Writing Excuses 14.30: Eating Your Way to BetterWorldbuilding
Key points: Food, immigrants, culture, and eating are an obsession for many of us. Immigrants bring their food and adapt, but they also lock it in time. Eating is a sense of home. Beware the tendency to either have enormous feasts or stew in epic fantasies. Food and eating are central metaphors, that you can use to share things about a character. Watch out for rabbit starvation! Food has history, food comes from places. To get it right, make sure the food matters to a character, with a memory, and why that’s important. Avoid the soup stone and stew, that we just ate, scene. Make sure the descriptions of food are nourishing, that they have a purpose, not just intestine stuffing. Meals should have meaning. Meals should also tell us something about the world. Think about the production behind the food. Watch out for mush or pills in the future! Give us Klingon foods, but as a good experience, something to try. Make it palatable.
[Transcription note: My apologies, but I have almost certainly confused Piper and Amal at some points in this transcript. Also, some phrases, such as what Amal’s father calls intestine stuffing, are rough guesses, since I couldn’t figure out the actual phrase.]
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 30.
[Piper] This is Writing Excuses, and Eating Your Way to Better Worldbuilding.
[Dongwon] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Piper] I’m Piper J. Drake.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice Broaddus.
[Piper] You’re laughing.
[Maurice] I’m already laughing. That is correct.
[Piper] This is going to be so much fun. Okay. So. Along the lines of our title, which is Eating Your Way to Better Worldbuilding. Dongwon, I’m going to totally put you on the spot.
[Dongwon] So I really like to talk about food. If you’ve ever met me, I do it pretty much incessantly.
[Piper] Me, too!
[Dongwon] It’s an obsession. I think it’s an obsession for pretty much all of us. One of the reasons I like to talk about that is, in particular, I come from an immigrant family. Both my parents are immigrants, and food is one of the main ways I relate to culture. Both the culture that my parents came from, the culture of the South where I was raised and went to school, and, I live in New York City, which is where I get to interface with so many different cultures, primarily through eating the many, many delicious things that they make. I love to see this reflected in fiction, and not just the world that we exist in in our own bodies.
[Amal] Fun fact. I decided that Dongwon should be my agent based on the fact that he talked about food in really specific ways. In addition to his many other very fine qualities, like, he is in fact a really good agent. I had been stalking him on Twitter for a while in part because he telegraphed all of these recipes that he was doing and stuff. But there was one moment in particular where we were having our first kind of tentative conversation of do we want to work together, and he gave me this really amazing, mind blowing insight into the ways in which like, immigrants bring their food to new places. Which, I mean, I can say it right now, I think it’s germane to the conversation. So I’m used to thinking about immigrants moving around the world and bringing their food with them in the way that that food changes is dependent on the available ingredients, right? So you can’t find the stuff that you used to make your food back home, so you adapt and use different things. What Dongwon pointed out was that’s not the only variable in the food changing. The other variable is time. In that when immigrants come, their food becomes kind of time locked in the moment when they immigrated. So that different waves of immigration can have very different foods. That you might… For instance, my family emigrated from Lebanon. The food that I am used to thinking of as Lebanese food might be very different from the food that I now find in Lebanon, because cuisines are constantly changing and adapting and so on, but there’s a kind of time lock that happens to it in place. I’d never thought of this before, and because Dongwon clearly was thinking along lines that were just revelatory to me in the way that I think about food and culture and the way I move through the world and inheritance and all sorts of stuff, I was like, “Yeah. This guy here. [Garbled, inaudible].
[Piper] My mind is currently blown right now, because my parents are from Thailand, and what I grew up thinking of as Thai cooking, or just home cooking, is very, very different from what you would find in Thailand now. For example, there’s plenty of people who’ve been linking me on social media, like Facebook, on the rolled icecream dealio? I never encountered that is a child going… In Thailand, when I was there in the summers. So I was like, “I have no idea what this thing is.” They’re like, “You should. It’s from Thailand.” I’m like, “Huhuhu. I would love to try it. But it was never there when I was a kid.”
[Dongwon] Koreans have recently discovered cheese, and they are so excited about it. It’s on everything right now. I find it horrifying. I don’t think it goes with Korean flavors at all. But you go to Korea and they’re eating it on everything. Whereas for me, the food that I think of as Korean food is like New York Korean food. Which is a very specific region and time and all those things combined.
