Food in fiction

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.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

71 thoughts on “Food in fiction

  1. 50 or so years ago, one of my dad’s customers (Dad was a salvage agent for the railroad) gave him a hunk of venison. Dad gave it to Mom, who had no experience with cooking Bambi. She tried stewing it. And stewing, and stewing, and stewing it. After a few hours in the pot she served it. And, being the children of Depression-era parents who never wasted food, we did our best to eat it. It had all the tenderness of boiled leather, and the flavor didn’t compensate for the texture.

    At least it wasn’t possum. As a boy in 1930s Raleigh Dad used to trap possums. The family fed them milk for a week, “to clean out their systems,” and sold them to the black community as meat animals.

    1. For folks wondering:
      for a book, you can cheat by looking at beef cuts for what is most tender, treat that like you would beef, and otherwise make jerky or ground meat depending on what works for your setting. Jerky is time and labor intensive but also keeps reaaaaaaally well.

        1. A lot of cooks, back in the day, felt that the safest thing to do with unknown meat was to boil the heck out of it. And yes, that would definitely help food safety if something were wrong with it, just like superduper well done charcoal is a food safety setting.

          So there is a reason….

          1. ::shudders::

            I grew up with mom explaining food safety via colorful, but actually fairly accurate, descriptions of parasites you can get from food.
            Describing Trichinella spiralis as “tiny worms with teeth that can eat your eyes,” for example, both let us know one of the more obvious targets and made very sure we are RESPECTFUL of raw pork. (Trichinosis, shows up in meat-eating animals, most famously pigs– but you wouldn’t be eating a rare bear steak, either.)

  2. The North American opossum – didelphis virginiana – was nearly extinct when the Europeans started settling America, found mostly in eastern Virginia and North Carolina. The settlers found them easy to trap and kept them for meat and fur. The range of the opossums expanded to most of the South and up into the northern states as people carried them along as they moved about, and though their popularity waned sharply in the 19th century, they carried them west along the caravan routes. Enough were turned loose or got away to establish wild populations. So the geographic distribution of opossums is a big H, both coasts with a line connecting them, and the middle slowly filling in.

    Opossums are quiet, largely nocturnal, and not destructive, so most people don’t even know they’re around. They’re most everywhere east of the Mississippi now; New York City, Philadelphia… even in Quebec and Toronto. A friend of mine saw one in Nebraska last year. Maybe the Indians hunted them close to extinction, or maybe they like modern civilization, but they’re doing just fine now.

    They’re pretty alien-looking critters, though. They’re more like monkeys than raccoons; their fore hands have the fingers arranged like starfish limbs, and four of the fingers are opposable. Their hind hands have large opposable thumbs, better than any primate. And they have prehensile tails that they use as fifth limbs; not just for climbing, but to carry nesting materials.

    1. They’re also nice to have around because *they eat ticks* and are basically non-aggressive to humans and Our Stuff. (Compared to, say, raccoons.) I think they’ll eat eggs and maybe chicks?

      1. Opossums are generally non-aggressive… but they’re crazy for chickens. They’ll injure themselves chewing through chicken wire to get at them. Back before wire… withe or stick enclosures would be only temporary impediments to an opossum, and free-range chickens would be tasty snacks.

        It could be that the homesteaders had to make a choice between opossums or chickens, and chickens won.

        1. The only thing I can think of that *doesn’t* eat chickens is cats, and I wouldn’t swear to them.

          We even had weasel-family things that looked like long chipmunks that ate the things….

    2. I’m told they also eat lots of ticks.
      If they get in the henhouse they’ll eat chickens, too. My son caught one in the act while helping his friends figure out what was killing the hens. This is one ( but only one) reason he told me possums were spawn of the devil.

    3. Lot of possums and raccoons in Los Angeles. Friend has had both come inside via the cat door and have their way with the kitchen; caught in the act multiple times. She reports that possums are messier than raccoons tho not as good at getting into everything.

