Chez Dining Room: Hogwarts Great Hall

Monday February 15, 2010

artist's rendition of the Great Hall decorated for Christmas by Mary GrandPre

Unless you have children, you might not realize that modern children’s literature is a booming part of today’s world publishing market.  While many of the titles fall unheralded to even the most avid reader, it has been close to impossible to escape the sheer delight, the astonishment, and novelty generated by the British Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Harry Potter is an enigmatic kingdom that beckons not only to pre-teens, but every age adults as well, as it is a retelling of the most basic of stories–man’s search for himself.  Harry Potter is a modern fairyland taking its place our hearts and minds alongside the pure fantasy of the Star Wars tales, C.S. Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles, and, of course, the thirteen Oz books by L. Frank Baum, also known for their delightful wordplay and catchy characters straight from characterville. These are dream worlds not so far apart, as they are ruled by love and a philosophy of innocence, haunted as much as by ghosts or threatening beasts as by the fear of loneliness and sudden death.

Rarely is a dining room in literature or a movie as famous, endearing, and enchanting as the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter epic saga. Food and dining are classic techniques inserted into literature as the elements that humanize characters, a part of the Rowling narrative that is a backdrop to the window into the minds of the characters.

Dumbledore giving the Owl Talk before dinner

As so often in the world of magic and spiritual science, the most ordinary things are transformed into the extraordinary with the slight shift to another plane of consciousness. The twist is that the boarding school is the Hogswarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, an old castle that acts like a giant matrix where the simplest forms of folk magic is taught to generations of formally trained junior witches and wizards. One of the themes running through every Harry Potter book is the straightforward and delicious food eaten by Harry and his friends and where it is served.  The elements of school food is legendary in any circle of Brits and often described as nutritional anarchy due to the overall reputation of unappetizing, exceedingly plain, English cuisine.  There is many a sorry tale about limp beds of overcooked cabbage and stodgy macaroni, even served at famous learning houses like Eton, but there is no such joyless fare served at Hogwarts.

a light snowfall from the magical ceiling during winter holiday dinner

In the Harry Potter mythical world, lots of action takes place over the long tables laden with British-style school foods before classes and at holiday feasts. Rowling’s rendition of school cookery is very traditional, despite its ability to effortlessly materialize on golden plates and then melt away the leftover scraps into their original spotless state at the end of the meal. Self-cleaning dinnerware certainly has to be included as one of my dreams of a perfect world.

There is no Dame Edith posing as Miss Kitchen-in-drag as the school cook (there are miniature Julia Child-like kitchen-elves instead with the kitchen door hidden by a portrait of a fruit basket and tickling a pear is the secret to revealing the door handle). The simply-prepared semi-nursery food (sausages, mashed or roasted potatoes, roast turkey, lamb chops, steak-and-kidney pie, chicken and ham sandwiches, and, oh yes, the beloved tripe and onions) is pure comfort. The Christmas feast is attended by the teachers and any students that have chosen to remain at Hogwarts over the Christmas Holidays and prepared by the House-elves – a hundred fat roast turkeys, mountains of roast and boiled potatoes, platters of fat chipolatas (a chipolata is a type of fresh sausage made from coarse-ground pork seasoned with herbs like as sage, thyme, pimento, nutmeg, and eaten a great deal in the United Kingdom. They frequently appear as part of a Christmas dinner wrapped in streaky bacon as pigs in blankets.), tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce. For dessert, a flaming Christmas pudding with silver sickles hidden within each pudding. It is plentiful, hearty, and gloriously appetizing by candlelight in a rather grown-up setting of the Grand Hall with its magical enchanted ceiling that reflects whatever the sky is doing at that particular moment, whether it be a light snowfall, lightening storm, or calm star-studded night.  There is the clatter of knives and forks and persnickety congenial conversation accompanying all meals punctuating the storyline.

The set for the Great Hall is none other than the vast student dining room at Christchurch college at Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world established in the 16th century, in South East England. Taking a tour of England and Scotland, it seems every castle has a Great Hall with a high-to-the-sky vaulted beamed ceiling. The room has long wooden tables lit by lamps, impressive portraits lining the stone walls (one being the portrait of Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, who was a teacher at Christchurch) and High Table at the end of the room opposite the entrance, where the tutors and fellows sit. The students of the college have formal hall here every night, where they wear their academic gowns and say grace in Latin before tucking into dinner. Buildings in Oxford reflect every English architectural period since the arrival of the Saxons. Oxford is known as the “city of dreaming spires”, a term coined by poet Matthew Arnold in reference to the harmonious ancient vintage of the architecture of Oxford’s university buildings. So Harry Potter movies are a bit of a real time history lesson as well as building the Potter-magic mythos.

The Great Hall was unavailable for filming since it is used every day, so it was replicated in the film studio to create Hogwart’s Hall. Special effects inserted the fabulous magical ceiling. Four long tables run the length of the room, one each for the four houses. Closest to the doors from the Entrance Hall is Slytherin, then Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and next to the far wall, Gryffindor. The teachers sit at the High Table, a table on a raised platform at the front of the room. The highlight of the table is the throne-like chair in the center of the High Table where the current Headmaster Wizard sits.

Cooking has long been described as innocent alchemy, the chemical science process and

view of the High Table

philosophy practiced by medieval physicians for transforming common elements into something special. Breakfast is the best of its kind–piles of toast and jam, scrambled eggs, bangers and cold orange juice, hot porridge–a cheerful and informal start to the days of studious energetic activity and fresh torments. And oh so wonderful, inherently beautiful sweets are conjured up for dessert and special teas in the Great Hall: scones galore, cream puffs, pumpkin tart, trifle, chocolate gateaux, and spotted dick, which despite the provocative name, is a spongy steamed molasses pudding studded with raisins served floating in a pool of cool, white custard that spells pure “mother” to anyone born in England or Scotland.

As the kindly Professor Dumbledore, the venerable headmaster wizard of Hogwarts, would say before the students and beaks (teachers) raise their forks in unison, “I now invite you all to eat, drink, and make yourselves at home,” inviting us to take some of the magic of childlike wonder back to our practical everyday world.


Poppy Pomfrey’s E-traordinary Restorative Hot Cocoa with Marshmallows

Magical Ink Buttermilk Scones

The Welcoming Feast: first view of The Great Hall, the tables set for dinner, with first year students filing in

Oxford's Tudor Christchurch University Dining Room with its vaulted ceiling

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