Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Food Paths, from source to mouth

I formulated this topic as a different way to think about foodstuffs, and possibly an instructive one, when worldbuilding. If you imagine the source of your food in one place, and then trace its path from one stop to the next, from one person to the next, until it gets to your mouth, you  might find some surprising twists and turns, and some surprising people involved. How many stops are there on this path? How many people are contributing to the arrival of your food?

The most minimal path involved would be gathering berries in a forest and putting them straight in your mouth. Nuts would involve cracking them open. The most extensive path would be that of a processed food, which might travel through the hands of a farm worker, a wholesaler, a company to be processed into another form, a shipper to get to another company, another process, etc. until it arrives at a store and you purchase it and take it home.

Even if food is coming from your own garden, other people may be involved because of the process of producing seeds commercially. One's family members will be involved in tending the food at this point.

There's a big difference between the path of a dry food, observes Kate, and one which requires a cold chain (continuously refrigerated). How are liquids like juice, milk, or alcohol processed and transported to you?

The answers to these questions are going to provide you with quite a few worldbuilding ideas, including a sense of what kind of jobs people do in communities, whether traders are present, whether retail is a thing, etc. etc. It also shows you what is involved when people try to trace back along this path to find the source of a food poisoning outbreak.

How often do we see food poisoning in fiction? It has been done before. Star Trek DS9 had an episode where a virus affecting the crew was traced back to a broken replicator.

Kate remarks that disease doesn't always come from what is in the food, but could come from what is not in the food. Scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies forced us to learn things about the relationship between food and disease.

Morgan pointed out that religion can dictate things about the food path, as in the case of halal and kosher food.

More potentially critical questions: how was this food wrapped? What else was processed on the machines where this food was processed? Are contaminants enough to cause an allergy? Are they a violation of religious rules?

To what degree is the form of the food changed as it travels? Is an animal like a chicken or a fish still looking at you? Or has it been plucked or scaled, or had its head removed? Or has it been converted into a "nugget" or a "stick," or a sausage?

I noted that when we spoke with Spencer Ellsworth, he was very clear that processing a deer for consumption took 30-40 hours, so it's important to ask what kind of time is involved in food processing. How do you build a spit or a smokehouse? Who knows how to do this?

We talked about a Top Chef episode where contestants had to deal with a whole animal. There are many parts of an animal we don't think about eating most of the time - tripe, sweetbreads, chitlins, pork feet, tongue, brains, isinglas, etc. A lot of the animal is edible. Che remarked that Anthony Bourdain in Jamaica used a lot of the parts of the animal. Even "non-edibles" are potentially useful or edible, as when bones are used for broth are gelatin.

There is a lot of culture wrapped up in which parts of an animal we consider normal to eat. There is also a lot of culture wrapped up in how we think about the amount we eat, and how much fat we eat. Kate notes that a lot of vitamins are stored in fat and potentially useful. In our previous chat, Spencer had talked about how rendering the fat of an animal was a critical step, as was eating it.

What kind of fats are used in cooking? Olive oil? Butter? Is this difference regional? Does it introduce a totally new food product with a new food path?

When we consider food paths, do we consider the global origins of the food? Do we consider things like the Columbian Exchange, when foods started traveling between Europe and the Americas? Do we consider how the food traveled along the spice road?

"Tea" can be a more flexible fictional drink than coffee because the term loosely describes herbal infusions, and is not restricted to infusions of camellia sinensis.

Che took issue with fictional scenarios that offer a variety of foods, but in an isolated environment with no traders. Take local climates and difficulty of travel into account.

Conjuring food by magic totally erases the food path. Are we creating mass when we do this? Are we transporting it from somewhere? How much energy does it take to conjure food? Should there be an energy cost? Can you sustain yourself on conjured food? Could you be far from home and conjuring food from your own pantry? Kate imagined the cook saying, "Where did everything go?" Morgan imagined someone transporting a chocolate bar from a secret stash (and the apprentice only gets one triangle because their power is less).

How much does a person know about the culture they are transporting food from? Is the trader a representative of that culture, or not? Does the arrival culture miss things about the food that make it less nutritious, like mixing spruce ash with corn meal (for the lime contained) in order to release chemicals? Nixtamalization? Does your food, like guacamole, need to be mixed with another (lemon/lime) to prevent oxidizing?

What are the origins of the medicines used in this place?

Are there food tasters involved? Are there carefully sealed bottles? If the seal is broken, should you eat it?

How much of the food path do you trust?

If you put your characters out in the wilderness, how long does the food supply in that area last? If you're fifty or sixty people eating frogs in a swamp, how long do the frogs last? Do you move, or start farming them?

Why are nomads nomads?

Anne McCaffrey had the coffee-like drink klah in her books, but did a great job of talking about its origins as a bush from which one harvested the bark, etc. She was good with food webs.

If you're working with dinosaur stories, what do you do about food? There are not a lot of preserved dinosaur stomachs. What do they eat? How do they get their food?

I remarked that I was reading a book where an American town had been cut off with a wall, but all the bodegas were stocked. The author didn't mention whether there were food shipments, or checkpoints, which could have affected security.

What are your domestic animals or riding animals eating? A horse is not a motorcycle.

When you are worldbuilding, you need to set up your own limits.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, March 20th at 4pm Pacific Daylight Time to talk about Posture. I hope you can join us!


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