In order to survive, we need food and water. It is a basic necessity that all human share, yet no two places have the same food culture. There are a number of factors that affect what kind of cuisine a culture enjoys and how they enjoy it. Recognizing how food plays into your setting will help build a world that feels tactile and accessible to the reader.
By describing the food culture of a location, you are inviting the reader to dinner. A cuisine is the result of the different aspects of a culture, from the setting to values, bringing it all together for one immersive experience. The reader will experience the culture and food through described senses such as taste, scent, and sight, giving the reader a wholly immersive experience.
Food Comes From the Land
No matter what, what we consume, from plants to wild game or livestock, comes from the land itself. The type of land in your world will help to further determine what types of foods are available. Compare the climates and land types in your world to those that already exist. What types of ingredients are available in that area? Make sure you’re looking at things locally grown or raised for right now.
Coastal areas will enjoy fish. The types of fish will change depending on modes of sea transportation, but we will get to that later. Dry and arid places will rely on heartier foods such as cacti, pomegranates, or chilies. Much wetter climates with the same heat will provide sweet fruits such as coconuts and bananas.
Research what is readily available in your territories and make a list of what they will grow. Keep in mind that a culture will primarily rely on a grain, such as rice, corn, wheat, or barley, as a main staple. Grains are relatively cheap and can relatively sustain a person on its own. This means the peoples will produce as much of this as possible. Second will be their protein. This doesn’t have to be livestock. It could be mushrooms, beans, or another fantasy equivalent of vegetable protein.
Some things will grow in abundance because of the land. Those are things that might become trade items later, when we talk about transportation and technology.
Trade and Technology
The level of technology accessible to your world will directly affect the trade available to your locations. Cultures that are tribal will trade on a smaller, more local scale with other tribes. That small scale trade will influence their culture and their cuisine, but only as far as they can trade. Say the tribe mostly relies on berries and nuts, but there are oranges growing in the south and avocados growing in the west. The south is only fifty miles away while the avocados in the west are three hundred miles away. With small scale trade, the tribe relying on berries and nuts will be able to trade for the oranges, but probably won’t be able to get the avocados without a perilous journey. Even then, the oranges might still be a rare delicacy.
As technology for transportation, protection, and medicine develop, people will begin to travel. Now, what they do when they travel will largely depend on the values of your culture. Some cultures will come for trade and knowledge, while others will come for colonization and domination.
Decide what your world has for technology and who has access to this technology. Sea navigation might not be something everyone has access to. Cures for diseases might not be something every territory has access to, either. By deciding the technology of certain territories or kingdoms/empires, you can figure out how far a country can reach, where they might go, and what they may have access to.
Values Mean Everything
A culture’s values will directly influence how they not only interact with other countries, but how they interact throughout a meal. The preparation and presentation will represent the values a culture holds dear.
If the culture is showy and boasts in their riches, they will use gilded dishes, expensive ingredients, and create over the top displays of their food. Yet, if a culture is understated and poor, the food might be far more simple, and the focus will be on the well-being rather than the show.
Values will also effect how a culture interacts with another. A culture who values their own view over others will tend towards colonialism, trying to force their view onto others. This is a culture in it for the profit, as well. If a territory is colonized, they don’t think they have to purchase goods. They simply take what they believe to be theirs. While a culture that appreciates or even just tolerates the views of others will take more than just goods when they trade. They will trade in science and philosophy as well.
Using Food as a Tone Setter
Once you have the food culture of your region built based on what is available through local and by trade, and how it will be prepared and served based on cultural values, then you can start using food as a writing tool.
Yeah. You heard me correctly.
The sense of taste can be used elegantly in writing to convey the tone or mood of a scene. The same way we sit on the edge of our seats as Persephone hesitantly eats the pomegranate seeds (or voraciously devours the tart fruit if you read other stories), you can write a scene using the flavors of the food as an echo of what is happening in the scene.
When a scene starts to go south, getting tense and dangerous for your characters, the food presented could turn sour. Use flavors like sour lemon, vinegar, and the such to pucker the mouth and tense the muscles. If you want to indicate a veneer over something dark, focus on the flaws of something presented beautifully. Show glimpses of the way the food is partially rotten, of how flies have gotten stuck in the food, or the way it looks or smells after having sat out for too long.
By using taste and the other senses, you could heighten your dinner scene with an underlying message that grips your reader. Decide how you want to present the scene and then try to figure out how your food preparation might undercut it. This creates a well layered presentation that leaves the reader feeling full.
Did you get the pun there? Fine. I’m not all that great at puns.
Another way you can use food when writing is in character building. So often, food shapes our perception of our upbringing. A scent will bring us back to our formative years, bringing with it a vision of what life was like as a child. It could be a hearty tomato sauce and Sundays spent in the kitchen with a grandmother. It could be a burnt scent that stings your nose that reminds a character of how little they had or how bad their parents were at cooking.
These kind of sensory triggers aren’t always bad. Use them sparingly, just like flashbacks as they kind of are flashbacks, but use them with dexterity. Place it somewhere that the trigger will bring a peak of tension. It should either give the reader insight to the character or prompt a decision toward conflict for the character.
Focusing on the food of a culture will allow you to build your world at the same time. Answering questions on how people get access to certain foods and what they do with them helps to create a fully rounded world and gives you things to play with as you write.
Food is a part of our everyday life. We may not think too hard about where foods come from, but when we do we see how they shape our lives. We see how a flavor, a scent, or a sight affects our moods.
If you loved this post and want to build your world through the lens of food, I’ve created a free printable worksheet for you. Click the link below to download yours today!