First, a bit of sentiment. As stated in the intro to this post, the whole reason for doing something this ridiculous was as a warm, joyful way to remember my parents. Dad died in February 2017, and by the time the first anniversary of his death came around, I’d lost mum as well. And so, on the eve of that drizzly day in February 2018, my wife Ashleigh and I found ourselves in their suddenly-empty house, with two lifetimes’ worth of sentimental junk to tidy away.
I’m not going to lie: I was feeling a bit grim. But if there was ever a story about facing an impossible task and refusing to be beaten down by it, it’s LOTR. Those stories had been perennial favourites of my parents, and we’d watched them together several times over the years. The other thing we’d always done together was cook: cook, and eat, and talk about cooking while eating.
Suddenly, looking at Frodo’s face staring pensively at me from the DVD box set in my parents’ living room, I knew what we had to do. We were going to go to the shops, get a good night’s sleep, and get up at dawn the next day with a ludicrous objective: marathon the whole LOTR trilogy, while eating an approximation of every dish that appeared on screen.
And we managed it. We laughed, we cried, and we ate a lot of lembas bread. And as I live-tweeted our progress, we ended up with hundreds of thousands of people cheering us on. When it was all over, a good number of those people asked if they could join in for our next attempt - and so for them, I’ve written this guide. I hope it’s useful.
We’re going to be starting this year’s marathon on Saturday 16th February, at the frankly insane hour of 6am, and this time we’ll be joined by our daughter, who was born six months ago. We like to think that if we’re Frodo and Sam in this journey, she’s Gollum.
Anyway, let’s get to it. If you’ve got any questions, or if you just want to follow the action on the day, you can find me on twitter at @frogcroakley.
Otherwise, let’s go #ThereAndSnackAgain….
(PS - as it's likely to be item #1 on my FAQ - yes, I would like to write a vegan version of this guide, but I don't know if I'll have time before the 16th. Nevertheless, if anyone else wants to propose a menu, I'd love to hear about it!)
Preparing for the journey
Researching online, I found quite a few people who had created menus to accompany LOTR marathons, but they all seemed a bit… sanitised. Typically, they comprised five to nine courses, each of which was ‘inspired’ by the food on screen, but bore little resemblance to it. They all seemed very pleasant and technically accomplished, but felt first and foremost like attempts to create a delicious themed banquet.
I wanted our eat-along to be as epic as the story itself: relentless, extended, and occasionally pretty gruelling. And so, armed only with my memory of having watched the movies more times than I’d care to admit, we made a list of everything we thought got eaten in the films, and went to the shops to buy it.
Here’s our shopping list, modified a little in hindsight, which you can use if you’d like to - below, there follows a guide on when to cook, prepare and eat the various dishes we did, as well as notes on optional extra courses, and the ingredients you will need for them:
DRINKS: 1 box regular tea bags, 1 box herbal tea bags, 1 bottle sparkling water, 1 bottle chocolate milk, 1 bottle lemonade, 1 carton red grape juice, ale as required.
FRUIT & VEG: 1 bag of apples, 1 carrot, 1 large pack cherry tomatoes, 4 large field mushrooms, 1 bag/tin new potatoes, 1 small pack of casserole veg, 3 varieties pickled vegetables, 2 large bunches of grapes, 1 tin tomato soup.
MEAT & FISH: 12 chipolata sausages, 6 rashers smoked streaky bacon, 1 whole chicken, 1 rack of ribs, 1 rabbit, 2 fillets smoked trout, 1 jar rilettes or tin of preserved pork, 1 jar sardine paste.
DAIRY: 1 pack butter, 4+ varieties of cheese.
EXTRAS: 1 tub hummus, 1 jar pesto, 1 pack rock salt.
SNAX FOR GOLLUM: 1 pack jelly worms.
