Worldbuilding with food

After the previous post about “easy-ish” worldbuilding, this post by Joe M. McDermott about Worldbuilding and the Labor of Food certainly seems relevant! Also, food! Who doesn’t like that as a topic, right? Plus, I already specifically use details about food in worldbuilding anyway.

The labor of food! What crops are grown and who grows them, that’s part of the labor of food. So is cooking, from the day-in-day-out grinding of grain — did you know the skeletons of ancient Egyptian women show a very typical pathology linked to the continual labor to grind grain? That’s what leaped to mind for me when I saw the title of this post. I don’t know yet what direction McDermott will take here. I’ll look in a minute.

Of course, besides the labor of agriculture, there’s also the labor involved in cooking; who does the work and where, and with what variety and artistry? Remember the fun DWJ had with “stew” in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland?

Daily cooking is important, of course, but sometimes I prefer to focus on the beauty of special dishes rather than the labor involved in making, say, stew. Not just in The Floating Islands, where food is so central, but also in House of Shadows — remember the banquet scene? That was fun to write. Oh, hey, look at that, House of Shadows actually has a rating on Amazon of 4.7. I didn’t realize that until I pulled it up to get the link. I believe that must be my highest-rated book — certainly my highest rated traditionally published book. Let me just see … actually, quite a few 4.6 ratings, that’s nice to see … oh, look at this, The Sphere of the Winds actually has a star rating of 5.0!

The Sphere of the Winds by [Rachel Neumeier]

Wow, now I’m especially happy I self-published this book … was that just this past spring? How time flies! Thank you, everyone who has left a review.

Anyway, back to the topic — worldbuilding and the labor of food. Let’s see where McDermott goes with this …

I have a lot of fruit trees on my little, suburban lot. It’s a postage stamp lot, and packed in as tight as can be are six citrus trees, two pomegranates, two pears, two plums, two peaches, a jujube, three grapevines, a barbados cherry, two olive trees, a loquat, an elderberry, passionfruit vines, blackberries, raspberry

Wow, I’m envious! I’m down to five apple trees, having given up on the stonefruits. We had tremendous trouble with brown rot starting the year when hail came in and whapped the poor peaches just as they were ripening. All the peaches rotted on the trees and brown rot sank its claws in deep and we couldn’t get rid of it no matter what we did. Huge problems every year until, as I say, we gave up and removed the trees.

We do still have elderberries and raspberries. How neat to have olive trees! Though it’s a lot easier to buy olives of whatever types appeal to you. If I could grow any fruit tree, it wouldn’t be olives. It would be a Haas avocado. If I could pick another, it’d be a mango.

McDermott has a bit more to say about the food plants at his own home. Then he segues into the actual topic:

I think about how many fantasy novels are written and read by people who don’t take even a moment to think about what the weather and landscape mean to available food. In some ways, the conspicuous absence when I read fantasy is found in the way food is grown, harvested, prepared.

This is not quite the same, but I’m thinking now about this YA series … let me see … oh, right, the series that starts with Life as We Knew It. I liked this book a lot, it was quick and fun to read — I mean, fun for a post-apocalyptic story — but I was shocked how none of the characters ever thought, “Here I am looking at imminent starvation, so maybe I should go shoot a deer before they all starve. Or I bet there are fish in that pond. Or maybe we should collect acorns; I know those are edible if you treat them somehow, might be time to try to figure that out.” It was exactly like these (rural, or rural-ish) people had no notion food could ever come from anything but a grocery store. My take: Wow, every single editor and copy editor who ever looked at this has got to live smack dab in the middle of NYC.

And yes, I once did gather a lot of acorns and make acorn flour. I mean, why not? I wanted to see what that was like, and there were SO MANY acorns just lying there on the deck and in the yard. I had to do something with them because some of the dogs kept wanting to eat them. To this day, Dora will drop an acorn if I point at her sternly. They are in fact somewhat toxic and I really do not want the dogs to eat them. They’re quite bitter without treatment, so I’m baffled why they want to. (I’m just letting this post ramble, as you’ve gathered.)

Back to McDermott’s post:

The amount of work that goes into a single grain of wheat, a single loaf of bread, has been lost to us. We have divided up that labor across different industries such that we see a farmhouse table in our minds populated with edible things, and we think nothing of the farm from which everything rose up to create that picturesque scene. We don’t see all the manual labor required to get the raw material of soil into seed into a form that we can eat and put on that table. 

You know who does a great job with this? LMB in the Sharing Knife series.

Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, Book 1): Volume 1 (The Wide Green World Series) by [Lois McMaster Bujold]

Because of the way Bujold focuses on normal people living normal lives (I mean, plus the occasional giant bats), we do see a lot of day-to-day life on farms and small villages. Plenty about planting and harvesting and the work involved in getting food on the table. I love the small-scale focus on daily life in this series. That’s one of the factors that makes this series so comfortable to re-read.

