At home nowhere and everywhere, I’ve made it my business to explore wherever I land. Vernaculars, stories, main streets—such are my haunts; I am your ghost. (Hi, there. Rest easy, you did turn off the stove before leaving the house.) While I usually prefer to observe, quietly in my corner, my relationship with local cuisines is much more active. After all, food is such a fulfilling way to consume regional energy. A pretty plate is the truest feast for the senses: sight, scent, sound, touch, and taste. From an early age, I’ve been an indiscriminate collector of culinary experiences. Every bite can be a history lesson; every morsel, a message. An intercultural communication.
Even the hard times proved instructive. Contrasting with my grateful experiencing of many different nations’ foods in my childhood and teens, my college years were… Spartan. We’re talking black beans for dinner, then again (in broth) for lunch and (topped with melted cheese) for dinner the next day. Often, I’d boil carrots and drink the carrot water like tea. I was not, in so many words, a man of material wealth, but those days shaped my understanding of and appreciation for food.
Fortunately, at present, I am able to afford actual tea. Having survived the harder years, now armed with an ever-widening mental catalogue of dishes, I bring these to bear in my writing. Highlighting what a character eats, what delicacy a town is known for, or even what crops a nation can grow—and the resultant meals—expands the world and diversifies its peoples. Food is a fare-ly key ingredient in providing the reader with a sense of daily life in an imaginary world. This is certainly true of the fantasy genre, where delicious descriptions of colorful cooking are a staple.
In The Rave, the first installment in my arcanepunk cyberfantasy Aelfraver Trilogy, our “heroine” (term subject to limitations) Alina’s relationship with food is one of many means I use to convey her struggles. Beginning broke as broke can be, she wishes she could get ahold of some carrot water. She carefully weighs the purchase of every can of Cherry Punch! soda or vegan falafel wrap. These moments help inform her personality, financial status, interpersonal skills, and more. Whenever my characters share a meal, as with their real-world counterparts, the exchange punctuates the seasoning of a relationship. In book two, The Rebel, the gang journeys to a strange new city, sheltering in a spy bunker, where they chow down on a “delicacy procured from the underground lakes some miles west,” popping open “cardboard takeout containers packed with rice, steamed tubers, and mostly dead eels.”
The food enhances the tension, and vice versa. Later in the narrative, a gentler meeting occurs: a coffee-and-croissant date held in a floating fortress that exists within the collective unconscious of thousands of minds (human and inhuman). From the plot to the characters, to where they go and definitely what they snack on, I love combining the mundane and the alien.
We are what we eat, they say, but we are many other odds and ends, too. Consider me an inquisitive acquisitor of multitudinous habits, quirks, and preferences. For, while truth is stranger than fiction, I’d argue that the combination of the two—filtered through personal perspective—is what makes a story, and its world, vibrant and resonant. This is why I seek to incorporate our species’s beautiful, diverse, unique little oddities into my writing. After all, the everyday anchors the grand and fantastical. Our rituals—including breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper—connect us to the characters in a story, to the ineffable, and to each other.
Thanks for stopping by to share your food for thought, JR!