On Food and Fantasy

One of my favourite panels at Sirens last year was the discussion on food and fantasy, because it touched upon a topic that I think about a great deal as a reader and writer. Food is such an integral part of who we are and how we express ourselves culturally, in addition to being, of course, critically necessary for survival, yet so many writers tend to neglect it when it comes to working with food in fiction. How often do characters eat? What do they eat? What happens once their digestive system is finished with their food? These are all things I wonder about, and they’re often left unanswered by worldbuilding.

In our own real-life world, food is hugely varied depending on culture, locale, and society. Some cultures eat huge lunches to fuel themselves for the day, with light dinners. Some eat later in the evening, at nine or ten, and others prefer to eat early. Breakfast is of key importance in some places, and doesn’t matter in others. Some people eat tofu in the morning, while others prefer rice porridge, and some eat bacon and eggs. This incredible variance illustrates that there’s a wide world of food out there, and thus one would expect equally varied food in fiction.

Yet, that’s often not the case. In fiction set in this world, it seems like people are never eating, or if they are, it’s an afterthought. I read a book recently where the only eating scene involved cookies; while we followed the characters very closely over the course of several days, tracking their every action, they apparently only ate once, and never used the bathroom. Others, like Andrea Camilleri and Haruki Murakami, provide lush, rich, delicious descriptions of the meals their characters eat, with food taking on a role in the book and also becoming a form of commentary on the characters.

In fantasy, food sadly often becomes something not thought of, which is a pity, because the characters clearly need it to survive, and more than that, it provides an amazing opportunity for worldbuilding. What do fantasy characters eat, and where does it come from? In a fantasy city, are people eating grains and vegetables from the farm country, and if so, where is it? What are the labour conditions like? How do food products get to the city? What happens when war or weather events disrupt the food supply? If people eat meat, where does it come from? If people don’t eat meat, what kind of ethical or religious issues are involved?

Which foods are traditional, sacred, or familiar to the people of a fantasy world? There’s the iconic lembas of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but many cultures have an equivalent; some sort of food that occupies a special role in society, or is prized as a great source of energy. Are some foods used in rituals and ceremonies, as in the case of the bread transmuted into the flesh of Christ in the Catholic Church? Or, for that matter, the bread consumed by the sin eater in some traditions? What about traditional holiday foods? Do fantasy cultures have festivals revolving around food, or foods they’re traditionally encouraged to eat for good luck in the new year?

For that matter, how do people travel? Treks and journeys into the wilds are a key part of fantasy, yet we rarely see the issue of food coming up, or when it does come up, it’s rather glossed over. Instead of being a key component (one of the reasons humans were able to settle and create culture is because they stabilised their food supply, creating opportunities for doing things other than trying to find and prepare food) of the narrative, trekking food lurks in the background. Do characters scrounge for fruits, berries, and edible plants? Do they sicken and die on foods that they think are safe to eat, but really aren’t? Are any characters unexpectedly allergic to something? How do vegetarians handle treks where the best source of calories may be meat? How do people organise their luggage to carry enough food to survive?

What about the meeting of cultures in fantasy? What foods do cultures serve at welcoming feasts, and how do people respond to them? Do people bring gifts of delicacies to diplomatic negotiations, and do cultures import or vie for precious foods from other places, just as we clamour for French cheeses and Belgian chocolates? Does food ever cause offense, or inadvertently lead to illness, as for example if people accustomed to eating very rich food serve it to guests with a history of malnutrition and the guests get sick because the food is too intense to digest?

Fantasy worldbuilding provides an opportunity to build anything, anywhere, for anyone, with any tools. Food is such a fascinating part of our culture and mode of expression, from how we grow and gather it to how we move it and process it to how we cook and consume it, and it should be a key part of any well-planned fantasy world. Stories are more engaging and exciting for me when I see that writers have really thought about food, and have really put energy into developing a realistic food system for a fantasy world, instead of cobbling something together or ignoring the issue.

Good food worldbuilding might involve meeting with farmers and ranchers, talking with people about food preparation methods when modern cooking equipment is not available, exploring what kinds of food people prepare for long, harsh journeys. It requires research, just like other aspects of writing fantasy, and that research is too often neglected.