How To Dish

Tuesday looms dark against the steel-gray skyline, overtopping the muted green of the trees. I cannot tell if its silent footfalls shake evergreens, or if it’s the cold wind coming down the straight. It comes. It comes for me, and I know not what to write. The post, the post, no one else sees it, but I see it! I cannot write, for I know not the words!!

*Cough*

Okay. Sorry. Got that out of my system. It’s kind of a day. I have a shuttle to catch to the port of air in the morning, for to wing it to the Great Lake of Salt, near which will happen LTUE at the end of the week. Mrs. Dave voluntold me to go, while she wrangles the Wee Horde. She has plans, my friends. PLANS!! Meanwhile, I expect to freeze my knees off (kilt, you understand) and spend the weekend writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing, and hanging out with adults. Even if it’s not glorious, it will be glorious.

In the meantime, you need to eat. We all need to eat, and our characters especially need to eat. And they need to eat on camera. Hear me out. Humans are tubes. Most creatures are tubes, of varying complexity. Humans are more complex tubes than, say, most obligate carnivores, or than worms, and less complex than many ruminants.

It should not be surprising, then, that eating, and what we eat, are going to take up a large portion of our existence. Even when the relative cost of food has decreased dramatically over time. This is a tool we, as writers, can use to connect to our readers, and I guarantee the better writers do it, even if only occasionally.

The bottom line: write your characters eating, and describe the meal to include sight, taste, texture, and aroma. And the way to do that is to write staples, and especially what’s historically eaten by the poor. Describe how that works when it’s cooked well.

For example! Bibimbap is a South Korean dish. It’s absolutely delicious, especially when served in a hot, stone bowl. You take some rice, a couple squirts of pepper sauce, shreds of traditional side dishes (to include shredded seaweed, various pickles, and fish cake) and a fried egg or two. All of those are relatively cheap. There’s a little bit of cheap protein, some vegetables, some strong flavors, and cheap staple foods, like grains, pulses, or noodles made from same.

See also: French cuisine is typically dishes that are up-scaled versions of peasant food. Bouillabaisse and ratatouille are the two that immediately spring to mind. A good bouillabaisse is delightful, while an excellent one is a religious experience, but at base, it’s the scrapings from the bottom of the fishing boat when the higher quality catch has been sold. Ratatouille is vegetable stew, and the variety suggests it’s whatever could be gleaned from the leavings after market. Cut out the bruises and spoiled bits, chop it up to disguise that fact from the kids, and cook it enough to make sure the bugs are dead.

So, sit down and figure out what the poorest people in your world eat, and then what they ate a couple centuries earlier. Take that, dress it up a bit, and call it haute cuisine (or the local equivalent). If you can, eat something similar, and describe it, how it smells, the flavors, the textures, and how it makes you feel. And then put that on the page.

Addendum: please go read Amanda’s post from this morning, and provide your input.

14 comments

  1. Short version – whatever they can catch, cooked very, very well. Because they will eat meat that is past “high,” so they tend to stew or roast everything into submission. Fuel is not a concern, so they can do that. They also eat tubers and various roots, plus fruit in season, because they can gather that and it is free. So the gourmet treat is a deep-fried patty made of one of the tubers, now bred to have a much, much stronger, more bitter and piercing flavor than before. And lots of spicy sauces, peppery sharp to eye-watering, served with meat parboiled for hours.

    The natives call the root’s flavor “full bodied.” Humans who do not have the natives rather dulled palates call it things I can’t say on this blog. 🙂

    1. I’ve noticed that some (many?) Chinese (and possibly other ethnic) restaurants have an English menu and a Chinese menu. Round-eyes are strongly discouraged from ordering the items found only on the Chinese menu.

      1. If the English-language menu has more than two items featuring sea cucumber (so slimy it makes boiled okra crunchy) you might be in a restaurant that’s too authentic…..

  2. From Sir Pterry

    Any seasoned traveller soon learns to avoid anything wished on them as a ‘regional speciality’, because all the term means is that dish is so unpleasant the people living everywhere else will bite off their own legs rather than eat it.

