I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of worldbuilding includes the appropriate food for your level of technology.
Several years ago, I read a fantasy book where the author clearly spent many hours on the food of her fantasy world and the various animals. She gave each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different, usually unpronounceable, name in the language of her fantasy culture.
The clumsy way she inserted the information into the narrative ruined what could have been a great book for me.
The book started out well, and I really liked the characters. It was a portal story, and the group had been dropped into a strange world. One of the local farmhands agreed to be their guide.
However, every time the protagonists halted their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it. As they passed each field or forest, their guide would stop and explain the various fruits, herbs, and creatures in nearly scientific detail.
As a reader, I think Tolkien got the food right when he created the Hobbit and the world of Middle Earth. Food is an essential component of a culture but should be only briefly mentioned. Whether commonplace or exotic, it should be similar enough to known earthly foods to create an atmosphere a reader can easily visualize.
As many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, during the 1980s, my second ex-husband and I raised sheep. Most of the meat we served in our home was raised on his family’s communal farm. Our chickens and rabbits roamed their yard and had good lives, and our family’s herd of twenty sheep was managed using simple, old-style farming methods.
We were self-employed in the photography industry and were able to rotate whose turn it was to spend a week caring for the animals. Fortunately, my sister-in-law’s husband was Palestinian. He ensured our sheep were raised and butchered according to halal dietary laws.
I could write a book about those five years, but no one would believe it.
I grew up fishing with my father and 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 stinks. We had as many vegetarian meals as we did those featuring meat of some kind.
That experience taught me many things. As far as food goes, in a medieval setting, meat, fish, and fowl won’t be served every day in the average person’s home.
Yes, it is a real job to slaughter and prepare it for the table, but 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 culled from the herd.
Chickens were no different because you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided once a chicken is dead. Young roosters, however, were culled before they got to the contentious stage and were usually the featured meat in any stew that might be on a Sunday menu. Only one rooster was kept for breeding purposes and if he was too ill-tempered, he went into the stew pot and a young rooster with better manners took his place.
Cattle and goats were also more valuable alive. Cows were integral to a family’s wealth as they were milk producers and sometimes worked as draft animals. Only one bull would be kept intact for breeding purposes in a small herd. The others would be neutered, made into oxen and draft animals that pulled plows, pulled wagons, and did all the work that heavy farm machinery does today.
In medieval times, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game on many estates. Poachers were considered thieves and faced hash penalties, horrific by our standards if they were caught.
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. Eels were a menu staple.
Therefore, eels, eggs, dried beans and peas, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast-food of the era, often sold by vendors on the street side or in bakeries.
Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and most importantly, 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?
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. 
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. The primary source of protein would be eggs and cheese, and fish. 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.
In my world of Waldeyn, the setting for Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat or bean porridge, soup or fish 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.
Knowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In Mountains of the Moon, set in the world of Neveyah, my people have a melding of familiar New World ingredients for their diet and do a lot of foraging. For a good list of what this diet might entail, go to this link: Indigenous cuisine of the Americas. You will be amazed at the variety of common foods that originated in the Americas.
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 worldbuilding. 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, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed Feb 06, 2022).
The Medieval Plow (Moldboard Plow) PD|100, File:Plow medieval.jpg – Wikipedia (accessed Feb 06, 2022).
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.
4 responses to “Food, culture, and what your characters eat #amwriting”
Reblogged this on Kim's Musings.
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Thank you for the reblog, Kim!
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Great points! I’ve never thought about how the different types of meat would be affected by the culture of a fantasy world, especially sheep. Thanks for posting this!
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Hello, and thank you for commenting! Even today, in many parts of the world, a live animal is the source of the family’s wealth. The charity organization, Save the Children, has a program whereby we can donate a goat to an impoverished family. Goat cheese is a good saleable commodity for the poor in many countries.