      1. Nothing says Silicon Valley like waking up on the couch in your ticky-tacky home when the cat-door-trespassing raccoon on the back cushion above you looks down and chitters “well, what’s for breakfast?” (True story for several people…)

        I once stood on a hilly well-settled street there of an evening and heard a helluva commotion. (I can only describe it as…) a mob of (presumably male) raccoons was in hot-pursuit of an extremely harried looking lone female. She didn’t look happy about it.

        Of course, this is where the cougars come, too, juveniles seeking new territory by walking the underpasses of the N-S highways from their you-can’t-build-here estates on the coast inland to Palo Alto, and the dining-pets therein.

    4. We knew opossums were around (in town!) but we had no idea how many until Muffy (terrier/German Shepherd) started catching them. She’d bring them onto our Florida Room and bark to be let into the house with her prize.

      They really do play possum. Leave the dead critter alone for half an hour (restraining the dog inside), go outside and check, and the possum has miraculously resurrected and vanished.

      Oddly, Muffy didn’t kill possums but she did kill ground hogs.

      1. A few years back, I saw my beagle Lilly nosing something in the back-yard.

        I checked it out and it was a possum.

        It looked dead so I got a snow shovel under it and was walking with it to the garbage can.

        Then, I swear that it started looking at me so I threw it into the neighboring yard.

        The next day it had disappeared so I’m thinking it was just “playing dead”.

        Oh, can you imagine the fun if the possum “came back to life” in the garbage can (in our garage). 😈

        1. The other reason my son calls them spawn of the devil involved the Possum That Would Not Die. He finally ran over it with a truck. (His friend, a big, beef-fed young man, was deathly afraid of possums).

      2. We had a dog who evidently did not approve of opossums. She also evidently figured out at some point how to shake them so they didn’t get back up later.

    5. “Not destructive,” The man says. My ductwork would disagree. My pantry also dissagrees since three juveniles got in the house last weekend. They are as destructive as rats and mice. And BIGGER. (We’re working on sealing the hole they’re using for entry.) The only reason we tolerate them is they won the turf war with the skunks, and after Onion Skunk. The destructive little monsters are an improvement

  3. I’m hardly a survivalist, but I have noticed that food is often hand-waved away. Water is heavy and food is bulky – “just” bringing it along is a bigger deal than most authors make it. I have noticed that large group (e.g. troops) logistics have gotten much better in fiction.

    1. been reading some books and the author got around this by making the world a gamers world where you own a magic ring or bag where you have a variable number of slots to hold items, and food is stored preserved and warm or cold depending on how it was stored away.

    2. Food played a noticeable part in Jack Vance’s Tschai series. Different human civilizations on an alien planet, eating whatever was biologically compatible regardless of how palatable it was. Much to the dismay of the protagonist, who was from Earth.

      Not just taste, either. In one scene a native lops the top off a cactus-like plant to get at the liquid within. As they’re drinking, he casually mentions to the protagonist that drinking watak sap too often will make you go deaf.

    3. There’s a reason the Third Amendment is in the Constitution.

      Amendment III
      No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

      By “quartered” they meant “room and board, and anything not nailed down.”

      The typical European armies moved across the land like locusts, stripping *everything* right down to the seed grain, and people too. The British treated the colonies like that as well, even when not officially at war with anyone.

      *Some* foods could be preserved, but long-term nutrition was iffy for a typical military supply chain. Simpler and cheaper just to raid the countryside to fill in the menu.

      Once an army passed through, it could take years for the farmers and wild game to recover.

      1. Ah, the amendment that has never been invoked successfully in a lawsuit.

        The Swedish army was particularly nasty. The winter the Swedish army was in Bohemia, the population fell by a third.

