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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Food in Fantasy Fiction

I’m very picky when it comes to food. Blame it on my keen sense of taste or my genes, if you like. But in fiction, if the descriptions are good, even my mouth can water at dishes that would make my nose wrinkle in real life.

Food, like any other element of world building, can enrich a fantasy world or weigh it down with tedium. It can even toss a reader right out of the story if not handled carefully.

I don’t know who started the jerky, cheese, bread, and stew trends in fantasy, but they’ve infiltrated the genre so thoroughly that they shaped a whole fascinating discussion on goodreads. Cookbooks and recipes dot the market with dishes from Discworld and Dragonlance. They indicate just how crucial and influential food and cooking are to fantasy fiction and fiction in general.

One way or another, the use of food in fantasy fiction often indicates how our modern experience with it shapes our perceptions or assumptions about the past. When you can warm up a can of Campbell’s stew in five minutes and buy your meat already butchered and ready for cooking in the grocery store, it’s hard to understand the types of preparation required in a world without supermarkets, microwaves, and refrigerators. Firsthand experience with hunting, butchering, farming, or living off the land is the exception in modern society, and preservatives alter taste more than most of us understand.

Cooking and food are key elements of culture and life, and thus, it should play a notable role in fiction. True, it should not take over a story or weigh down a scene with lengthy description for the sake of showing off. But food and cooking can take a story to another level if done thoughtfully.

Food must be considered for the simple fact that living creatures, unless developed with the express purpose for a fictional world, need food to survive. A book does not need to go into great detail over food, but an author should consider the basics of availability and how a character manages his day to day nutritional requirements. Otherwise, believability begins to wane.

Few aspects characterize a setting as swiftly as food. If a book takes inspiration from a particular culture, using some of that culture’s food helps form an image, sound, scent, and taste to a setting that might otherwise be difficult to relate. An island culture will eat lots of fish. A setting based off of a South American culture might use tortillas. A German-like culture will want to incorporate sausage, beer, and perhaps asparagus. Mention blood pudding to give a British feel or lutefisk to emphasize a Scandinavian flavor. Researching and incorporating a culture’s perception of food adds greater verisimilitude. What traditions surround food? How does it impact culture? What rules has a society formed in relation to food and cooking?

Food also offers a natural opportunity to add taste, scent, and touch to stories. Everyone eats and can relate to descriptions of food so long as they are not too esoteric. Besides, the aromas from cooking, herb gardens, and orchards are ones we know and ones a fantasy character should encounter. Food flavors our lives as much as our plates, and fictional characters should be no different. In this, an author can access an immediate source of shared experience with a reader that encompasses all five senses.

My favorite way of using food in fiction is when it emphasizes or helps set mood and theme and when it plays a direct role in characterization and plot. The Tale of Despereaux uses soup as a key plot element. Neither the story’s inciting incident nor resolution could occur without soup, for example. Harry Potter never would have first heard of Nicolas Flamel without chocolate frogs, and hobbits certainly could never have ended up so thoroughly characterized without their tremendous love of food, nor could they have survived Mordor without Lembas.

However, some cautions must be observed in the inclusion of food in fantasy fiction. If a fantasy culture derives purely from an author’s imagination, one could claim the sky is the limit for dishes, preparation, and season. But some limits must apply. For example, oranges do not grow well, if at all, in tundra climates, strawberries cannot be harvested all year long, and rice needs a great amount of water to grow. Climate, season, and landscape, even soil, play crucial roles in food availability.

Especially if a culture or world is derived or even lightly inspired by a real world culture or time, an author should give consideration to the food and cooking of that period and people. Potatoes and corn did not exist in medieval Europe, for example. Coffee was popular in England before tea, and fish and other animals from the sea were not considered meat by medieval minds. Onion was an herb rather than a vegetable. Even considering the types of wine made in a region can add great flavor to a fantasy culture. And don’t shy away from esoteric or “weird” food. Humans have eaten an enormous range of insects, fungi, organs, and ages of food throughout the world and history.

From Redwall’s elaborate descriptions of feasts to Harry Potter’s wide range of candies and sweets, fantasy food has inspired the imaginations of authors and readers time and again. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans now sit on real store shelves, and yes, they taste very realistic, including the vomit and dirt flavored ones. (I speak from personal experience.) There’s even a gentleman, Adam Bruski, in Michigan who was so inspired by George R.R. Martin’s descriptions of food in his A Song of Ice and Fire series that he has set out to create every dish Martin mentions, a herculean feat to be sure. Food can inspire, set mood, build character, add texture and flavor, or simply include that necessary touch of reality in fantasy fiction.

What are some of your favorite books for their use of food? What books have you read that have handled the subject poorly? Do you like the use of food in fantasy fiction? Do you have a dish you’d love to try that you read about in Middle Earth, Westeros, or some other fantasy setting?

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