Manga: Today’s Menu
April 7, 2022 · 0 comments
By Jeannette Ng.
Should one be somehow oblivious to the sprawling Fate/ series, Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family would probably pass muster as another fluff, food-centric slice-of-life manga, such as Sweetness and Lightning and What Did You Eat Yesterday?. Like them, Today’s Menu is structured around meticulously detailed recipes as characters cook for each other and food becomes this poignant focal point for the little intimacies between them. There is a studied mundanity to the telling, even as references blink by to magic and monsters.
Which is all to say that whilst there have been many notable fantastical remixes of the cosy food-centric genre (Delicious in Dungeons, Giant Spider and Me, Drifting Dragons, just to name a few), Today’s Menu is at once the most and least fantastical.
To begin at the beginning: The Fate/ series is about the Holy Grail Wars, a series of to-the-death showdowns between seven chosen participants and their summoned legendary heroes. Facetiously, it’s Battle Royale with Girl King Arthur as a Pokémon and the winner gets to remake the world with a wish. Every instalment has been an absolutely brutal mix of bloody fights and ever-escalating stakes. Life is cheap in this world of tenuous alliances, ridiculous intrigues and convoluted betrayals. Drama and heartbreak are wrung out of every impossible decision the characters are forced into.
Having at its root a number of visual novels, including Fate/Stay night, the Fate/ series is especially prone to spawning extra timelines and alternate universes. All of the routes through the game and its multiple love interests are somehow true and not true, all at once. With every new adaptation or spin-off series, elements of all the timelines get remixed into yet another new continuity. The internet is stuffed with arrow-riddled diagrams trying to make sense of how it all these different visual novels, film trilogies, TV series, light novels, mobile games and manga volumes fit together. Being a mass of contradictory timelines is arguably baked into the very fabric of the franchise.
Today’s Menu focuses on one of these many alternate universes, but unlike the vast majority of them, nothing particularly bad happened during the Fifth Holy Grail War. Implausibly and impossibly, everyone somehow survived and is now living peacefully as friends in the same neighbourhood.
Thus does proverbial “normal high school student”, Shirou Emiya, live with Saber in platonic (but not too platonic) domestic bliss. Saber is, of course, the reincarnation of Artoria Pendragon, King of Knights herself; reincarnations of legendary figures are usually referred to by the type of summoned Servant they are (ie. Lancer, Archer, Berserker, etc) rather than their True Name.
Absolutely none of this backstory and alternate continuity is explained within the actual pages of Today’s Menu. There isn’t even a handy dramatis personae at the beginning of the volume to remind you what each of the characters look like or a shorthand of what their expected relationship is. I consider myself fairly familiar with the Fate/ series but even I ended up wiki-ing some of the supporting cast and the guest appearances from the mobile game. It really does just drop you in the middle of this sedate little cooking idyll.
Shirou has already been established as a good cook in the other continuities and Saber an enthusiastic devourer of his art. This manga is that iconic scene where Saber tries to cook for Shirou but decimates the chopping board by wielding the knife like a sword and he has to come save the day but teaching her how to cut vegetables like a normal person.
That said, the sheer whiplash one can feel going from the action-heavy brutality of the main Fate/ series to the cosiness of Today’s Menu is hard to describe. This is a manga where the tension and weight is almost entirely in its intertextuality. Nothing much happens but that’s also the point.
Cute interactions abound in Today’s Menu. Conflict is gentle and resolutions are frothy and sweet. Painful grudges and rivalries from the other time lines are put aside to break bread and share food. The act of cooking and eating brings these characters together. The opening chapter centred around hot pot has Saber state this explicitly, remarking upon how communal hot pot is as a dish. But beyond that, everyone eats simple skillet-roast beef in Illyasviel von Einzbern’s castle and the enormous Berserker brings in a Christmas tree only slightly shorter than he is.
Shirou flirts with each of his potential romantic interests from the other continuities and shows affection through thoughtfully preparing them food, but naturally, nothing entirely resolves. Shirou makes for Rin Tohsaka cold ochazuke when she’s too hot and tired from the sun to eat and it is so delicious that she finishes it all. Everyone pitches in to show Illya Japanese culture and make her beautiful sushi, but the chapter ends on her flirtatiously asking Shirou if he likes her in a kimono and Rin flashes jealousy. Lancer berates Shirou for letting him become the third wheel in a meal Shirou would otherwise be having alone with Rin. Sakura Matou worries about gaining weight from all of Shirou’s good cooking but he reassures her that she looks fine. Everything lingers at the threshold of meaningful smiles, heartfelt thanks and so very much teasing.
Each of the dishes that the chapters are structured around is exhaustively realised, with both step-by-step descriptions from the characters cooking. Some of the later volumes even include further practical advice on how to cook them yourself from Makoto Tadano, the food director. It is arguably more recipe book than storytelling, but that is hardly unwelcome given that I am also a fan of the emerging comic book cookbook subgenre in English (Amano and Becan’s Let’s Make Ramen! and Robin Ha’s Cook Korean!).
Still, there are plenty of little details that tie the food being cooked back to nicknames and other character moments. Rider ends up being taught by Shirou how to make raw seaweed and whitebait pasta because of her passing interest in how much the seaweed had reminded her of Shinji Matou (also known as Wakame because of his seaweed-like hair). Saber is enchanted by how cute an ice-shaving machine is Shirou makes her and Sakura bowls of shaved ice shaped like cute animal faces (Saber’s is a lion, of course).
By the end of any given volume, Today’s Menu made me really want to share some cosy homemade Japanese food with friends. And that’s probably the highest praise one can give a work of this subgenre.