenty of ice, food, drinks. Basically as soon as everyone had pretty much left and there was just fan members, I grabbed three beers so I could catch up with everyone, and sat down in front of George.
SI: Has anyone ever been un-knighted?
DM: I don't think so, but there is a tradition of going up the ranks.
DM: If you attend three WorldCons, you are given the status of lord or lady. If you attend five, you're a prince or a princess. You aren't required to go on an additional quest -- you've earned it by going on that many WorldCons. I am a prince. There's one person who has been at seven WorldCons, a guy from Ireland. George made him King.
SI: There's the Knights of the Spicy Meat, Knights of the Flaming Cheese, Knights of the Spicy Fungus. Are all quests related to food?
DM: Not all of the knight's quests have been food based. Most of them are -- from haggis in Glasgow to poutine in Montreal. There's the Knights of Ye Olde Roast Beef in Boston. It's really just a tradition that adds something special to the fan/author experience. If George would have been anyone else, he would have just brought in a sword and just knighted that guy. But George being a long time fan himself, he thought, "Hey, I want you to do something!" and then everyone jumped in and said, "Sounds like a great idea. Everyone is hungry. It's late at night." George, when he goes to conventions, always talks about the great food in the local area and things to try. It's really part of who we are as fans.
SI: So George and his fans are like a human Chowhound board with a fantasy fiction element?
SI: Do fans make food that is described in the book?
DM: We do. We have snacks and food at parties. But even at his gatherings, they bring things. Most of the foods they talk about are proteins -- there's a lot of duck, venison, goat, mutton or boar that is usually accompanied by trenchers of bread...
SI: ...a trencher meaning a hollowed out piece of stale bread used as a kind of edible plate...
DM: ...and trout and all kinds of fish. There's weddings in the books and there's tons of courses described with the juice and the oil from the duck and the cherry sauce dripping down your chin. There's so many good descriptions. The third year George was a guest of honor at the 2003 Toronto WorldCon. For our party, we had a big ice sculpture and we had the chef at the hotel create a lamprey pie, a kind of eel, which is famous in the book. So we had the chef bring in a big lamprey pie and bring it into the suite in the middle of the party. That year [the aspiring knights and ladies] didn't actually go on a quest. They just became Knights of the Lamprey Pie.
SI: What does eel pie taste like?
DM: It was actually pretty good. Some lamprey pie isn't just eels; it can also be whitefish baked almost like a pasty. Most people had pieces who wanted to be knighted. That was directly from the books and paid homage to George.
SI: Do questers ever balk at tasting the food they bring back?
DM: You have to do it. You're often in different countries or different cities and it's a great way to experience part of the cuisine, the culture.
SI: Do knight and lady wannabes ever get bummed by their quest food? Does anyone ever grumble, "Man, why am I a Knight of the Ancient Rotted Condiments? Why couldn't I be a Knight of the Pizza?"
DM: In Denver, in 2008, there were the Knights of the Mile-High Tomato Pie. That was a good one.
HBO's Game of Thrones premiered on April 17th and can be seen on Sundays at 9 p.m. To read more about knighting events, go to Brotherhood without Banners' website.
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