  4. Heh, I’m helping my husband write up a travel section in his RPG world– they’re basically starving, since they start in the spring (although they had some food to start with– yay, cheese), they don’t get stew until they reach a town, and HOLY CRUD BREAD IS AMAAAAAAAZING type reactions occur. The only stuff they cook in a pot is boiling fish heads to make something to drink, since it’d be a bad idea to drink plain water and the fish heads are going to waste.
    (only two people and they keep watch, so there’s some time for fishing. Yes, it really slows them down, and yes that’s important)

    You know, probably the best prep for writing live-off-thee-land stuff would be going camping with a tarp and flat dirt patch type camping. Bring food, but just TRY to do some gleaning, and see how freaking bread-starved you are in a week……
    (I’ve done that. Which is why we own a camp trailer.)

  5. Food can be a proxy for wealth. Dickens’ description of the grocer’s display, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner tell us what foods were plentiful and who had them. “Leave the Dishes in the Sink” is a WW II song about a veteran son’s return. For the welcome home celebration, they serve homemade cider, bologna, cheese and pickles.

    I once heard food-as-wealth described this way: when we’re done eating, poor people judge the meal by asking, “Did you get enough?” Middle class people ask, “Did it taste good?” Rich people ask, “Was it presented well?”

    1. You made me think of Douglas Adams three stages of civilization (IIRC):
      How do we eat.
      What do we eat.
      Where should we have lunch.

    2. Both my and my wife’s parents grew up in the Depression. They passed away with full larders and freezers.

      In my physical presence, both pair mentioned, apropos of nothing, the wonder of being able to eat whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

  6. 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.

    Encouragement for writers:
    A LOT OF THE TIME WHAT THEY EXPECT YOU TO KNOW IS FALSE. Figure out how much time and effort you’re willing to burn for reduced returns.

    One of the famous guides on how to write horses in fantasy had such abject nonsense in it as “stallions cannot be ridden by women, or be around women.” That didn’t sound right to high-school me– I knew dad’s horse had never responded poorly to me– so I took it to my mom, who was rolling on the floor over some of them… she’d been in or around ranches for four decades at that point, and for MOST OF IT she was put on the stud horse, because she had the confidence to deal with it. Her best guess was that it was based off of either battle-trained or wild horses responding poorly to the smell of blood, which is a Female Thing– there’s also that wild stallions will attack riders on a mare, for example, no matter who is riding it, and some people like to put women on a mare because women weigh less.

    … Mom’s less polite response was that it probably had to do with, um, the low quality of the masculinity of the individuals involved in training said stallions. She had a lot of Stupid People Tricks stories that got pinned on the animals involved.
    (See also, lack of willingness to Put Up With That Nonsense for aggressive bulls. Dairy bulls are almost always aggressive, but from a sample of certified angus [red and black], herford and charolais bulls, less than half of the first year bulls are aggressive, and if you’re sensible none of those you keep are. Something that weighs as much as a pickup can do enough damage without being aggressive.)

    1. What sensible people call large aggressive livestock is “dinner”. I knew a professional horseman working alone in his stable who was found dead on the ground without obvious injury. They worked out that one of his mares had planted a good back kick right in his solar plexus and basically stopped his heart.

      And mares, in fact, are notorious for being aggressive (no doubt a useful trait for boss herd mares). It’s a truism of horse raising that the mare teaches the foal manners, and better to put a foal with a different mare if the natural one is one of the bullies. Young horses have to learn not to crowd the much smaller humans, and if they don’t learn young, they remain dangerous.

      It’s the geldings that make the calmest horses, typically.

      My favorite is authors who haven’t got a clue about horses and tack. (I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan, with your constant storage of spears and poles UNDER a horse’s girth. Or authors who think it’s possible for a saddle in use to just… fall off (undamaged girth, no sliding or rotating first).

    2. I asked my niece by marriage about this. She works on a stud farm. She said the “boys” always know a day in advance when her cycle would start. It depends entirely on the horse as to how tractable they are with her during her cycle.

