Happy Thanksgiving! By way of thanks to you for reading this blog, here are my revised notes from the 2018 World Fantasy Convention panel titled “Best Meals Ever Written.” Bon appetit, and happy Thanksgiving!
The panel consisted of writers S. A. Chakraborty, Aliette de Bodard, Scott Edelman, A. T. Greenblatt, and S. M. Stirling, and is described in the program thusly: “A discussion of feasts and meals and what makes them great — is it a tragic ending like the Red Wedding or a highly detailed description of the food so fans can replicate the cuisine, or something in between.”
This was the panel I attended on a whim, thinking it would be mostly just fun. It turned out to be possibly the most useful and information-packed panel I attended. In the interest of sharing this with you, I’m focusing on getting the words down and semi-organizing them from my chaotic notes, rather than presenting a beautifully-crafted monologue on the subject of food. There are lots and lots of questions for writers. This is meant to be a practical, information-sharing post. I hope you find it helpful!
Food and Worldbuilding:
Writers can use food as worldbuilding in a plethora of ways. Scenes involving food can reveal aspects of culture, geography, religion, social norms, etc. For example, if characters make and eat bread, they are part of a wheat-growing culture as opposed to a rice-growing culture. Wheat and rice grow in different physical environments, so the fact of breadmaking reveals something about the climate. In a rice-growing environment, wheat will be a symbol of prestige. Rich people may be the only ones who know what bread tastes like, and may employ it as a status symbol.
Each ingredient in a recipe requires someone’s time, labor, and/or financial investment, whether to produce or transport. Trade/international relations may be involved. How do the ingredients arrive, who produces them, what do they cost? What foods are imported, and why? From where? How? Plentiful foods are not high-status. What foods are considered prestigious in a culture? Does this change over time?
Attitudes toward food can reveal aspects of history. Does a culture have a history of famine in its past? How does this play out in its present? For example, many works of classic Western literature involve long, elaborate narrations of feasts. For most readers, this was a fantasy of plenty, and might involve tantalizing descriptions of foods you could never have in the real world. Readers could vicariously enjoy these literary meals. In antiquity, special foods like exotic spices and rare ingredients are often given equal page space with descriptions of treasure.
In addition to unfolding aspects of geography and economics, food in literature can reveal a lot about society. Feasts can reveal social structures–who eats where, when, what? When people eat during the day can be a social marker. Laborers in most cultures have traditionally eaten their main meal in the middle of the day, while the upper classes tend to eat their heaviest meals after dark. People who eat their main meal midday will need snacks, such as British tea, to tide them over.
What are a culture’s food laws, regulations, taboos? What role does food play in religious observances and rituals?
How safe is food? To what lengths do characters go to ensure a clean food supply? Perhaps, like the British upper classes wintering in the city, they have food delivered from their country estates to ensure safe food. Food delivery thus becomes a marker of status, as well as an opportunity for other jobs/characters–who grows the food? Who delivers it?
How is food prepared? Do people have home ovens, or do they use communal ones? Do individuals have the capability of making their own food, or do they buy it ready-made? This opens up all kinds of economic and social possibilities. If they do prepare their food, what assumptions do recipes make about what skills the average cook should have?
Within a particular culture, different groups/regions will have different cuisines.
Food and Character Development:
From production to consumption, food offers opportunities for character development. Because taste is tied inextricably to scent, which is the sense most strongly attached to memory, the act of eating provides the chance to delve into a character’s memories and emotions. Food can remind traveling/exiled character of home. On a journey, a whiff of a familiar food can indicate the presence of a fellow countryman. Food is rife with emotional connections.
As characters prepare food, they demonstrate who they are, what matters to them, who they care about. If they prepare food with others, there are all kinds of opportunities to develop relationships. Who’s in charge of food preparation? Food brings people together. As characters cook and/or eat a particular food, we see them interact over a basic survival need.
Whether characters buy food, and what they buy, can reveal a lot about them. How do they interact with/view the people who produce their food? How do they view people who obtain their food differently?
Characters learn about one another via food. They can be seen to change as their tastes and diets change, whether by choice or necessity. Trying new foods is a learning curve–it can reveal a character’s openness to other cultures and new experiences. The trope of a character at an unfamiliar meal is also rich with possibility. How a character navigates an unfamiliar social situation reveals a lot about that character. What are the character’s attitudes toward new foods/ways of eating?
Food can also be a way for characters to manipulate each other. It can be life-giving, or dangerous.
Food can be loaded with meaning. Different cultures will have different forbidden foods, different faux pas tied to eating. For example, coastal people in Newfoundland traditionally did not eat lobsters, though lobster is considered a delicacy in some places and a staple in others. In Newfoundland at one point in history, everyone knew someone who had been lost at sea. Since lobsters and other bottom feeders presumably eat the bodies of dead sailors, eating them would be like eating your own dead, and was therefore taboo.
Characters’ reactions to the eating habits of other cultures can be rife with problems. In the past, “bad food” has often been used to mock other cultures, particularly non-dominant ones. There is a bad cliché of making fun of another culture’s delicacies. Characters’ reactions to others’ foods reveal their cultural prejudices. In the real world, we have examples of this in the naming of the other based on eating habits the dominant culture views as “bad.” The word “Eskimo,” for example, is the Algonquian word for “raw meat eater.” Is there shame associated with certain foods in a fictional culture? The way characters navigate this will develop the world as well as individual personalities.
Food and Good Writing:
Food is a believable, realistic way to incorporate all five senses. Writers often rely primarily on visual description, but this doesn’t open up the full range of human experience. Descriptions of food preparation and consumption can easily involve all the senses–not only sight but taste, smell, touch, and even sound.
Reading: Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun; Saygin Ersin’s The Pasha of Cuisine; I would also add to this writer Yangsze Choo’s novel The Ghost Bride, and her blog, Yangsze Choo Likes to eat and read.
There are probably a bunch of typos here, but I think I’ve covered everything from my disjointed convention notes. I can’t be sure, because all this writing about food is making me HUNGRY. Time to prep my roasted veggies and head out to Thanksgiving dinner! But before I go, happy Thanksgiving to you! I am thankful for your presence here. If you have any musings about writing and food, please share!