Who doesn’t like food? Ok, maybe someone doesn’t, but we all have to eat to live. That means we all have experiences with food (meh or no). That doesn’t mean we have the same experiences with food. What food is available, how much is available, what is common, how it’s eaten, and even who can afford what are all pretty big parts of defining a culture/society/region. That makes including food a powerful worldbuilding tool (and one that can get fans pretty excited).
Here are 10 authors or specific stories that use food for worldbuilding, broken down into 3 tactics – and these are just 10 I could think of off the top of my head.
General Culture Creation
The most basic use of food in any story is to give the reader an impression of the culture of the world. If the foods seem familiar, the world will seem familiar (no matter how fantastic). If the foods are strange and unique, then it emphasizes a difference between the created world and the real world – or between different cultures within the story.
If we go back to The Hobbit, Tolkien introduces Middle Earth with a tea party that’s full of dishes that show a lot of similarities to foods common to Great Britain at the time. This sets a kind of baseline with the Shire as the most normal (the people we are supposed to empathize with most easily). When the travelers eat somewhere else in that book or the later trilogy, the similarities and differences accentuate the varied cultures, and the hobbits’ responses make sense because we already know what they’re used to.
2. Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Set in 1914, the first food shown is whatever greasy monstrosity Cookie slaps into mounds on the trays for the characters, which is undoubtedly 3 of Cookie’s 4 basic food groups: “beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard.” We get the impression that their food on the trip is very basic and disgusting (hence, the mushroom clouds that appear when it’s dumped in the fire).
To contrast this, the characters are later seen eating some sort of Atlantean dish. Whereas Cookie’s food was unidentifiable globs of something, the Atlantean food is fresh enough to be identifiable (you know, if the water creatures weren’t totally made up), and the implements are entirely different (to the point where Milo gives up and uses his hands). Although it’s something that happens very much in the background, it helps show the audience how very different the two cultures are.
The Raksura are flying shapeshifters in a land with many races that are drastically different from one another. Throughout the story and travels of the main character, Moon, food highlights the extreme differences between the many races and their cultures – not only by what they eat (types of bread, fish versus mammal, etc.) but also by how they eat.
The Raksura are omnivores and eat a variety of raw and cooked dishes; however, they sometimes eat their prey without cooking it while in their winged forms (which shows them to be definite predators), and that can alarm other races. While the Raksura don’t eat groundlings (people who don’t fly), the Fell do, so both the foods chosen and eating methods create a lot of tension between the various races and cultures. Add in that some foods are poisonous to certain races and not others, and food takes on a very significant role in the worldbuilding.
Studio Ghibli’s animation is renown for its intricate depictions of foods. In Spirited Away alone, the feast that Chihiro’s parents eat is designed to look decadent and delicious. The dishes come from a variety of Asian cultures, and everything is drawn at a scale that is larger than life – but only for the spirits’ food.
Also, each movie shows different foods or foods from different regions (for the most part), which helps give the audience a feel for where each story takes place.
The Scarcity Technique
When a character or culture is very poor or in an extreme situation, showing a lack of food can convey that situation to the audience very quickly.
5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Whether it’s the book or the musical, Oliver! (which have some differences, granted), food plays a major role in both the initial worldbuilding and plot of this story. From the moment of Oliver’s birth, the story starts laying down the atmosphere of scarcity by making it clear that the woman caring for him and the other children preferred to pocket most of the money sent to feed them.
When Oliver moved to the workhouse at age 9, the lack of food became coupled with the quality of the food, for he was… “issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays.” These descriptions make us feel sorry for the boys, angry at the adults, and more than willing to believe that the scarcity and quality of the food could drive the boys to take unusual actions (hello, inciting incident). It’s also pretty understandable that Oliver would follow the first person to give him a generous meal. When you don’t have food, getting it becomes a high priority.
