Food Culture

An enormously popular author (John Scalzi) recently mentioned almost putting down a book he ended up loving (Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss) because the characters ate stew. Stew… the well-trodden staple of every generic fantasy diet. Stew is as time-honored, and frankly tired, as any trope in the genre.

So what’s the big deal? Food isn’t all that important, right?

I can’t imagine giving up on a well written book because of a bit of stew. But it does sort of illustrate a point about careful world building, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t at all an indictment of Mr. Rothfuss, whose work I enjoyed a lot and whose world building is stellar (in every other regard but the stew, according to John Scalzi).

I’ve just always been interested in the cultural implications of something so ingrained and so often ignored by writers who build otherwise fantastic and realistic worlds. Below are a few of the things I note when deciding what to put on the table in my tales:

  • What type of foods are available in the climate?  Particularly in pre-industrial landscapes or in places that are relatively isolated from the larger world, more exotic foods that won’t grow or that can’t be raised in the climate may be rare and precious (or nonexistent)
  • What cultural prejudice exists about certain foods? Americans typically turn their noses up at edible insects, but there are cultures where bugs are as much as staple as the tortilla in Mexico.
  • What cooking methods are available, and how does that affect what foods can and can’t be eaten? A culture that uses only open fire cooking will be much more limited than one that has stone ovens.
  • Are there any cultural or religious practices around food preparation, serving, or eating? In some cultures, food may only be eaten with a particular hand (left or right). Bathing, foot-bath, and hand washing rituals around food service are not uncommon. Religious blessing of the food, and even treatment of the meal prior to preparation (as in Jewish Kosher) may affect things as basic as taste, quality, and rate of spoilage
  • How is food stored? Cultures that lack cold food storage are much more likely to use drying, pickling, salt-brining, and smoking to preserve meats, vegetables, and fruits. The hotter and wetter the environment, the quicker food goes bad.
  • How does the socio-economic status of the character change what they eat? You wouldn’t expect to see the same meal put before beggars and kings. The same thing goes for men and women in some cultures, children and adults, monks and knights and farmers. You get the idea.
  • Are pregnant or injured/ill people fed differently than others? In some cultures, it is taboo for pregnant women to consume milk. In others, sick people must not touch food that is cold (or hot, or bland, or spicy). Cultural practices around serving food to pregnant and/or ill individuals run the spectrum.
  • Are there any taboos about food in the culture? One of the best treatments of this I’ve seen in the fantasy realm, believe it or not, comes from a book by Terry Goodkind, Wizard’s First Rule. Red fruit is poisonous in the Midlands due to some lingering effects of magical warfare, and offering someone a red fruit is considered a death threat. So when Richard from Westland, where red fruit is still normal, innocently offers a Midlander an apple, culture shock ensues.
  • What are the dietary requirements for non-human creatures/persons? Do elves eat meat? Are the Iglidites allergic to avocado? Can your centaurs eat only flowers and fruit flies? More importantly, do these dietary needs and restrictions pose problems for your non-human characters when they interact with other species or cultures? For this one, keep in mind the conservation of matter. A 300lb centaur who only eats low-nutrient flowers is going to be spending the better part of his life shoveling food into his mouth, and populations might be low because of the relative difficulty in obtaining the right foods.

Just a few things to consider the next time your character picks up a spoon (or fork or chop sticks or cloven dragon hoof utensil).

What’s the strangest thing your characters have slurped down?

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