Thinking About Food In Fantasy
Food is an essential part of life, but it’s also so much more than just sustenance – food is power and politics, culture and setting, pleasure and identity. Food will give readers clues about the society and era they are reading about, and food can draw them closer to the characters, too. Food is a more important part of world-building than it might initially seem.
Why is it Important?
But if the author is creating a completely new and unique world, then why does it matter who eats what and which plants are grown where? So what if the author wants pumpkins and sugarcane to grow in their fantasy equivalent of medieval England?
It’s important because food is related to so many more things in life – climate, geography, trade, war, culture, religion, class, wealth, power, colonialism, exploitation, etc. Understanding how these are related in our own world can help to create a more realistic fantasy world.
Many of us couldn’t imagine life without sugar. We are so used to adding it to tea or coffee, to baking with it and eating sweet deserts, and it is added to so many common foods that we may not even realise how much we consume.
It probably goes without saying that sugar has not always been this common. Sugar is extracted from sugarcane plants – a number of species of tall grasses native to South Asia – and from sugar beet, a root crop with sucrose-holding tubers. Sugarcane has been cultivated in Asia since ancient times. Early sources indicate that sugarcane syrup was first cooled into granulated crystals in India, making it easier to store and transport. Methods for cultivating sugarcane and refining the sugar were passed to China in the first century AD, where sugar became an important ingredient in cooking.
In Europe sugar remained little-known until the 12th century, when it was brought back by crusaders. By the 15th century Venice had become the main sugar distribution centre in Europe. Sugar was still a luxury in Europe and America until the 18th century, when demand led to the creation of sugar plantations in the New World, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and India, using slave and indentured labour.
When creating a fantasy world, a writer can choose very different paths for the history, the climate, and the plants of their world. It is worth bearing in mind the history of our own world, however, as it has informed the way readers will react to certain elements. In a fantasy world similar to our Europe at any time up to the 18th century, sugar would most likely be a rare and expensive commodity. Food would be cooked with other sweeteners, the most common being honey, and fruit would be a more familiar dessert. Sugar would be reserved for showing off at the banquets of rich households with lavish puddings and cakes, and certainly not added to morning cups of coffee in heaped teaspoons.
In a fantasy world that draws inspiration from South and East Asia, sugar might be a more common ingredient in ordinary cooking and not limited to the very richest characters, and it would not be seen as an exotic or glamorous item. Sugar, as indicated above, also carries certain associations – slavery, imperialism, colonisation and power – that are important to remember when building a fantasy world. Food is not always just food.
Unless using a very modern setting, meat is unlikely to be readily available in supermarkets in neat plastic packets, conveniently sliced into portions of the customer’s choice of cut. Depending on time and place, characters may not even be able to purchase meat from a butcher, instead relying on what they could source for themselves. Without the large scale farming and production that we know today, meat would be less common and much more expensive. People would make use of the entire animal, not just the prime cuts, including eating bone marrow and boiling bones to make stock. Eyes, innards, skin and feet are all edible; unless they are rich, characters would be unlikely to waste anything.
The characters would also be unlikely to find this disgusting or unappealing. This squeamishness is something very modern, and even today it is limited to specific societies. It is extremely important to get out of this mindset when writing about people of the past or people of different cultures. It would also be wrong to assume that only the very poor would eat things that might unsettle the author; fish eyes, fish eggs, dormice, snakes, bird tongues and insects have all been or continue to be delicacies in certain cultures or certain times.
When considering what kinds of meat a character may eat, it is important to look at culture, time, setting, and their place in society. Throughout most of human history meat is something that the poor would have little access to, relying on vegetables, pulses and perhaps bread to fill their diet instead. People in coastal areas and islands tend to have a high amount of fish in their diet, which would have been more readily available than red meat, a luxury. In many time periods and societies, like the medieval Europe that influences much fantasy, game such as pheasant, rabbit and venison (deer), would be much more common than farmed meat like beef and lamb.
In a strongly hierarchical society such as medieval Europe, strict laws may govern who is allowed to hunt and where. Even if a poor family lives next to a wood full of game, they may not necessarily be able to hunt there. In a medieval fantasy society, perhaps all wild animals are considered to belong to the King, and there may even be regulations or etiquette governing which animals certain classes can eat. In Britain, for example, only royalty was allowed to eat swan.
Fruit and Vegetables
Vegetables are probably going to make up the main bulk of a fantasy character’s diet in any period or setting, unless the character is very rich. Fruit and vegetables are native to specific parts of the world, but since ancient times they have been traded, planted and cultivated elsewhere. Whether the fantasy world is supposed to reflect a specific era or setting in our own world or not, the types of fruit and vegetables available will depend on factors such as trade and colonisation.
