The Darkling Diet?

I’ll admit, this article about goblins, trolls, and vitamin D deficiency has got me thinking. I really like it when fantasy fiction interacts with modern scientific knowledge, like when Harry Dresden comments about the law of conservation of energy and how it can effect the spell he is trying to cast. I even wrote a scene into Children of Pride that discusses the implications of the square-cube law to size-shifting faeries. I’m also kind of a fan of Food Network, so what follows might have been predicted.

In short, I’m wondering what sunlight-avoiding humanoids might eat on a regular basis.

Now, “sunlight-avoiding humanoids” (let’s call them “heliophobes”) is a pretty big, broad category. Many cultures have legends about creatures that live underground, only come out at night, or are in some way harmed by exposure to direct sunlight. For my purposes, I’ll eliminate vampires from consideration, as we all know what they’re having for dinner!

Let me, then, consider one small slice of the heliophobe population: the dwarves and trolls of Norse mythology. Both of these classes of beings are averse to sunlight. Various legends claim that both of them are turned to stone by the sun’s rays. Whether this is permanent or temporary—or whether this affects all members of these classes or only an unlucky few—are interesting questions, but not entirely relevant.

By narrowing my focus, maybe I can make some educated guesses about what the well-fed Scandinavian heliophobe is having for dinner. I expect it will be (1) some variation of a traditional Viking or later Scandinavian cuisine that is (2) altered where possible to provide increased consumption of foods rich in vitamin D.

So, what might a health-conscious Scandinavian denizen of the dark be eating? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Fish, and lots of it. Freshwater salmon would be readily accessible through night-time fishing expeditions in mountain streams and lakes, and it is a vitamin D goldmine with over twice the recommended daily dose in a 100g (~3.5-ounce) serving—assuming dwarves and trolls have the same nutritional needs as humans. Typically, raw fish contains more vitamin D than cooked, and fatty cuts more than lean cuts. I would imagine that salmon appears on the average troll’s menu nearly as often as chicken appears on the menu for North Americans.

Other freshwater fish would also be available, but most of the other oily fishes that are such a great source of vitamin D are ocean-going species like herring, mackerel, and tuna. I’m not sure trolls or dwarves are the deep-sea fishing types, but who knows? And of course, there may be underground lakes and streams in which light-averse creatures might fish. Gollum seemed to do all right in that regard.

Furthermore, our heliophobes are not likely to let any protein go to waste. Whatever is not consumed immediately would likely be preserved via drying, smoking, or pickling in salt water. Dried “stockfish” (the ancestor of lutefisk) is rock-hard, but can be pounded to break up the fibers and then served with butter. Pickled herring might be a delicacy if these heliophobes have access to the sea.

UPDATE: Wild-caught salmon, sardines, and herring are also an excellent source of DHA, the fatty acid that is a crucial component of the retina’s photoreceptors. They thus contribute to improved night vision.

2. Other proteins. It isn’t difficult to imagine trolls as nocturnal hunters, and some stories even describe them keeping livestock the way humans do. A health-conscious heliophobe will likely consider wild boar an especially valuable quarry. A 100g (3.5) ounce serving of pork ribs contains about 16% of the daily recommended value of vitamin D, although other cuts vary considerably. There is hardly any vitamin D in ham, for example. If pork isn’t their thing, beef liver is about half as rich in vitamin D as pork ribs. Venison of all types (red deer, elk, etc.) would also be a likely protein, though not a significant vitamin D source.

Trolls and dwarves might prepare sausages made with pork, beef liver, or other proteins mixed with herbs and spices. If they have access to grains (see below), they might bake their meat into meat pies or even serve it on an open-faced sandwich. The most common preparation for meat among the Vikings, however, was simply to boil it in a pot.

If folklore is to be believed, at least some of these creatures supplement their protein needs with human captives and/or each other.

3. Dairy products. If heliophobes either raise their own cattle or raid the cattle of their human neighbors, the milk may be more precious to them than the meat. A quarter-liter (~1 cup) of grass-fed cow’s milk contains nearly 40% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin D. I haven’t been able to track down the vitamin D content of reindeer milk, but it is definitely worth considering for inhabitants of northern Scandinavia!

Milk might be consumed raw, but would more likely be processed in various ways, creating other dairy foods that would last longer. Scandinavian heliophobes would certainly use butter as their primary cooking fat. Curds and cheese would likely be prominent in their diet. They might drink buttermilk or whey (which can also be used as a preservative to pickle meats). They might even let the whey ferment until it becomes blaand, a beverage similar to wine in alcohol content. Finally, they might enjoy a bit of skyr, similar to strained yoghurt, as a treat. 

4. Mushrooms and such. This one should really go without saying, as it is probably the food most famous for growing without sunlight. Some species, such as the white bottom and the shiitake, are excellent sources of vitamin D. Scandinavian heliophobes might also gather other cave-dwelling organisms like cave-dwelling snails, salamanders, and insects.

5. Cereals. Like the Inuit and other human populations from the far north, cereals are not likely to form a significant part of a heliophobe’s diet. Unless we assume dwarves and trolls maintain above-ground farms, such items will have to be acquired through trade with others. This would also include products made from cereals such as ale made from barley.

6. Fruits and vegetables. Once again, we probably have to assume trade with others to account for many fruits and vegetables in a dwarfish or trollish diet. But there is no reason these beings couldn’t forage for wild plants at night. Wild apples and berries of many sorts could be found in abundance and dried for storage. Wild leeks, onions, and radishes might be prized as seasonings for otherwise bland foods. Wild cabbage, carrots, or turnips would likely be common fare.

UPDATE: Fennel and bilberries both contribute to enhanced night vision.

7. Other ingredients. Trade with non-heliophobic populations would likely be necessary for items beyond those mentioned above. Eggs, another good source of vitamin D, would be high on this list (unless we assume trolls and dwarves keep their own livestock). Unless these heliophobes have access to the sea, oysters would also be a desirable commodity.

UPDATE: Not only are they high in vitamin D, oysters and other shellfish are high in zinc, which works in concert with vitamin A to enhance night vision. (Dark chocolate is also high in zinc, though obviously not part of a traditional Norse diet.)

Dwarves and trolls would also likely trade for herbs and spices with which to season their food: garlic, dill, coriander, poppyseed, horseradish, etc., and even more exotic (from a Viking point of view) ingredients such as ginger, cinnamon, and bay leaves.

I can imagine a number of dietary scenarios for the heliophobes of Scandinavian folklore based on such factors as (1) the severity of their sunlight-aversion, (2) their access to seafaring technology, (3) the nature of their relations with non-heliophobes. One could definitely conceive of these creatures as malnourished, at best barely surviving in a food-poor environment. With the right set of circumstances, however, they might eat very well indeed in their underground domains.

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