Just about every living thing, real and imaginary, relies on some form of consumption to survive. Most beings we write about require food and water to survive, and even characters who don’t—say, robots or beings with photosynthesis—will likely notice the food sources of those who do. It’s a point of reference that we as humans all share, and something we all think about when realizing we never actually got a dinner plan set up. Er, not that I’m speaking from personal experience here…
I didn’t used to think about food much, mostly because I was a picky eater, from a picky family with an even pickier sibling. I had my small staple of foods I would eat, and this didn’t really improve until college. (Well, once I learned how to cook and our cable was cut down to just the Food Network, if I’m being honest.) Part of the issue was that I never realized the limitless potential of food, from how the ingredients combined to realizing that spices and condiments can in fact improve a dish—yes, I ate everything plain, meaning it took me over fifteen years to try sauce on my pasta. I told you I was picky.
Not only have I come to appreciate food in real life, but I’ve started thinking about its place in fiction. At least 98% of characters need to eat after all, and what they choose to munch on says a lot about them, and also the world they live in. What foods are readily available and what’s in high demand? Do folks need a certain amount of wealth or status to eat certain foods, or are there reasons to avoid certain ingredients? How is the food hunted, harvested, or otherwise created, and then who actually prepares the food?
If your story is set in our world (past or present), the answer shouldn’t be too difficult, though you may need to research details outside your experience. Since Deadly Drinks is an urban fantasy series, I haven’t had to figure out much for Bones and Bourbon in terms of food—mostly figuring out what a lamia might eat, or what poorly-paid paranormals can afford. But while food isn’t as noticeable as alcohol in the series, it does come up in terms of where (and when!) characters are from. Left to their own devices in the kitchen, ancient evil spirit Nalem is going to gravitate toward different flavors than a Japanese/Brazilian furaribi, and both will be drastically different from the alchemy-laced Germanic meals that the Gallows brothers are used to their parents cooking.
(It also means that when I travel to a city for book research, I have a good excuse to try different restaurants to figure out where my characters might end up eating. See, writing has its perks!)
Science fiction rooted in our current technology can also have an element of research to it, though since the future is not definitive, it can still be played with. If your setting takes place on Earth (or a terraformed planet), how does technology help or hinder the growth of food? Details like what economic classes can afford “real” food, or watching rebel forces try to grow their own gardens inside an urban landscape, can help ground such a setting with efforts taking place in our own world. Meanwhile, space fiction has its own complications, such as how to keep food for long voyages, or discovering what’s edible on an alien planet.
The more fantastical you get, however, the more worldbuilding you have to do in order for everything to remain logical. Otherwise, you’ll just raise further questions: if you mention a character is drinking blue milk on a desert planet, readers are going to wonder where this milk came from and why it’s blue. Same goes for other aspects of your setting: a large army on the move needs some sort of food, a walled-in city either needs farmers within its borders or some way to import supplies, and that super cool fortress hidden in a volcano still needs to get water if the king of darkness doesn’t want his servants dying of dehydration.
One of the fun settings I have in the works is King’s Oak, a fantasy setting where an entire city-state nation is built into a giant tree, which is planted where four powerful leylines meet, causing it to be split between all four seasons at once and rotating them accordingly. The setup is fantastical, but I’ve put a lot of thought about the imports and exports of this city, including the food.
One can’t exactly set up swathes of farmland in the branches of a city, and there’s only a small sea for fish that’s shared with a neighboring country, so I decided most of the meat comes from birds or lizards, and insects are actually used as a common source of protein as well. As for plants, from fruit trees to wheat, I realized that they could be spliced onto King’s Oak itself, and thus almost every surface of this setting can be used to host plant life. Plus, with the seasons rotating along different parts of the tree, different quadrants can host unique plants, such as a wetter quadrant being host to what could be found in our rainforests. Because of all this, I can include both mundane and “exotic” ingredients in one place; who’s up for some grasshopper pancakes?
Hopefully, this post has given all of you some food for thought (pun fully intended) on what you read/watch and write in your own stories. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dinner to plan.