Friday, September 3, 2021

Worldbuilding, fantasy food, cultures, and folklore

 There is a sort of magic in food that many storytellers have used to enhance the quite, awe inspiring, or even terrifying moments of the tales they tell. Take for example the following moment from "Dragons of Autumn Twilight,"

"Tas flung the door open wid. A wave of light, noise, heat, and the familiar smell of Otik's spicy potatoes hit them full in the face. It engulfed them and washed over them soothingly. (Wies and Hickman)"

It is the description of the smell of the “spicy potatoes” that really makes this moment feel like coming the characters are coming home after years away. The smell of food creates an emotional bridge to a time of happiness and peace that motivates the characters when the war that is about to happen takes this inn away from them. Throughout the book the protagonists long to taste these potatoes of their home once more. 

As with everything else in storytelling the most important question when including a food is how it fits into the story emotionally. The ‘spicy potatoes’ in "Dragons of Autumn Twilight" work because potatoes are a comfort food, they can feel associated with the French fries of our childhood, or the potato salads of picnics and barbeques. Yet the name makes them feel unique and exotic enough that they fit within a fantasy world and a town that is at a crossroad for trade. 

Food can fill such a strong emotional function with stories because it has been one of the primary concerns of humans since before we were human, so its no wonder that it features so strongly in so many of our oldest fairytales. As Tatar states; 

"Food – its presence and its absence – shapes the social world of fairy tales in profound ways. It is not at all uncommon for a peasant hero, faced with three wishes, to ask first for a plate of meat and potatoes, or to be so distracted by hunger that he years out loud for a sausage while contemplating the limitless possibilities before him."

Food has strong association with our parents, our family, but also our culture. Indeed, food is so important that just as Tolkien centered his world around his hobby of creating languages, a person could easily center their world building efforts around inventing interesting new cuisines. 

"Food touches everything. Food is the foundation of every economy. It is a central pawn in political strategies of states and households. Food marks social differences, boundaries, bonds, and contradictions." (Counihan, C. & P. van Esterick (1997, Food and Culture: A Reader)

This was even more true in the past when 90% of the population, or more, was involved in the production of food in some way, the food a culture ate could change every aspect of people's daily lives in that culture. Thus, any culture in a world you invent will be heavily impacted by the foods they eat. The wiki for The Forgotten Realms world, for example, states that one of the species known as halflings enjoys cheese as a primary food source. This makes sense given that their personalities would make them appreciate comfort food, of which cheese is a big part in many European countries. Still, less often mentioned is the fact that in order to get cheese the halflings would need to raise cattle, sheep, goats, reindeer or some other animal. Buildings would have to be built to feed these animals and to store their feed in the winter, altering their villages architecture. The halflings would also need to figure out a way to protect the cattle in a land filled with dragons, orcs, giants, and other monsters. There would also have to be up early in the morning to milk the cattle, stories would told while watching cattle in the fields, thus like the Scottish and Norwegians many of their fairytales would likely involve people who watch the cattle. Further, the people would likely worship gods and make deals with fairies and spirits that could help them with caring for cattle and making cheese. 

There are numerous fairytales about people encountering the fairies while herding their cattle in the mountains, fields, or forests. Indeed, as already mentioned those who would herd cattle were often considered to be akin to witches, and able to negotiate with the spirits of the wilderness. The Finnish and Karlinians had there own unique take on this, believing that there was a sort of “cattle elf. This was a supernatural being that could protect and take care of the cattle and was in some places believed to dwell in sauna stoves.” The stones from these stoves could then be brought into the forests when herding cattle to help protect and heal the animals. 

(A hard matter: stones in Finnish-Karelian folk belief. Timo Muhonen)

As you can see the simple decision to have halfings eat cheese can completely alter the way their culture, the way the live, and the spirits they associate with and hold in the highest regard. Obviously, you don’t need to include the full complexity of any food choice in your book, just what is important to your story. Still, being generally aware of history, economy, and folklore can give you ideas as you write. 

To simplify the quest of understanding how food fits into the cultures of your world and the character’s palates, however, you can keep in mind a number of key questions.

What is the impact of the supernatural, history, availability, on ingredient selection?

