Food and Culture - The Art of World Building
Jun 112020

Cultures always have their own foods. For inspiration, we can easily leverage Earth analogues. What do we think of with Chinese, Indian, and Italian foods to name a few? Even a city like New Orleans has associated dishes. There’s New York style pizza and Philadelphia cheesesteaks. France and Champagne, Germans and beer, the U.S. south and moonshine. We only need to decide that something is particularly delicious somewhere or that they invented it. A drink or food can be notorious for its effect, taste, or smell.

But individual foods do not a culture make. Rather, there’s a taste, aroma, and consistency often associated with a culture. This could be red or white sauce. It can be pasta or rice (Italy vs. Asia) with seemingly everything. What is often unique is the sauce and spice combination. Are foods bland, spicy (mild to hot), rich, creamy, tart, tangy, etc.? We could go on, but food is one area where the values we decided on earlier are of limited use in deciding what a culture’s food tastes like. We can instead simply assign a style, though authors sometimes like to say something like, “Their food was as spicy as their lovemaking.” This can help us decide.

Its presentation, however, is another matter, as culture influences this. Japanese culture is often refined in appearance, manners – and how food looks on a plate. There’s a design aesthetic. Another culture might heap everything onto a plate, or pile meats and veggies atop a bed of rice. Granted, every approach can exist in the same culture, but we have the option of creating expectations. The dining style likely accompanies the presentation. How stately do chopsticks look, and the little white bowls of rice, soup, or tea?

When inventing foods in world building, it’s often the impression we want, as the audience will never get to eat them. We want to comment on the reaction to be served, not to mention consuming, anything. Why reaction? In the United States, fish is served without a head, but in other countries it will still be attached, a fact that bothers many American diners, to cite one example. There are also body parts some cultures eat and others won’t, like pigs’ feet. The existence of rice, noodles, various meat types, and vegetables will not change much on even imagined worlds, even if the details do or we create analogues, so we should spend more time on impressions and reactions.

Specific foods are often consumed at traditional times, such as turkey at Thanksgiving in the United States, or ham for Christmas and eggs for Easter. Believe it or not, KFC is a traditional Christmas food in Japan since the 1970s. We likely need a few of these items if a holiday is occurring amidst our story; we can take common foods and simply decide they’re had that day, possibly prepared or served a certain way.

Crops are harvested at different times of the year. This can result in seasonal foods that are also part of culture. Absent refrigeration or being stored somewhere cool, most fruits and vegetables only last a day or two without quality loss, but they can still be eaten days later, though there is risk of bacteria having grown on them, depending on the item. There’s a lot of variation to this, but some plants can still be associated with a whole season because not every apple tree, for example, needs to be harvested at the same time, and in our fictional world, with invented variations on plants, we have leeway for our decisions. In Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1), we covered creating plants like Earth ones, with minor changes. We can learn when a food is harvested and mimic this with ours.


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