    Genuan cooking, like the best cooking everywhere in the multiverse, has been evolved by people who had to make desperate use of ingredients their masters didn’t want. No-one would even try a bird’s nest unless they had to. Only hunger would make a man taste his first alligator. No-one would eat a shark’s fin if they were allowed to eat the rest of the shark.

    Slumpie is a bit like chop suey, which is Agatean for ‘all the labels have fallen off the tins’,and you can make it out of more or less anything so long as you call it Slumpie.

  3. Note that the very first magic that will be systematized if your wizards have any place in society is probably agricultural. Wizards don’t like starving, either.

    1. Yep. Nitrogen fixing spells, and kill/repulse the bugs. Except the bees and butterflies. A little more specific on those spells, next year, Mr. Wizard, please?

      1. Food is actually more important even with disease. For instance, one neutral country was cut off from the export market by WWI, with the result that local food prices plunged — and so did the TB death rate.

        Probably wizards will be working on both.

        1. Probably true, when you’re working with magic that has tangible results and always has. In a world without reliable magic, like ours, the shamans were healers and herbalists, and if magic “returning” is the plot you’re working with, suddenly their chants to “drive away the fever demons” start working.

    2. In Rome, they had laws against crop charming, where you magically transport the crops from your neighbor’s farm onto your own farm. I can think of one case where a man was tried in court for doing breaking that law. He had also set up his own guards at night to prevent this very thing from happening to him. But, he insisted the reason his farm was successful was because of good old-fashioned hard work, not because he was a sorcerer.

      So, if crop charming is real, then an enemy wizard will ensure a besieged town surrenders by charming the crops out of their land. Unless a friendly native wizard has placed an anti-charm spell over the farms. Or perhaps some wizards inside the town might have their own “greenhouses” to ensure they have food reserves. If any of these wizards are into commerce, they might have the greenhouses include assorted terrain and environments, so they can rent space to traveling merchants or soldiers who might want to plunder exotic, ornamental plants from Far Away. The plants could be charmed into the prepared greenhouse. Or they could just want to keep out-of-season fruits and vegetables to show off their wealth.

      Agriculture magic should definitely not be overlooked.

      1. Working on a Gamelit world where, of course, Create Food and Water is a clerical spell. Use it too freely when you could have eaten grown food, and you will find that it grows bland, then bitter, then meager, and stops altogether. The way to reverse this is to donate magical items to the church to store food (for famine), donate food for the stores, contribute to the annual agricultural spells (which, of course, I devised myself because no RPG has them), work on the research to improve the agricultural spells, etc. Prudent adventurers make donations in advance because they might need to depend on those spells for a long time.

        And there’s an annual feast where the food MUST be grown, it can’t be conjured.

  4. On the Moon they call it “Roman feast,” but it really means that they’ve been culling the rodent labs again. No use wasting good protein, even if nuac mam isn’t quite garum, By the time Grissom City becomes a major tourist destination, they’ve started breeding rodents specifically for their meat, rather than just culling the labbies, and they’re growing herbs that not only help oxygenate the habitats and provide psychological benefits of seeing green stuff, but also help make food tastier.

  5. I’m sorta doing an opposite.

    Wealthy family, with a strong cultural influence from another country.

  6. I like bibimbap. I can get bibimbap, even if I have to settle for the Trader Joe’s version. But I can’t get kumiss, or flamingo, or sweet chestnut porridge, or “laser” (silphium). I can have my characters make a soup with an aurochs broth base, but the dang things don’t exist any more. Then again, no one can tell me I’m wrong if I have a character prefer aurochs to beef broth because it’s more “savory,” or say that I had her put too much laser in it. Some of that other stuff I can Google for sensory details; there’s bound to be an adventurous blogger who can write a lively description of what kumiss tastes or smells like. I’m in no hurry to personally investigate for myself…

    I do like to haunt sites about herbs and perfumes and such, so that I can describe the scent of plants that grow in particular places where I haven’t been; plants that don’t exist in their natural state where I live. Supposedly Russian and Turkish leather smell unusual because they’re tanned with myrtle bark. Neither myrtle nor Russian / Turkish leather are in my vicinity. But I love tracking down details like that.

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