Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Food, Agriculture and Diet: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

Food, agriculture and diet were our discussion topic on February 8th (I'm running a bit behind!). I was joined by Leigh Dragoon, Harry Markov, Elizabeth Arroyo, Jaleh Dragich, Glenda Pfeiffer and K. Richardson.

Our discussion began with Leigh bemoaning the fact that to few fantasy worlds give enough detail in the area of food, but tend to focus on bread, cheese, grapes... and stew. This list became our effective "do more than this" default for the whole hour! Most likely the basis for this list is the tendency for so many fantasy worlds to be based on Europe in the middle ages. After all, bread and cheese (also grapes and stew) were big at that point. However, there is so much more to food than that!

We had several books recommended as inspiration. The first was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Also recommended were Nanny Ogg's Cookbook by Terry Pratchett and Plants & Society by Estelle Levetin.

When designing dietary habits for a population, I always recommend a ground-up approach (literally?) that begins with Climate and Geography. Climate and Geography will tell you what foods will grow, and that will tell you what ingredients your cooks have to work with. If you don't want to take a do-it-from-scratch approach, you can always take an existing set of climate/agricultural technique/foods/cuisine and work with it - say, using the foods of the Incas, or of Siberia, or of the Amazon rain forest (mm, plantain soup!). Needless to say, you need to know your world well and figure out where the foods come from, but you can always take an existing basis and make variations to it. In Varin, my noble people eat "tunnel-pigeon," for example.

Food is often social, so culture and attitudes will come with it. I believe it was Jaleh (correct me if I'm wrong!) who told us about a culture where there was a traditional story designed to be told while food cooked, because depending on the version told, it would effectively measure the amount of time required to cook a root vegetable properly. (I thought this was a lovely idea!)

Food will have different significance to different social groups. A higher caste will tend to eat rare foods. A lower caste will eat more common foods. What is rare, and what is common, in your world? Is the food eaten by the poor more basic, or is it more highly processed (our world has both of these)?

Jaleh gave us the example of Joust by Mercedes Lackey. In the fishing communities, fish was most commonly eaten and meat was very unusual and expensive - but in the dragon-keeping communities, meat was extremely common and fish was a delicacy.

Harry told us about Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren where different communities had sprung up around a single enormous tree, and depending on where they lived, they were able to access different kinds of food items which they would then have as their specialty and trade with other communities (spice/fruit vs. coconut oil).

Food is one of the major economic building blocks of any society. As Harry remarked, sugar used to be worth its weight in gold, but now it is extremely common. Alcohol is also part of food culture, though of course it has its own culture too. I was put in mind at this point of the triangular trade across the Atlantic ocean where slaves were traded for rum which was traded for (I think) sugar. Jaleh followed this up with a discussion of the history of tea, and Leigh added that tea was traded from China for opium from England, and this was a major cause of the opium wars. If you ever thought that your people's diet had nothing to do with your plot, you might like to think again. There are some really interesting possibilities here. Leigh also noted that sometimes coffee shops have been outlawed because people there started political rebellions. We all had to laugh at the suggestion that if you want to keep your people calm, you should give them depressants like alcohol instead of stimulants like coffee!

Less commonly dealt with, especially in fantasy but also in science fiction and even mainstream, is the question of eating disorders. Apparently in Victorian times eating disorders also existed, but women who suffered anorexia (or tuberculosis) were seen as "angels." One good book dealing with eating disorders is Nell's Quilt; Neil Gaiman's book Good Omens actually has Famine as a major character and the updated version of him is not an old-style lack of crops guy but a man of high fashion who inspires people to eat less and less in order to be stylish. The book Wintergirls apparently also deals with this topic. It's a topic that could take up an entire hangout in itself, and maybe we'll pick it up sometime, but that was where we had to bring our hangout to a close, so I'll have to leave you to explore the cultural underpinnings of eating disorders and body image for yourselves, for now.


  1. I adore this topic and wish I could have been there. I'd go on too long if I let myself, so I'll just chip in on the medieval Europe part. A lot of "medieval" food in fiction isn't very medieval. Often these dishes are very foreign to the modern palette (like dessert made from hard-boiled egg yolks or featuring black pepper). Almond milk is also very common in recipes, as cow's milk spoiled quickly. A great resource for anyone looking to do some medieval cooking is: http://www.godecookery.com/

    The medieval gingerbread is especially easy and fun to make...but nothing like modern gingerbread.

    Thanks, as always, for typing these up!

  2. Thanks for the comment, and the info, MK! Please do also let me know how to find you on Google+ for the hangout this week. I have some great medieval recipes myself - pheasant stuffed with oats, figs, dried apples, rosemary and white wine; tansy cakes; parsley bread (which has rosemary, parsley, honey, and cinnamon!). I'll have to go check out the site!

  3. If you search "Megan Hutchins," my picture is the same on twitter. I think this URL would also take you to my Google+ page: https://plus.google.com/u/0/101126194429340167636/posts . Those recipes sound great! I always think it's fun to try things from other times/places.

  4. I'd mentioned a story where songs were used to time the cooking. In Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil, Michele's Maman cooked perfect soft boiled eggs with a special song. Someone else brought up the setting where food was timed by differing versions of a story told. Related ideas though.

    I'll be sure to check out that recipe site. It sounds neat.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Jaleh. I'll fix it.

  6. I can't believe I suggested this and turned around a missed it. Thanks for posting this.