Food can be an easily overlooked detail in stories, especially in books when we don't have to physically show what the characters are eating. We can get away with generic words like pastry, meat, vegetable, and fruit, but food can add so much more detail to a story. Now you don't need to go all Bryan Jaques on your story and describe every dish in elaborate detail to the point if you were a little woodland creature you could copycat his recipes just from reading a paragraph of prose, but taking the time to think about your storyworld's food and how it affects the characters can add another layer to your story.
1.) Food Can Allude to Your World's Environment - Food can tell a whole lot about the world your character lives in. When you think of noodles, pork, and dumplings immediately somewhere in East Asian comes to mind. When you think of marinara sauce, rotini, and olives Italy comes to mind. When you think of blue milk some alien planet comes to mind.
Detailing what types of food your characters eat can give your readers a sense of the region your characters live in. Certain foods grow in certain environments. Therefore just a meal between characters can act as a massive dose of world-building in a natural way. Don't say "meat," say lamb, pork, duck, chicken, venison, etc. Don't say "fruit," say apricot, apple, lychee, papaya, grape, etc. Don't say "pastry," say baklava, turnover, burfi, pavlova, etc. Don't say "vegetable," say beet, leek, tomato, corn, etc.''
When you have food that is unique to your world like horker meat from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, sea-salt ice cream from Kingdom Hearts, and stewed sea prunes and fire flakes from Avatar: The Last Airebender, your world's cuisine can be even more unique and exclusive to your world. People will remember your world's particular food.
2.) Food Can Tell What Societal Rank and Time Period Your Character is In - Caviar is widely known as a food for rich people and white bread is known as very cheap. Just by the meal your characters sit to eat, one can tell where they are in society and even what time period they're in. If the characters are eating fast food like McDonald's or Burger King, they're obviously in a modern world, probably middle to lower class. If they're eating pig roasted on a spit with stone-oven baked bread and vegetables grilled over coals, this probably means they're nobility in Medieval times. On the other hand, if they're eating rye bread with cabbage soup, they'll probably poor villagers from the same time period.
3.) Food is Good for Character Building - Naruto is obsessed with ramen. Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation must have his cup of earl grey tea hot. The Eleventh Doctor from Doctor Who combined fish fingers and custard. Sasha Braus from Attack on Titan is forever known as Potato Girl. Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender must have his daily dose of meat in blubbered seal jerky or another form and Aang is vegetarian. Kyo from Fruits Basket can't stand leeks. C2 from Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion is so enamored with pizza she'd risk blowing her cover to see the world's large pizza.
All of these are character-defining traits and quirks that make help these characters memorable. Consider giving your characters a strong food like or dislike to develop them.
4.) Food Can Be An Enemy - Food can be as equally dangerous as it is important. Spoiled food, poisoned food, and allergy foods can pose as a huge obstacle or even death to characters. In BBC's Robin Hood, a butcher sells spoiled meat to villagers which causes a number of them to become sick with severe food poisoning. In the Hunger Games, Foxface meets her end when she eats poisonous nighlock berries. In Flight 29 Down, Eric consumes shellfish which he's unknowingly extremely allergic to and nearly dies of anaphylactic shock. Another more sinister way of weaponizing food was in Firefly when the Alliance put grenades inside apples.
5.) Food Can Be A Plot Point - We can't live without food therefore if the characters are lacking food this can act as a significant plot point for your story. In the Hunger Games, the Capitol controls the flow of food, pushing districts to put their name into the Reaping to get more food for their families. In the Grave of the Fireflies, Japan's food prices have sky-rocketed due to World War II, which forces many Japanese to sell their prize belongings just for a few pounds of rice. Fighting starvation is the main struggle for poor Seita and Setsuko as they struggle to survive on their own.
Conclusion - Putting more thought into your world's cuisine can take more effort, but the payoff is a deeper more real world--and maybe you'll have someone like Alison Wonderland Recipes make a menu based on your story. ;)
What foods does your storyworld have? Have you given much thought to the food in your storyworld? Does your storyworld have unique foods?
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