Read through the history of many cuisines and you will find that immigration and historical encounters can have an outsized impact on the palette of any culture. The Hawaiians, for example, added some Spanish foods to their cuisine after a sailor gifted King Kamehameha some cattle, leading King Kamehameha III to hire Spanish vaqueros to manage the animals. Britain began choosing tea over coffee, in part, because the queen Catherine of Braganza (who was a Portuguese princess) preferred this drink and built its popularity among high society. 

Folklore too has a number of stories about how food ingredients became popular. Fairies like milk, vampires were kept at bay by garlic, and good witches used fennel to help insure the success of crops. Thus, the preferences of  fairies or other magical beings could have an outsized impact on the choices a culture made. For example, a world with dragons might raise lots of small goats, rather than a few large cattle in order to reduce the damage when an animal was taken, and to have an offering on hand when a dragon comes looking for a meal.

Obviously you can choose the ingredients that a given culture in your fantasy world prefers based on emotions and ideas associated with our own world. You might, for example, have a people eat rich buttery foods and cheeses because you want to associate them with France or the Midwestern cultures. Certainly the cultures within "Game of Thrones" ate foods based on medieval Western European cuisines to help us stay in that frame of mind for the book.  

Who eats the food and when?

The Romans avoided eating butter because it was a Barbarian food (just like they outlawed pants in cities because they were barbarian clothes). What people eat and win can have a large impact on how people feel about a food. In most cultures the wealthy and the poor eat different foods, and the foods the wealthy eat such as caviar and truffles, have a different emotional association than those the poor eat, such as corn dogs. Indeed, we might find some people avoiding a food based on its associations. For example, Americans will rarely eat roast turkey in the summer because turkey is associated with fall and winter holidays. 

What are the philosophies behind food choice? 

Philosophies have often had a huge impact on food choices. For example, 

"Bread symbolized humanity leaving the natural world and becoming human. In the Iliad and the Odyssey ‘bread eaters’ are ‘men.’ In Gilgamesh, the first literary text known, a wild man only leaves his wildness behind when he learns of bread, from a woman." (Food is Culture by Massimo Montanari)

Thus bread became symbolically important to humans, but in a fantasy world certain elves or other people’s might view it negatively due to its association with 'humanity'. But philosophical ideas can run even deeper than that. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that boiling as superior to roasting because “roast meats being rawer and drier than boiled meats.” The philosophers of the Ancient Greeks in general viewed roasting meat as primitive and raw. Many people around the world thought something similar. In Guiana the sorcerers of the Waiwai tribe had a taboo against roasted meat which is associated with rawness. Similarly, the Wyandot American tribe has myths about negative associations with roasted meat for similar reasons. Less extreme perhaps but In France boiled chicken was for the family to eat, while roasted chicken was for a banquet. (Food and Culture A Reader 1997). 

Thus, many people's boiled meat, rather than frying or roasting it based on a philosophical idea. 

What emotions do people and especially the characters associated with the food? 

Most foods have some emotion associated with them, based on who consumes the food and how. PB and J, for example, has very specific emotions associated with it, such as incense, whimsy, and potentially poverty. Such associations are based on the fact that children eat it. Obviously such emotional associations can change over time and have a multitude of emotions associated with it. Coffee and tea began life as stimulants, they were a way to wake up to gain new energy, etc. Now, however, they are also often associated with relaxation and breaks, because this is how they are being used – as coffee breaks during work, thus in addition to waking up they are a way to destress and unwind. Tea, thanks to its associations with British nobility in the minds of Americans, has come to be associated with elegance that makes certain children want to play at having a tea party. This in turn can associate certain aspects of tea with childhood as well. There is a scene in the TV series “Big Bang Theory” where some of the protagonists, wanting to do something ‘mature’ and sophisticated go to a tea house, where they are surrounded by children who want to do the same. 

How is the food obtained and distributed? 

How a food is obtained and distributed can greatly alter the course of history, and a culture. If Britain hadn't been getting tea from China, for example, there likely never would have been the war that between these nations that lead to the creation of Hong Kong. 

There are arguments made that the family culture of Japan comes largely from their histical methods for growing rice, which required a lot of laborers to work closely together. This is opposite from the more solitary exercise of wheat farming or cattle ranching. 

The distribution of any food can lead a city to include homes in the mountains, which they move to when they herd their cattle to the alpine pastures, or entire cities based and market fairs based around the spice trade. 

I will publish more articles on food, culture, and fairytales if you are interested, please consider following me.