Before you leave the Shire, here’s a few travel tips we gleaned from our journey:
Start early - The extended trilogy runs to 11hrs36m without credits, and considering you will need to take a few breaks to prepare food, you can easily expect to add two or three hours to this. We started at 6am, and will do so again this year, but that just means we had a great excuse to huddle under a duvet with our pyjamas on.
Prepare what you can beforehand - With the exception of the rabbit stew (which should ideally go on the night before), all the meals listed require less than 30 minutes’ cooking time. Even so, if you can spare an hour the night before to get cold courses prepared, plated, and put in the fridge, you will save a lot of time on the day.
Think small - Even with a halfling’s appetite, you will fill up quickly if your eyes get too big for your stomach. Err on the side of caution with portion size, and certainly keep meals small until the Two Towers. Wherever possible, you should finish each course wishing you had a little more.
Scaling up - This menu is designed for 2 people. Scale up ingredient numbers to cater for a larger fellowship, or consider including some of the optional dishes detailed, with a view to shaaaaaring the looooad.
Do not lose heart - Depending on what options you take, this menu can account for between 20 and 40 courses, which seems pretty daunting. Nevertheless, many of these courses are single bites, or tiny drinks. In our experience, there were only four five dishes I’d count as major meals, which is pretty achievable - for a hobbit at least - in the space of 15 hours. We kept our portions fairly restrained, and weren’t shy to leave leftovers, so we never felt unpleasantly full.
Choose your house rules - The menu you set will depend on what rules you choose for your marathon. For the truly hardcore, I’ve included asterisks to indicate the meals which are actually seen being eaten on screen. My recommended menu contains almost all of these, but also some meals that represent food shown, or even abstract concepts. (NOTE: I’ve counted a meal as eaten even when it is interrupted by an attack out of nowhere by ghosts or monsters; a circumstance which occurs surprisingly often.) - so often, food gets prepared only to be abandoned as ghosts or monsters attack from nowhere.
Drinks - There’s a lot of ale in LOTR. Due in part to Ashleigh being pregnant, and the fact I didn’t want to be shitfaced by Helm’s Deep, we didn’t include this in our menu. I have included a few of the soft drink options we identified, but a booze-along trilogy marathon is a different story indeed (see: Challenge Rules).
So, we’ve spent enough time getting ready - let’s set out for Mordor!
The Fellowship of the Ring
GENERAL NOTES: Although it can be tempting to make a hearty start, keep your powder dry during Fellowship. There’s a very high frequency of food shown, and in the film’s middle portion the fry-ups come thick and fast. Don’t follow the light of Too Many sausages, or you’ll end up in the cursed marsh of Feeling Full By 10am. Remember: you only need to match what’s eaten.
1) Tea and Cake*
As soon as are we introduced to Hobbits by Bilbo, we see one pinching a cake off a tray. Cut yourself a decent slice, and wash it down with a cup of sweet, milky tea to start the day.
HARD MODE: After the introduction, Gandalf visits Bilbo and we get a good look at his larder - tomatoes, bread, cheese and jams are all in abundance here, so you could create a small buffet to match. Also worth noting Bilbo’s immortal statement about feeling like ‘butter scraped over too much bread’...
2) Cake - Round Two
Although it’s not explicitly seen being consumed, Bilbo’s enormous birthday cake is quite a spectacle, and probably deserves a second slice of whatever you’re having. IMPORTANT: whether you attempt this or not, make sure to save some cake for later.
3) A Bite of an Apple*
Merry takes a cheeky chomp from an apple as he prepares to create havoc with Gandalf’s fireworks, and you should do the same. The rest of the apple can be chopped and put into the rabbit stew, which should already be simmering.
HARD MODE: We see a cheeseboard in the scene with the Gaffer in the pub. Soon afterwards, Frodo packs apples and bread for his journey. You could choose to honour these appearances. On Sam & Frodo’s early journey out of the shire, we see Sam cooking sausages, mushrooms and bacon - you *could* choose to eat them then, but since we don’t see them being eaten, I think it’s best to use this scene as a signal to get them under the grill for the scenes to come.
