Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dining and Eating Practices: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

It looks like I'm getting caught up on my recent hangout reports (though some of the older ones will remain video-only; sorry)! I was joined last week by Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Lesley Smith to talk about Dining, and Eating Practices.

I specified this topic in this way because it's all too easy to talk only about foods in a food-ingredients sort of way, and I wanted to make sure I looked at some of the ideas surrounding it as well, such as for example the way that meal times are defined and organized (which is definitely open for worldbuilding variation!). At this point the ideas of breakfast, lunch, and dinner are somewhat international, but for example in "At Cross Purposes" my otterlike aliens had very high metabolisms and had to be able to eat far more often, so I made sure to build rooms full of fish into their spaceships. There are other variations available here as well. When I first visited France, the pattern was to eat the largest meal of the day at midday and a smaller supper in the evening (though it has drifted more toward the American pattern at this point). Then there is of course what kinds of things one eats at the different meals - such as the difference between America, where breakfast is usually sweet, and Japan, where the traditional-style breakfast consists of fish, tofu, rice and miso soup (and sometimes raw egg and seaweed.

Lesley brought us onto the topic of eating implements by mentioning chopsticks and the spork. This of course made me think of the eating utensils used by the Skekses in The Dark Crystal - basically, tiny forks that attached to the tips of the fingers. Knives are also an option (one I used in "Cold Words"). There are also places where people eat with their fingers, and water bowls are used to keep the fingers clean. This made me think of napkins (which in Australia are called serviettes). In Colonial Williamsburg this summer we ate at a pub where the napkins were huge and intended to cover your whole front from neck to knee - and we also visited Japan, where they give you a (very) hot or cold towel called a "shibori" at the start of the meal, but then do not typically provide napkins at all thereafter.

There are also endless variations possible in table manners. Where do you rest your hands? Can you put your elbows on the table? Is it all right to slurp your food, or to burp or make other sounds associated with the eating process? Is it rude, or is it a compliment to the chef?

Are animals allowed at the table? I always imagine the descriptions I've read of medieval-style feasts with dogs wandering about under the tables. My cat always tries to sit on my lap at dinner, though he's sweet enough not to try to steal food from my plate. I could easily imagine a society where some kind of companion animal was important enough, and/or intelligent enough, to be expected to sit at the table and have some kind of table manners. Lesley mentioned how the cats were expected to eat the sacred food in Hand of Isis by Jo Graham.

Of course, as is the case with many worldbuilding elements, there are the expected stereotypes of fantasy eating. Often it's a big dining room with a big wooden table and lots of fancy silverware, with a giant roast animal of some variety. This contrasts with the typical depiction of travelers eating - which essentially consists of a campfire by the road and some kind of stew. Or perhaps the travelers stop into the inn by the side of the road and engage in a socially regularized interaction with innkeepers and other guests. It's certainly worth considering how to move away from these, especially if your scenario is not actually medieval European.

I'll refer you here to my description of the banquet I attended in Kyoto's Arashiyama district. For this meal, every person had an individually sized table, and the tables were lined up in two parallel rows so the guests could face each other and the servers could move in between to access everyone's table without disturbing them from behind (but you can find a lot more detail at the link). We thought about other ways that the arrangement could be different: Roman banquets eaten on couches, for example.

I believe it was Jaleh who brought up the idea of the formal European meal where men and women alternate seats. This got us into some fascinating questions. Do men and women eat together at all? Are they expected to alternate seats? Do the people at the table order themselves by rank? Does it matter who is at your "right hand" or your "left hand"? And who controls the seating? Does it have any social intent? Sometimes at weddings (or in movies about them) you will see scenarios where people swap place cards trying to change who they eat with.

At my own wedding we had a French-speaking table and two Japanese-speaking tables, and we were careful not to seat all the Japanese guests together so that they wouldn't feel isolated from the group socially, but to seat them with American friends who also spoke Japanese. So are there language considerations to take into account when sitting down to a meal? Jaleh also mentioned that you don't see a lot of potlucks or buffets in fantasy; her wedding meal was a potluck. Lesley mentioned the "wedding breakfast" as a meal that was super-formal and generally associated with not-so-delicious food! Glenda talked about how in her area of small town Texas people would get married in their finery, then go home and change into jeans for the reception - which would be an outdoor barbecue with country music and dancing. What kind of entertainment is normal for mealtime? Is there any for day-to-day meals? Lesley mentioned that the "American-style prom" is popular in the UK right now, and associated with "hog roasts" - which surprised me!

