Thursday, December 18, 2008
One of the easiest and simplest ways to set a fantasy in a very different world is to have unusual food.
It’s often more effective to use real-life food – eggs, fish, what have you – cooked in different combinations and served in different ways than to fantasify the food. A reader probably won’t gain much from a mention of “Singarian tea”. It’s tea, but there’s nothing to say what makes it different from Lipton. However, if the narrative describes this as “hot red tea with a hibiscus flower submerged in it”, that’s much more distinctive.
I sometimes borrow cookery books from the library, especially if they deal with exotic or unusual foods, like nouvelle cuisine where scrambled eggs are served in real eggshells in a nest of fried shoestring potatoes. I don't have the time or the patience to cook this kind of thing, but it fires my imagination with some bizarre ideas for what food my characters will eat.
My inspirations also come from descriptions of meals in other books, such as Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre, which contrasts the propriety of an English country aristocrat’s life with an ugly secret beneath. I like the stately progression of meals – sherry first, then soup and salmon with white wine, venison or pheasant with red, peaches and grapes for dessert, port and coffee afterwards. And other cultures would have their own customs regarding what was served when during meals.
Food can be eaten on banana leaves, on plates of bone, from large seashells, from carved wooden bowls, from fine china that looks almost transparent. Garnishes make interesting additional touches as well. There’s no need to turn every meal into a banquettish production with everything described, but a carefully chosen detail can make the readers feel that they’re not in Kansas any more.
One thing to be careful about is not to include food that might be too anachronistic. The scene in The Last Unicorn where the outlaw offers Schmendrick a taco is funny, but a story that’s supposed to take place in a realistic medieval land would not include tomatoes (though they might fit if they were called wolf-fruit or love-apples and treated as the exotic items they would be).
Other than that, though, the sky's the limit. Readers probably won't buy the characters eating stone soup, but anything that might even be remotely edible will qualify. Tree bark, insects, maggots, lichen... I've seen all those in fiction, and real life provides even more examples of unusual food. Rocky Mountain Oysters, anyone?
And on that note, I'm going to make dinner.