The Culture Burner: Cooking

In the introduction to my Construction article from two weeks ago, I used what I then believed to be a simple example to illustrate the power of slight variations on an expected theme. The example used the standard culinary belief, “everyone drinks some form of alcohol at bars/pubs.” We then played around with that sentence to make a prohibition-like setting full of speak-easys and shady characters. Upon re-reading that introduction, I came across the aforementioned initial belief and thought, “what if instead of focusing on the last part of that sentence, ‘alcohol at bars/pubs,’ I focused on the first part,  the word ‘everyone’?” What would that look like? What would a society where literally everyone from the poor farmer to the wealthy glove-maker climbs into the vast drinking hall at night and takes a few drinks with his or her (or maybe just his) fellow countrymen. That’s not novel at all, I dare say that would be memorable (not to mention a lot of fun to play).

I recant calling the above belief “novel” not to undermine the example but to show how powerful culinary culture is in shaping a society. Food is the one thing we all share. It is what brings us together. It is what we give the majority of our working hours for, and have since the dawn of time. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the simple and underrated meal is really the complex and indispensable foundation of all culture.

The good thing is we don’t have to start from scratch. Some of our world has already come together and if I had to bet, I would say that we at least know the main climate of our culture. And if you don’t, just visualize the buildings you created in the last section. What does the sky look like around them, or the roads? Are they frosty or sandy, barren or verdant? That should start you on the path down food row, but please don’t limit yourself. In fact, of all the sections, food is the one where we can go the most off the wall and still be believable. Food culture has the highest threshold for suspension of disbelief when compared to any other aspect of culture. Humans have in modern memory eaten dirt, snails, testicles of various sorts, peppers, babies in various stages, poison, secretions, lichens, grass, fish heads, brains, feet, hands, bones, fins, everything, even other people. Wars have been fought over spices. People have died for table salt. One of my personal favorite greens is one you have to boil in three changes of water or it will kill you. And then there is always Fugu.

Reality, when it comes to food, is crazy.

Just ask Andrew Zimern.

So, don’t feel limited by expectations or believability in the category. Go. Fly free!

Or play it close to the vest, it’s up to you.

One thing we should do before we go further is define what we mean by “culinary.” Just as “food culture” doesn’t just equate to recipes (it equates to how the food is consumed, where it is consumed, and why it is consumed, as well as what is consumed), culinary beliefs span a wide array of topics.

So with all of these options where should we begin? Well, we can either take three of the who, what, where, why, or how questions and answer them or perhaps we can start at the foundation and build upward by answering these following questions:

What is the staple element common to all meals?

The thing that separates the East from the West is not philosophy, it’s not race, it’s not construction or politics, it is something way more basic than that, way more primal. The fundamental difference between East and West is rice and wheat. Two simple grasses that define two massive cultures. Everything else came after that, all the thought and religion and politics came after someone ate either rice or wheat. Please take a moment and consider how profoundly these simple grains affect these cultures. Then answer this question accordingly. What if instead of rice, a certain culture ate ants with the same veracity and frequency. Ant-wrapped meats, ants used to thicken stews, ant-based alcohol, steak with a side of ants, ant egg salad, fried ant finger-food, and that’s without stretching my imagination too much. But the question is, what would that do to the greater society? If you have ever been to Japan you know that they have fields and fields of rice. Vacant lots in the suburbs are devoted to rice. Entire countrysides are covered in the stuff. And if you have ever flown over the United States, what greets your eyes when you look down? Wheat fields. Lots and lots of wheat fields. So, if, say ants _were_ the staple food. What would the farmland look like? Ants, everywhere. Barren stretches of land brimming with ants. What if they used the ants for other means as well (as the U.S. does with its other main crop, corn, aka ethanol)? Break the law, death by ants. What if the ants there are like the termites in Africa in that they build large mounds. If manipulated correctly, the ants could build the walls of farmers’ houses. Or maybe they produce a by-product that further defines the culture, like the silk worm. If there are rules for what makes a good staple, it would need to be something small and easily procurable. Grains, powders, things that can be powdered, etc. But rules are meant to be broken.

What is the defining food of the culture?

Different than the staple element, the defining food is what complements the staple in most meals. For the Japanese, it’s fish. For Americans it’s beef. For Southern Indians its “not-meat.” For the Belgians it’s fries with mayonnaise. In other words, whatever you think of when you think of a country’s food. German food? Mexican food? You get the idea. Yes we are dealing with stereotypes but most stereotypes exist because they are an easy and usually accurate way of predicting what to expect in a given culture.

What is the defining drink of the culture?