      1. Now *that* I would believe, mom’s horse* knew when she was pregnant.
        (He walked different when someone had a baby on his back, and started doing that with mom before she even showed. Could be multiple factors he was responding to.)

        Hm, that might point to the most effective way to write horses– go full 14 year old girl on them and make the things borderline telepathic. If they’re evil or not is up to you. 😀

        From the reaction when the popular How To Do Horses In Fantasy guide (aaaargh I wish I could remember what it was named!) came up against actual women who actually work with actual horses….it wouldn’t slow down the scolds. 😀

        See also, military folks who get nasty letters about how unbelievable some dialog is when they copied it directly from real life….

        *not actually owned by her

        1. I grew up on a small horse ranch…. We did mainly thoroughbreds, but I could see our one quarter horse doing something like you mention when your Mom was pregnant. That’s freak’n neat. Never had any issues with stallions, never heard or saw any of the “attack thing” like you mention and we had more than a few over the years.

          I never got kicked or stepped on, which wasn’t hard to avoid, never even kicked at. Bitten once. Arabian gelding who was an a$$hole anyway. Had my whole right arm in his mouth. man it hurt. Hit him with the apple rake I was using to clean his pen when he did that. Then went and got a bb gun and shot him like 7 times (no it didn’t break the skin) but that bastich never bugged me again after that either. Same horse actually went through an escape door in a horse trailer as the lady putting him in the trailer was dumber than the horse.

          Only even moderately bad interaction with a stallion over that time, which was terrifying to me as a little kid was riding on moms… But she was new to horses and didn’t know to tighten the girth strap, saddle went from up top to 90 degree list to the right. Henry was his name, he was more concerned with ‘don’t step on that little shit” and why is the saddle doing this than some sort of “Bronco time!” he just kind of spun in a half circle til I fell off and then stood there like “WTF was that Mom of kid?” He was a good horse. Though when sister started to braids his mane, he was pissed till she took them out. It was a little surreal how fast that changed.

          Last story bout a stallion. We had a trainer named Dick Koyt (I thin was the spelling. long ago) had been a jockey many years past. We had a young and “Bitey” stallion named Headly (as in Headly Lamar). He tried to get Dick who was waiting for it. Dude jammed his hand up in to the horses mouth as he lunged. GRABBED the tongue while holding tight to the halter. Head on horse goes to max height, Dicks feet were something like 4 feet off the ground. Horse comes back down, he’d wanted to rear and realized he couldn’t. Because Dick still had a hell of a grip on that tongue. Headly calmed RIGHT down. It was a VERY surreal moment of “dudeth, pleaseth letth go of my tongueth. I’ll be goodth” and Dick and he talked a bit longer. Then released tongue. Amazing how far out of his head that tongue went. Horse never bit another person. They were all waiting for him to try of course.

              1. That’s a lot nicer than the hot potato trick, or the pepper trick. And honestly, since it’s not mysterious to the horse, it probably worked better. Animals physically check each other and their young, so they expect some physical correction from humans.

                1. Much agree, Dick had told us about the Hot Potato trick but hated it and refused to do it. As horse’s cant spit, and too easy to imagine a hot item you couldn’t get out of your mouth. Don’t remember the Pepper trick. please don’t tell me.

                  And agreed again with Karen about the Jordan books etc. But then again, doubt he cares anymore. Though Sanderson did finish off the series with something like “A then Bella the horse came home, all safe and sound.” Joke I read about that was because Bella the Horse was actually the Creator and just wasn’t able to talk to anyone, she’d made it all better finally. A nudge here and bump there…

          1. That reminds me of the trainer at the first stable we kept our horses at. Owners had a pair of thoroughbred studs, the younger of which thought he was all that and a bag of chips. One day the ranch trainer, all 4’11” of her was working with the young knot head, I glanced away and next thing I know the trainer is snapping his lead line and that stud is backing away like all the demons of Hel’ are after him. The look on the fools face showed that he thought the trainer was about 20′ tall and made of steel at that moment.