McDermott writes:

I have grown a bit of corn from seed and dried it and ground it up into corn flour, and saved the seeds for another year’s cornbread. I have reached into the past to try and figure out how the people who lived here for a thousand years and more managed to survive on acorns and roots and pumpkins and peppers. We talk about world-building all the time, as writers, but we do it in our heads, where we can invent whatever suits us. When I build a world in my little yard, and it is an act of world-building, of managing forces and distances, constructing ecosystems and figuring out solutions to problems I unintentionally create, I am forced to face the hard truth of building a world.

That’s nicely put.

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9 thoughts on “Worldbuilding with food”

  1. There’s a local ‘heritage farm’ around here that does educational things including how to make acorn flour, process buckeye, make a kind of rope from some kind of viney thing whose name escapes me at the moment. So I sort of know how to do some of these things and how much work goes into them.

    It’s depressingly obvious with some writers how much they don’t realize about the amount of work that goes into getting edible food, cloth for clothing… As someone who knits, sews, and the Teen spins, I have a better clue than most just how much time and effort go into textiles. And I really notice the writers who assume fabric, thread, needles, pins are disposable, or at least cheap and easily available.

  2. Elaine, did you read HILD by Nicola Griffith? Because the centrality for women’s lives of everything to do with cloth truly struck me in that book. I made a mental note to go back to that one if I wanted to review everything about the historical role of making cloth and clothing for anything I write.

  3. Yes, I loved HILD, it was wonderfully immersive, and she got the focus on cloth for women probably accurate. That was valuable.

    As for getting food, as in the OP, anyone who has tried to raise tomatoes (for example) sucessfully for more than one year, ought to know farming isn’t easy. Food takes work.

  4. On the other hand, there is the question of how much of this your character thinks about.

    A famine will get everyone’s attention, but magical means to alleviate — better crops, conjured food, easy transportation — will cut that down.

    I’m working on a story where the heroine is vaguely aware that, as a noble, she works on the vast, kingdom-encompassing spells that produce good harvests among other things, but no detail except as scenery or supper.

  5. Rachel, one of my beta readers complained that in Madeleine and the Mists, whenever Madeleine is sitting about, she’s sewing.

    And not because she wasn’t spinning instead. (She was prosperous enough to have other women for that.)

  6. This is interesting to think about.
    Thank you for the link to making acorn flour. I don’t think I will ever do so, but the knowledge of ways to make food from such unlikely sources interests me. Maybe because of some vague feeling left from snippets of talk about what my mother as a little girl experienced in the Hungerwinter, and from my grandmother about how she tried to feed the family on potato peelings cooked on a tiny fire of splinters, and 20 grams of fat per week per person. The sense that if war and deprivation should ever return to Europe, it’s good if people still know how to survive without all the modern conveniences got deeply ingrained by that, as well as the need to know our country / area can produce enough food to feed itself (even if with a lot less variety, without imports), though I think the next generation has lost a lot of that visceral sense of necessity.

    What you said, “did you know the skeletons of ancient Egyptian women show a very typical pathology linked to the continual labor to grind grain?” rang a bell for me as well. When we visited the Mondo Verde ruins of the Pueblo indian dwellings in the rock alcoves, the guide showed us three grinding stations with large flat stones below, hollowed out from the endless back and forth of an oval rounded rock (2-3 fists wide) on top of each flat stone. The women would kneel at those stones and with bent backs push and drag that upper stone back and forth to grind the maize into meal, and that (and the extra depletion from pregnancies) would deform their skeletons and age them twice as fast as the men, so they died much younger.

    Bread and cheese and cloth are incredibly important, but making them has been a heavy burden mostly on women throughout history.

  7. This is a bit of a tangent but as you know I lived in Thailand for 6 years. My friends had three mango trees in their yard and two dogs. And every year during mango season (about April, maybe starting a little earlier and ending a little later depending on the variety of mango) they would try to get to the mangoes before their dogs did. For two reasons: so they got to eat some, but also because the dogs would get totally wild from the sugar in the mangoes and rampage through the yard.

    Second tangent: I’ll never forget interviewing a food culture professor once who told me that her college students (the student population was mostly working class NYC kids who had never left the city) had no idea that carrots grew in dirt or that cuts of meat came from an animal. She often sent students to nearby delis that butchered goats and the students were absolutely shocked to see whole animals hanging in the freezer in the back. I was a vegetarian at the time so my trip with her to buy goat eyes was almost as intense for me! The story is here, on page 8 if anyone is interested:

    Hanneke, if you didn’t know, those hollows are called metates and you can find them all over the southwest, wherever people lived. It’s so fun to be hiking in what is now wilderness and find a big rock with a bunch of metates carved into them and think about what life might have been like for them.

  8. Raf, in one of his collections of essays, Henry Mitchell comments about a Basset Hound who got every melon as it ripened. I don’t think the family got any melons at all while they had that dog…

    Also, goat eyes? Wow, that would be intense for most of us.

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