I love food. Cranberry scones, lemon sorbet, apple pie, Japanese hiyashi-chuka noodles, fresh-baked bread, thin crust pizza...food can be so delicious and amazing!
Then again, sometimes it's more weird than wonderful--bird's nests, shark fin soup, grubs, fried crickets, and more. As fantasy writers and readers, we can be alert to using all of the mighty powers of food for many different purposes.
That's what today's blog post is about: food and fantasy.
1. Everyday-subsistence food
Your story may be a fantasy, but your characters do need to eat. (Unless they are some sort of non-eating-elemental-beings, in which case they probably need energy like moonbeams rather than food.)
Think carefully about what the ordinary people in your story eat on a daily basis. Do they have wheat and corn and potatoes, as in our world? Is there a ready supply of meat? Or are they vegetarians (like me)? Are there any types of daily foods that are unique to your world--special fruits, for example, or maybe a type of vegetable that your main character hates?
If your characters travel over the course of your story, be sure to have them sample different cuisines along the way. There's no better way to add realism to your story than by describing the different sorts of foods your characters encounter along the way!
A few words of warning: while food is an interesting detail that adds texture to your story, don't let it be unnecessarily prominent. Don't just mention food for the sake of mentioning food. Whenever you mention food, make it part of the conflict: the main character doesn't want to offend her host, but she hates eating zinzer roots; some village children are falling sick because of malnutrition; your crew of hearty sailors have scurvy or are running short of food. You get the picture. Make food interesting, important, and maybe dangerous.
2. Special-occasion food
In our world, food is so often tied to celebrations. Think of Thanksgiving dinner. What would it be without turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing? Then there's Easter, which is practically synonymous with eggs. Or what about Chinese New Year--you have your springrolls, your pineapple tarts, your lo hei/yusheng. Food is an inescapable part of celebrating.
So in your fantasy world, when you have celebrations of the new year or for a coronation or for the king's birthday or for the Harvest Festival, be sure to concoct some special and essential foods to celebrate.
3. Food with special properties
Think of all the examples: Snow White's poisoned apple. The elves' lembas bread from Lord of the Rings. The Weasley twins' nosebleed nougats and canary creams from Harry Potter. We're writing fantasy stories, so we really can let our imagination run wild with our foods. Make your foods poisonous, deceiving to the eye (maybe it looks like sugar and tastes like coal), bestow strength on the eater, make the eater turn into a canary, make the eater invisible...the possibilities are endless.
If you're really interested in the possibilities of magical food in fantasy, study J.K. Rowling's use of candies and foods in Harry Potter. Food is one of the many things that makes Rowling's stories come to life in readers' heads.
A note on presentation: in some cultures, like Japan, the arrangement of the food is crucial. The food is meant not just to be useful but to be beautiful. The colors are chosen to create harmony on the plate; the foods are arranged in special shapes and positions. In such cultures, food can be an art form in and of itself. You could write an entire book about a girl determined to succeed as a food artist but prevented by the traditional heirarchy of her fantasy world. My point here is, don't just think about food as a detail or sustenance for your character. Make the food and the presentation of the food woven seamlessly into the fabric of your fantasy culture.
All this talk about food is making me hungry! Good thing it's almost lunchtime. Let me know if you've made up any foods for your fantasy world, or if you have any cool examples to share of uses of food in the stories you've read.