The hows and whats of eating
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Food—it’s something we all enjoy, some of us more than others. But have you thought about how it interacts within your world?
Grow for me
Without farmers, we would have no mass production of food. (That is, unless you’re growing things hydroponically in the future, but arguably, they would still be considered farmers.) What you’ll want to think about is what kind of crops your farmers will grow and what climate they need to be grown in.
This will feed into what kind of trade relations you might have in your world. For example, if you have a cooler climate in your book, you’ll need to trade with another country that has temperate to warmer climates in order to provide wheat, a staple in people’s diet, to your denizens.
Another thing to consider with farming is the need for crop rotations. Too many seasons with the same crop growing in the same field will deplete the correct nutrients and make those fields null for any further planting of said crop.
Lastly, and most importantly, you’re going to need to think about the kinds of weather happen where people are growing food. If there are regular dry spells, will farmers have built irrigation systems to make sure that all the crops are watered to perfection? And on the flip side, if there are lots of storms that produce massive quantities of rain, will there be drainage systems in place to make sure that the crops don’t develop root rot and die? Or, in the case of lots of rain, will the farms specialize in growing crops that require massive amounts of water, like rice?
Lest we forget that food has to travel, how will it happen in your world? Cities obviously will not have a sustainable way to grow food for its entire population, so who will be doing the import/export of food? Will the country send half of their crops to the cities to be sold for profit and keep the rest for themselves and local sales? Is there a government regulated agriculture that ensures that all of its constituents get fed? Do the farmer’s families travel daily to markets to sell their own wares in farmers markets from city to city to make a living?
Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet
I’ve talked before about the kind of fauna that you have in your world in This Land is My Land, but I want to talk about it a little bit more here. Depending on what kind of society you have and the time period in which it’s set, your people will be living off the land in order to get any sort of meat in their diet.
You’ll need to figure out what kind of animals will be in each region of your world based on climate and what would be readily available for your people. This will range from your quadrupedal animals to the ones in the lakes, rivers, and oceans.
Don’t we have something to eat?
With the resources available, what kinds of meals will your people be eating? Will the poor be eating vastly different from the rich? I mean, of course, they will just because of the difference in resources. But what I mean is, are your poorer citizens eating rice and beans three to five times a week, or will they have regular game mixed in? And on the opposite end of the spectrum, historically in England, the rich were able to have rich diets of regular game pies, while the expense deterred the poorer citizens from having it but a few times a year at holidays or special occasions.
For those who are writing historical fictions or fantasy novels that are set in eras that don’t have today’s basic amenities, here’s a timeline of food and recipes from ancient to present.
Speaking of special occasion meals, what kind will be in your world? A fair amount of our holidays where we have special meals revolve around religious observances (Christmas, Easter, Passover), but there are others that are not seated in religion, such as Mother’s Day, Independence Day where we have BBQs and fireworks, and Thanksgiving.
Will you have holidays such as these that have large parties and equally large dinners? And if there are, what kind of food will be served with it?
What the fork?
Boy, oh boy, is there a lot of information out there about utensils, and it’s far more than I can cover in this small section here. There could be dozens upon dozens of books written on the subject, and we still probably wouldn’t know everything there is to know about utensils and how they’ve changed what we eat, how we eat it, and how it tastes when we eat it. For now, I want to touch a little bit about what I learned in this delightful podcast, GastroPod, co-hosted by Cynthia Grabber and Nicola Twilley.
Throughout history, our hands have been our greatest tool for eating. Gross, right? Getting all that grease on your hands when you can just use your fork. If you can believe it, the fork was not a widely accepted table utensil until the 1700s, and even then, it wasn’t the kind of fork that we use today. Forks first gained their popularity in Italy to be able to eat pasta. For the meals that can’t be eaten with your hands, a spoon can be fashioned from things such as shells, and if not available, you can simply use bowls and drink your meal rather than use cutlery.
Another thing people used throughout history was their own personal knives. Even while going to an eatery, or at a feast in a hall, people would use their own knives that they used for cutting meat, or anything else that presented some sort of challenge. Bear in mind, these knives would be used for other things besides eating, and it’s sometimes a wonder how we survived as long as we have. So, what you want to think about while you’re setting your character’s table is what would their time period and culture reasonably use, and what kind of manners would they use for such utensils. If you want to hear a little bit more about this, author and historian Bee Wilson and co-hosts of the podcast linked above cover a little bit of it.
Lastly, because I want to geek out on this, I want to talk about the kinds of materials you want to use for your utensils because they will vastly affect the taste that goes along with the food. Throughout history, we’ve used everything from wood to gold to make our eating utensils, and wood is going to make your mashed potatoes and roast taste far different than what it would if you were eating it with a stainless steel fork, or even a silver one. While crafting your world, especially if it’s based on our own world’s timeline, you’ll need to think about when these types of inventions came into place because before the twentieth century, we didn’t have any metals treated like stainless steel. One reason why this is important is if your people have a diet of fish that’s tpyically spritzed with lemon, if they’re using steel or iron utensils, your characters are going to have a chemical reaction in their mouths that isn’t going to taste very good.
You don’t have to go into this type of depth in your world unless you really want to, but making sure that these kinds of things are on your radar is never going to hurt the richness of the world you want to create.
Join me next week when I talk about architecture.
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