Food for Thought

Posted in Serious Fun on November 11, 2008

By Kelly Digges

Hello all! I'm back from Berlin and settling in back at home. I've got more Magic tales from the road to share, but for this week, I wanted to tackle an issue raised in a letter I received a few months ago, after I mentioned that I consider myself a cook: Magic food.

Odds are very good that if you're reading this, you play Magic. Odds are even better that you eat food on a regular basis. And if you're like the rest of us, you've almost certainly found yourself, at some point, trying to do both at the same time. And whether it's a bag of chips, a slice of pizza, or a three-course steak dinner, you're going to find that some things are easier to eat while playing than others.

It's a bit off the beaten path, but today I thought I'd share my thoughts on what to eat while slinging spells. As I've mentioned before, I cook as often as I can. That doesn't mean I'm going to assume that any of you want to do the same, but it does mean that I've got some opinions about food. Some of them are going to sound a little snobby, which is a nearly inevitable result of learning to cook. For example:

I'm going to cruise right by snack food, which is generally more snack than food, and assume that we're looking for something more substantial than pretzels and chips. And I'm definitely not going to cover all the possibilities—fair warning if I don't mention the gamer food you swear by!

Delicious pizza

This is the elephant in the room, so let's get it out of the way. For any social situation, and particularly for gamers, pizza—or "za," as it is never actually called—is the go-to food for feeding large groups of people on short notice. In the U.S. (and, I can only assume, most other civilized countries), you can get a pizza delivered hot in half an hour basically anywhere. Frozen pizzas are also popular, and high-end frozen pizzas don't differ noticeably in quality from delivered ones. (In other words, "It's not delivery...")

As for origins, people have been baking toppings on bread for literally thousands of years—including, notably, in the Aeneid (the epic poem that gives a mythical account of the founding of Rome), which my Classics professor in college claimed as proof that pizza is Italian. It wasn't until the 1800s, however, that the tomato—imported from the New World but widely thought to be poisonous—encountered good, old-fashioned starvation among the poor of Naples, Italy, who decided, hey, it couldn't be that bad. To their surprise, tomatoes made an unbeatable combo with cheese and bread, and it wasn't long before pizza was the staple food of the Neapolitan poor. Italian immigrants brought pizza to the United States, presumably to show Americans just what all those silly tomatoes lying around were good for.

The Good

Pizza is the go-to gamer food for a reason. It's cheap, it's filling, and it's almost universally liked. There's a huge variety of toppings available, so it can be customized to accommodate nearly any taste. The wide reach of pizza delivery means that there's no need to break off the action to make a food run (or, you know, actually cook something). And while the fact that there's no clear per-person cost can be a hassle, it also means that there's no need to sort out exactly who owes how much, which for other sorts of meals can sometimes involve advanced theoretical math.

The Bad

Pizza is, of course, not perfect. Although it's almost universally agreeable, equally universal is the subsequent argument about what toppings to choose. Someone is going to want pepperoni, someone else is going to just want cheese, and still someone else is going to want barbecue chili cheese fries with bacon, or whatever other awful thing the pizza places are advertising this week. And that's ignoring the possibility that an entire pizza may need to be devoted to accommodating dietary restrictions barring one type of meat, or all meat, or, worst of all, cheese. (I also have some friends who claim that they don't believe in eating vegetables, but that's hardly a dietary restriction. Except when it comes to olives, which I'm against on the grounds that they are totally gross.)

Pizza is so ubiquitous as gamer chow that it took me many years to realize the fundamental problem with it as pertains specifically to Magic: pizza is greasy, and you eat it with your hands.

Let me say that again....

Pizza is greasy... and you eat it with your hands.


After I don't even know how many times fruitlessly trying to get all the grease off my fingers before touching my cards again, it finally dawned on me that pizza is not at all the ideal food for playing Magic. Sure, we keep ordering it, but it is secretly terrible. I don't care whether you go sleeved or unsleeved, whether you play powered Vintage or commons-only Standard; getting grease on your cards is no good. And while, yes, you can eat pizza with one hand, you're going to have to shuffle eventually.

