Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cultural expectations about food

Food is very cultural. Our overall menu and sense of what is edible have built up over thousands of years, during which we've learned things like, "Gee, tomatoes actually aren't poisonous." A good thing to know. We've had massive changes in world food culture, such as those that came about after trade began between the Americas and the other continents of the world (chocolate!). What we eat and do not eat may seem "natural" but it is mostly the product of learning. It can become very extreme, and it is subject to fads, as are most other aspects of culture.

Here is an example that has been in my face lately with all our travel adventures. When I was little, a children's menu was a relatively new thing. I suppose it was the effect of the social "promotion" of children from people who should not be seen or heard to people who should be included at restaurants (a development I approve of). I remember that the children's menu typically featured smaller portions of adult meals. This was nice for those adults who didn't want to eat as much food (though some restaurants didn't allow adults to order from the children's menu). These days, though, the children's menu doesn't have smaller versions of adult dishes. It has what our culture expects children to enjoy eating. Chicken nuggets. Fries. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Pizza. Macaroni and cheese. Hamburger/cheeseburger. And that's about it. Can you think of anything else you've seen on a kids' menu? Fish and chips I suppose, at a stretch. I've given up looking at the children's menu these days because my children don't really like anything on that list except pizza and burgers, and they can't be eating pizza and burgers every time they go out.

The funny thing is, this kind of expectation is self-enforcing. Parents worry that their kids won't like vegetables and so they act all scared around vegetables and don't feed them to their children. Parents worry that their kids won't like spicy food, so they don't feed it to them - not even in mild doses. Suddenly the routine centers around bland non-vegetable food - so should we be surprised when that's what kids tend to ask for? I'm actually not here to talk about parenting and food, but you can see that this is an important piece of the entire food culture of a society. There is also science and health and how those relate to food choices... it's definitely a complex mix.

If you're creating a society, imagine what its people will eat, as a start. But consider also the food culture of that society. How food is grown, and where, will affect its value and availability. Then there is how important food is as a social activity, and as a ceremonial activity. I mean, how would anyone ever go on a serious date if not for food? Some societies place a special value on regional foods, while others have one big staple that rules the diet surrounded by other smaller ingredients. Some societies have tons of available spices and others do not. Would your people flavor their food predominantly with herbs? Or would they prefer the bland?

There are a thousand questions that can be asked, and if you can spend some time thinking about them, your world will become much more interesting.

P.S. This could easily become an entire dissertation or more, if I started talking about the quantity one is expected to eat, and how, and when, and eating disorders, etc. Suffice it to say that I encourage you to explore food culture to the extent that you can as you are creating your world!


  1. All very true. Working in restaurants, I've seen children who refuse to even consider a meal that isn't french fries or pepperoni pizza. And I've also seen children who excitedly tally the number of new foods they've eaten in a sushi restaurant restaurant meal, because they've been taught that trying new things is fun.

    As far as developing social norms for a fictional world, I'd also point out that non-human species might see food differently. Humans are mammals with a high metabolism. It's in our best interest to think about food so much. But if you have a reptilian or insectoid race that only needs to eat every week or three, they might not bother to make food such an intrinsic part of every event.

  2. Good thought, Heidi! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Wonderful post - all very true! Children actually need to be exposed to the most variety of food possible so that not only can they develop their taste buds, but their bodies can learn about what might be comin' in there! Don't even get me started about five year old vegans!

    Children's menus are wildly disturbing. I sense they have become more "fun junk food for picky eaters" than when I was a kid.

    You briefly referenced eating disorders and everything you talked about has a TON to do with children developing a predisposition for an ED. A ton. I mean, everything can be traced back to one's development. So yes, clearly this could be multiple dissertation topics. I really enjoyed this, thank you! Important stuff here!

  4. Thanks, Sara! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

  5. Great post. When I travel, I base my itinerary around food...such an intimate way to get to know a culture.

    I rarely ordered off the kids menu because all they offered was pizza. Why do that when I could try something unpronounceable?

  6. Thanks, emptypen! I took a peek at your recent post on food, and found it very interesting. I think including food in a story has to be handled delicately, in a way appropriate to the story's demands... but then, doesn't anything?

    Now let's go and find something unusual and wonderful to eat. :)