Unfortunately, this isn’t the topic I’d planned as part 3, but I’ve been having a lot of trouble with the people entry, so that one will be posted later. In this and the next to world building posts, we’ll discuss life necessities: food and eating, clothing, and shelter. Food is particularly easy for me, as I enjoy cooking and baking and most things food.
SPOILER ALERT: One of the main reveals from Cloud Atlas is included in the “Food Across Cultures” section.
The Primary Diet
When considering what your people eat, consider first the environment their food comes from, and also their attitude toward nature. People who live on marshes won’t be growing much of their food, but may eat a lot of fish and fowl. Those in the dessert may end up with many insects in their diet, as well as cactus. Island nations like Japan and the UK eat a lot of seafood. People who value all life most highly may be vegetarian. People who commune with plant spirits may eat the fruits of such plants but not the plants themselves, such as lettuces or teas.
The primary diet of your group or species will determine where their nutrients come from, and may later inform what types of things make them healthy. Lupa, for instance, do not grow grains or keep livestock for dairy, and these can be very hard for them to digest. Most of their nutrients come from fresh meat and produce. Their source of calcium comes from unique plant materials rather than dairy. Medieval people, for instance, often thought that produce was unhealthy and ate a lot of meat, and thus had the accompanying health concerns.
Choose which grains, produce, or meats are most represented in the culture or land you’re writing about. For instance, some Native Americans ate maize rather than wheat; chicken was a prized meat in Roman culture; lemons and olives greatly impact Mediterranean cuisine. Medieval people often thought that produce was unhealthy and ate a lot of meat, resulting in accompanying health concerns.
The next step is determining how various people or groups cook their food. Some cultures cook everything, and some may not cook at all. Again, this may come from both environment and attitudes. People who emphasize natural things may do less cooking, or a very different type of cooking. Do they primarily want to cover flavors or bring them out? Does the environment make natural eating unsafe?
Groups with little patience for complicated processes won’t have many people willing to tackle highly complicated cooking often. Species who are all about detail and exquisite-looking plates might engage in a lot of knife work. If you don’t know much about cooking or food preparation, it is beneficial to do some research.
In example, the Lupa are a very natural species, and tend not to cook much of their food. However, they will prepare salads, make fruit juice, cultivate honey, and make dried foods. Most Lupa only actually know how to cook stews for winter or roast something over a fire. Another species I’ve worked on, the Ethgra, have traditionally been at odds with their environment, and cook nearly all their food for long periods of time, and especially like boiled or sauteed greens.
How do they eat?
The next step is determining the style in which people eat. This can be especially good for character, as how someone eats often gives us clues on their character. A fastidious, detail oriented person may eat calmly and neatly with small bites and elegant use of any utensils. More passionate people make sounds when they eat. Those for whom stopping to eat is an inconvenience may pay hardly any attention to their food or how it tastes.
It can also give us clues about species or culture. Asian cultures developed chopsticks which emphasizes the development of skills. Western culture developed from the knife to add spoons, and finally forks. Other cultures eat entirely with their hands, often with the help of a flatbread for scooping other foods. How to the chefs of the culture approach plating? Do they prefer individual plates or large platters? Why? These are important elements for readers in setting tone and group character, especially between different groups of people.
Remember, there will always be different levels of cooking and those who prepare it. Even in Star Trek, some people rely on the replicator, while other replicate ingredients so they can cook themselves.
Food Across Cultures
A particularly interesting Klingon dish is gagh, which is a dish of serpent worms, usually eaten alive. While even many Klingons don’t like the taste, it is a delicacy primarily eaten for the sensation. What does this say about them as a species? About their culture? Remember that ideas can sometimes be more powerful than need or sense. Some cultures have ideas about food that you or I might find distasteful. Don’t hesitate to choose things that you personally would never eat, or consider disgusting if they are commonly found in the environment. Even on Earth, people survive on what is at hand. Sometimes those things later develop into higher methods of dining.
Lupa hunt their meat in fur form, and eat it that way, as well. As they will often tell Humans, “it’s natural for us to eat like this, just as it may be natural for you to be repulsed by it.” Don’t be put off about what others will think unusual or weird. If your people do something like this, go with it. No apologies. Even if some of your groups are staunch cannibals. We’re writing stories, not fact, and the world is full of strange things. If your story needs cannibals, it needs them.
Observing various groups and cultures eat can be quite enlightening, and if your world is large enough you’ll want to have some different styles for various groups. Some groups will have tiers of food consumption and quality, while others may go much further into manipulation of molecules (Star Trek’s replicator literally turns waste into food at the molecular level) or transformation of unlikely food sources (in Cloud Atlas, Replicants are turned into food for other Replicants. Replicants are grown humans, and considered subhuman. They do not know where their food comes from.).
Those in the scifi field have the most options, but fantasy writers also have a good amount to play with. Even on Earth, there are so many styles of food and eating that one can’t really complain about what’s available.