Welcome back to another Worldbuilding Wednesday! After the heavier subjects of the last three posts I thought I’d go with something a bit more fun this week: Cooking!
Food, preparing it and consuming it is something that everyone participates in to one degree or another. It’s a common point of reference that every reader of your stories will understand. It’s also a way to distinguish your world from the real world. Thus it’s definitely worth your time to do a bit of worldbuilding around the food that your characters will grow, prepare and consume.
One basic fact that you should accept is that pretty much every plant that humans eat has been modified from its original form. Ancient humans were masters of selective breeding. They would see something useful in a plant and then work to breed successive generations of the plant that were more and more what they wanted.
A simple example is corn. Corn or Maize started out as a fairly simple grain called teosinte. It’s changed so much from its original form that corn can no longer reproduce without human intervention. Most plants that we eat have experienced the same sort of selective breeding.
Why do I bring this up?
Well, if you’re building a world that isn’t based on Earth (say a completely different SF planet or Fantasy world), you can have plants that humanity (or other native species) have selectively bred. This means your banquet could include things sort of like potatoes except the center is purple and the surface is orange spotted. You could have purple bread (poi bread anyone? *grin*). You could have juice that is sweet and acidic but comes from a strange nut that sort of resembles a coconut but not really.
Food is one of the quick and easy ways to differentiate your world from the real world so it’s well worth spending some time working on what food your characters have available and how they would prepare it. Most people who read this will never have learned how to cook food on a woodstove.
I did as a young girl in rural Montana. My family was poor and we were building a house while living in the unfinished basement. Our only source of heat for quite some time was an old fashioned wood cook stove. The one my family had looked a lot like this one though much, much older (not recommending it, just linking to a visual).
Cooking on it was a completely different experience from cooking on an electric stove. Or for that matter using a crock pot or rice cooker or even a camp fire. The methodology your characters use to prepare their food will make a huge difference in the sort of food that they prepare.
If they’re reliant on burning something to get heat then you have smoke to consider. Does their stove attach to a chimney? How efficient is it? Is it inside the house or outside it? In many parts of the world where it’s consistently warm, stoves are kept outside so that they don’t heat up the house. In cold areas like where I grew up a stove is a valuable source of heat for the house and it may be kept burning at all times. In that case they definitely need some method to get the smoke out of the house or they’ll suffocate.
It’s perfectly possible to cook stews and soups over a campfire or in a regular fireplace. People did that for thousands of years. You can make bread that way, too. Managing to make a pie would be a serious stretch but a cobbler would be eminently possible.
My mother and I made pies in our cook stove. We had to be careful to fire the stove up early and then rotate the pies frequently in the oven to make sure they didn’t scorch on one side but it worked. There were hot spots on the surface that worked better to quickly sear meat and colder spots that were perfect for simmering. If I needed to have really intense heat then there were little lids that could be removed so that the (cast iron only!) pan could sit directly over the flames. By the time we got rid of it once the house was finished I knew exactly where to put a pot or pan to ensure that the food cooked properly.
My husband and I just got a crockpot and a good rice cooker. I’m learning their quirks now. There are things that they do well and things that they can’t do. Whatever method your characters use to prepare their food, there will be quirks to be managed and things that go better or worse.
Your characters may not actually have a kitchen that people in the US would recognize. Maybe they use a Haybox, which is a method to slow cook food over a full day’s time in a specially insulated box that retains the heat of the cooking pot until the food is done cooking. They could harness the sun’s energy.
How about magic? How would mages make their mothers’, wives’ and daughters’ lives easier with pots or pans, stoves that magically cook food faster and easier? A housewife with a small magical gift might spell a bit of flagstone to radiate heat upwards whenever a pot is put on it, returning to coldness when the pot’s taken away.
Preservation of food is another area you could spend a lot of time on, if you so choose. Salt and sugar cures have existed almost forever. Root cellars are equally old. In a Fantasy world there may be special spells that a housewife could say to keep food from spoiling before its preserved. Or maybe the town has a special building at the center that’s been covered with preservation spells so that anything placed within stays healthy and unspoiled until it’s needed.
It’s up to you as the writer. The actual food that people eat, the way that they prepare it and the ways that they serve it don’t have to match what you grew up with. The more you investigate methods of cooking and preparing food the more ideas will become available to you. Take some time. Try food from different cultures. Buy or check out cookbooks from the library. The internet has a wealth of information about food and ways to prepare it.
The time you spend considering cooking will enrich your story immeasurably. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find something tasty to make and eat in your own home. That’s one of the best sorts of research in my opinion. *grin*
I hope that you enjoyed reading this. Please do ask questions if you have any. I like sharing my world building but writing these takes time away from writing stories that I could publish. Thus, it would be greatly appreciated if you would consider leaving a donation. All money received goes toward keeping me writing and posting these columns. Thank you very much!