Food in Fantasy

Been re-reading a favorite “comfort food” novel this week. And because I was literally hungry while reading a few chapters of it today, the book’s descriptions of food really jumped out at me. Here’s what the characters scarfed in the course of several meals:

  • Stew (apparently beef)
  • Bread
  • Cheese
  • Steak
  • “Steak pie” (Shepherd’s pie, maybe? Not sure how a slab of ribeye in pie crust would work.)
  • Coffee
  • Wine
  • Fruit in a jar
  • Biscuits
  • Casserole
  • Boiled eggs
  • More stew

If you’re wondering, little of the above was specified in any clear or distinctive way. What kind of cheese was it? What cut of steak? They drank only one kind of wine, repeatedly. The coffee was described as bad, mostly to illustrate just how rotten a cook the hero was. But that was it, for detail.

Now, none of the characters in this book were malnourished as far as I could tell, so I assume they ate vegetables every so often (maybe in the stew or casserole). And no one was overweight or had heart disease despite this high-carbohydrate, low-fiber, high-cholesterol diet, so clearly we’re dealing with a little dramatic license here. And to be fair, this was only a portion of the novel; I’ve read the whole thing and its sequels/companion novels, and there are mentions of desserts, unique fruits, and lobster. But I still think this is the perfect example of a consistent problem in fantasy: the use, or misuse, of food.

Food is a worldbuilding tool, especially in a secondary world. It’s a characterizing element. Think about your own food tastes and what they say about you socioeconomically, culturally, and psychologically. Do you like spicy foods? Sweet? Salty? How easy is it for you to obtain your favorite foods? Must they be transported across great distances to reach you, or are they local? What kinds of foods do you need to feel “at home?” What do you consider “good food” — exotic ingredients that are inherently delicious (e.g., Kobe beef), or readily-available ingredients that are tasty only if prepared a certain way (e.g. beef brisket)? What are your “food taboos”? What tastes make you nostalgic for your childhood, or a lost love, or the best day of your life?

These details are integral to any character’s development, and to any society, even a created one. Yet countless fantasy authors seem to treat food as an afterthought, and not a well-considered one at that. Stew, for example, has become such a fantasy cliche that Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland cites it thus:

STEW (the Official Management Terms are thick and savoury, which translate as “viscous” and “dark brown”) is the staple FOOD in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. … Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak.

She’s got a point here, besides pointing out the overuse of stew: food should conform to its setting. People ate a much more varied diet in medieval Europe than one would guess from the typical fantasy novel in this milieu. In swampy or rocky lands where keeping grazing animals is difficult, the local cuisine is likely to showcase other sources of protein — like small birds, lizards, insects, or legumes. Seafood will be cheaper than red meat in seaside towns and on islands, so poor people shouldn’t constantly eat shepherd’s pie in these places. Spices will be more heavily used in hot climates than in temperate ones, because spices are more often needed as a preservative in such places. This will likely make spices a coveted luxury item in temperate or cold climates, where they’re occasionally imported… and this will drive long-distance trade. And just who is transporting all this stuff, and how?

Readers don’t need to know all this stuff, but writers need to think about it — and that knowledge should show in what the characters eat, and how that food is described.

I have to confess a certain bias here, though, which is that I think of food as magical in and of itself. How can it be anything else? To take leaves, twigs, fungi, and seeds — leaf-litter, basically — combine it with dead animals and whatnot, and turn that into art; this is common magic, to be sure, but still magic. I often wonder why there isn’t more fantasy which uses cooking as a magic system.* How is boiling shrimp with spices any different from boiling eye of newt with bats’ wool, or boiling lead in mercury to make gold, except that one is tasty and the others are eyuuurgh? We have no problem seeing the magic in other elements of “the everyday” — sex, engineering, city life. Why can’t we have more magic that tastes good?

* OK, I’m really biased, because I wrote a story about this, and it appeared in an anthology about this. But that’s beside the point.

3 Responses to “Food in Fantasy”

  1. 1 rachelaaron
    April 2, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    At least the author was feeding her characters. I always forget to feed mine. See, there’s just so much going ON all the TIME and…

    You’ve got a good point. Actually, when I do feed my characters, they tend to eat whatever people around them were eating, since they always steal everything (to pay money is to be defeated!!). In my first novel, though, I created a whole varied food system complete with new sources of sugar, a new type of grain for flour, and all sorts of awesome stuff, mostly because I was determined that my fantasy was going to be different! However, this lead to enormously long descriptions of food because I knew everything that was there.

    Of course, this was all part of learning to balance description and action, but I’ve been sort of nervous around food ever since.

  2. 2 mlronald
    April 2, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    This is fascinating — I haven’t really thought much about food as a key part of worldbuilding, but it makes so much sense now. Like Rachel, I keep forgetting to feed my characters. At least now I’m starting to make sure there are consequences to that sort of error (e.g., if she’s gone without her coffee for too long, she’ll have the caffeine-withdrawal headache).

    I think some of it might be that food is treated as fuel for characters rather than an actual part of the world — an unexplored, taken-for-granted piece that’s only important when it’s in the characters’ way. It’s possible to get away with leaving one facet of the world unconsidered, but it does leave the world a bit flat. (There’s a scene in Monstrous Regiment where one of the characters refuses to have anything to do with the “scubbo” or very bad stew that’s standard fare and uses some common cooking sense: saute the meat instead of boiling it gray, add a splash of wine to the pot, etc. The scene’s used to draw attention to other things, but it’s an interesting example of treatment of food in fantasy.)

    And I agree: food is magical. I can’t think of my slow cooker as anything but “the magic pot” — you add ingredients, you turn it on, you go away, and when you come back it has turned into food!

  3. 3 Terri
    April 2, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    The whole ‘stew as a staple’ thing does have some merit if your characters are traveling, and are prepared to travel rather than living off the cuff. What would one bring along to ensure one did not starve? Salted meats, dehydrated vegetables, perhaps? Hard tack? What else does one make with such things but soup or stew? It’s fairly inedible otherwise. Of course, then you have to have water handy, and we all know how precarious that can be. It’s a fairly lame reasoning, but there is SOME logic to it. Besides, I LOVES stew!

    Food is LIFE. A world without it is as rounded as a pie with a missing piece. If the world isn’t set up using foods we Earthlings are familiar with, you’re stuck with either descriptions or skillfully likening them to foods we do know without actually using the earthling words–a precarious business.

    Like all other things writing, you just have to learn how to do it by reading examples of it done well, and those done not so well.

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