4) Sam’s Midnight Bread*
On the first night out of the Shire, Sam inexplicably wolfs down a bite from a loaf right before he goes to sleep. This seems like it should be replicated, but please don’t go to sleep.
HARD MODE: As Frodo & Sam encounter Merry & Pippin, we see they have armfuls of stolen vegetables. They also find mushrooms as they fall down the hill. You could choose this moment for some sauteed vegetables, but it’s equally acceptable to just have someone run through the viewing room with an armful of cabbages.
5) Peter Jackson Gnashes On a Carrot*
As we are introduced to the Prancing Pony, we see Peter Jackson make his first cameo, as a carrot-chomping yokel. It’s pretty easy to match this, especially if you got the carrots out in the escape from the farmer’s field.
HARD MODE: In the Pony itself, a plate of bread is visible.
6) Second Breakfast*
When Pippin asks Aragorn about Second Breakfast, he is thrown an apple. I chose a variety called Rockit for this scene, as they are sweet, red and perfectly hobbit-sized. Whatever type of apple you choose, it must be thrown and caught.
7) Weathertop Fry Up*
Before the hobbits are attacked by Mean Local Ghost Kings, they begin preparing a fry-up of Tomatoes, Sausages, Crispy Bacon, and Mushrooms. Smart viewers will have put these under the grill at the sign of Sam’s fry-up listed above. I recommend eating the bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes here, but leaving the sausages to cool. Whatever you do, make sure you keep half your sausages in reserve for Two Towers.
8) Arwen’s Horse Spell
When Liv Tyler summons a load of horses made out of river to wash away the Mean Ghost Kings, it’s a timely reminder to stay hydrated. Why not drink a refreshing pint of sparkling water to represent the magic in the water?
9) Sausages and Bread*
At the start of the second disc of Fellowship (if you’re watching on DVD), the Fellowship stops on the way to the Gap of Rohan for some fight practice and a light lunch. Now is a great time to eat the sausages you grilled earlier, along with some buttered rye bread.
HARD MODE: When the hobbits are practising fighting with Boromir and Aragorn, an apple rolls past Aragorn’s head - if you’re not sick of the bloody things, you could honour this. More significantly, the entrance to Moria offers two potential bonus courses. The Fellowship’s casual ganking of a giant octopus outside the mines could be an excuse for calamari, while Gimli’s excitement over Red Meat Off the Bone could justify a T-bone steak for those of a truly dwarven constitution.
10) Lembas in Lothlorien
In Galadriel’s weird Ewok village, the iconic travel staple of Lembas Bread is introduced. Even if you choose not to eat it until the characters do, you should get it out now. Our marathon inspired endless debates about what Lembas Bread should be represented by - some said shortbread, others said drop scones, while some even argued for Kendal Mint Cake. We opted for Jacob’s Butter Puffs, which we would have wrapped in banana leaf if we had been better prepared. We also paired them with hummus and pesto - while this was a bit of an embellishment, it seemed like an appropriately elven thing to do.
The Two Towers
GENERAL NOTES: This film sees the bulk of your eating during the marathon, and should begin in late morning, between 9.30 and 11.00 - if you get it right, you’ll have had the bulk of the food before midday.
11) The Best Salt in the Shire, Hypothetical Chicken
This is an odd, slightly metaphysical course, but one I think it’s important to include. Sam makes a big deal of having brought along a taste of home - the best salt in the shire - in case they find a chicken to roast. Frodo finds this very touching, and so we decided to recreate the moment by licking some seasoned salt while gazing longingly at the chicken we had prepared for eating during ROTK.
12) A Bit Of Lembas Bread*
You’ll get used to whipping out the Lembas bread, but this is (I think) its on-screen debut as a consumed item.
