Fantasy Cuisine & Mealtimes

Are you tired of feeding your characters generic medieval fare? Do you need to figure out who should be eating first or how food should be served up in your mealtime scenes? Are you just curious to see your world through the eyes of a foodie? Then this is the right post for you. I’ll be getting into what your characters eat, why they do or don’t eat the things that they do or don’t eat, and how meals look in your world. Let’s get started!

Food Availability

The first and most obvious question to ask about food in your world is what your characters have access to. What edible plants and animals can be found in their geographical context? Beyond that, what edible plants and animals can be traded in from neighboring or even distant cultures? For that matter, what foods can be transported in your world once they’ve already been prepared? Do your cultures trade recipes at all?

Likewise, what foods are not available to this culture? Do they lack the equipment, ingredients, or recipes to make certain things? Are there plants that refuse to grow in their climate? Animals they don’t have the skill to husband? Knowing what they don’t have can be just as instrumental in shaping a fictional cuisine as knowing what they do have.

Food Prep Options

Once you know what ingredients your characters have at their disposal, you’ll also need to determine what sort of equipment they have on hand for storing, preserving, and preparing food. Do they have means of keeping things cool? If so, how cool? Does the same method work year-round or can they only keep things cold during certain times of year?

Do they cook things the traditional way–over heat–or are they prevented from using this method for some reason (because they live on boats, their climate is too cold for warmth to last long, they’re a species that can’t handle heat, etc.)? If they can’t use heat, do they have to age everything? Do they eat a lot of fermented foods? Do they freeze foods to eliminate germs instead? Do they even know/care about germs, or do they simply eat things raw?

Of course, some cultures may also use a mix of these methods–some foods may be heated, while others may be chilled, fermented, or eaten raw. In some cases, obviously, this will depend on the nature of the food in question; in others, it will be a matter of preference. More creative or experimental cultures may try the same foods with several different preparation methods to find out which ones are best–whether for flavor or health. Their priorities as a culture will dictate their priorities here (a scientific or health-focused culture will be more worried about eating well and eliminating threats to health, while cultures that value creativity or variety might simply be looking for as many ways to eat different things as possible)–as will their beliefs about food, specifically, which we’ll get into next.

Beliefs Around Food

Once you know the breadth of the options available to your culture in a technical sense–the ingredients and equipment/skills they have at their disposal–you can look into how these options are shaped by your culture’s view of food on a spiritual and philosophical level.

The most broad consideration in this vein will be to think through what your culture sees as the purpose of food (or what 2-3 purposes they see food as serving, primarily). Do they see it only as a means to an end, fuel for their lives? Does it have spiritual meaning, a physical reflection of the way that people need to be spiritually nourished? Is it an art form? A tool for fellowship and hospitality? Is it an element of worship? Is food seen as a pleasurable thing to indulge in? The answer to this question will affect the breadth of what is eaten and how.

Next, consider whether there are any restrictions on what is seen as edible in this culture–beyond what is literally edible vs. inedible. Are certain plants or animals seen as “unclean”? Is the culture vegetarian? Pescatarian? Vegan? Are these guidelines seen as coming directly from a deity, or are they inferred from other values the deity has given them? (E.g. a culture that is anti-violence might see hunting as violent and thus be largely vegetarian, even if their deity hasn’t given them a directive not to eat meat.)

Lastly, are there any foods seen as sacred or otherwise special in this culture, set aside for particular purposes, contexts, or days? Are there foods set aside for birthdays, weddings, festivals, or religious ceremonies? Do particular combinations of foods mean something specific? Does this culture have ways of communicating through their food or the way their meals are laid out? Which leads us to…

Mealtimes & Mealtime Etiquette

Here we get beyond what your characters eat and into the details of when and how they eat. The most obvious thing to start with is to determine how often your characters have meals. They might be like hobbits, eating seven meals a day; they might have the American count of three; they might have one smaller meal and one larger meal; or they might only have one large meal per day. How often your characters eat will depend on a few things: how much they need to eat (particularly an important consideration for non-humans), their cultural view of the function of food (as previously discussed), and the depth of their understanding of nutrition (how their bodies respond to food when it’s spaced out vs. all at once, how they handle fasting, etc.). Cultures that see food as a mere necessity might have just one or two meals so they can get eating out of the way, or they might not have any set times because they just eat when they need to. Cultures that see it as a communal activity (and value community) might have more frequent meals as a means of drawing together families and communities–and granting more frequent opportunities for hospitality. Cultures that view it as an art form might have only one or two meals a day because it takes a while to prepare food to perfection. Other cultures may operate on a model of intermittent fasting, they might have one smaller meal in the morning to prepare characters for the day and a larger one in the evening to celebrate a good day’s work with family and friends, etc.

This ties in with the next question, which is: How are different meals set apart, if at all? Are there meals that are seen to serve a merely utilitarian function, while others are viewed as religious or communal? Are all meals family meals, or are some meals “every man for himself” and others designated to be spent with family? Are people in this culture expected to be ready to welcome strangers in for any meal (in a culture that values community and charity, for example), or can they be more relaxed and prepared only for their own families or expected guests?

