F is for Food
“And when I began to cook the brains?” Meoraq inquired, pointing back at the satchel with his scraper.
“You thought I meant to feed you brains?”
“How is that more disgusting than what you always feed me?”
“Example!” he demanded, laughing through his incredulity.
“How about all the heads?” Amber shot back, pointing at the two in the fire.
“The head is the best part,” he replied. “I save it for myself and allow you to share it.”
“Okay, marrow. Marrow is horrible.”
“The food of lords and abbots,” he countered. “Delicious.”
“Ah, well. Liver is good for you.” –The Last Hour of Gann
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I love food. I love cooking it, I love watching other people cook it, I especially love eating it and I even love writing hypothetically about it. I have more fun researching the food in a new novel than I do practically any other aspect (except maybe the sex). As a matter of fact, I have so many note regarding the recipes and meals in my Arcadia series that I could probably slap together a pretty respectable cookbook.
How important is food to worldbuilding? Well, look at it this way. In the great melting pot of America, when people of many different cultures may speak the same language, dress in the same clothes, worship and work and rear the children in essentially the same manner, food remains unique to that heritage, remains in fact defined by that heritage. When Cris asks me what I feel like for dinner, I don’t say pasta or burritos or stir-fry. I say Italian, Mexican, Chinese. In the same way, I want my fictional world’s food to be representative of that culture. When a fan tells me, “I read about those Farasai sticky pies and just had to make some!” I get a glow that compares to nothing else I know.
Where to start, you ask? With the foods that are available. In today’s modern Western world, our technology allows us to grow an astounding variety of fruits and vegetables, preserve or refrigerate them, and ship them all over the world! If I want strawberries in December or pumpkin pie in May, all I have to do is go to the store and get some. In a civilization equally advanced in this regard, there’s no reason your non-humans wouldn’t have the same advantages, but in cultures without that technology, things are very different.
One thing my research has taught me is that pre-agrarian cultures—people who hunt and gather rather than farm—subsist on very, very few foods. After all, when you don’t cultivate edible plants, you tend to rather quickly run out of them if you have a very large population, so they’re not around long enough for you to get used to having them for supper. Roots, berries, certain edible flowers or leaves and occasional fruit fill bellies with reliable abundance for most of the year, but all that ends when winter rolls around. Then late autumn nuts and perhaps dried mushrooms round out a diet that is, by necessity, mainly meat and fat. Keeping in mind that a hunting expedition was futile far more often than not and that hunters might be gone a very long time, any animals that were killed were fully utilized. More than just meat, these hunters would have eaten every edible part—brains, bowel, head (with eyes!), feet, kidneys, liver, tripe, lung, stomach, heart, testicles, blood, fat, marrow, even spleen and pancreas! Not the tastiest menu (but I’ve had plenty worse) and a diet that is mainly meat and fat leads to its own problems—parasites, protein toxicity, atherosclerosis and a high risk of numerous diseases, including heart disease and gout.
This is why, almost as soon as our proto-human brains realized that when you put seeds in the ground, food grows, we were growing it. With agriculture comes greater variety and a more nourishing diet. Two thousand years ago in Egypt, whose climate and fertile soil made it the ideal agrarian location, the staple food was bread, made from a variety of grains and sometimes mixed with yeast, salt, spices, milk, butter and eggs; bread was made patted flat, shaped into rolls or even into thick loaves stuffed with eggs or other fillings. The rich had game, honey and fruits, but even the poor ate all kinds of fish from the Nile, as well as beans, chick peas and lentils, leeks, garlic and onions, and dates, both as fruit and fermented into wine.
Sounds like a lot of food, doesn’t it? Note that I could list it all in one paragraph. But at least that’s a nutritious and relatively varied diet. Elsewhere in the world, people make do with even less. For example, many tribes in Papua New Guinea still eat mainly a kind of starchy yam, only hunting forest game or very rarely slaughtering a pig for special feasts. “Don’t you ever get tired of yams?” the travel guy asked while visiting for dinner. “Tired of food?” the Papuan replied in confusion.
Most agrarian cultures are somewhere in the middle, though. For example, the indigenous Midwestern tribes ate corn, beans and squash, supplemented whenever possible by fish, fowl and game. The addition of savory herbs, seasonal berries and honey made for bounteous and tasty meals, but yeah, pretty much just corn, beans and squash.
The domestication of livestock adds a regular source of meat (where hunting may be too unpredictable), and potentially some dairy products as well. Wild aurochs, boars, game fowl, goats and sheep dumbed down over many generations into the cows, pigs, and chickens we know today. The goats and sheep haven’t changed much.
Of course, even without livestock, there is a cheap and readily available form of protein enjoyed by some 80% of Earth’s nations. Why yes, I am talking about bugs!
Most fantasy worlds tend to mimic a fairly medieval template—not too much technology and not too little, especially if you augment what there is with some sorcery—and are fed on a fairly medieval diet: about six to ten staple crops that include at least one starchy root, one leafy green, one cereal grain, one sweet fruit and one source of alcohol. Add to this one form of livestock (maybe two, probably not more than three without an established trade route to other lands) and whatever you get out of them, be it meat, wool, hides, labor and/or dairy products. Spices, herbs and teas would largely depend upon local plants or, again, established trade routes.
Once you know what you have to work with, you can start planning your menu. If you’re looking for inspiration or just something to try in place of the usual Monday Night Meatloaf, the internet is just bursting with helpful ideas. Some of my favorites include www.godecookery.com, http://www.recipewise.co.uk (for real fantasy food worldbuilding examples, check out recipewise.co.uk/tea-in-the-hobbit), and www.nativetech.org/recipes/index.php For international cuisine, epicurious.com/recipesmenus/global/recipes is my goto source and I cannot recommend Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods enough! If you’re curious about offal and whole animal eating, www.nosetotailathome.com/offal-guides/ is a great place to start; if books are more your thing, I heartily recommend Jennifer McLagan’s Bones, Fat and Odd Bits (note those are three books), which are chock-full of modern recipes as well as historical information and folklore. If bugs caught your eye, check out www.insectsarefood.com, edibug.wordpress.com or www.flapest.com/recipes.aspx, although I must say, nothing beats first-hand experience.