[Maurice] So, I have a kind of complicated family structure. So, I was born in London, my mother’s born in Jamaica, my father’s born here in the States. So we have these three sort of cultures that always sort of clashed every Sunday afternoon, because we would always have family dinners together. So we’d always have to have food that represented each culture as we came to sit down for family meals. Which is great if you ever came over to our house to eat, because all of a sudden you have this big smorgasbord of food to choose from. But for us, eating became this centering element. So eating for us was always a sense of home. Which then, as before, becomes really interesting in my personal family, since I’m married interracially. I’m also the main cook in the family, due to some of my own early mistakes in the relationship.
[Maurice] Again, me and my wife are fine.
[Maurice] But in our first year of marriage, she had it in her head, this is what an ideal marriage would look like. So she would… I’d come home, she’d make these meals, and the meals would be waiting for me. Then I decided to make a joke. This was a solid joke. I swear this was… I came… I said, “Hey, honey…”
[Dongwon] You’re so stressed right now.
[Piper?] I know. We’re making him plaintive.
[Maurice] I said, “Hey, your cooking could be considered a hate crime.”
[Piper?] Why would you say that?
[Maurice] In my head, this sounded like such a solid joke.
[Why is it a joke?]
[Piper] Dongwon has fallen off the table.
[Amal?] [Garbled where was…]
[Maurice] [garbled] Should have provided better instruction and waved me off of this one. So, for the next 13 years, I became the main cook in the family.
[Dongwon] Sounds like just desserts.
[Maurice] There we go.
[Yeah, that happens.]
[Piper] I think we should document this for posterity. Dongwon Song made a pun.
[Dongwon] Right. I’m very tired.
[Oooo. We forgive you.]
[Maurice] But it’s actually worked out great across the board because I’m a foodie person. I love food. As demonstrated during the course of this trip. I love food. It has allowed me to just experiment with things, and to provide different tastes, even though I know my children aren’t going to be on board with this, but it provides a touch point for me and my wife, it provides a touch point for when my family comes to visit. Learning all these different dishes in order to create a sense of home for whenever anyone comes to visit our house.
[Piper] Speaking of a sense of home, so, one of the things that reviewers have called out in some of my books obviously is the fact that I have a tendency to mention food, and that they should never read my books without having had a meal first, or they will immediately go out and eat. But one of the things that I brought up, and a reviewer really, really felt close to, was in Absolute Trust, Sophie tends to share her foods with her friends. She is Korean American. She’s just saying, “You know what, this is an untraditional meal. This is just an amalgamation of all my comfort foods.” She’s sharing them. What it really started to click with, with the reviewer, was that growing up she didn’t, or was hesitant to, share her foods with friends because friends thought it was weird, or it smelled weird, or it was pungent when you brought it into school or brought it into work. Is that something that you’ve seen, in books in particular, and you think it should be shared more often? Is that something good, bad? What do you think?
[Amal] I mean, I’m reminded of different podcasts… Is it okay to mention other podcasts on the podcast?
[Piper] Yeah, I think so.
[Amal] There was a podcast…
[Piper] We have the nod.
[Amal] Yeah. There was… Sadly, it’s sort of on hiatus now, but there was a podcast called Rocket Talk on Tor.com that Justin Landon did and he would often interview people. I’m pretty sure it was Rocket Talk. There was a conversation about foods and epic novels, and how bored the… I can’t remember who else was on the podcast now, but they were talking about how boring it was to have feasts described. Like, the registers of food and epic fantasies seemed to either be enormous feast or stew.
[Amal] It was just like this ubiquitous stew everywhere. I just feel like that’s always a missed opportunity. Like all of the things that we’re talking about, like, there are so many things that you do with food, with eating. Like feeding and eating are such central metaphors. So, why not use it to share everything about a character? Like, the fact that you couldn’t when you worry growing up and now you want to, because it’s where all of these deep tense anxieties of your soul are centered.
[Dongwon] Well, when I think about those feast scenes in fiction, I actually quite like scenes where people eat food, and I like these feast scenes because they’re often an opportunity to see a lot of characters interact, and people love descriptions of food. Where I have a problem is, this is where my nerdiness gets away with me, because there’ll be a very Western oriented fantasy, in a medieval setting, and everyone’s eating potatoes. I’m like, “Those didn’t exist in Europe at that point in time. Those are a New World ingredient.” Or, they’re on the road on some grand epic adventure hunting through the wilderness, and they stopped to make a stew which takes hours and hours to make when using resources that they probably have at the time. Or they’re only eating rabbits. Here’s an interesting fact that I really love is there’s a thing called rabbit starvation that’s what happened to trappers.
[Dongwon] If you only eat rabbits, it takes more calories to burn the meat than it gives you.
