Food is a huge topic. There's growing, processing, making, eating, transporting foods. There's TV culture surrounding food; there are eating disorders, and relationships with food. There are meals, and how they are defined. There's also storing and preserving food, and protecting it from vermin.
Deborah told us about her breakfast, because she'd grown much of it herself. Freezers were mentioned, as ways to control when you can eat the food.
A lot of our time (a lot!) is dedicated to food, but at different points in history it has even taken more time. Hunting and gathering took lots of time; so did farming and raising animals.
These days there are some people (adults on their own) who don't know how to cook for themselves, but who rely on the support of others to cook for them, and the support of civilization (restaurants) is pretty critical in that process.
Cooking for yourself is very different from cooking for others, and often less motivating.
The financial cost of food is very important. The percentage of one's income that one spends on food may differ depending on where you live.
We spoke about food deserts, which are urban areas where nothing is available except cans, boxes, and convenience stores. Lack of access to fresh, healthy food can lead to health problems. Recently, we've been seeing some movements toward urban agriculture to combat the problem of food deserts.
Deborah talked about the farming she and her husband do on 1700 square feet of their property. That much land produces a lot of food in northern California, but might not in another region.
That brought us to climate, which is a critical aspect of food production and what will become available. We also briefly discussed the challenge of climate change and its impact on food production.
We then dove into fiction, considering how one would create a world where some people couldn't eat the dominant food crops. How would social relations work if food for one group was poison to another? In our world, there are social traditions like bringing bread to new neighbors, and even in our world, that could be complicated if the new neighbors were gluten-free. In Japan, the tradition is to give soba noodles to your neighbors when you move into an area (because "soba" means nearby). Would food gifts like that be inappropriate? How much awareness of the dietary differences would there be in the larger culture?
Deborah told us she loves describing food in her books - not just good food, but also horrible food. Both can reveal character, and bad food can even give you a plot twist if people get sick.
We talked about Dune by Frank Herbert, and specifically about how water was treated. That brought us to the manners surrounding food, and how they might relate to political power.
If you are dealing with aliens, of course, their food needs may be different. Would snake people only eat every three days? I mentioned my wolflike character, Rulii, and how he eats "scout's strength" (a special meal) before he goes out on a scouting mission, intending not to eat for a few days afterward.
It may be useful to remember that the composition of meals influences what comes out the other end (and how much!). You can't extricate intake from the subsequent output!
We spoke about food phases, or taste in food. People with autism sometimes need to have food that is stable, routine, and predictable. The texture of food can be a critical component of whether someone likes it. In general, people have to balance between stable and predictable food routines and any desire for novelty or variety.
We also mentioned how people talk at the table (or generally while eating). In addition to other topics that may come up, we also tend to talk a lot about food or food behavior. This can mean that if characters in your book sit down to eat but talk exclusively about Plot Business, that the interaction will come off as unrealistic. Think about what opportunities you might have to let people talk about their food as a topic-changing move, or character-building move, etc.
Mealtime group conversations can be very complex, especially at big family reunion dinners! Does politics get discussed at the table? How personal is it? How does it get connected to the individuals' identity?
I mentioned a couple of food examples from books I have read. One was the drink "safe" from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, a drink that no one particularly liked, but which was impossible to poison undetectably. The other was the odd food habits of Presger Translator Zeiat from Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. She drank fish sauce, and ate whole oysters (shell and all)... and this was a core part of her character.
If you are served bad food, do you have to eat it? What does the culture demand?
If you have special dietary requirements, do you bring your own meal when you are a guest somewhere? Or do you demand that the host cook something you can eat? Under what conditions might one of those two solutions be better than the other?
We also discussed "food surprises," which is when people serve people food without telling them what is in it, and potentially try to trap them into eating something they've said they can't eat. While some people doubt others' professed allergies, it is potentially deadly to feed them the wrong thing and you should never do this. In a fictional situation, you might end up being asked questions like "Did you mean to kill the ambassador?" It could potentially make for an interesting, if awful, plot twist.
This is such a big topic that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a fun discussion! Thanks to everyone who attended.
This week's hangout will be on Wednesday, April 20, at 11am Pacific (one hour later than our usual time) on Google Hangouts. We will have a chance to talk to author Randy Henderson about his book, Finn Fancy Necromancy, and about the genre of Urban Fantasy in general. I'm really looking forward to it, and I hope you can join us!