What is Thanksgiving without food?
I’ll admit it: I love to eat. It’s probably no great secret that the rest of us do, too. But food means more than just sustenance—what we put in our mouths is a central focus of our lives and defines who we are as individuals and as a culture.
So why is food largely absent from fantasy? Authors provide occasional mentions of food: the giant roasted boar at the banquet, the dead rabbit shared around the fire. But we fantasy authors, with all of our imagination and creativity, could do so much more. Food can be used not as a throw-in detail (or as too much detail), but to actually define our characters and the world in which they live.
Use food to define personality. One of the petty criticisms of Ken Scholes’ fantastic first novel, Lamentation, was that his main character’s preference for chilled fruity wines was unrealistic. Where did his minions find the ice, after all? While this detail can distract the reader, it also helps create this character. Through the series, Rudolfo changes from a carefree lover of chilled wine and women to a strong leader. In later books, when he starts hitting the chilled wine rather heavily, it says something altogether different about his character, and Scholes doesn’t have to use much space in the novel to do it.
As much as our likes define us, our dislikes define us more, and can say a great deal about our personalities in very few words. A child who only eats pizza and chicken nuggets? Picky. A person who refuses to drink anything but red wine from a certain label? Discerning. What conclusions can you draw about someone who enjoys everything? Who prefers lots of meat, no meat, or rich foods? Who refuses to eat that dead rabbit, and instead fetches her own berries from the forest? A simple mention of what a character chooses to eat (or not) can say so much about your character in only a few words.
Use food to define social class. One of my favorite scenes to write in Song and the Sorceress was the one in which Ki’leah, a runaway princess, tries to figure out how to eat without silverware in a totally different environment. The people around her dig in with pocket knives and fingers, a method completely foreign in her world of polished silver forks and knives. It’s a huge culture shock, as it should be for any member of pampered royalty thrust into the wilderness, and says a great deal about social structure and manners in Ki’leah’s world.
Use food to define families and traditions. It intrigues me that many modern fantasies don’t incorporate the same traditions that we hold dear. There is no Thanksgiving, no Passover, no gathering of family in the kitchen to put together a meal. Yet these are important elements of our cultural heritage. For many of us, gathering to make the Thanksgiving meal as a family is almost more important than consuming the end result. How can food help define your characters’ ideas about family and their relationships? How can the simple preparation of a meal define their place in a greater tradition?
Food as cultural signature. Most people know what it means when something is as “American as apple pie.” Whether we like it or not, our culture is defined by our love for fried chicken and fast food. A universally-recognized sign for all things American looks suspiciously like the golden arches. We also define other cultures by what they eat, whether they enjoy rice, bangers and mash, or baked ziti. And this is where fantasy runs into the most trouble: nothing says Euro-centered fantasy like that infamous roasted boar. In fact, I would argue that the boar has become a more prevalent stereotype in fantasy than the sexy female love interest. Got boar? Check! Consider instead finding some dish, even creating your own, that defines your culture in a stronger way.
Perhaps most importantly, let your characters eat! They do need sustenance for that long journey, battle, or interrogation. Let your executioner munch a turkey sandwich while he tortures your hero. Have your heroine grab a bit of jerky on the road (or at least let her stomach growl). Food is a part of your characters’ lives as much as it is a part of your own; and, with just a few small details, you can build a better world.