I hope we never get to a point where food is a fiction, although I have done that to some of my characters. You really don’t want to be one of my characters. I mean, most of the heroes and heroines come out OK (hey, I like them to survive and live happily ever after, or at least until morning or the next book.) but the process can be hard on the digestive tract and body-fat percentage from time-to-time.
But I like food, I even like reading about it, so I tend to go long on interesting food – well, interesting to me, anyway. The thing is… food, like guns, horses and sailboats, are places you can break a reader’s suspension of disbelief easily. Now, we live in a world where probably 75% of my possible readers live in places where take-out is second nature, and uber-eats is a reasonable probability… which is not my world, so just as well I seldom write about it. My world is the prepper/farmer/hunter-gatherer one. I am sure some of my stories from that are unbelievable from the urban side of the divide. I can live off the land. I just wouldn’t want to because in the immortal words of Crocodile Dundee ‘you can eat it, but it tastes like shit.’
Well, that’s not really true. A lot of it depends on what it is, and what you do to it, and what time you have and often what you know. But a lot of effort has gone into breeding better flavors and textures into cultivated plants. Some of the modern things are bred for transport, and some are watery (but big and glossy) imitations of the wild cousins. But, frankly, some of the modern fruits and veg are tastier too. And – trust me on this – field caught game can be tough as old boots.
Fantasy – and dystopian fiction tend to be long on ‘stew’ as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in her THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND (an entertaining look at the cliches to avoid in fantasy). Stew is a rotten choice for travelers – as seriously, it just takes too long to make easily edible, let alone pleasant, with the ingredients a traveler can scavenge. Being a hunter-gatherer takes TIME. A berry bush may give you a load of berries – but they take time to pick. And they’re not next to the wild onions or wild garlic or the rabbit your hero needs to shoot (because trapping is slow) and skin and gut and joint. They’re not necessarily in season or even available in the same country, together.
While this may not be a set of facts available to your inner-city fantasy reader, who also thinks a horse is a car with four legs, a lot of readers expect you to know these things. Be smart. If you don’t know them either research them, try them out if possible, or quietly skim over them or have them buy meals (or steal them).
These latter options are also fraught… I had Mercedes Lackey write a piece in one of our 15th century Italy set books – which had a character buying pizza. And tomatoes. And orange carrots… fortunately, I got to read it and edit it first.
Some things are the writer’s friends – quite ubiquitous, easy, probable – stolen fruit, berries in the right season will keep a character going. Other useful things are typical travel foods (which can range from blood and dried yogurt made from mares’ milk, to salted or smoked and salted dried meat (no actually, bacon – done the traditional way – hard salted, is not great instant food, ready for frying. It was normally sliced and soaked first. I’ve made it) and various dry biscuits and gruel (ground grains or legumes – often pease (not always peas)) or porridge are fairly safe. Some can be prepared relatively quickly – some even eaten raw – you may not wish to… Shellfish too -mussels, clams or oysters can be very abundant, and eaten like that or just cooked in their shells. Fish… unless you’re talking preserved, are a lucky food, not an easy one for anyone who doesn’t know and doesn’t have a lot of time. Dried fruit on the other hand can’t be lived on (for laxitive reasons) – but are common travel food in many societies. And there is a reason why many a Slavic folk-tale has the hero pack a pirog (a pie of some kind – with all sorts of fillings).
Still, food in fiction is a great opportunity for your reader to enjoy some vicarious strangeness (not all of it nice). I got to write about the delights of hákarl and soldier termites in various books. I think it was Sir Terry Pratchett who said everything tastes a bit like chicken if you’re hungry enough. Trust me on this: hákarl never tastes like chicken. Not even if you are starving.