[Piper] They’re like celery?
[Amal?] Because they’re lean.
[Dongwon] They’re like celery.
[Piper] Like, rabbits are celery.
[Dongwon] Rabbits are so lean.
[Amal] But wait. Were they actually eating the eyes, because that is a really good calorie source?
[Dongwon] Maybe they should have been eating the rabbit eyes. This I don’t actually know. But there’s not enough of the proteins in there to have the enzymes for you to digest the meat properly. So you will actually starve to death if all you eat is rabbits. So every time Samwise Gamgee shows up with a brace of rabbits and potatoes, I get mad.
[Dongwon] It’s pedantic, but to me, it’s really important because food has history. Food comes from places. Food reflects things about the way we move through the world. So until we explored the New World and brought potatoes to Europe, that was an ingredient that we didn’t have. If your world has potatoes in it, that means there is sea exploration in a way. That implies a whole nother depth to your world that you may not have considered if it’s not there initially.
[Maurice] All right. Hang on. One more time. What was the question? I do this a lot.
[Piper] So I was asking about whether or not… Or how you felt about including the sharing of food, especially if it’s your character’s home cooking, and what kind of thoughts or memories they evoke?
[Maurice] Well, there’s a couple, ’cause like even on this trip, I’ve been reflecting on different sort of food memories that we have. So, like at one point, I felt the need, I have to have some beans and rice, and I had to have some plantains. These are foods that I took for granted when my mom fixed them every week. But now, I just was like, “Oh, no. I feel the need to have them.” But on the flipside, there are foods I want no part of. Like, one of them was aki and salt fish, because my mom would make that every Saturday morning. It has this older that would fill the house. The whole idea of being embarrassed or having to share that, I’m like I can’t have my friends over, spend the night, because my mom’s going to fix aki and salt fish, and it’s going to stink up the whole house. What are they going to think about me? The same thing with chitlins, ’cause…
[Piper?] Chitlins? But they nomee. They so nomee…
[Maurice] Sure. Yeah. But see, I was also so scarred early on because there was one time when my grandmother was fixing chitlins and then…
[Amal?] What are chitlins?
[Maurice] What are chitlins?
[Amal?] I don’t know what chitlins are.
[Piper] Let’s just say they’re innards.
[Amal] They’re what?
[Dongwon] Or large intestines.
[Amal] Oh. Okay.
[Dongwon] Or small intestines? I get confused.
[Piper] They are part of the intestines and you will find out that Piper will eat very, very… Well, let’s just say that there are very few things in this world that I won’t eat.
[Maurice] Right. But when my grandmother was cleaning them… Because you have to clean them first. It produces a sort of… I don’t know… There was a sheen to her hands and a stink to the process. Then she would be like, “Come give grandma a hug!”
[Maurice] Put me off on entire… Yes. So things happened.
[Amal] Testicular sheen feels like a term now in my head, which I didn’t ever…
[Amal] Intestinal, not testicular.
[Piper] Sorry. You said intestinal, and I heard testicular.
[Dongwon] Those are Rocky Mountain oysters. [Garbled]
[Piper] Rocky Mountain oysters, different food type.
[Piper] But on that note, let’s go to the book of the week.
[Piper] So. The book of the week just happens to be a cookbook.
[Amal] Yeah. Oh, yeah.
[Piper] We’re trying to talk about…
[Piper] If I could stop laughing. We’re going to talk about A Feast of Ice and Fire, the official Game of Thrones companion cookbook. This is by… And I apologize, they’re not here to correct me on name pronunciation, so I may mess this up. Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sarian Lehrer, I believe. The reason why I recommend this is because I really have a lot of great memories associated with this cookbook. I probably got this cookbook before I really watched Game of Thrones and really read the book. But the thing I loved about it was that it not only has recipes that are historically accurate or recipes from their historical research, but it has a contemporary adjustment, I guess you could say. A remake of the same recipe, so you have the two options. What was kind of funny as I was going through it was I actually preferred the historical preparation and presentation more than I like the modern. So it’s just a really cool cookbook to go through. It does have a foreword by George RR Martin. But I think really I was more focused on the food, because the food looks fantastic, has pictures, etc. They talk about the historical research behind the recipes.
[Dongwon] So, when we think about food in fiction, what are the things that are hallmarks for you of when somebody gets it right, in terms of including food? A different dish, or a cultural dish, in presenting either an alien race or a fictional fantasy culture or something along those lines?
[Piper] How do they get it right?
[Dongwon] Or where they go off the rails?
[Piper] Oh, gosh, I gotta go first on this?
