During this global pandemic, the availability of food has been on my mind a lot. Among many other things of course, but food is often on my mind anyway. With panic buying (I know half of you aren’t even using that flour to make bread so put it back), disruptions in supply lines and also getting to the shops, food has been on a lot of people’s minds.
So, today, I wanted to talk about food but in the context of my favourite genre – fantasy. Why? Well, if you’re building a fantasy world from scratch, food is probably not your primary concern. However, we literally all need it. It makes the world go round, fantasy or otherwise so perhaps you should be thinking about it.
Interestingly, there is quite a lot of food and drink mentioned in fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are a good example. Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is another, particularly because it addresses that there are differences between male and female foods and there’s also blue wine which I want.
In most cases, you could take those references out and the story would start and finish the same. However, it adds detail to the world and the characters that make everything feel a bit more real.
Here are some things to consider when writing about food in fantasy:
Food and natural resources
Food, of course, is directly tied to natural resources among other things. It makes more sense to eat what’s readily available. Unless you make trade a big feature in your world, it probably won’t make sense to have all sorts of tropical fruit available to citizens living in an ice world because that food requires a different climate to grow in.
I only mention this so you can avoid having something sound odd and stick out like a sore thumb when someone is reading your novel. You want readers to get lost in your world and tiny details that don’t really make sense can pull them out of the magic.
Food and trade
Plus, it can have a huge effect on the food your characters eat. For example, the poor will typically eat food that’s readily available/grown cheaply and locally whereas the rich characters will be more likely to have access to exotic foreign foods.
If you want to go one step further and make things more complicated, you could use inspiration from this world regarding trade. With certain foods like quinoa, almond milk and avocados growing in popularity among healthy people, vegans and hipsters, it has driven up the price of these products where they are grown.
What used to be a staple is now too expensive for the locals to eat. Similarly, farmers are growing stuff like avocados rather than crops that offer more yield (like wheat) because they can get more money for it. This has a direct effect on the local communities and is even leading to drought in some places because these crops require a shit load of water.
The desire for exotic food can have a huge effect on your world. Countries and empires will do horrible things to nations that have more interesting food than they’re used to. Looking at you England.
Food and class
On a similar note, food is definitely tied to issues of class and wealth. Poor people can’t afford what the rich can and the rich turn their noses up at peasant food (unless it becomes hipster).
Food is such a small way you can add some colour and highlight differences between characters of different classes and social backgrounds. Poorer people may also prepare and make foods in a totally different way to rich people (who may not cook at all). Those are just some little details to inject in your story.
Weird and wonderful food
Food is also a great way to get creative. There’s no need to stick with real foods, flavours and recipes. Your characters are in a fantasy world and you have a lot of freedom to get creative with it.
Why not create a new fruit? How about a rare dish that only Kings are allowed to eat? Have fun with it. Creating new and inventive foods like this can be a great way not only to add detail to your story but also to highlight how different your world is to ours.
While it might only seem like a little thing to include, don’t overlook food in fantasy. Building a fantasy world is all about the tiny details making it feel real.
Hope this helps/is of some interest to fantasy worldbuilders. I’d love to hear your take on food in fantasy – do you make a big deal of it or mostly glaze over the details? Share a comment below!