Given that substantial problem, it's worth wondering how pizza attained its unique status among gamers. I suspect that "cheap" and "easy" top the list of reasons, but I also imagine that the longstanding popularity of roleplaying games has something to do with it. During a marathon Damp;D session (where breaking the action for a food run is arguably even worse), pizza's perfect; it's more substantial than cheese puffs or chips, you can eat it with one hand while rolling dice with the other, and all you're going to get grease on is your character sheet (and maybe a roleplaying book, which I generally assume are doomed from the start).

So for roleplaying sessions, go ahead and fly with the pie. For Magic, I suggest looking elsewhere.

    Asian Food

Obviously, that's a pretty broad heading that includes a lot of different cuisines, but I'm mostly talking here about the kind of sauce-drenched dishes one can have delivered in Styrofoam clamshells. That's primarily Chinese, Thai, and some Vietnamese food. (And to those who take a particular style of Asian cooking seriously, I apologize for lumping them together. It is, I assure you, for convenience only, and I very much do appreciate the difference between udon, pad thai, and chow fun, for instance.)

This was the first way that my gaming group tried to branch out from pizza. We ordered Chinese food during, appropriately enough, a Champions of Kamigawa draft (and never you mind that Kamigawa was actually inspired by Japanese mythology rather than Chinese). What did we learn?

The Good

Unless you get it from one of those really hole-in-the-wall places, Asian food tends to be really high quality for the price. (Although it's possible I'm just spoiled living in Seattle, where authentic Asian cuisine is plentiful.) Because it's generally intended to be eaten with utensils, you dodge the problem of greasy hands, minus the occasional egg roll. And while everyone orders their own meal by default, there are plenty of appetizers to split, and generous portions make swapping and sharing easy.

Depending on where you live, you may find that Chinese delivery is every bit as ubiquitous as pizza delivery. Because it's cheaper, less greasy, and generally delicious, I've come to prefer ordering Chinese or Thai to pizza in all cases. I did once declare that I wasn't in the mood for Chinese food, but that was after eating it three or four days in a row. Short of that, bring it on.

The Bad

For all that, there are some serious drawbacks to feeding your Magic habit and your Asian food addiction at the same time. First off, those handy Styrofoam clamshells tend to leak unless they're held perfectly upright—and did I mention that most of the foods I'm talking about are covered in sauce? Half the time, the clamshell comes out of its traveling bag already smeared with brown sauce or sweet and sour sauce or whatever delicious stuff was supposed to stay inside it coating your Cashew Chicken.

The best solution to that problem is to transfer your Tom Yum to a plate as soon as it's delivered. Eating out of Styrofoam is tacky anyway, and this way you run minimal risk of getting sauce all over your playing surface. Of course, this solution only works if you own the requisite number of plates, which can be a problem if you're a bachelor, a college student, or a hobo. (At one point in my life I routinely used the phrase "wash the dish" in reference to the only plate in the apartment. If this sounds like you, don't worry—there are plates enough in the world, and you'll get yours eventually.)

Yum! Sushi!

Actually, scratch the plate thing—bowls are better. They do a better job of containing sauces, and they make it easier to use chopsticks. Speaking of which: when you order Asian food, don't forget that you're going to need utensils. If, like all right-thinking people, you prefer to use chopsticks, you'll probably have to ask for them to be delivered. (I always forget to do this, which is why I eventually picked up a set of real chopsticks to keep around.) If you don't ask for (or own) chopsticks, you're usually stuck with a crummy plastic fork. And even if you prefer a fork, I highly recommend one that's actually made of metal. Again, this sort of thing can be a problem if your kitchen isn't fully appointed with a silverware drawer, dishwasher, sous-chef, etc.

Likewise, I prefer to use my own soy sauce rather than rely on the quality and quantity of the little plastic pouches that come with the delivery. Purists might call me a barbarian for using that much soy sauce in the first place, so I try to make sure none of them see me pour it on there. This is another argument in favor of bowls. Whether you use bowls or plates, though, you've got to be careful with all this sauce-covered food near your cards.