For example, the apple, which is often associated with European and American cooking, actually originated in Western Asia. It was one of the first trees to be cultivated, and Alexander the Great is even said to have brought dwarf apples back to Macedonia from Kazakhstan. The apple spread around Europe and became important to many different mythologies and religions, including Greek and Norse. The Romans brought apples to Britain, blending them with the local crab apples. Later, European colonists brought apples to America. The apple has such a long history of moving around places and cultures because of several different factors: its place of origin, rich trade routes, warfare, Roman imperialism, and European colonisation.
It is also important to consider which plants grow where. Some need a hot climate, plenty of water, or the right kind of soil. For example, plantains and bananas, native to South and Southeast Asia and one of the earliest plants to be cultivated, need to be grown in hothouses when not in tropical regions. They also require acidic soil and a steady water supply. Potatoes, conversely, are notorious for growing almost anywhere.
Deciding where food grows and what is readily available can also help with other areas of world-building. For example, the minimal amount of arable land surrounding ancient Athens was not enough to feed its population, so grain had to be imported in from the Black Sea area. Not only does this inform politics and trade routes, but it may also inspire aggression and war. Some believe that Athens’ need for grain is one of the direct causes of their imperialism and expansion in Asia Minor. In ancient Rome, grain handouts were so important to the poor that rich senators could gain a huge amount of power if put in control of the grain supply. As most of the city’s grain came from Sicily, Egypt, and the Black Sea area, these were the most desired (and most corrupt) governorships.
Herbs and Spices
Most of the world’s spices come from Asia, spread to the west via trade routes in the ancient world, and later with European trade, mostly by the East India Company. As with sugar, this has some extremely negative connotations. The history of the spice trade to Europe, and of the East India Company particularly, is one of exploitation, aggression, imperialism and suffering, and is strongly linked with the opium trade. Even in a fantasy world that deviates significantly from our own history, it is a good idea to bear in mind these associations.
As with sugar, the uses of and reactions to spices by a fantasy character will depend on the culture from which he or she comes. Spices would seem strange and wonderful to characters in a historical European-style setting. Spices were extremely expensive, a luxury product to create new flavours and impress important guests. The priciest of these was saffron, first cultivated in Persia, which was prized for its beautiful yellowy-red colour and its distinct flavour. A character from a society influenced by an Asian culture, however, might not find spices remarkable at all. Spices would simply be an ordinary cooking ingredient, valued but not unusual.
Different herbs grow all over the world, and these would be a more familiar element of cooking for a European-inspired character. Herbs might also have many associations and uses beyond cooking, such as healing, magic, ritual, protection, or to make clothes and rooms smell pleasant. Adding herbs to certain dishes and recipes could therefore have greater significance than simply making food taste better. Herb gardens would be a common sight in the homes of people of many different cultures.
Depending on the period in which the fantasy is set, drinking water may not have been very common. This could be cultural – a preference for watered-down wine or vinegar, fruit juice, or other drinks, for example – or it could be a matter of safety, as water might be very dirty and filled with parasites. In the latter case, beer or ale would often be the more common drinks.
Food and Culture
If food is more than just food, it makes sense that it is also a huge part of a culture’s identity. This is very important to remember when world-building for a fantasy novel. What is the fantasy society’s relation to food? How is this celebrated?
For most cultures, food plays an important role in bonding and in marking special occasions. Think about the wedding dinner, the birthday cake, Sunday lunch, etc. Food is a large part of most holidays, festivals and religious events. Certain items and dishes might be traditional on these occasions, or other foods banned or taboo. For some cultures food goes even deeper than this; it is a way of life and strongly connected to identity. Each meal is a social gathering, something to take time over. Recipes are passed down in families and treasured.
A feast is a good way to show off all the elaborate food of a fantasy setting. At an important event, food might be presented with extravagance and spectacle, particularly in a society reflecting ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or 17th-19th century Europe; watch anything presented by Heston Blumenthal for inspiration. Unlike modern dinners, courses would likely be brought out all at once, including starters and desserts. There would be entertainment and music, and perhaps one central dish designed to shock or delight. However, long descriptions of food can be overdone and become tiresome very quickly, and feasts should be used sparingly. Even the rich would likely eat less extravagantly most of the time, saving the expense for occasions designed to display their power.
So, what are the important questions to ask when writing about food in a fantasy setting?
- Where and when do the characters live?
- What is the climate of the setting, the soil type, the fertility of the land, etc?
- What cultures of our own world might have inspired the fantasy setting?
- How rich are the characters?
- What is their place in society?
- Are there any taboo or treasured foods?
- What religion(s) do the characters belong to?
- Do they live in a powerful, wealthy, or imperialistic nation?
- How does trade work in this setting? Who trades with whom?
- What might the desire for certain types of food, luxury or otherwise, have led to?
- How might war have affected what kinds of food are available?
- How important is food to the characters in their celebrations as well as in their everyday lives?