    3. I was warned by my riding master of that story. Someone over at AtH swore up and down that stallions really had attacked either her or her sister during their cycle and called me a dangerous spreader of bad info (this was years ago). I suspect it has to do with individual hormones and individual horses. I’d also wonder about PMS, and how some women’s personalities shift pretty dramatically. That might also set off a 1000 lb prey animal.

      1. I knew a horse who hated a specific demographic of men, so I can see either smell of blood or association of that smell with Been Abused being a trigger for a specific horse.

        For the horsey folks:
        Yes, there was exactly one trainer involved with that appearance, no they never took an animal there again, and yes, they DID warn others. There was a possibly-weird-sampling number of horses that “got caught in barbed wire” associated with the trainer center.
        For non horsey folks: yes, I have been asked that series of questions often enough to save time and type them out now.

    1. Hard sausage (pemmican is hard sausage w/dried berries), hard cheese, boilable grain (porridge) (flour & meal spoil to easily), fat (lard) or oil. Salt. If you can, add root vegetables/cabbage, dried legumes (soak overnight, drain in the morning, cook for breakfast, reheat for dinner). All things that keep reasonably well in all but the hottest weather and are easy to haul, easy to cook, and quick to cook.

      Luxuries include anything from the onion family (garlic, chives, etc.) which don’t keep as well, wild greens (of which there are quite a few) for the vitamins, honey, and dried fruit (apples, by choice).

  7. I once stopped reading a book after the hero arrived in 9th or 10th century Constantinople and saw chili peppers in the market. (He didn’t call them chili peppers, but that was clearly what they were.)

    1. I lost all respect for “Clan of the Cave Bear,” when the author had a Neanderthal woman go out looking for “rattlesnake root,” in Europe.

    2. Hot chocolate, coffee, tobacco, distilled spirits…

      Apparently the editors and proofreaders are just as clueless; I’ve seen too much of that stuff make it into print.

  8. My first fill-length novel was a historical about a wagon-train party on the Oregon-California trail, and hoo-boy, did I have to do a deep dive into how they supplied themselves, and cooked along the trail. Dried fruit, dried meats, salt-pork, cornmeal, flour, molasses … and coffee. Lots of coffee. Oddly enough, they early trail pioneers didn’t do much in the way of beans – took too long to cook to be edible, apparently. Eggs – as long as they held out, preserved by various means, or as long as the laying hens survived. Same for milk, and milk-cows. Gleaning fruit and wild peas and greens along the trail. Some hunting for fresh meat.
    And if one of the draft oxen were badly injured and had to be dispatched – well, then, fresh beef was on the menu, boys!

  9. Various random thoughts:
    — Solzhenitsyn says that the zeks hated certain writers who wrote loving about food, describing the aromas, appearance, taste, etc, while they were starving.
    — Making historical food accurate is a real problem, because A LOT of food (not just new world plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, and hot peppers) slowly moved through out the world. IIRC, oranges started in the East (China or Japan?), and at first the only oranges in Europe were pretty bitter. Also, I believe chickens were first bred in China.
    — A lot of foods were developed to preserve raw food better (air cured hams, beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, jerky, etc, etc, etc), or to enable food to be transported more easily (e.g. whiskey – much easier to ship and higher value than grain)
    — Or use all the food and make it palatable (sausages, slow cooking tough meat, etc)
    — Getting back to food on the go, IIRC (since it’s been about 25 years since I read it), How To Survive on Land and Sea recommends going for protein, not veggies. BTW, that book was originally written during WWII to help downed airmen survive.

    1. > Also, I believe chickens were first bred in China.

      The current school of thought is that they originated somewhere in or near what is now Pakistan (which adjoins China) and they were picked up by Alexander the Great’s supply chain, which spread them wherever they went.

      There’s an objecting school saying chickens were known in a lot of places before then, but they were isolated local populations not widely known of.

