Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Food

Food is an important part of worldbuilding and I've recently come across a couple of things which have me thinking about how food fits into a world, whether SF or fantasy or contemporary.

The first was Alton Brown's latest short series, "Feasting on Waves." He and his crew sailed around the Caribbean in a couple of catamarans and visited markets and homes and restaurants, helped catch and prepare and eat food on a number of islands around the area. It's a great series and I highly recommend it. One thing that struck me, though, was that one of the traditional staple proteins on several of the islands was a dried, salted fish.

Now, you might not think this is at all odd or unusual. They're in the middle of the Caribbean, after all, and there are fish all around -- fin fish, shellfish, lobsters and shrimp, all kinds of seafood. True, there are. But this particular dried, salted fish is imported from Canada.

Seriously, I have no idea how this got started -- neither did the locals AB asked -- but they've been doing it for at least several generations and it's worked its way into a number of traditional recipes.

And I'm not talking about fancy food prepared and eaten by a small number of elites who can afford to import luxury food from overseas. These were all working-class people. The dried, salted fish is cheap enough for them to buy and use regularly.

Which still doesn't answer the question why. Why do these countries in the middle of the Caribbean, where most people live within a mile or two of the sea, import fish at all? I'd love to hear the historical background on this one.

It occurred to me, though, that this is the sort of detail that if someone stuck it into, say, a fantasy story -- island culture, relatively low average income, staple food fish imported from a couple thousand miles away -- most readers would eyeroll and assume the writer hadn't put any thought at all into that particular paragraph. Unless, of course, the story went into some detail on the historical and economic aspects of the situation. But unless that imported fish played a key role in the plot, that much detail would be out of place. And yet just tossing that imported fish into the setting without an explanation could leave the writer with, well, a lot of explaining to do. :) File this one under truth being stranger than fiction, because truth doesn't have to justify itself.

The other item was an article in the New York Times Magazine on the 9th, written by Michael Pollan and entitled "Farmer In Chief." It's a long, open letter to the President-Elect talking about food as a national security issue. Pollan goes into issues including the vulnerability of our food supply to disaster, whether human or natural; the truly enormous amount of ever-more-expensive fossil fuels consumed by agriculture; and the health implications of our nation's reliance upon a fossil-fuel-supported monoculture in our farming sector.

It's a very long piece -- nine pages -- but worth a read.

What makes me mention it here, though, is his proposed solutions to the various problems, which start on page three. Anyone writing science fiction, particularly anything set on Earth in the next fifty or hundred years (or five or ten years) would find some interesting material here, whether you're looking for some clues about how society might change to stave off disaster, or how some food or fuel or ecological or health related disasters which change society might occur. There's a lot of great food for thought here. [cough]



Charles Gramlich said...

There's definitely some truth to the old saw about how fiction has to be more real than reality sometimes.

Angie said...

Charles -- isn't there just? :)


laughingwolf said...

excellent post, angie :)

Angie said...

Laughingwolf -- thanks!


PS -- new icon? Nice. :)

Steve Malley said...

Terry Pratchett could probably get away with it, but I can't think of anyone else.

Angie said...

Steve -- LOL! True, but then Pratchett is a law unto himself. And besides, he could get away with doing a five-line footnote about it, explaining it thoroughly and completely and have the reader snickering the whole time. I'm not quite there yet. [wry smile]


writtenwyrdd said...

Truth is stranger than fiction, isn't it?

I recall hearing something along the lines of "if it's new and 'exotic' by virtue of being hard to get or from far away, it's automatically cool and people want it."

Angie said...

WW -- true, but I'm still kinda boggled, mainly because I see that (going for the latest new thing no matter how silly) as a habit of wealthier societies, where people have a lot of disposable income.

I mean, the Caribbean people have been using this stuff beyond living memory; nobody AB talked to remembered how it first came to the island or any relative even talking about a time before they used it, which puts it a pretty long time ago, at a time when the economy in that area was even more depressed than it is now (in my understanding -- I might be wrong) and getting foreign imports would've been relatively more expensive than it is now. And why fish?? I mean, if they were importing pork or mutton or something then that'd make a kind of sense. I don't remember seeing many large domestic animals the few times I've been to the Caribbean, although there are chickens all over. But basic fish? They've got fish all around them and I would think they could dry and salt it if they liked it that way. And these aren't people who have disposable income to toss around on fads. It's just weird; there's obviously something important I'm missing here. I'd love to know the story behind it. :)