It is often the little things that can bring a story to life. For some writers, simply pulling small references from the real world counterpoints is enough. With fantasy writing, however, the author must create entire cultures to populate their world. Today I am going to focus in on one very small, but important, aspect of that world building.
Odd bits of food and offal become known for certain powerful traits (virility, strength, wisdom, etc) either due to needing an excuse to bring ourselves to eat them or as a reference to their synergy to our own parts. What is edible isn’t always what is eaten and there are sometimes surprises when a culture realizes that something can be eaten.
Whether you are taking queues from the real world or creating cultures whole-cloth, you need to keep the elements consistent with the reality we are familiar with. One of those elements is that every living thing is sustained by something. Generally this is food and water. Even in a world full of only humans (like our own) you will find that ideas about food vary wildly from one culture to the next.
Milk products, mayo notwithstanding, are rare in Japanese foods. Insects are still only a novelty food in the US. The concept of eating tomatoes and potatoes was unthinkable to much of Europe for a long time after they were brought from the Americas. Even within a single country, what is food in one area is stomach turning in another. Fermentation, less desirable parts of animals and plants, or unfamiliar food sources are all common sources of taboo or favored meals.
Whenever you write a scene involving food, these simple understandings can create very realistic interactions. Even if you aren’t bluntly pointing it out, the choices of food at a table can say something about those eating it and their situation. Even before considering poor foods vs decadent foods, consider what is going on? Is your character desperate for children? If so, show them eating foods that supposedly aid in virility. Do the characters in the scene come from vastly different cultures? Show their reactions to the food they are presented with.
This sort of thing can make for memorable scenes and allow you to explore parts of the character that might not otherwise appear in the writing. The bias’ that the characters have in other parts of their life may be illustrated through their interaction with food. Consider it another tool in your belt for complex characterization.
Can you think of some of the most unusual foods in your own diet? I’d love to hear how these quirks of a menu have affected moments in your life!