Welcome Back World Builders!
You might have already realised this, or you might not have, but food (and drink) is probably the single most relatable concept you have at your disposal as a world builder. After all, every member of your audience needs to eat.
In our world, food isn’t just a necessity though. Often it’s the part of our culture or our identity which we share the most frequently with others. It’s a given in our societies that sharing a meal, or a recipe, with someone, is an act that brings communities and individuals closer together.
Using Food in Fantasy
Food often forms a huge part of fantasy novels. Elaborate descriptions of feasts and campfire meals and afternoon teas can be found everywhere from Lord of the Rings to Alice in Wonderland.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire even inspired its own cookbook! (Which I own, and is fantastic.)
But these authors weren’t just waxing poetic about food to make us hungry, sometimes the presence of the food is there to help deepen a reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.
The iconic scene from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where the Dwarves clean Bilbo’s home out of food, is not just for laughs. We also get a glimpse of both culture and characters. Thorin and his band of Dwarves are refugees. People used to living on the road, moving from place to place. It’s no surprise that Durin’s Folk have learned to grab whatever they can get their hands on and make the most of it.
And while I’m not much of a Robert Jordan fangirl, even I have to admit that The Wheel of Time series uses food brilliantly to help bring its world to life. With so many dishes scattered throughout the books, many of them unique to a particular region of Jordan’s world. The “twisted paper cones filled with roasted peas” mentioned in Far Madding is just one example from literally hundreds in the series.
Post-Apocalyptic, Future, and Space Food
Science fiction and dystopian stories have often used food and drink to help characterize their worlds as alien and disconcerting.
It’s hard not to mention Soylent Green when we’re talking about using food in world building. The story of soylent green was first found in Make Room! Make Room! a brilliant piece of dystopian fiction by Harry Harrison, it was made into the movie in 1973 with an entire plot built around the concept of food and society’s relationship with it.
Often in these futuristic narratives, we see much of the pleasure removed from food.
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the unpalatable mush being served in the film comes to mind. Or the can of Dinky-Di Dog Food scarfed down by Max Rockatansky in 1979’s Mad Max
For examples in literature, you can really look no further than Asimov’s Foundation series. Flavour-capsules dropped into water, or my favourite, the tasty spheres or ‘raw dainties’ loved by Raindrop Forty-Three, and artificially grown in Mycogen;
Seldon put his sphere in his mouth and felt it dissolve and disappear rapidly. His mouth, for a moment, ran liquid and then it slid, almost of its own accord, down his throat. He stood for a moment, amazed. It was slightly sweet and, for that matter, had an even fainter bitter aftertaste, but the main sensation eluded him.
Another of my favourite uses in a science fiction story comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Douglas Adams describes the Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster as “having your brains smashed in with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.” The drink’s far-out name and visceral description perfectly capture the feel of Adams’ galaxy, and the idea of the pan-galactic cocktail has inspired many amateur and professional barmen over the years.
Real Food in the Real World
Food has been used to help tell brilliant stories set in plain old reality too! (How long was Eat, Pray, Love on the best sellers list for?)
There are so many wonderful fiction books built around the magic of food.
Chocolat by Joanne Harris, Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. Because food is such an essential concept, the ways you can use it to help colour your world are as limitless as your imagination.
Honestly, right now one of the stories I can’t get enough of is all about food in the real world. I’m talking about the manga/anime, Shokugeki, which is literally about a bunch of kids training to be top tier chefs. Food and it’s place and purpose in our modern society is completely at the heart of Shokugeki’s story, and the writers manage to blend their narrative alongside recipes and cooking tips detailed enough to follow. The end result has been thoroughly enjoyable to me so far, and I think it’s a great example of how you can build a whole new world for your audience, using food.
I hope this post has shown what a versatile tool food can be when you’re telling a story, and inspired you to think about the ways you can use it in your stories and worlds.
Before I peace out on this fortnights post, I almost can’t believe I’m about to say this, but guys, it’s almost been a year of World Building Wednesday! Isn’t that crazy?
To celebrate, I’m going to be chatting to some friends about their creations – what inspired them, and the techniques they use. But, I’m also going to be away in East Java over the next fortnight. I’m going to do my best to get the post up and scheduled before I leave on my trip, but if time and fate are against me and it ends up being a little late, here’s an apology in advance!