13) Orc Power Drink
While Merry & Pippin are being given a piggyback by the Uruk-Hai, complaints of illness see Merry being forcefed a revolting brown ‘medicine’ by the hulking, tusked jokers. While I suspect the liquid was probably more akin to Jagermeister, we decided to be kind to ourselves and have a bottle of chocolate milk instead. If you can find it, a bitter Italian Chinotto drink would be a great non-alcoholic alternative.
14) Looks Like Meat’s Back on the Menu, Boys
For my money, this is one of the best moments in the trilogy, if only for the haunting implication that orcs understand the concept of a menu. There will come a blog post where I consider the idea that orcs have a cultural memory of a more civilised existence. Where I wonder if maybe they are good people who have been woefully misrepresented in a history told by its victors. But it is not this blog post. For this scene, we cooked ribs in a dry rub, and arranged them like a busted-open ribcage over chipolatas roasted in a string as ‘guts’. You could use other meats - be creative. Whatever you do, make sure this is a larger meal than most on the list, and make sure your diorama of a ravaged orc has a face, in order to capture the horror of cannibalism. We used a biscuit with half-olives for eyes, an angry expression drawn in tomato paste, and pine nuts for tusks. Eat with savage gusto.
15) Gollum Eats a Worm*
Does what it says on the tin. Unless you are feeling truly brutal, I recommend a gummy worm sweet.
HARD MODE: There is another opportunity to eat Lembas Bread here, for the committed.
16) Gimli tastes Orc Blood*
As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli seek the ‘White Wizard’, old Gims licks a blade of grass and remarks on it being orc blood. Best not to think too much about how he knew the taste. In any case, this can be handily replicated by saving the juices from roasting the ‘Meat’s Back’ ribs, and tasting them. Eerily reminiscent of the doctrine of transubstantiation.
17) Entish Draught
While being looked after by treebeard, Merry & Pippin cement their status as the Main Idiots of the trilogy by quaffing the ents’ special energy drink for trees. We chose to represent this with a jug of lemonade, which was very welcome after the salty meat of the orc. Feel free to fight over the lemonade, stand on tiptoe, and make weird rumbling noises in between gulps.
18) Soup at Edoras; Cheese & Bread
When the two children from the burnt village arrive at Edoras (Rohan’s capital, which now retrospectively looks like a Skyrim ripoff) on a horse, they are fed a red soup. Right afterwards, Gimli tucks into a selection of cheeses, and possibly some dry-cured ham. Although technically two separate meals, we chose to conflate them into one, with tomato soup and a cheeseboard. A bit of serrano ham probably wouldn’t go amiss either.
19) Rabbit, Stew, Taters Cooked Three Ways*
Sam has an argument with Gollum about food, which culminates in the weird grey baby man taking a bite out of a rabbit like it was an apple. Unless you can find or prepare some cured rabbit, I recommend skipping this moment and instead just enjoying a facsimile of the stew Sam cooks to demonstrate the proper preparation of a ‘brace of coneys’. It should be a simple stew, cooked for as long as possible to help the rabbit fall off the bone, and with a few root vegetables mixed in. Dry cider and rosemary make a good liquid base, but Rioja also works. Sam’s advice on potatoes - “boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew” - also inspired us to serve a triple side dish of new potatoes, cooked in the ways prescribed.
HARD MODE: During his row with Gollum, Sam offers a hearty shout out to Fish & Chips (with big fat chips), which you could use as an excuse to eat that dish, if you were feeling really committed.
20) Vile Fish Stew*
This is without doubt the low point of the whole experience, but in my opinion can’t be avoided. On the road to Helm’s Deep, Eowyn cooks a horrendous, fatty fish stew which Gimli turns down entirely, and Aragorn tries (with desperate politeness) to pretend is edible. To honour this, I made an unfortunate broth comprising cheap sardine paste, rye bread crumbs and butter, which we each sampled grimly, before tipping into the garden. This is the only moment of conscious waste in the whole marathon, but I think it’s an acceptable sacrifice. After trying the stew, Aragorn sits for a long while in the dark with a haunted expression, smoking his pipe until he passes out. After following his lead, you will feel his pain.
