Like everything else to do with Themselves there's actually no one simple answer and it depends a lot on what sort of fairy we're talking about. There's also been a lot of speculation, even going back to the 17th century and the writings of rev. Kirk, that fairies may not eat our solid food at all, but rather absorb the essence of the food, what Kirk called the 'foyson', Campbell called the 'toradh*', or Evans-Wentz called the quintessence. It was for this reason that food offered to the fairies, or which it was believed they had consumed the essence of, was not considered fit for human consumption nor even for animals to eat (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Again though this may be something that is true of some types while others do literally consume the item itself. Without getting into what may be traditionally offered to fairies, but only looking at what folklore tells us they are known to consume, here are some general things we can say to give people an idea of what different fairies eat:
- Some fairies eat 'corn' - a general term for grains -, bread, and drink liquor and milk (Kirk, 1691)
- Fairies will steal, and presumably eat, any and all human food and produce if the owner of it speaks badly about it, by taking the 'toradh' out of it so that it gives no value to the humans (Campbell, 1900).
- Fairies are known to take the 'substance' from such crops as turnips and grain, and will take butter if they can (Evans-Wentz, 1911). They will also steal quality food from the hearth that is cooking, such as meat or vegetables, leaving behind something wasted or unpleasant in its place (Wilde, 1920).
- The corrigans and lutins are fond of meat, especially beef, and will steal and butcher cows to prepare their own feasts (Evans-Wentz, 1911).
- Some fairies are said to use glamour to make their food appear as delicious fare like to what humans would eat when really it is leaves, weeds, roots, and 'stalks of heather' (Briggs, 1976).
- Several types of fairies, including hags, kelpies and water horses are known to eat human flesh. Briggs mentions one such reference to a fairy court's feast which consisted of the prepared and cooked body of an old woman (Briggs, 1976, p 145). Similarly tales of the hag Black Annis mention her penchant for eating children; kelpies can trick people into riding them, tear them apart and eat them (Briggs, 1976). On a related note the Baobhan sidhe drinks blood, and the welsh form of the Leanann Sidhe, the Lhiannan Shee is also said by some to have a vampiric nature (Briggs, 1976).
- It is said that some Irish fairies eat fruits, vegetables, honey, and drink milk, but do not eat meat (Lysaght, 1991)
- The Good Neighbors of Orkney and Shetland eat oatmeal, fish, and drink milk (Bruford, 1991)
- In Wales the fairies eat eggs, butter, and drink milk (Gwyndaf, 1991)
- Yeats recounts a tale of one of the Gentry who passed a Halloween with a family and ate with them, a meal of duck and apples, although she had only a single bite from each portion (Yeats, 1892).
- It is said that some fairies eat rowan berries. Indeed rowan berries were also said to have been the food of the Tuatha De Danann by some accounts (McNeill, 1956).
- Several types of fairies appear to either be fond of barley or to grow it as their own crop, and to eat it. Milk is also widely reported to be consumed by fairies, not only cow's milk but also goat's milk and the milk of deer (Briggs, 1976). This widespread love of grain and milk is particularly interesting in folk belief as it echos much older myth from the De Gabail in t-Sida where the Tuatha De Danann retreat into the sidhe (fairy hills) and cause all the crops to fail and cows to go dry until an agreement is reached whereby they will be given a portion of each harvest, specifically "ith" [grain] and "blicht" [milk].
To summarize milk was often mentioned, as were grains which would seem to be prepared in ways similar to humans; most sources including Briggs and Campbell refer to the fairies use of grains ground into meal, for example. Baking is mentioned as is cooking more generally, and when fairy feasts are mentioned, barring the more macabre ones, they seem to be filled with the same dishes humans would eat. Besides an emphasis, perhaps, on dairy and baked goods, generally fairies seem to eat much the same foods humans do, although certain types of fairies are more specific in their diets and some of course eat things we would not. While they are often noted to take the essence from foods they are also equally often said to eat the food itself so both seem equally possible.
Bruford, A., (1991) Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney and Shetland
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Kirk, R., (1691) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
Campbell, G., (1900) Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
Evans-Wentz, W. (1911). Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, E., (1920). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Lysaght, P., (1991) Fairylore from the Midlands of Ireland
Yeats, W., (1892) Celtic Twilight
McNeill, F., (1956). Silver Bough
McNeill, F., (1956). Silver Bough
*literally 'fruit' but probably in this context meaning produce, profit, or substance