Friday, October 05, 2007

Food in RPGs, Part I

I like food. I enjoy cooking, and I am not too shabby at it, either. Last weekend I made borscht. I also broke out the ice cream maker for the first time and made some donut-flavored ice cream. (My housemate had been craving donuts, and it was her birthday on Monday.) I belong to a CSA. I read some food blogs. I sometimes write about wizards obsessed with meat. I play a dwarven chef in a D&D game.

All that is just to say that I think about food a bit more than is healthy for someone who could stand to lose about 30 pounds.

I think that food can add a lot to gaming. Here are some ways that you can use details about food to improve your game:

1. Food can help define cultures.
One thing that has struck me is how much you can say about a culture based upon what they eat. If I tell you that the Romans considered peacock brains and flamingo tongues to be delicacies, that probably conjures up some images of exotic decadence and conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, if I tell you that all you see are fields, and fields of cabbages, you probably assume that the people who eat those cabbages are rather bucolic... and maybe somewhat boring.

Food taboos (or their absence) can also tell you a great deal. You meet up with some nomads and they offer to share a meal with you. You'd probably think very different things of them if they served you something that was vaguely sentient (say, kobold eggs) than if they were strict vegetarians.

Different spices can also convey different things about cultures - or encounters. Often, the use of things like cilantro, cumin, star anise, chile, cardamom, tamarind, ginger, saffron, and lemon grass can impart a sense of the exotic. Other spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, and sage, are more familiar and homey. The use of a familiar spice or two in an unusual context/combination could easily create a feel of an alien palate. Imagine, say, elves who eat a savory blackberry paste flavored with basil and nutmeg and wrapped in mustard leaves.

To be continued....

1 comment:

David M Jacobs said...

I'd never heard of CSAs before—what a great idea!

Regarding food and cultures, it's revealing to note what people don't eat. Chinese cuisines traditionally don't feature much dairy food, for instance, and dietary codes such as Kashrut or Halal show the pervasive nature of religion in Jewish and Muslim societies, respectively.

Regarding spices, gravies, sauces and other strong flavourings have traditionally been used to cover the taste of off meat. Meat that's gone green—but not flyblown—can be eaten, although you have to rinse it for several hours first. You can soak it in vinegar to improve the flavour, although sometimes, the rotten taste still shows through. Curries do an excellent good job of masking the taste of poorly preserved meat.

(Thus, the kobolds in part II display an aversion to the taste of rotting meat, something unusual given humanoid stereotypes in D&D.)

Local prices of herbs and spices will depend on demand, the distance they need to travel (such as pepper) and the amount of labour required to extract them (such as saffron).

Different climatic zones also yield different foodstuffs. Potatoes are usually grown in cold climes, for example, and rice—although it transports well—needs a lot of water, and can't be grown in desert settings.

If you find these foods outside their traditional environs, then chances are that you're dealing with a culture wealthy enough to import them from abroad. Or that has sufficient access to magic to make it cheaper to produce locally.

Lastly, you might find field upon field of cabbages, but it all depends on what those farmers do with them.

Simpler foods don't necessarily mean poorer societies; they could also reflect how time-poor those societies are. Modern foods—particularly since women entered the workforce in numbers—need to be quick to prepare, whereas many traditional recipes (including some of my own family's most closely-guarded secrets) can take days to prepare—something you don't see often today.