HARD MODE: It doesn’t get much harder than this scene, but it’s worth noting the peculiar scene just after, dedicated to showing how many potatoes were brought to helm’s deep. I guess you could eat some potato here.
21) Fish a la Gollum #1
After being captured by Faramir, Frodo watches Gollum brain and consumes a fish from the forbidden pool. Raw salmon or trout would be most faithful here, but considering Ashleigh was pregnant, we opted for a fillet of cooked, smoked trout. (Although I did waggle the plate as she ate it, to give some semblance of life). After the revolting fish stew, this is hardly the most welcome course of the meal.
22) Isengard Quenched
When Treebeard releases the river into Isengard, Saruman’s subterranean alchemy is quenched, releasing torrents of chemical steam. This is a good moment for a big, digestion-aiding mug of herbal tea, which also helps wash away the last of the lingering fish stew tastes.
HARD MODE: Soon after the fall of Isengard, Merry & Pippin find a load of preserved meat and vegetables stored by Saruman (or as I like to call him, Isengard Kingsom Brunel). Return of the King begins with the eating of these supplies, but you could start now if you were so inclined.
Return of the King
GENERAL NOTES: You’ve now completed the bulk of the endeavour - congrats! This movie is actually fairly light on meals, but contains possibly the largest of them all - so if you are playing this right, you should still have a decent appetite when the opening credits roll.
23) Fish a la Gollum #2
The film begins with a seriously dark set of reminiscences by Gollum, in which he reflects on ‘forgetting the taste of bread’ as he bites into a flabby, raw fish. You could repeat the course from the forbidden pool here, or get really accurate by serving a fillet of catfish, the type of fish portrayed in the scene.
24) Yet More Lembas Bread*
25) Isengard Stores*
As introduced at the end of Two Towers. Gimli gets particularly excited by the salted pork in Saruman’s store, and so pork rilettes (or even tinned ham) are a perfect centrepiece for this meal. There’s a wealth of different vegetables and meats portrayed here, so you can be quite liberal when planning this dish - we opted for cornichons, pickled onions, smoked cheese, pickled red cabbage and preserved sweet peppers.
26) Hail, the Victorious Dead!
At Edoras, Theoden leads a feast to commemorate the fallen at Helm’s Deep. This is the booziest scene in the trilogy, and given its memorial nature, was the one scene where I matched the characters’ drinking (or at least some of it - I didn’t want to end up like Gimli). When Theoden toasted the dead, and Aragorn paused for a long moment before drinking, I got some dust in my eye.
HARD MODE: While this scene is focused on the quaffing of ale, there is plenty of food on show, including plenty of cheeses, and an entire roast hog. For a large party of marathoners, an attempt could be made to replicate this.
SUPER HARD MODE: During the remainder of the film, there are at least two scenes (Osgiliath, and the Beacon) where Gondorian soldiers are seen eating from bowls. While we thought hard about including Ambiguous Gondorian Stew on our meal list, we decided on the headcanon that the soldiers were ‘just making coffee’, and so let ourselves off. Will you be so weak?
27) Denethor’s Grim Dinner*
Perhaps the most intense eating scene of the trilogy comes when Denethor, the miserable steward of Gondor, monsters his way through a grisly dinner of cold chicken, grapes and cherry tomatoes as his son rides towards certain death. It is vital to properly roleplay this scene in order to feel the full horror of it: diners should tear the chicken apart with grim ferocity, burst tomatoes unpleasantly between their teeth, and dribble plenty of red grape juice. It’s horrendous, but necessary. For perfect scene setting, you should arrive at this scene not so full that you can’t bear to eat more, but full enough that it seems slightly gratuitous to do so. It’s the last significant meal of the trilogy, so go for a sprint finish
Although no food is consumed during its time in the film, I feel that Grond - the colossal, wolf-headed battering ram used to batter down the gates of Minas Tirith - is possibly the best single thing in the LOTR trilogy. As such, and as the self-appointed leader of the Grond Fandom, I insist this terrible weapon deserves special recognition in any marathon. Maybe you could choose to down a horrendously potent drink to acknowledge Grond, or kick over a model gate? Maybe you could just chant its name. Whatever you do, don’t let Grond go unremarked upon.