Sushi belongs in a category of its own. Leaving aside the difficulty of getting quality sushi outside a restaurant (there are, after all, some good bento boxes to be had, and it's actually very easy to make if you can get the ingredients), sushi is tidier than most other Asian food, although the customary dip in soy sauce (and wasabi, if you're tough) can make a real mess. Especially if you knock over the soy sauce decanter, as I certainly did not at a recent Asian-themed roleplaying session. For example.

Asian food is by no means a perfect option, but the move from eating with hands to eating with utensils is certainly an improvement.

This article made everyone who worked on it very hungry

Whether you make it at home (which is, unlike the other foods I've mentioned, extremely easy) or buy it at a shop, the sandwich is very simple in concept: food between bread. There are endless variations on this theme, of course, using different kinds of bread and various meats, cheeses, vegetables, and spreads.

The concept of wrapping food in bread, much like the concept of putting food on bread and baking it, goes back to ancient times. In the Middle Ages, meat was often eaten off of "trenchers," large pieces of stale bread that soaked up the juices of whatever you were eating. After the meal, these were eaten, or given to a dog or peasant. Classy! Many cultures have meals similar in form and function to the sandwich—gyros, pita, döner, etc.—and most of what I've got to say about the sandwich applies to them too.

The sandwich in its modern form probably originated in 17th-century Holland, where it was called belegde broodje. As for why they're called sandwiches in modern English? We'll get to that.

The Good

There's plenty to like about sandwiches. They're available over a wide price range, from making one yourself from commonly available ingredients to paying eight dollars for a toasted chicken al fredo sandwich with meatballs or whatever. While they're not commonly delivered, they don't take long to make, so they're relatively painless to take as carry-out. And while they lack the social aspect of the other options I've mentioned (unless you get one of those awful six-foot party subs), that does have the benefit of letting everybody get exactly what they want without having to worry about everybody else.

Even better—and unlike pizza, burgers, burritos, fried chicken, or most of the other foods that can be eaten one-handed—a good sandwich is dry rather than greasy. That makes a sandwich pretty much the perfect thing to grab with your off-hand during a card game... and that brings us to the name "sandwich."

Pastrami sandwich from Katz's deli in New York

Sandwiches are named for John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat. (Just think; they could've been called "montagues.") Lord Sandwich almost certainly didn't invent sandwiches, and probably didn't even popularize them, but apparently he just couldn't get enough of them, to the point that his title became synonymous with the food.

The reason for this isn't entirely clear. At least one biographer attributes Lord Sandwich's love of meat-in-bread to his naval and political studies, maintaining that the portable meal would have been eaten at Lord Sandwich's desk. But the more popular myth—and the one that's much more pertinent for our purposes—concerns the earl's (alleged) passion for cards. As Wikipedia puts it (emphasis mine):

It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue playing cards, particularly cribbage, while eating without getting his cards greasy from eating meat with his bare hands.

Yes, that's right. Then as now, the sandwich was the best way for a gentleman to get a good meal during a card game without dirtying hands or cards. Sandwiches have been eaten at card tables since before they were called sandwiches, and they get a ringing endorsement for the purpose from the very man for whom they're named. It doesn't get much clearer than that!

The Bad

Not much to say here except: beware open-faced "sandwiches" and sandwiches filled with sauce; these will give you grief. I recently ordered a "steak sandwich" at a restaurant and got a lovely filet of beef served on a toasted trencher and piled high with sautéed mushrooms. Delicious? Oh my yes. Sandwich? Not at all. If you have to eat it with a knife and fork, it's not a sandwich! And if you have to worry about it dripping, you're going to be distracted from the task at hand, which is, of course, playing Magic.

So next time you find your stomach rumbling before a marathon multiplayer game, consider the humble sandwich. Your cards will thank you.

    Hungry for More

So that's my take on a few of the most common dining options for Magic sessions. What's your take? Do you typically eat one of the above options? If so, how do you get around some of the drawbacks I've mentioned? If not, what do you eat? Are food and drinks even allowed at your gaming table? Have you ever had any food- or drink-related disasters? As a cook and as a Magic player, I'd love to hear about it!

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