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The Mythical Hamburger: Food and Flavor in Fantasy

Food in fantasy is not always something we think about as we’re reading, though, in my opinion, we should be. Food can be an important plot device, an interesting way of explaining your world’s culture, or merely texture, but it is not something that should be overlooked.

Shortbread Cookies by Melissa Ray DavisTake, for example, Tolkien’s elven bread lembas; a convenient plot device that meant he could take Sam and Frodo through wasteland towards Mordor without having to worry about them starving halfway there, but also a way of telling us more about the elves, and how they were so much different from the hobbits, lending them a mysterious edge.

It can be a bit of a bugbear though; the stereotypical fantasy setting leads us to stereotypical facets of the world, and a whole steaming pot of gruel. Yes, it fits, but it’s not the be all and end all of choices.

There are of course examples of food made interesting, either by way of ostentation, or humour, imagination or simply taking a real world example and making it altogether more magical. In Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, Father Chains has the boys in his care cooking fantastical meals as they practice for their false-facing; my particular favourites were dishes that were hybrids of different animals, showing skill in matching flavours. It lent another layer to the air of ostentation and doing something for its own sake that the actions of the people told us about the city of Camorr. It was a nice little detail.

Or you could always use your food as a weapon, as in the case of Kataria with the roasted bug leg in Sam Sykes’ Black Halo. That had to be as humiliating for poor Asper as it was amusing for us to read.

Vegetable MarketSo, how can food be used as a plot device? To answer this, we need to look at the way food affects people, and how that can be used in fantasy.

We need food to survive; this is a fairly basic notion that everyone is familiar with. So what happens when that food is taken away? Starvation can do funny things to a person, making them hallucinate, rendering them too weak to complete vital tasks, and turning them on their friends and companions, desperate and willing to do anything just to find something to eat. Tension can be ramped up very easily this way; the dread that the character may not make it, the fear of what they might do, what they might become, the anxiety that the group may be divided and the mission compromised.

Food as a torture device is also a possibility; Joe Abercrombie makes good of this in his First Law Trilogy: every meal Inquisitor Glokta eats reminds him of his time in the Gurkhul jails, where they removed his teeth alternatively, and left him to survive on soups and porridges. Not a happy existence for anyone.

Rations by Ivy Leaves & Flame TreesAs stated above, it can also be used to explain or contrast cultures in your fantasy world; characters from one nation may be confused or disgusted by the eating habits of another, whilst the other may be morally or religiously offended by the menu in the first. Again, it’s a small way of adding detail, but sometimes it’s the small details that make the world of the story seem that little bit more real.

But back to the gruel problem; when did we run out of sources telling us what was available in that particular setting? Of course, there are certain foods that fit certain situations; characters couldn’t be expected to have a full twelve course banquet whilst travelling hundreds of miles across the continent, so travel rations would be expected, but they don’t have to be so dull. Yes, stew is a good idea because salted meats and vegetables will last a while between stops, but wouldn’t rice or pasta do the same thing? They’re dried to preserve them, so wouldn’t they make good rations?

Hamburger by What A Girl EatsAnd what of the meals in town? I have a personal mantra when it comes to cooking; if I can imagine it, it’s possible. Not necessarily edible, but I could make it. Surely, in a world of fantasy where we are gods and can create whatever we can imagine, we could throw in a hamburger or two?

Again, none of what I’m saying here will be new to anyone, but I do feel it’s worth a little consideration. Of course, some people don’t hold with the whole world-building thing, and some people revel in it, so levels of detail of a world over character will vary from author to author, but since it is something that characters are dependent on to survive, food should at least be thought of in the planning stages. Then again, if your character is a new breed of magical being who survives on fresh air and the first morning call of the birds, none of what I have said will be relevant. And that’s just fine as well.

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11 Comments

  1. I’ve never given it much thought, but it does make sense that anything should be possible. I think a lot of people see food description as useless extra information. That will be true if every bite of every meal is examined and explained.