  10. In the last one published, I did have some foraged fruit in the river bottoms (correct for time of year and local landscape; I checked that carefully, and a deer eating the ripe fruit. But the team wasn’t *relying* on the land, they were opportunistically supplementing. And the fruit (true to life) wasn’t as sweet or easily edible as farmed… but it was there.

    Because desert hackberry and black persimmon (diyospyros texana) do grow together! I’ve seen it!

  11. Another thought that applies to both fantasy and science fiction stories, long term reliance on a reduced variety of foods can lead to problems that aren’t obvious in the short term. Even after the Royal Navy learned the cause and cure of scurvy, it could still be a problem for individual ships on long voyages — or so we are led to believe from the Patrick O’Brian novels. Or the space traveler stranded on a distant planet. He can eat the food, but he isn’t getting all the vitamins his system need. This was a major point in Anderson’s The Man Who Counts and Campbell’s’ The Moon Is Hell — and almost nowhere else.

    1. The Japanese army had trouble with beriberi during WWII even though it was the Japanese navy that figured out it was a nutritional issue.

    2. It’s also a major plot point in March Upcountry and March To The Sea by John Ringo and David Weber. Group of soldiers marooned on an alien planet with almost compatible biochemistry. Nutritional supplements are a big priority.

  12. Dave. You are the first author I can ever remember mentioning Hakarl. Most mention Lutefisk(spelling?) but as my friend from Iceland said “that’s for sissies” get some Hakarl she said… Then explained that I should neeever ever do so. Before you google it. Hakarl is “rotted shark” that is to poisonous to eat at the time it comes out of the water (Greenland or “sleeper Shark”) so they bury it for a month? 6 weeks? Wait, was wrong, googled it anyway, Fermented, 4-5 months.

    Other Reactions: Chef Anthony Bourdain described kæstan hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.[1]

    Chef Gordon Ramsay challenged James May to sample three “delicacies” (Laotian snake whiskey, bull penis, and kæstan hákarl) on The F Word; after eating kæstan hákarl, Ramsay spat it out, although May kept his down. May reacted with, “You disappoint me, Ramsay” and offered to do it again.[7]

    On season 2’s Iceland episode of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, Andrew Zimmern described the smell as reminding him of “some of the most horrific things I’ve ever breathed in my life,” but said it tasted much better than it smelled. He described the taste as “sweet, nutty and only faintly fishy.” Nonetheless, he did note of kæstan hákarl: “That’s hardcore. That’s serious food. You don’t want to mess with that. That’s not for beginners.”

    Archaeologist Neil Oliver tasted it in the BBC documentary Vikings as part of examining the Viking diet. He described it as reminiscent of “blue cheese but a hundred times stronger”.

  13. I am reminded of the scene in the pilot of Firefly where Kaylee reacts with joy to Shephard Book’s gift of fresh fruit. It’s one of those small scenes that helps to set the mood of the world by showing us that food that is grown rather than manufactured is something rare and precious aboard the ship.

    1. Paying for passage with produce. More valuable than money because when strawberries are out of season (or won’t grow on this planet), strawberries are a treat which money cannot buy.

      Or for children living through The Great Depression (and even later, with rationing and coupon books during World War II), a rare and wonderful seasonal treat: the Christmas orange.

      My mother tells the family legend of her older sister getting married and Grandma going door-to-door to the neighbors’ houses to borrow a cup of sugar from each to make the wedding cake and frosting. Grandma couldn’t simply go buy sugar at the market because it was a rationed commodity. For Grandma to borrow a cup of sugar meant the neighbors went without, and then Mom went without until Grandma paid the neighbors back. Not in some squalid Third World country or medieval hamlet in Europe: in Mankato, Minnesota in the 1940’s.

      Historical research tip: talk to old people about scarcity and hardship. They lived it.

