According to some people, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. That’s right, I’m one of those people who start planning lunch while we’re still sitting at the breakfast table. But, see, there’s a reason for that: something might need to come out of the freezer, or come in from the garden.
I also have a good grasp on where my food comes from. As a child, one of my aunts kept chickens in her patio, and we kids used to flush rabbits for my uncle and his friends to kill with sling shots – real slings, by the way, not catapults.
Now that I live in the country, I buy meat and cheese from the people who produce them – my neighbours. I also have a very large garden where I grow my own produce, and as it happens, there’s not a lot about freezing, canning, and preserving that I don’t know.
One thing’s for sure: it takes up a lot of time. And in a pre-industrial age – the time period that most of us use for our secondary world fantasies – it took up almost all of the time. So why don’t we see more of it in our books? Well, it’s just that, for most of us, how to get dinner, where dinner comes from, how to pay for it, grow it, etc. isn’t the story we want to tell – nor the story our readers want to read.
But as I’ve suggested already (and no doubt will again), this is information we need to know. Not doing this right – or not doing it or at all – is the mark of an amateur. Sometimes, in our modern technological world, we’re so far removed from how the food gets produced, that we can easily make serious mistakes – or worse, overlook significant motivation – by not understanding where food comes from, and how it was produced in a pre-industrial age.
I said last week that it’s fairly straightforward to find out information – if you think to look in the first place. There are a couple of very handy books I can recommend myself – and I’m sure there are others many of you can tell me about.
I talked about how food and the need for it can drive plot, or be a motivating factor in the actions of characters. While you’re telling the story of a particular soldier/noble/mage/farm girl, you might want to touch on why the war is happening. Why are these armies on the move? Why is this land so important? Sometimes it’s as simple as who controls the source of salt or pepper.
Books like Michael Krondl’s The Taste of Conquest, or Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: a World History, are particularly useful when it comes to these large-scale ideas. Krondl traces how the need for – and therefore the value of – spices dictated the fates of Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam.
With Salt, we take a look at probably the most used and useful commodity in the history of humans. Nowadays we tend to think of salt as a flavour enhancer – and something we need to be careful of, since it can affect blood pressure – but it had a much more vital use in the past. Did you know that before WWII, 90% of the world’s salt was used for preserving food? You know what it gets used for now? De-icing roads.
Planning to have an extensive military campaign in one of your books? Better have a lot of salted meat ordered the season before. (By the way, this would be a dead giveaway of a king’s plans, if you’re a spy for the other side.)
But as I said, that’s for large-scale ideas. What about something closer to home? Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner looks at “the history and mythology, allure and obsessions, perils and taboos, of an ordinary meal.” Specifically, she looks at corn, salt, butter, chicken, rice, lettuce, olive oil, lemon juice, and, finally, ice cream. You can get a lot of ideas from knowing how people produced, prepared, and ate these everyday items.
Something not quite so elevated? Try Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife. Or even, Root Cellaring: The Simple, No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables.
But what about cooking? If your characters are urban, they can either cook in their own homes (using open fires or stoves), or purchase ready-made items from public cooks, including bakers, and sausage-and-pie makers. Remember that food is going to be purchased every day, and can only consist of ingredients that would be available in that place at that time. Middle of the winter? Then we’re talking about root vegetables, and dried fruits – though some of those might be imported. Fresh meats and fish might be available, but they’d likely be rabbits, poultry, and fish kept in ponds. Anything else would be preserved by smoking, drying, or salting – and remember that pickling is a form of salting.
Keep in mind, as well, that people didn’t eat meat every day, and not necessarily because of poverty, but because there just wasn’t that much meat around. Especially beef. Do you know how much land it takes to grow beef animals? How much water? Did you know that the poorer the community, the less likely they are to have pigs?
For that matter, do you know how much a horse eats every day?
By the way, Charlemagne’s tablecloth was allegedly made of asbestos. When it got stained or dirty, it was cleaned by throwing it into the fire. It’s known that such tablecloths existed, though it can’t be proven that Charlemagne himself definitely owned one. However, I gave one to my Mercenaries, Dhulyn and Parno, in The Solder King. They make fires on top of it while they’re travelling – and then go without leaving a trace.
You never know what you can use when you read a cook book.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com.