SOME THINGS ONLY exist in fantasy novels, which is the point. You read about them to imagine an experience you could never have in the ordinary world. They don’t all have to be things of awesome or epic character.
Lembas, for instance. Through the decades since I first read Lord of the Rings as a child, the idea of lembas, the Elvish waybread, stuck with me. The little cakes or wafers were an unearthly paradox: small yet powerfully nourishing, delicious yet satisfying, a morsel that worked like a meal in a way no mortal food ever could. Gimli the Dwarf gobbled one up and declared it “better than the honey-cakes of the Beornings,” and had to be admonished by the Elves that he had eaten “enough already for a long day’s march.”
Unlike Mr. Beaver’s meal of freshly caught and fried trout in Narnia, where you could plan to someday eat such a thing in your own real life, nothing could really taste or work like the magical Elf-food. Treats were treats and body fuel was at best one of those paste-like granola bars.
Then I ordered a box of Zhiweiguan brand chestnut kernel osmanthus cakes from the Chinese grocery delivery service.
We always load up on snacks in the order because the vegetables are cheap: dried shiitake crisps, haw flakes, five-spice rice crackers, wasabi rice crackers, spicy lobster sticks — whatever looks good. New ones cycle into the online menu all the time, and lockdown requires snacks. So when the chestnut osmanthus cakes showed up on the snacks page, I bought them. I like osmanthus tea; I like chestnuts; I hadn’t tasted either one in a while.
The cakes arrived in a handsome, sturdy paperboard box. Inside, they were sealed in individual wrappers, each one inside its own little protective plastic cup and accompanied by its own desiccant package. They were small and pale and fancy, with a flower design neatly molded into the top. Really they were meant to be the sort of thing you present to someone as a gift, like if you’re paying a visit, rather than something to nosh on. We’ve visited exactly one friend’s house since February, one time, and we only went indoors to use the bathroom.
I tore into the packet and started noshing.
I’d expected it would be good, but it was much better than I’d expected. The outside was a smooth mung bean paste, with little dark threads of osmanthus in it. Each bite began with a sweet floral aroma, slowly dissolving away into a rich, pure chestnut flavor on the tongue. The filling was close enough in color and texture to the outside that there was no disjunction between them, just a continuous transition. I ate the whole thing—
And I was content. Fully content. It wasn’t like eating a Fig Newton or a roll of haw flakes, where the act of enjoyment leads straight into the urge to enjoy more, immediately. Nor was I glutted with the feeling of having had too much of a formerly good thing. The little cake had magically transported me to a perfect, enchanted equilibrium. I was very happy to have eaten the one, and I was glad there were more in the box, but I would eat another one some other day, further along my journey.