In the first episode, Kaylee practically has a religious experience (or something) when she gets to eat a strawberry. At dinner, the rest of the crew raves over the food, too. Nothing could have said more clearly to the audience that fresh produce is rare. Also, the packaged food options are mentioned casually throughout the series to establish them as the common food supply: for example, “Genuine “A” grade foodstuffs-protein, vitamins, immunization supplements. One of those will feed a family for a month. Longer if they don’t like their kids too well.” That’s a vivid demonstration of how regular life has changed thanks to space travel, the war, the Alliance, etc.
Additionally, the fact that the main characters on the show don’t seem too driven by a lack of food indicates that they’re at least somewhat successful at their scavenging. That doesn’t, however, stop them from making a profit off of others’ needs for food or from being excited about fresh stuff. So simply by introducing a tasteless/boring-sounding common food that makes fresh produce exciting, Joss Whedon established several different levels of worldbuilding that help make the series feel realistic and unique.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this show. Running from 1965-1971, Hogan’s Heroes was a comedy set in a W.W. II prisoner of war camp. As you may have guessed, in order to be a comedy, the series had to be seriously separated from reality. The story revolves around the idea that the prisoners are actually pretending to be captured so that they can run secret missions for the Allies within Germany. To enhance the fantasy of Allied superiority, the prisoners generally eat far better than the guards and use their fine wines, chocolates, crêpe suzette, and so on to bribe the guards, officers, and citizens.
As far as realism goes, this series strays so far into the realm of hyperbole that it could very feasibly offend anyone with actual experience in the war (although, interestingly enough, several of the actors were Europeans who escaped from Nazi-controlled countries). Without the food aspects, however, I’m not sure how well the series would’ve worked. The scarcity that the guards and other German soldiers face gives the prisoners a level of power that is integral to many (if not most) of the episodes I’ve seen.
8. The Matrix
The Matrix‘s use of food is another example of how dramatic changes in the world and its cultures requires dramatic changes in the food, as well. With a scarred and environmentally damaged Earth, the rebels’ food is rather like the gruel from Oliver Twist. The bland, disgusting-looking glop served on Morpheus’ ship makes for a stark contrast to what the people plugged into the matrix think that they are eating. That’s a hard transition for people who grew up in the matrix (as evidenced by spoilers) and something that people who were born and raised naturally have never experienced. That alone makes for an interesting contrast in worlds and cultures.
After a Famine, a Fantastical Feast
This technique is commonly used in fantasy stories where the story begins in a fairly realistic world and then somehow transitions to a new, amazing place or world.
9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
At the start of this book, Charlie and his family are so poor that “The only meals they could afford were bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper.” Every. Single. Day. Oh, but they got seconds on Sundays.
Now, contrast that with the fantastical candies Charlie gets to see and sample in the Willie Wonka Factory. The difference between the foods makes the candies seem even more exciting. To resist those candies after living off cabbage and potatoes? Charlie definitely earned that prize!
10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
With the Dursley’s, Harry experiences a scarcity of everything except abusive language. He is shown to get less food and to be deprived of tasty dishes while Duddley gets them all. Then, he goes to Hogwarts, and, boy, does his life change. Granted the foods of the wizarding world are pretty amazing on their own (the way they move on their own, unexpected and bizarre flavors, plates that fill with whatever you want, etc.), but when we see them through the eyes of poor deprived Harry, they’re much more amazing than seen through, say, Malfoy who’s very much used to it all.
That’s All, Folks!
Well, those are the 10 examples of food in worldbuilding that I could think of off the top of my head. There are tons more (it’s fairly vital in historical fiction, for example). And on the other hand, there are also very successful books that barely talk about food at all. Some genres tend to focus on food more than others.
Like most writing, it depends on whether you like to use food in your stories or whether your story needs it. If you’re trying to create a whole new world or show how different specific people are, however, food is a great way to do that. I mean, if you want your worldbuilding to feel realistic, the people need to eat, right?