What does it look like for your characters to prepare for a meal? What dishes and utensils are used, and how are they laid out before a meal? Does shifting their placement have meaning? (For example, in cultures where you can communicate that you’re finished or that you would like more of a certain dish by arranging your dishes and utensils a particular way.) Are there any ways to snub guests (or hosts) in the placement of dishes, which should generally be avoided? Is it expected that hosts and/or guests will wash their hands before a meal (or their faces or their feet, for that matter)? Are certain activities prohibited during a meal (such as singing, burping, placing elbows on the table, etc.)? On the flip side, is anything expected of those at a table together (such as passing dishes, exchanging stories, keeping silence, saying a prayer, etc.)? Is etiquette the same for adults and for children, or are there two different sets of expectations depending on a character’s age?

How are meals served? Does this culture generally use a buffet style, family style (passing dishes around), or plated ahead of time model? Are there guidelines for the order in which people are served at the table (does the oldest or youngest person go first, or are guests given preference, etc.)? Who generally does the serving (servants, the lady of the house, the head of the house, the children of the host, everyone serves themselves, etc.)?

Beyond the order in which food is served, what is the order of who may eat first? Are both orders the same? Can one’s place be forfeited (say, if a child reaches for the food before it’s been properly blessed and served are they moved to the end of the line) or can one be brought up in the line (say, if the host wishes to give special honor to a particular guest)?

Communal Meals

Next, I want to bring up meals that are specifically communal and how etiquette does or doesn’t differ in these contexts. Some meals may be central to a community–think of things like block parties or celebrations that a whole community participates in around a meal. How do the rules of a meal change or stay the same? Are there changes made to simplify logistics? Or are logistics adjusted to accommodate the same types of etiquette?

Say you’ve decided that the head of a household says the blessing over a meal and gets to be served their food first. For community meals, does this privilege move upward to the head of the community, followed by the heads of household, then trickling down as usual? Or are tables set up for each household? Or does each table seat a few households, and the eldest head of household eats first at his table, followed by the others in age order? There are lots of variations you can explore from just one set of etiquette.

Meals to commemorate special events and holidays might also have different rules from the usual. Etiquette may be more formal (or more relaxed), or it might be changing for particular characters (if, for example, the celebration is for a coming-of-age ceremony or a new year and characters are moving out of childhood etiquette into adult etiquette). Certain foods may be enjoyed that aren’t on other occasions, special dishes may be brought out, special attire might be expected at the table, etc.

Religious meals have a whole new set of considerations, because these are likely symbolic and might even be perceived as sharing a meal with a deity. These meals might be taken more rarely and will likely have distinct requirements from other meals in terms of how they’re administered, by whom, and to what purpose. Distinct etiquette will likely flow out of this–though in some cases the etiquette may be largely parallel if the culture views all other meals as reflective of these sacred meals. Religious meals may hold symbolic meaning–reminders of particular religious events, for example–or may be seen as communion with a deity following a sacrifice, or mere fellowship with fellow believers and/or the deity/deities themselves.

Fasting and Famine

Lastly, I want to talk about the absence of food, starting with intentional absence of food (fasting) before getting into inadvertent absence of food (famine).

The first question is whether this culture sees fasting as a thing to do. Is it something they do for health reasons, religious reasons, or to share experiences with those battling famine? Or do they see it as ridiculous because food is a necessity that you shouldn’t withhold from yourself? If they do fast for one reason or another, how frequently do they do so? Is fasting something that’s done together as a community (either on a routine basis or as part of a particular, infrequent observance like Lent), or is it a private matter? Are both considered appropriate in different contexts?

How does this culture handle supplying food to those who have none? Do they have any equivalent to a soup kitchen–whether organized by a civil or religious body? Are members of the community expected to extend hospitality and feed those in need “on their own time”? Are scraps and fragments left at harvest time so that those who have need may gather? Are fields open to those who need to harvest food for themselves in general? Does this culture even care, or if this not an issue that they have addressed? (In some cultures at certain times, it might not be something they need to consider at all.)

What are the causes of famine in this culture’s part of the world? Do pests come through and destroy crops or infect livestock? Are natural disasters prone to destroy food supplies? Does this culture not tend to its soil well and thus have poor yield? Are they unskilled at raising their livestock, so they lose a lot of what meat or animal byproducts they would be able to use?

When famine does hit, are there any hardier sources of food that remain? What is left behind that they have to get creative with so they don’t get sick of it during droughts, blights, and other times of famine? (These might be crops or animals, depending on the needs of what they grow and raise.)

Lastly, where does this culture turn during a famine? What neighbors can be turned to when they have no food left? Who has better crops, more reliable weather, or stronger livestock and is willing to provide this culture with what they need? What is this extra food worth to this neighboring culture; what trades are agreed upon in these seasons?

This post was particularly question-heavy, but I’d love to hear in the comments which of these considerations most piqued your interest and what you’re most excited to work on next!

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4 thoughts on “Fantasy Cuisine & Mealtimes

  1. This was so interesting, I’ve never really thought about the importance of food and how what’s available to some extent dictates and influences a culture.

  2. This article gave me so many different ideas for my story; thank you so much! It even inspired me to go look up traditional Mongolian food as research for one culture in my story :). Definitely hoping to come back to this post later as I do more world-building for my current project.

    Also, I didn’t know what “pescatarian” meant before today, so it was cool to learn a new word! ;)

    1. You’re welcome! Ooh, that sounds like it would be really interesting to explore. I’m glad the post was helpful (for both worldbuilding and vocabulary, lol)!

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