[Piper] How they… Like, hallmarks of how they get it right is when it matters to a character. Because that’s why you remember a particular dish. Whether it’s a good memory or a bad memory, it matters to a character, and I want to know why. Not just what’s in the dish, but what is it about the cooking of it, is it a communal cooking effort, is it for a particular purpose, does it bring together memories? I mean, Maurice shared that awesome memory of… About the preparation on Saturday nights for Sunday morning. Like, that kind of thing is a fantastic memory and it’s character building and it’s worldbuilding. It tells you about culture, it tells you about everything from the large to the detailed. I think that that’s a fantastic way to do it. One of the things that I don’t like is when somebody’s like, “So, we got a soup stone and we got some wild onions and we threw some protein in there and it makes this delicious stew. Hooray.” Then why did… Like, how did that do anything for character building or plot, except show that they ate?
[Amal] There’s an expression that my dad uses for when food is just basically adequate and it’s just… It’s fine. He says [hash ris and thron?] Which is relevant to what we were just talking about, because it just translates literally to intestine stuffing.
[Amal] So I feel like there’s… Yeah, that’s right.
[Amal] I’m recovering from that moment. But I think it applies to this. Like, are the descriptions of food in your book [hash ris and thron?] or are they actually nourishing? Are they something that is providing something in the narrative that is going to serve a purpose? By purpose here, I don’t mean plot mechanics, although that would be awesome. I would love to read a book where the plot hinged on food. Like, that would be great. But more just what you were describing there. But, like I remember this one seen in a book that I don’t like very much. There’s… It’s An Ocean at the End of the Lane. I don’t like that book very much. But there’s a moment in that book where… The main character’s a little boy, and he has been eating terrible food, like the kind of cold porridge grimy badness sort of thing. He’s suddenly in this home where he’s given warm toasted bread and butter and jam. The memory of the description of this book that lingers with me is going from cold gray darkness to warm golden light. Even though I don’t like the book very much, that one thing about the book has totally stayed with me because it was this experience of food locked to all the other experiences that the character is having and the experience the character had, this joy, and this unbelievable almost painful simplicity, was enormous.
[Maurice] So there’s a couple different things. One, I like the ritual of food. From the moment of preparation to how it’s presented and how it’s consumed. For me, there’s a ritual about it. The more that there’s a ritual, the more that the meal has meaning, I love when I read scenes like that. But the other thing, for me, in terms of worldbuilding is what does the food say about the world itself. So, like, for me, I have trouble dieting, for example, because whenever I diet, as soon my belly grumbles from trying to cut down on calories, what triggers is I have a lack of food, I don’t know when I’ll have my next meal. I have all of these… It’s like a poverty throwback to when we lived much more food insecure, growing up wise. So it becomes… So it’s almost like diets for me trigger that, so then it almost has the opposite effect, which is I must eat now, so I can feel like I’m secure in having a meal again. So I say all that because I love it when stories reflect upon that in the greater world. So we have these meals… All right. So if we have this huge rich banquet of food. All right, so we’re obviously living in a wealthy culture. If we are having food of opportunity, that says something else about the culture. I love those little shadings, and when people bring that out in their work.
[Amal] [inaudible. Something?] I want to highlight too that we almost never think about in terms of food. So we’re talking a lot about where food comes from, its provenance, and of reflecting that in worldbuilding. I don’t think we tend to think about food production very much. This is a hole that I would love to help fill for everyone by recommending a Twitter account and a podcast. Dr. Sarah Taber on Twitter is someone who absolutely everyone should follow. She’s magnificent. She has a podcast called Farm to Taber which is great, a great title.
[Amal] She works… I mean, she has worked on a farm, she’s worked in the agricultural industry in the United States, but she has a wonderful sense of where food production and food standards intersect with worldbuilding. So, where… For instance, why is it that in some places you raise cattle instead of raising crops? Well, perhaps it’s because in those places, all… It’s too arid to actually grow crops that sustain human beings, and the only vegetation that is edible is edible by animals. So you get your cattle to eat the rough terrible things that you can’t actually digest, and then you eat the cattle. There is a logic to it. There is a kind of food management aspect to it. But I have… Like, it blew my mind to start thinking about… I never had thought about it before. So it’s, I think, part and parcel of thinking about things like empire and colonialism and all this stuff that we think about just on the regular… All of us obviously all think about that on a regular…
[Piper] We do.
[Dongwon] And class and power and privilege…
[Amal] And class and power and privilege. Thinking about food production can often be… Like, I just got… A missing link in the ways in which we talk about these things. So she’s a great place to start.
