It’s been a long day of traveling. Your weary characters arrive at their destination just as the suns set (you can have more than one–this is fantasy). Their host prepares a meal for them as they lay down their burdens and wash off the dust and grime of the road.
Food is a prime way to show off the world your characters inhabit. As with other aspects of worldbuilding, context is everything. You should consider whether they’re eating at home, on the road, or as the honored guests of some influential (or maybe humble) family.
Social class should make an impact therefore–both the social rank of your characters and their hosts and/or guests. Wealthier characters (or those who want to appear wealthy) will tend to go lavish on food, servants, and dinnerware. The poor peasant who gives hospitality to your road-weary protagonist will prepare a humble meal himself while the emperor will have a much more lavish meal with many servants and courtiers present.
The guest’s social status should be a consideration, too. An exiled prince may complain of the simple fare offered at the inn, while the stable boy who is off to save the world will likely fumble around for the right fork at the imperial feast held in his honor.
Also consider where the food comes from. This goes to the ecology and economics of your world. Sitting down with old friends to a cup of coffee means that coffee exists in your world. You don’t have to go into detail about coffee cultivation unless a character has particular interest in that subject. But if you are creating an entirely alien world, then you may have to explain the presence of coffee or hamburgers or pickled peppers. Are they pricey imports from some far-off world?
Don’t consider explaining the presence of ice cream on a space station a limitation but an opportunity to add another layer to your world. If you’re writing about an alternative Earth (post-apocalyptic, parallel dimension, far in the past) then it’s not quite as much of an issue, though some readers may wonder at it. So you should provide some hints at least.
A particular culture may revolve around only a few particular foods. In my case, my main character came from a culture that raised reindeer, goats, and horses (multi-toed horses, but horses nonetheless . . .) so there’s a lot of talk of goat milk and what you can make from goat milk. And later she gets nostalgic for the fermented goat milk of her youth. Her companions from other cultures can’t quite understand her longing for frothy sour milk, but they have their own particular tastes too that she can’t quite understand.
Which brings religion and ethics into the mix. When characters of different cultures come together, are there dietary restrictions either for biological or cultural reasons? If the honored guests at a feast are seven-foot-tall vegetarian space lizards, then they might be insulted if presented with food that they consider inedible, like any kind of animal flesh. Worse, the ice cream served for desert may prove indigestible to them, causing these interstellar emissaries to accuse their hosts of poisoning them.
So in short, think about food as a way to show off your world’s cultural, social, economic, and environmental aspects. You can surprise your reader and maybe even yourself with what you come up with.
Image courtesy of maxxitaly.deviantart.com.