      1. My mom absolutely LOVES this book:

        How to Cook a Wolf

        Written to inspire courage in those daunted by wartimes shortages, How to Cook a Wolf continues to rally cooks during times of plenty, reminding them that providing sustenance requires more than putting food on the table. M. F. K. Fisher knew that the last thing hungry people needed were hints on cutting back and making do. Instead, she gives her readers license to dream, to experiment, to construct adventurous and delicious meals as a bulwark against a dreary, meager present. Her fine prose provides reason in itself to draw our chairs close to the hearth; we can still enjoy her company and her exhortations to celebrate life by eating well.

  14. The whole concept of “food in season” is alien to many people. Dude, you want fresh strawberries or apples, you just go to the store and buy them.

    Some of it is grown indoors in greenhouses, but the rest is imported; either trucked from n Mexico or flown in from South America. I was surprised to find out how much food moved by air.

  15. On the other hand, the next inn will be about a day’s journey from the inn you are staying in tonight.

    Funny, that. Almost if they wanted travelers to stop.

    I note on seasonality, that some readers will realize that foods (and flowers) are out of sync, but enough will have no clue that you have to provide other guidance as to time passing.

    1. Yeah.

      The way I understand season and plants is a) my sinuses are pretty constantly inflamed b) some days are more crippling than others c) I’m too out of it to really be aware of longer term trends over time.

      I’m probably an extreme example, but I do exist.

      Would be a very bad idea to worry too much about calibrating to my level of knowledge.

        1. I didn’t see a crocus until I was an adult. I know they’re traditional with the whole popping-up-through-the-last-snow thing, but that’s from really liking flowers. Had actually seen fireflies before I ever saw a crocus!

          They simply weren’t around anywhere I lived– too delicate. Hyacinth and daffodils are as wimpy as could survive. Probably had some on the coast, but not a lot of traveling going on during the spring melt, it’s dangerous.

          1. Ah, but if a character saw a crocus in one scene, and later saw a rose in bloom in another, you might be able to guess that some time had passed.

            You can’t count it it.

            The same thing with the sky. You can’t put two full moons a week after each other without set up, but you can’t make the moon full again and expect people to realize it’s been a month.

            1. Count on it, heck, I like plants and probably wouldn’t catch it.

              Like the potatoes-in-ancient-Rome clue, you’d have to make sure there was a reason for folks to be thinking ‘deliberate detail,’ not ‘it’s pretty’ or ‘filler detail’.

            2. To clarify* a bit more– put at *least* as much effort into checking the details as you expect someone who will Catch It to do, I’ve been burned by stuff I’m supposed to notice only when it’s important to the plot, which ruins the build-up of details that should be there– say, there’s potatoes with group A, and chili peppers with group B, but group B isn’t supposed to have American stuff. Or the fresh fruit in Place A means something important, while the identical bowl in Place B is just showing off wealth, but there’s no other world building to identify that. It’s A Bowl Of Fruit.

              Probably the best flower example I can think of is where this guy is a photographer, the picturesque roses are mentioned, earlier there were vines and it’s established as being almost Halloween with the whole crispness in the air type thing, the photographer is bebopping along until the photography subject sees a frost marred rose and Magic Happens and then the photographer has a “wait, WTF, high summer rose blooming at the start of October? With the bite in the air stuff and all? Uh-oh, not normal-”

              *sounds nicer than ‘wave hands in air trying to convey idea,’ doesn’t it?

  16. Lol on the editing part. I beta read for someone who had a donkey chewing cud. That didn’t sound right, so I checked into it – nope! Saw the published version – that old donkey was still chewing the cud. I was very nice how I pointed it out. Oh well.

  17. Food research is one of the more interesting things that I’ve done for my stories.


    Because food and meals are some of the most interesting grounding items in a story. You can tell a lot about how people eat-or don’t eat-and how that relates to them. The glutton. The foodie. The picky eater. The “horrified combinations” eater. The “finding something new” eater.

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