[Dongwon] It’s a truly brilliant podcast, I cannot recommend highly enough. It’s one of my sort of top three right now.
[Maurice] One of the things… You mentioned going off the rails. I’m not excited for the future.
[Ooh. Ha ha ha.]
[Maurice] ‘Cause people don’t eat well in the future. I mean, all the food seems to be like this weird mush type thing that people are eating, or like we get pills, like that’s what I have to look forward to?
[Dongwon] Well, I think about two things in terms of like food in science fiction. On the one end, you have Star Trek, right? Where you sort of have replicators, and they’re just reproducing various sort of Western-style foods. Then you have the way that Klingon food is presented…
[Dongwon] This is the thing that bothers me, because it’s very one-dimensional. Klingons are presented as this violent species, and therefore they eat violent foods. So the food is living, it’s bugs, it’s worms, it moves. It’s played for the sense of horror from the Federation officers who have to go to diplomatic dinners with Klingons or whatever it is. Except in this one really beautiful moment in Deep Space Nine that I really liked which is why Deep Space Nine is the only Star Trek I really like. You can all yell at me later.
[Piper] Actually, I see fists being shaken in the audience.
[Dongwon] Exactly. Then, there’s this beat where Dr. Bashir takes a date to this Klingon food stall, and it’s just presented as this delightful moment that they share their love of Klingon food. He’s just slurping up worms…
[Dongwon] And it’s just like really… It’s played for laughs in some ways, but it’s also this really endearing sense of like, “Oh. This is a guy who’s lived in a multicultural environment. He’s lived in a place where Klingons lived, learn to eat their food, and can order in their language, and just loves doing it.” It just, to me, I was like, “Oh. He’s a New Yorker, right? This is what we do…”
[Dongwon] We go down to the [garbled ballfields?] and order food or we go to the food courts or whatever it is and you order the thing that you’re excited to try and the thing that you know how to order. I find that to be two different models of the way in which we can look at food from other cultures and food in the future. The Expanse also does this really well. They have done a great job of not only mingling languages, but then mingling cuisines and then giving them new names, right? So you get a sense that Martians eat a certain way, the Belters eat a certain way, and those things are… They often talk about how they’re like, things that sound horrible in some ways. That they’re like yeast products, or they’re grown in space environments. But then you can feel the cultural roots of how they’re using those products, those soy products and yeast products, whatever it is. So food in the future can be depressing, but I think if we apply our imagination a little bit more and make it rooted in the cultures of who’s actually going to space, and if we make sure that the futures we envision aren’t just white Americans going into space, then maybe the food will be a little bit more pilatable.
[Piper] Yea, food.
[Amal] Street food? What will we call street food once it hits space?
[Piper] We’ll have to have space streets.
[Amal] Space streets?
[Piper] Space street food. Space markets?
[Amal] I have two quick recs on food in space. Two things that came to mind were my favorite thing that Alan Moore ever wrote called The Ballad of Halo Jones. It’s an amazing book, it’s one of his very early things. There is a really cool food thing that I will get into later. But the other one is Max Gladstone has a book coming out next year called Empress of Forever. Is that the title now? Yes. Empress of Forever, and there’s a lot of culture hopping there. In every one, it feels like there’s an introduction based in food and rooted in hospitality and cultural exchange and stuff like that. It is the future, probably. It’s space.
[Dongwon] It definitely is future.
[Amal] It’s definitely the future. Yes. It’s really great.
[Piper] Okay. So we’ve talked a lot… I’m very hungry now… About eating your way to a better worldbuilding. So, now, it’s time to talk about homework. Dongwon?
[Dongwon] So, the homework is, I would like you all to imagine a fictional meal. Imagine a meal at your character’s eating in a fantasy world, or in a science fictional world. Describe the history of that meal. What does it mean to the family who is eating it? Where do the ingredients come from? What are the cultures that led to it? Then write a sort of mini story that just tracks the way this particular meal came together, and what things came about because of certain cultures or certain ingredients or certain availability, certain restrictions, led to that particular meal happening for those particular characters at that moment.
[Piper] Okay. Then… Wait, there’s a thought.
[Amal] No, no.
[Piper] You didn’t have a thought.
[Amal] No, I didn’t.
[Piper] I don’t remember how to finish.
[Amal] This has been Writing Excuses… Sorry, I just…
[Amal] You’re the one doing it.
[Piper] I don’t know…
[Amal] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write. That was the thing. You can [inaudible]
[Piper] Now go write.
[Piper] All right, we’re done.