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Worldbuilding: Food For The People

We all need food to live. Even in fiction, food plays a part in most stories, whether it is a simple supper at a boarding house or a grand wedding or coronation feast. In fantasy settings, most of the time it doesn’t matter where the food comes from or how it was prepared. What does matter is that it is there, ready for the characters to enjoy, loathe, detest, obsess or just simply eat.

Daenerys Targaryen’s ideal meal by The Inn at the CrossroadsHowever, now at a time when many authors are also detailed worldbuilders, how the food came to be may be worth exploring. Readers have access to much more information, and are less willing to suspend disbelief if a setting feels incongruent to them. For example, a small city with a population of tens of thousands that can eat comfortably year-round with only four medieval-age technology farms nearby, a single hunting lodge, and a weekly trade supply of tropical fruit may sound feasible. However, it will probably have some readers scratching their heads, and agriculture students shaking them.

The three main sources of food come from farming, hunting/fishing and foraging. We still use all these food sources today. However, since most of our world depends on farming for food, the focus of the article will be on agriculture. Farms can grow crops, raise animals, or both.

Farming

Crops
A hungry world is an unstable world, so a priority for any civilization should be to have enough food to feed the people, ideally with regional surpluses for trade. Foods that have high yields per unit of land tend to be the basic staple of a region’s cuisine. Grain crops have high yields.

Rice by Bong GritRice has such a high yield per land unit that Japan quickly became a densely populated country. Around 1000 AD, Native Americans in the central and southwest US experienced a cultural shift when they planted corn in the Mississippi Valley region. Corn crops spread throughout most of the area, and the abundance of food resulted in a shift from hunter-foragers to farmers. Populations swelled, and complex societies formed. The Bantu people from Africa had a migration that spanned nearly the entire continent, leaving their language as a legacy. Although they were famous for their ironworks, their migrations were driven by cultivation, yams and bananas at first, then grains as they ventured into drier lands to the south.

In Europe, the slight differences in climate make certain crops better suited for certain areas. In the middle ages, wheat was the staple grain that was grown in England. The wetter climate of Scotland was very favorable for oats. And rye appeared to be the preferred crop throughout mainland Europe.

Aside from grains, also consider these other foods:

Grapes (for wine)
Fruit orchards
Beets (for sugar)
Mushrooms

Vegetable farms and crops can also be useful, but since these plants can be grown in small backyard gardens, they do not need to be essential to delve into for worldbuilding purposes.

Animals
Highland cattle by My-dynig-soulAside from farm size and handling of livestock, there seems to be little difference between modern farms and farms in the past. Cattle were believed to be domesticated as long ago as 7000 BC. Animals are farmed as much for their byproducts (eggs, milk, wool) as for meat, and if hunting is prominent, animal farms do not have to be a significant source of meat.

Aside from the generic cow/sheep/goat herds, below is a list of some less common domesticated livestock from around the world:

Zebu – a type of cattle that resembles an ox
Moose
Elephant
Carabao – a buffalo found in the Philippines
Muskox

Note that although swine and rabbits can be farmed, high food yields can also come from fishing and hunting them in the wild as well. These animals can be prolific enough to sustain several large communities, even without any efforts to keep these animal populations in balance.

Cooking

If a world has magic, then cooking technology really becomes irrelevant, unless magic users are too important to be bothered to use their powers for a craft such as cooking. A mage-chef could have the makings of a great character, though.

Food preparation is so varied and diverse throughout our world that it would take multiple installments to address the topic. But below are a few details of how food was prepared during different ages:

Bronze Age
In Ireland during this time, cooking took place in a communal area, where a trough called a fulacht fiadh was dug and filled with water. Heated stones were dropped in the trough to boil the water. It is believed this was used for cooking, but one theory is that the fulacht fiadh might have been use to brew. This is an interesting article about it.

Old cooking pot by muhammadwirawanIron Age
Pots and pans replaced pottery as cooking utensils. Iron pots were placed directly on fire for cooking. Roasting was a common cooking method in Britain when meat was available, with the meat set on an iron support called a firedog and placed over a fire.

Height of the Roman Empire
Roman kitchens were equipped much like a modern kitchen, but without the electric appliances or gas stoves. However, the abundance of slave labor during those times allowed many Roman citizens to have a good-sized kitchen staff.

Middle Ages
How food was prepared during these times depended largely on a person’s class. Nobles had kitchens with ovens and cooks, while a peasant’s cauldron and spoons were very likely the only cooking tools they owned aside from a few knives.

Famine

Since the beginning of time, food supply has always been unstable. A change in the weather, for example, a draught or prolonged cold temperatures could not only cause a harvest to fail, but drive away herds of animals or other game that could be hunted for food. Living in today’s developed countries, we take for granted the availability and variety of food. We also tend to forget that famine still exists today. The last major famine was in Somalia, which lasted between 2010 and 2012 and resulted in 258,000 deaths.

Strong drought by Hudson AlvesIt is easy to implement measures in a magic-based world to prevent famines from occurring, but past famines are useful for shaping the history of a nation or civilization. A famine could be the reason why harvest gods play a major role in a country, or why a certain plant or tree is revered while another is considered bad luck.

