Fantasy Food #amwriting

As many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of world building is including the appropriate food for your level of technology.

I recently read a fantasy book where the author went to a great deal of trouble to give each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different (and in some cases, an unpronounceable) name in “their” language.  This ruined what could have been a great book for me. Every time the protagonists halted on their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it.

For me, Tolkien had it right. When I am reading, I don’t want to have to learn a new language. Fantasy food should be kept to the familiar. Bacon should be bacon, apples should be apples. Food is part of the world building, so it needs to something a reader is familiar with.

During the 1980s, much of the meat I served my family, we raised ourselves. Our chickens were cage free and had good lives, and our sheep were raised using simple, old-style farming methods. I grew up fishing with my father, and I have a first-person understanding of what it takes to put meat, fish, or fowl on the table when a supermarket is not an option. Take my word for this: getting a chicken from the coop to the table is time-consuming, messy, and smelly.

SO – in a medieval setting meat won’t be served every day, and not just because it is a real job to slaughter it. Other, more subtle factors come into play, things that affect the logic of your plot.

In the middle ages, the wool a sheep could produce in its lifetime was of far more value than the meat you might get by slaughtering it. For that reason, lamb was rarely served. The only sheep that made it to the table were usually rams that were being culled from the herd. And chickens were no different because once a chicken is dead, you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided. Cattle were also more valuable alive: cows as milk producers and bulls as oxen, draft animals.

In medieval times, on many estates, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game. However, most people were allowed to fish as long as they didn’t take salmon, so fish was on the menu more often than fowl, sheep, or cattle.

Therefore, eels, eggs, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast food of the era.

Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and rye.

Common vegetables in medieval European gardens were leeks, garlic, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower, squashes, gourds, melons, parsnips, aubergines (eggplants)—the list goes on and on. And fruits? Wikipedia says:

Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. Since sugar and honey were both expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. Farther north, apples, pears, plums, and wild strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe but remained rather expensive imports in the north.

Even a century ago, the average person didn’t eat meat every day because it was difficult to acquire. To buy it from the butcher, you paid them for their time and labor as well as for the cut of meat. It was not cheap.

For the most part, my characters eat a medieval/agrarian diet. In medieval times, peasants ate more vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts than the nobility did. The main source of protein would be eggs and cheese. Herbal teas, ale, ciders, and mead were also staples of the commoner’s diet because drinking fresh, unboiled water was unhealthy. Medieval brews were more of a meal than today’s beers.

So, in Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat porridge, soup or stew, ale or cider, or bread and cheese.

Billy is captain of a mercenary company and an innkeeper, and for most of his story he does the cooking. I keep the food simple and don’t make too big a deal out of it. The conversations that happen while he is trying to feed the Rowdies are more important than the food. The food is the backdrop.

For Huw (pronounced Hugh), starvation is his most urgent problem, so food and the difficulties of obtaining it are an integral part of his story at the outset.

Knowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In the world of Neveyah (Tower of Bones), my people have a New World diet. It isn’t really mentioned, but maize and potatoes are important staples as are beans and wild greens.

When it comes to writing about meals, I feel it’s best to concentrate on the conversations. The food should be part of the scenery, a subtle part of world building. The conversations that occur around food are the places where new information can be exchanged, things we need to know to move the story forward,

Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed May 14, 2019).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Village Scene with Well,  Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons


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14 responses to “Fantasy Food #amwriting

  1. My pet peeve, though usually in everyday life rather than fiction. Sometimes, it seems like all plans for having a meal boil down to a single question: beef, pork, or poultry? (Or fish if you’re feeling filthy rich!) I’m hugely thankful for spreading veganism and vegetarianism, if for no other reason than broadening our understanding of what’s edible…

    Anyway, fantastic post, thanks! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Scott Driscoll

    Your analysis of food writing as part of world-building in fantasy is spot on. Thank you. Highly informative. Connie, do you have any good recommendations on books about world-building for fiction and especially fantasy writers? Please let me know. I’d love to read such a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Scott, I will look around. I do have some reference books on the subject.
      Fantasy World-Building: A Guide to Developing Mythic Worlds and Legendary Creatures by Mark Nelson is a good beginning.
      Also, World Building, by Stephen Gillette and Ben Bova is in my library. It deals with Sci fi worlds, but the principals are the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jaq

    Very important in a story. I’m working out what my characters are going to eat in a new Fantasy series where travelling over mountains made largely of crystal quartz features. Not a lot would grow there! Luckily we’ve got a small dragon to help.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stephen Swartz

    Sometimes the best aspect of read the Game of Thrones books are the various meals the characters enjoy!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Stephen Swartz

    My MFA professor once chastised my less-than-character-driven stories by saying “I want to know everything about them, what they had for breakfast, [etc.]” so I try to describe a breakfast in detail in every book I write.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Some very good points. Especially your comment about giving food weird names. In my fantasy books I’ve kept our Earth names for food.
    I’ve historical novels, too, and your comments on what peasants ate in medieval times is a great help. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I get a great deal of good information from a website called Medieval Times. Also, I have gotten wonderful information from a book called Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley. It was out of print for a while as the author died, but I believe it is once again available.