    But some variety will be welcomed. In usual fantasy, If you are on the road, you get stew. At an inn, fresh bread and roasted animal. That’s it. Where is the pizza? Where is the hot dogs? Pies?

    Hell, if they can make wine, they can do better than roast leg of goat.

  2. I think the reason why it works in Tolkien’s example because it is a “foreign” substance. It is always awkward to have locals blurt out the description of what food is without it being awkward and an info dump is usually ignored.

    However, this is good food for thought. There does need to be more care given to the mundane things like food we all take for granted. You never know what can open up if you do. Thanks for sharing this, appreciate it!

  3. Avatar Phil says:

    Agreed!

    Angela Carter did wonderfully with her lobster soufflé in THE KITCHEN CHILD, while who can forget Terry Pratchett’s Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler’s supply of mysterious sausages? Jack Vance would have enormous fun showcasing endlessly strange dishes that exemplified how alien each new culture his hero stumbled across was, inventing plants and names that somehow made a teasing kind of sense and helped impart a lyrical and bizarre flavor to his worlds.

  4. Avatar Rachel says:

    As a kid I always wanted to try Moonface’s pop biscuits in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, which exploded in your mouth. A dangerous but delicious treat.

  5. Avatar Phil says:

    What I would have done when younger for a taste of fairy fruit from Hope Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist!

  6. Avatar J.L. Mbewe says:

    Great post! I love cooking and trying new foods so that kind of influences my world-building. I think Leif makes a good point, how we wouldn’t describe the foods we are accustomed to, but we could use it as a comparison device when our fisherman character finds himself among desert dwellers. I agree that as we show variety among the cultures/nations in our world-building it enriches our story and the readers experience.

  7. Avatar Lor says:

    Thank you all for such kind comments, I really appreciate them.

    And Rachel, google pop biscuits, there are recipes on there 🙂

  8. Avatar Ken says:

    I really love how food is incorporated in the stories. It help the readers to understand the customs and culture of the population. For example, more advanced culture can afford to spend more time and add extra flavour to their food whereas for nomadic or warrior cultures, their main sources of food are most likely simply cooked meat and vegetables.

    Besides The Lies of Locke Lamora, I think A Song of Ice and Fire have tons of wonderful scenes involving food. I also really love the description of the ahrami seed taste in Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves.

  9. Avatar Karon says:

    I agree. This is very good. I think a little more imagination can definitely be incorporated into fantasy stories. It adds flavour 🙂 to the story. Someone mentioned Enid Blyton, and I remember the amount of details and imagination she put into her foods. She made you want to eat them. I recall Diana Wynne Jones made fun of the constant references to gruel in her book “The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land” where she made fun of fantasy stereotypes in a type of guide book. She told visitors that there would be a lot of stew and very few vegetables for one.

  10. Great article with some good inputs. I use food a lot in my novel. For instance a key character is constipated because of a meaty diet and he freezes when he is deprived of food. Bad water or food can make a character sick and unable to travel. There are many possibilities with food.:)

  11. Avatar Needs Mead says:

    As someone who has been cooking and eating food from fiction for the last year, I wholeheartedly love it. Food has the remarkable ability to transport readers into the world, making them hunger or feast right alongside the characters. I think it really enhances the experience of fiction.

    The appeal of fictional food is really apparent in the new boom of blogs devoted to cooking them. Take “Outlander Kitchen”, for example, cooks up the amazing dishes featured in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. “Fictional Foods” covers really accurate Hunger Games foods (unlike the unofficial cookbook…blech). There’s also my own “Inn at the Crossroads”, dedicated to all foods and drinks from George RR Martin’s Westeros.

    Nothing is cooler than connecting with a favorite book or characters. Personally, I would go through a huge amount of effort for a Ginger Scorch from Camorra, and the otters’ Hotroot Soup from Redwall still haunts my childhood.

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