HARD MODE: When Sam & Frodo are struggling up the slopes of Mt Doom, Sam tries to coax life into Frodo by reminding him of the taste of Strawberries. If you can keep yourself together at this point (goodness knows we couldn’t), you could try to share a punnet of strawberries.
29) There And Back Again
Finally, when it’s all nearly over, and the hobbits return to the Shire to try and recapture a sense of their old lives, bring out the cake you had a slice of, all those hours ago at the start of Fellowship, and share the last of it. Think about everything that has happened since then, and how you’ve changed since that innocent time. Reflect on the impossibility of recapturing the past, but console yourself with knowing that all good things come to an end, and that one has to discover a way to move on. I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.
And there you have it! You’ve completed your adventure, and things will never be the same. Hopefully it will have been fun, and maybe it will even have been meaningful.
For us, LOTR was a great way to bring cheer to an event with a very solemn purpose. It’s a story about the ending of things, and of the passing of wonder from the world - but it’s also a story about how, against that dark backdrop, good folk will go to enormous lengths for the things and the people they love. Even if that just means eating a 25 course meal in your pyjamas.
Appendix 1: Challenge modes
Is the above somehow not enough of a challenge for you? Why not impose some of these additional rules:
Ale Mode: Attempt to match the characters drink for drink, using strong ale. Not recommended.
Smoke-along: Attempt to smoke along with Gandalf, Bilbo, Aragorn, Gimli, Merry & Pippin, using your own interpretation of the ‘Halfling’s Leaf’. By the end of Fellowship, you’ll be fighting a deep wave of blackness, and if you remember ROTK at all, you’ll probably think you were inside the film. May help with appetite, however.
Elf Mode: Only consume vegan ingredients from the list above - NOW WITH ADDITIONAL GUIDANCE - SEE BELOW:
One(ion) Ring To Rule Them All: During the introduction of Fellowship, one viewer (representing Sauron) cooks and presents a single onion ring to the group, which must not be eaten. One viewer is elected as Ringbearer, and must hold the onion ring for the entire trilogy. Other viewers must constantly try and cajole them into giving it up, but they must stay strong until the climax of ROTK, when a player taking the role of Gollum gets to eat it. You may also make use of a chocolate finger at this point, for added realism.
LARP of the Rings: For larger parties. Each viewer is assigned a character from the film. They may only participate in meals their character is eating on screen. Combine this with the onion ring rule above, and you’re basically conducting an indoor LARP of Lord of the Rings.
Appendix 2: Elf Mode
I was lucky enough to be contacted by @SorrellKerrison on twitter, who has provided the following recommended substitutions for tackling this whole business on Elf Mode, with a fully vegan menu:
So the first big meat dish you come across is No 14 "Looks like Meat is back on the menu Boys". You can make a Vegan rack of ribs from Seitan, (Here's a handy guide: https://t.co/AUNx5YfoOe), And you can use Linda Macartney Red Pepper Chipotle Sausages for the 'guts'. Easy.
No 15. You can get gelatine free gummy works and chews in most stores which have a 'free from' section
No 16 Orc Blood can just be some tomato juice
No 19 Rabbit Stew. There is a Mock Duck gumbo (recipe available from PETA that would stand in nicely for this.)
No 21 You can get fake fish gluons easily from most big supermarkets. Vivera even do fake fish cakes,
For the breakfast section there is a Fakin Bacon and there are vegan deli chickens and chorizo to add to any of the pickle and cheese boards.