Friday, September 17, 2010

Food, Cuisine and Worldbuilding

At an ArmadilloCon panel a couple years ago, when asked where he starts with worldbuilding, Steven Brust answered, "Food."  Given Brust's nature on any panel, the moderator at first thought he was making a joke, but he clarified that he was quite serious.  "When you have a character eating a piece of beef, just with that, the process of raising a cow and bringing the meat to market, you've already made a hundred decisions about that society."  Food, what and how people eat, always plays a strong part in my writing.

Along those lines, today I've been working with my mother-in-law to prepare chiles en nogada, which are possibly one of the finest examples of Mexican cuisine in existence.  Part of the process involves blanching and peeling walnuts, which is a time consuming and meticulous process.  I spent the better part of two hours at it.  And that is just one aspect of this dish, which has several more.  It occurred to me, while doing this, that the preparation of this meal is so involved, with so many small parts that were so labor intensive, that it was indicative of the culture it came from.  Namely, a meal like this can only come with many people working long and hard in the kitchen... which typically implies servants.  Without a servant-culture (with, possibly, a strong faith or work-ethic), meals like this wouldn't become part of the cuisine.

I think about these things, that how food is made, the level of preparation, is just as important as what the food itself is, in showing the culture and the worldbuilding.  In Thorn of Dentonhill, my main characters take most of their meals at University, so their meals are prepared by a staff, so there are some elaborate elements, but at the same time, the meals have to be made for crowds.  Holver Alley Crew, the food is mostly communal to a small group, and cooked simply from basic sources-- mussels collected in the river, at one point.  Maradaine Constabulary, with the characters constantly on the move, needed street-food, fast and cheap.

How much does a recipe say about the culture it comes from?


Rob Bartlett said...

You know whenever I watch a movie or play a game that takes place in a medieval setting, I will ask myself "But where are their crops?"

I've been thinking a little about the food question myself...mostly seeing what temperatures can support what kinds of crops and other husbandry.

Interestingly, seems like it'd be pretty common in the world I'm creating. In pre-industrial times, people didn't always have plates and bowls handy, so breads where often shaped to fit that purpose.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Plates and bowls are a good point. How cultures eat is just as important as what they eat.