Is there restaurant eating in your world? Stopping by the inn is a familiar scenario, as is the family eating at home. Occasionally you will see caf├ęs, or marketplaces with food stalls (as in Anne McCaffrey's Gather days), but not as many scenarios where a group goes out to a restaurant, or goes to a mercantile district and has to pick a restaurant from several available in the area. Science fiction offers us cantinas, or hole-in-the-wall restaurants - even places like Quark's or Ten Forward or the dining area on a spaceship. There are also scenarios where people stay in their quarters and eat by themselves and never (have to) learn to cook.

As you are putting together the dining scenarios in your story, it's a good idea to consider the general bases of diet and eating - namely, agriculture and trade. What kinds of foods are grown? What kinds of foods are available? How expensive are they, and how difficult to acquire? What kind of currency do they use to purchase food? Is it "cash" or "credit"?

Is food an art form? Do people gain fame through cooking (on tv?)?

Jaleh asked what clothes people might wear for dining. Formal wear? Jeans and t-shirt? What other kinds of options might there be in alien or fantasy scenarios? We agreed that there were practical reasons why white gloves wouldn't work well for a barbecue.

How are you called to the table, and how do you come there? When do you leave? Do you have to ask permission?

Are you expected to finish your food? Do you leave things on the plate to indicate that you are finished? What are the expectations for the person serving? How do you show that you've had enough? When drinking beer in Japan, you are not expected to pour for yourself, but another person can pour for you so long as there is room in the glass, either just to help you or to indicate that they would like you to help them with their own glass. If you are finished drinking, you have to leave your glass full so nobody can attempt to refill it!

How much food is available in this society? Times of scarcity and plenty will vastly change the rules and manners surrounding meals. In times of scarcity, you eat every bite whether you like it or not. In the Depression, people would keep pan drippings so they could make gravy and serve it over stale bread.

In America, it is very common to be overserved at a restaurant, and there is an expectation that you will take food home. My husband and I often share a meal because typically there is enough food there for two.

Lesley mentioned that in the current times of austerity in the UK, "A girl called Jack" has become very famous by teaching people how to cook with very little money.

We also mentioned how Americans are out of touch with cooking, and how there is the "foodie" movement which is getting people back to cooking, but which is biased toward people with lots of money. Glenda mentioned a weight surgeon (stomach band surgery) who became a cooking teacher because he felt that teaching people to cook was as big a part of their health as the surgery he performed.

There is so much more to this topic! However, we had to stop here. Thank you to everyone who attended and came up with so many fantastic ideas. Today at 11am PDT on Google+ we will be talking about Schools and Education. I hope to see you there!



  1. I wonder if the use of "serviette" is the same in Australia as in Southern Ontario where I grew up - we'd use "Serviette" for a particular type of paper napkin. A cloth napkin can *not* be called a serviette in our usage. Is that the same in Australia?

    1. That's an interesting question. I don't think so; I think serviette can apply to any kind of napkin. I will check with my husband and see what he says.

  2. A servieta is a napkin of any kind in Spanish (in Mexico).

    And the timing part is so interesting: I grew up in Mexico, and 'la comida' (the meal) was usually after we got home from school at 3 pm. It still is - and can vary from 1 - 6pm.

    It used to drive me crazy when I took my small children to visit my parents, and my mother would get angry at me because I was feeding my little kids around noon (they were used to 'lunch'). She'd say, "You're going to spoil their appetites! We're just about to eat." when it could be 4-5 hours later before they sat down to 'comer' (eat).

    I gave up, fed my kids when they were hungry, and stopped trying to point out to my mother how absurd it was.

    It still drives me crazy. You get invited to 'comer' - and have no idea when you will actually get fed.

    So a clash of cultures here gives you a lot of ideas, even when writing mainstream with humans!

    Eating is such a basic need, that it is fraught with control issues.