One of the more interesting entertainments available at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the opportunity to consume such edibles (for a fee, of course) as Chocolate Frogs and Every Flavor Beans. Best of all, I could imbibe a butterbeer or pumpkin juice at the Three Broomsticks (named, of course, after a favorite haunt of characters in the books), one of the park’s restaurants. As explained by Chef Steven Jayson, corporate executive chef for Universal, the butterbeer recipe (and others) “brings to life” the descriptions of the fictional cocktail enjoyed by Harry Potter and his peers in J.K. Rowling's books. According to video reports (of which a number are available on YouTube), Jayson has offered up something reminiscent of crème soda and butterscotch. Jayson tells us that the recipe and other recipes were approved by Rowling in a tasting. (To see and hear Jayson discuss the creation of the recipe, watch the attached video from 1:36 forward.)
As a foodie, I have no problem considering the creation of a recipe to be a kind of narrative, so it seems easy enough to label the butterbeer phenomenon a variant of transmedial storytelling. No doubt many readers of the Harry Potter books have imagined to themselves how butter beer might taste, just as they might have imagined themselves playing Quidditch or riding a hippogryph. Such an experience of butter beer is common yet completely subjective, invoked by descriptive language and a reader’s embodied imagination. By contrast, the butterbeer offered at the WWOHP is storytelling that I pour down my gullet. The expressed goal of Jayson and his team was to create something “authentic,” even if based upon an imaginary flavor. It doesn’t seem possible that such a thing as authentic butterbeer could exist, especially because food and eating are facets of human behavior that exist at the crossroads of culture, experience, and libido. Add to them the affective features of narrative investment, and I have to wonder what sort of recipe could meet fan/audience expectations. Of course, Jayson and Universal have access to magic, the kind can cause fans and consumers to down the butter beer concoction and pronounce it to taste exactly how they thought it would. A part of this must be the magic of the kitchen; I am sure that Chef Jayson is a wizard in his own right.
In truth, I don’t think that Jayson’s potions are some sort of dark art (unless you are diabetic). It never takes long for audiences/consumers to start working their own spells, modifying or even countering corporate efforts to mete out a transmedia experience. In fact, transformative versions of butterbeer can be found on YouTube alongside the records of fans trying the corporate recipe and the official, promotional vids. Just as fans of a story can manifest fictions, vids or artwork on their own time and in their own way, people are beginning to produce their own butter beer concoctions – varied to suit their own tastes, of course.
Thanks for bringing these edible transmediations to our attention. This is especially interesting to me as a case where the tools available for licensed and unlicensed creativity, though still quite different, are equally likely to produce a compelling continuation of the story. I can't help but compare them to fan games. Because these tend to use inexpensive engines, or rely on modifications of existing video games , they sometimes far exceed the cleverness of EA's games, but never quite meet their graphical standards, nor making serious game design decisions.
Food, though! Here, as in fan-fiction, an immersive unlicensed exploration is very possible. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I will try to make some fan designed butterbeer as soon as possible. Do you know of any fan-recipes for Bott's Beans? I was sad to see one recipe blog just give up.
An Actual Virtuality
What I find so compelling about the example you detail in your post, Lisa, is that it serves as a great illustration of how media can give actual embodiment to virtualities. The phenomenological experience of reading/watching Harry Potter is, to be sure, an actual bodily experience. However, much of this experience also takes place within the realm of the virtual, in that butterbeer isn't actually going down your gullet. Yes, we can sense what this butterbeer might feel like as it enters our body, but this is still largely the product of imagination and virtual experience. The material creation of literal butterbeer makes actual this virtuality and provides embodiment to imagination. As I can attest to while reading this post, I now have a great desire to experience the real effects of butterbeer on my body.
I also think you're quite right in calling this a transmedia experience, in that it extends and supplements the canonical narratives of the books/films. (Though I also find it interesting that Chef Jayson makes a point of emphasizing that Rowling approved and loved his recipe. He still seeks (on behalf of the fans, perhaps) the approval of the "master" of the narrative). Food-as-narrative is a really unique way to think of things. Thanks for such a compelling post.
Full immersion is something a lot of Potter fans seek. Long before butterbeer was served up at WWOHP, fans were concoting their own versions and sharing the recipes with each other.
Creating a real version of a fictional beverage - or partaking of franchise-sanctioned offerings like Every Flavor Beans - is simply another way of making the Potter world come alive. An edible dimension was added to the equation, joining costuming and fanficiton and Quidditch matches played on converted soccer pitches. Every new creation helped to extend the Potter experience beyond mere reading of the source material. Similar reactions are commonly created by any novel or series that sparks a following: Lord of the Rings fans teaching themselves Quenya? Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy readers who won't leave home without a towel? These fans want the richest experience they can create, and what's richer than a story you can taste?
As you point out, every fan has his or her own idea as to what, exactly, Potter foods should taste like. But instead of trying to find the perfect flavor ("What is the closest thing I can find to this?"), they are trying to create it, to actively bring this fictional item into being. And, truthfully, the flavor is less important than the experience itself: having something that makes the story come to life, that makes it a real, tangible, edible thing.
Throw a butterbeer or a flagon of pumpkin juice at a meal and suddenly it's more than just a meal: it's magical. And, after all, isn't that what Harry Potter is all about?
Something I think is interesting about the whole immersion phenomenon is the ways in which it interacts with the development of the fandom. In what ways does it transform the Potter experience? With the books finished and the films quickly following suit, this kind of immersive fandom culture might become more prevalent as fans look for ways to keep the magic alive. And in that context: in what ways does immersion become the experience?
Vincent wrote: "Here, as in fan-fiction, an immersive unlicensed exploration is very possible."
It is, but then it isn't, and that's the part I find vaguely sad about Chef Jayson's creation.
Up until now, fans have been able to fully participate in this "immersive exploration" (an excellent phrase) without limits or walls or boundaries. Butterbeer could taste like almost anything. A chocolate frog could be milk or dark or white or something in between. A Bertie Botts' Bean could taste like strawberry jam, but not the kind you buy from Smuckers' - the kind my grandmother used to make in Mason jars in the basement.
But now, here's Chef Jayson, and because his version of Butterbeer is sold at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, suddenly, it -is- what Butterbeer tastes like. It's the "official" taste of Butterbeer. And once I taste it for the first time, whatever delicious flavor lived in my head before I drank it is obliterated forever. I can -try- to get it back, but it will have been fundamentally compromised by my "real world" experience. In that, I disagree with Kelly that the taste doesn't really matter. I believe it matters a great deal.
In a way, I am intentionally destroying my imagination to some extent by forcing it into the shoe box of reality. It's, realistically, exactly what happened when the films began to release. Whatever Hermione lived in my head before I saw the movie is gone. I can't picture anyone else but Emma Watson when I think of Hermione now. I try sometimes, but it doesn't work. I keep coming back to her.
Harkening back to Kelly's piece day one of this theme week, it's its own kind of death - a bittersweet one, for certain.
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