It can be something made from the staple, as sake is with rice, or it can be wholly independent of anything we have created so far. It doesn’t even have to be native to that area, like the English and their tea, but if you do that, be sure you understand the consequences…consequences like the East India company, imperialism, wars, and the discovery of the New World. But if we take that idea further, we have to ask ourselves what the South would be without sweet tea? Or France without wine? When I was in Africa, they served this sweet fruit-loopish flavored tea (they call it chai but that is only because that is the word for tea in Swahili) and, now, every time I think of that taste I’m taken back to the hut wherein it was first served to me. There is even the tap water, ice water, or bottled water debate. And if you go with ice water, where does the ice come from? A factory? Or something totally different?

But staples and defining tastes are only scratching the surface. Beyond elements, what defines a meal?

In Japan everything, literally everything, comes with a side of soup. Even soup. Everything comes with soup and usually a tiny cup of hot tea. That’s just the way it is, which is very different from the culture that brings out meals in courses and has an innumerable number of ill-defined utensils, which is very different from our current fast-food culture. Does everyone get together for meals or do people separate, or even go and watch some fantasy version of the TV as they chow down? Are the portions big or small? Is it spicy or bland? Served cold or hot? Is the food cut into bite sized pieces or left in big slabs to be torn off and consumed? What utensils, if any, are used? Chop sticks give a very different flavor to the culture than forks. Knives can be used as weapons just as easily as they can to cut the roast at that banquet.

What is valued by the average consumer?

Expensive food? Cheap food? Fast food? Slow food? Spicy food? Rich food? Savory food? Sweet food? What brings the average consumer to a restaurant’s door (considering there are restaurants, maybe all the cooking is done at home, or by big groups in town square)?

And how do all of these affect the culture at large? From farmlands to family, from pubs to pedestrians, from explorations to expenses, everything is affected by the beliefs you choose here.

To wrap this discussion up, let’s quickly list what I believe are the typical American’s culinary beliefs.

Meat is the tastiest food group.
Bigger proportions are better.
Low cost trumps great taste.

A lot of the fun in writing beliefs is taking what is written and extrapolating it. There is an art to the wording. The first belief, “Meat is the tastiest food group” is a good example. From those six words, we can deduce that this culture, one, believes that meat is a unique, independent, and irreplaceable food group, and two, that meat is meat, as long as it came from a dead animal it is good. This pairs well with the next belief, “bigger proportions are better” to hint that if meat is the best and more makes it better, eating a 72 oz steak sounds like a perfectly rational idea. The third belief then sweeps in and says that if you can get that 72 oz steak free, who cares how bad it tastes. It’s meat, it’s huge, and it’s free, in other words, it’s a great idea.

Please as you write your blogs or think about your cultures, let your imagination flow free on this element. If you are afraid you are getting too far out there just think back to the Pirates of Dark Water and Zoolie’s Tavern, where intoxicant secreting vines hung from the ceiling. Remember, there is no limit to what you can believably do when it comes to cuisine.

  1. These Culture Burner blogs have been great, Jonathan — spot on and well-written to boot. I’ve been an avid role-playing fan for ~23 years now, and reached a lot of these conclusions via experimentation/exploration.

    I’ve always started with a map constructed by what I know of geography (rivers flow away from mountains, old rivers carve gorges, old mountains are less jagged, etc), decided what grows where, what wild creatures eat those plants, what predators eat those creatures, what monsters are in that world where and what regions they’d thrive in.

    When I get to culture, I always look first at food and water sources to find points of origin — cuisine is the very first thing that I decide, before I even look at what structures might look like. Knowing where a nomadic culture finally settles tells you where most of its current population will continue to rest (barring a cataclysm)… and it all starts with the food supply.

    I’d be willing to bet you already plan a blog on giving different sub-groups within the local population “accents” to help depict regional dialect and/or caste.

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  2. Actually Jeff, this is very much how I design my worlds as well. I went on at some length about this in a comment on the construction side, I won’t repeat it here especially since it would basically be repeating what you have written… have you ever read AD&D’s Wilderness Survival Guide? This goes into the very same process.

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  3. I got out of the AD&D/D&D construct a long time ago, but I’ve looked at a few books here and there over the years — I might have picked that one up once, as the title sounds familiar.

    Intuitive process, I think. Even tells me where ruins might be, because there has to be ruins somewhere in the world!.

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  4. My guess on that fruit-loopy tea? Likely a Rooibos Bush Tea, if I’m catching you’re description right.

    Drinks are something I find myself not considering. It’s a significant element that is very easy to overlook. I’ll have to consider drinks now…

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  5. Oh, and another thought- this step is even more important when trying to shape a non-human culture. A whole new digestive system means different options. Maybe your orcs eat raw tree bark as a staple. Just thinking of the possibilities is staggering indeed.

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