Monday, December 1, 2008

I Can Has Cute Forest Feast?

So, as promised, a Thanksgiving (post-Thanksgiving?) post about fantasy food.

My first exposure to food in literature was in Brian Jacques's Redwall series, which I read in elementary school and middle school. Practically every book included a long and loving description of a feast hosted by one group of cute sentient forest creatures or another. The forest creatures were always pescetarians (the kind who also eat eggs and milk), which makes sense since most game animals were too big for them, all small creatures were sentient, and fish were dumb animals (and sometimes monsters). Anyway, the feasts were gorgeous, complete with small tangents about the preparation or gathering of the foods. Jacques spent pages and pages exhaustively described the taste, the smell, and the presentation of each dish.

Some people have mocked Jacques for his attention to culinary detail in the dietary habits of cute sentient forest creatures (and I may have joined in, because hey, they are kind of funny), but I always thought his descriptions added to the story (even as reading them made me hungry). Jacques brought his forest creatures to life with his detailed descriptions of what and how they ate. In some stories, that might be an unimportant detail, but something I realized very early about Jacques's books is that the life and times of small forest creatures was one of the main attractions. Jacques wanted us to be as fascinated as he was with how the cute forest creatures ordered their world.

Most other uses of food in fantasy or science fiction fall into two other categories: cliched or ignorant. In the latter case, food is simply forgotten, or described very blandly. We know the characters must eat, but no attention is given to what, or how, or what it says about them. In the former case, food is used simply to explicate some small detail of the setting - usually in line with some trope - but it isn't really given any attention. For example, in Tolkienesque Fantasy, trail food is boring, but fantasy creatures sometimes have nifty booze. Alternately, trail food is abominable because whoever ends up with cooking duty on the road is invariably bad at it. In classic science fiction, food comes from pills, or out of a replicator, and is utterly without character.

Ok, so, Jacques tells us a lot about his forest creatures by endlessly describing their feasts and a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors neglect the possibilities inherent in food... but wait, what are the possibilities inherent in food?

Firstly, food can do for us what it does for Jacques. It can tell us a lot about the lifestyles of the characters in our fantasy settings. What, exactly, do Jacques's feasts tell us about his cute forest creatures? We know that they live in close-knit communities, that they enjoy community projects that take a lot of cooperation and prepare food that takes many people to prepare, even though they could probably choose simpler dishes, and that they like eating large communal meals. We know that the cute forest creatures take great pleasure in presenting their food attractively and eat informally, but with the trappings of ceremony - bowls of rose-scented water to clean their fingers with, for example, and a procession of courses brought out one at a time to oohs and aahs from the assembled diners. Finally, we get some idea of the multiculturalism (multispecism?) of his cute forest creatures. We have mole-style soups and mouse-style roasts and badger-style stuffings (or whatever), and everyone enjoys them together, regardless of their origins.

Food can mean something. Does your fantasy culture eat delicately prepared meats with chopsticks? That implies a certain elegance, a distance from nature and an effort to approach the divine and eternal. Do your science fiction roughnecks drink weird-sounding boozes with exotic names? That helps imply that known space is larger than where your story takes place, and that trade has carried alien beverages even to this rough frontier. The possibilities are endless!

Food is one of those things that can tell a reader a lot about a character or a setting, but while travel writers know to cover it, science fiction and fantasy authors tend to forget about it. I think we could do worse than to take a page from Redwall and emulate the small cute forest creatures: describe our feasts in greater detail and bring our worlds to life.

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  • When have you noted food in something you were writing, and were you happy with the result?

2 comments:

Scattercat said...

I seem to borrow a lot of my examples from television shows and movies (I've noticed this on writing forums, when I'm trying to explain concepts like foreshadowing or the climax to clueless high schoolers), but one of the most memorable "importance of food" moments for me is in "Firefly," when Shepherd Book pays a portion of his travel fee with fresh fruits and vegetables. In the universe of weeks-long journeys between planets and moons, everything was either dried or flavored, processed soy protein with added minerals, and fruit'n'veg were rare and valuable critters. With just a few words (and facial expressions), the show communicated the feeling of such a world. It always struck me as a fine example of how to say a lot with a little. (Mind you, that show is full of little details of craftsmanship.)

Mark said...

I'd forgotten that moment, but yeah, it is a beautiful example of using food to explicate an important facet of the setting.