TT: Dealing with the Food Problem

JANE: When we ended last week, you said you had a question for me.  Go for it!

ALAN: OK. As you so rightly pointed out in our earlier discussions, it will be necessary for our space adventurers to carry their own provisions with them. They are very unlikely to be able to eat the native fauna and flora of whatever planet they are exploring and I doubt that they will really be carrying food pills and dehydrated water with them. Therefore, given that you think this way, how have you dealt with the problem in your own books?

Alien Chefs!

Alien Chefs!

JANE: Well, when I was doing the background work for the “Artemis Awakening” novels, one reason I decided to have Artemis seeded with plants and animals from Earth was so that I wouldn’t need to write long passages about Griffin needing to figure out what he could and couldn’t eat, then spend a lot of my limited word count describing blue peanuts or something.

However, I did make clear that Griffin (and past visitors) had taken care not to bring invasive bacteria and suchlike down onto Artemis, so I didn’t skip the science part.

ALAN: That’s very cunning of you.

JANE: Thanks!  When David Weber asked me to write the Stephanie Harrington novels, one of the things we discussed was how much of the native Sphinxian plant and animal life humans could eat.  Weber had already established that Stephanie’s mother is a biologist who specializes in adapting indigenous species so that humans can eat them.

We also had to deal with what human food treecats can eat.  Along the way, we cleared up a long-time misunderstanding I’d had regarding treecats and celery.  It’s rather, uh, “earthy” but would you like me to tell you what I learned?

ALAN: Yes please. “Earthy” sounds intriguing.

JANE: All right.  From the first Honor Harrington novel (On Basilisk Station) forward it was established that Honor’s treecat, Nimitz, has a passion for celery.  Treecats are omnivores, but definitely lean toward the carnivore side of the spectrum, so Nimitz’s tendency to eat celery (a habit, we later learn, he shares with other treecats) is distinctly odd.

Eating celery gives Nimitz digestive difficulties.  I’d always assumed it gave him gas (not an uncommon digestive reaction to a high-fiber diet), because Honor’s nickname for him is “Stinker.”  In fact, my image of certain scenes was colored by the rather pungent image of Honor with a farting treecat on her shoulder.

When I told Weber this he was horrified.  Treecats get constipated, but they don’t get gas.

ALAN: Oh!  I love the image of a farting treecat on Honor’s shoulder! Perhaps it would add some extra jet-propelled velocity when fleeing from peril!

JANE: Oh, Nimitz doesn’t flee…  He’d be speeding toward danger!

From a writer’s point of view, food and dining habits are great ways to slip in some background about a world and its cultures without resorting to tedious infodumps.  For example, you can show cross cultural influences through food.  A while back, you mentioned that curry had more or less become a British national dish.

ALAN: Very much so – it’s one of the most long-lasting domestic effects of our colonial past. Indeed, the British have adopted curry so whole-heartedly that they have actually developed two new curries which they have exported to the world. Chicken Tikka Masala, and the Balti style of cooking are both British inventions.

JANE: That’s cool!

Well, you can show the same sort of cross cultural influences when writing SF by mixing in, if you wish, various elements taken from the planet on which the humans are now living for…  Okay, I can’t resist the pun, “spice.”

Hmm… If one take Frank Herbert’s Dune and sequels into account, that’s a multi-level pun.  But it’s a good example, too.  I recall a banquet scene in which the decadence was emphasized by highly expensive “melange” aka “spice” being sprinkled on the food.

ALAN: Feasts and banquets are staple items (pun intended) of the more fantasy-oriented novels as well. We are often regaled with luscious, mouth-watering descriptions of tables groaning with food. Jack Vance is particularly good at this (though it has to be said that he describes a lot of revolting meals as well).

Vance does have his idiosyncrasies, though. In meal after meal after meal, we are regaled with descriptions of dishes based on leeks. There’s actually a website

where you can search the electronic texts of Vance’s books. So I went looking and discovered that he mentions leeks 27 times in 11 different books. That’s quite a leek fetish! I doubt if any other writer comes anywhere near that total!

JANE: I doubt it.  I wonder why leeks?

Tolkien did a great job of using food to provide swift brush strokes of the cultures of the various people in Middle Earth.  My favorite such scene is where the hobbits prepare to stop for second breakfast, much to the horror of Aragorn, who is aware of their great danger.  I think that the horror or missing second breakfast is what really brings home to the hobbits the danger they are in.

Tolkien also uses food and dining habits to demonstrate that the elves are not a monoculture.  The wild woodland banquets of Legolas’s people are a far cry from the elegant picnics of the High Elves.  I’m sure people have written entire articles on food in Middle Earth, so I’ll stop there, but you get the point.

ALAN: And if you ever visit Hobbiton here in New Zealand, you can buy a second breakfast at the cafe…

JANE: Yum!

Fantasy writers seem particularly fond of inventing new desserts.  Maggie Stiefvater created November Cakes for her excellent novel The Scorpio Races.  Anne McCaffery introduced “bubbly pies” in the Pern books.   A couple weeks ago, Jim looked up from reading Diana Wynne Jones’ A Tale of Time City to announce that he now had a craving for “Forty-Two Century butter-pies.”

The horrible thing about these desserts is since they don’t exist, the reader can never sample them.  This hasn’t kept fans from trying to invent recipes, though.

ALAN: Yes indeed. Publishing recipes, generally with exotic and science fictional names, has long been a fannish tradition. Perhaps we can talk about this intersection of fantasy and reality next time?

JANE: Absolutely…  My mouth is already watering.

7 Responses to “TT: Dealing with the Food Problem”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Then there’s Haviland Tuf’s pop-onion pies, courtesy George R. R. Martin. Anyway, no discussion of lembas, cram, vat meat, or Romulan ale? Or aliens getting drunk on lactic acid rather than alcohol (which is a rather bad biological joke)?

    Anyway, if you’re on alien planets, the key thing to take along isn’t a food pill, it’s a multivitamin. Alien worlds may or may not have most of the same amino acids. They may or may not have things that are toxic to us. One thing they’re very much not likely to have is our complement of vitamins, and the ones we in particular need are the fault of evolution and fairly haphazard.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I’d forgotten the pop-onion pies…

      And I did allude to “Lord of the Rings,” using food for worldbuilding, just didn’t write a term paper on it!

      Definitely agree about vitamins!

  2. James M. Six Says:

    In addition to food, there is drink, such as the Romulan Ale that Heteromeles mentioned above, or the one college students (and some bartenders) keep trying to reinvent: The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

    But this discussion brings home the idea that hard sf worries about food, while soft sf tends to glide over it except for the culture shock or the emphasis of difference. In fantasy, nutritional differences are VERY rarely brought up and it’s the TASTE of the different foods that usually gets all the attention. Which makes me wonder if anyone has written a fantasy story or series based around a cook/chef who gets dropped through a portal and approaches the fantasy world with his/her major skillset.

  3. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I’m not picky of what I’m eating when I’m thinking of what to feed a fantasy character I look at the recipes that have the funniest names like recipes that have dragon as part of the title. And I look at the foods used in churches and at special celebration like beets and peaches. I do the same types of searching when I’m thinking of pretend powerful gardens, like roses’ and lotus’s specialties, and useful flowers like chamomile.

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