One example of how famine shaped an era in our real world was the Kangi famine. The Kangi famine in Japan was caused by worldwide volcanic activity, which caused a cooling in the weather so drastic that there was snowfall in the summertime. Crops failed, and food became scarce. Aside from the starvation and deaths that resulted, the governments struggled to maintain a semblance of order. But one significant effect of this famine was the government’s consent to allow humans – mainly children – to be sold in exchange for food.

This type of transaction was meant to be of the nature that “we will buy this human and make him or her a part of the household.” But people who were bought were not adopted into the family. They were used for household labor, and lived in lean-to shacks. They may not have been considered actual slaves at the time, but these purchased humans became part of a servile class in Japan that lasted for centuries.

Weather is not the only cause of food shortages. This article provides a list of the worst known famines and briefly explains their causes and effects. It is a bit frightening to realize that it really doesn’t take much to set off a disaster.

Ancient Foods We Still Eat Today

Sausages, MMM by Nicole SolowaySausage
This food is so old it can have an article of its own. It is one of the first food preserving methods, and a convenient food to carry and eat. The making of a blood sausage is mentioned The Odyssey. The Babylonians mention sausage, and even the Chinese have enjoyed sausage for ages.

Bulgur
Processed wheat used mostly in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. It is considered the oldest processed food. Eastern findings suggest that the Chinese ate bulgur as early as 2800 B. C. Other names for bulgur are dagan (Israeli) arisah (Middle East) and dalia (India).

Pecorino and Pepper Polenta by Martha StewartPolenta
Called pul (pulmentum) by the early Romans, it was first prepared by crushing various grain seeds into a mush. When tastier wheat was finally introduced, the Romans quickly substituted pul for bread. Still, pul never went away, instead evolving into modern polenta.

Haggis
Sheep bladder stuffed with sheep lungs, heart and liver, oatmeal, onions, and spices. I had to include this because I can’t understand how this dish is still enjoyed by people, ceremonial dish or not. The US has a ban on imported haggis, and livestock lungs are not allowed to be used as food.

Almond Milk
Almond milk was a very common ingredient in medieval cuisine. It was even used to make butter.

Snap Pea Salad with Burrata by bon appetitFoie Gras
The Romans discovered a way to feed figs to geese that would fatten up their livers for this tasty patè. I cannot confirm, but I believe the feeding method is considered abusive and inhumane these days.

Salads
A dish that was once considered peasant fare, since the ingredients were foraged during the day while they were hard at work, is now a healthy food that is sold at a premium price to many modern urbanites.

One last thing that is not discussed in this post is the culinary difference between social classes. The foods enjoyed by the upper classes were always different, and better, than the lower classes and slaves. The subject of food is so vast that it is impossible to cover it all in a single blog post. I can only hope that the information above can help with ideas for worldbuilding and the major areas that should be considered.

Books and websites used for research:

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages by Sherrilyn Kenyon
Japan to 1600: A Social and Economic History by William Farris
The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines by Jeff Smith
“Letter from Ireland: Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh” by Erin Mullally
“Food and Drink in Iron Age Britain”
“Grains of Truth” PDF from WheatFood.org
Medieval Recipe Translations

Title image by Inn At The Crossroads.com.

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11 Comments

  1. Bibliotropic says:

    This is exactly why I love historical recreation shows that centre around agriculture, and yes, there really is such a thing. Ruth Goodman’s been part of a few of them, and I love watching them. The further back they’ve gone is the Tudor period in England, I believe, but even that gives a good example of the amount of work required on a farm with considerably less technology than is available today, and also gives an idea of just what kind of yield such farms would have, and the lives of the people doing the farming. mazing stuff to watch, highly entertaining and informative, and it gave me some great ideas for worldbuilding. Highly recommended, if you get a chance to watch them.

    Also, I would totally read a book about a mage-chef. That’s just awesome!

  2. Now I’m going to have to find a recipe for butter from almond milk, because I want to know HOW. Because almond milk doesn’t exactly have cream…

    One thing I would possibly disagree on is that the higher social classes had better food. Tastier, perhaps, but for the most part the lower classes that ate the non-processed, foraged foods were healthier overall.

  3. B. Pine says:

    I have heard of Victorian Farm, but I am not even sure if it was ever aired in the US. But I am going to have to find a way to see the version on the Tudor period if I can. Time to search YouTube.

    • Bibliotropic says:

      There was Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm, the new Tudor Monastery Farm, and Tales From the Green Valley. All of them excellent historical recreation shows revolving around agriculture.

  4. Jennette says:

    Great article! And thanks for the links! I will have to save them and visit for research. 🙂

  5. UnionJane says:

    I took a class in college about historical perspectives of food, and Rea Tannahill’s Food in History is the gold standard for this material. She goes into great detail from ancient history up to modern day history, and she’s hilarious as well. Don’t miss that book!

  6. rkrugg says:

    Great article, brought to mind Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos.

  7. And let us not forget eggs and spices.

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