What’s on Tab: How to Feed Your Fantasy…Worlds

It’s that time time of year that has us all thinking about food. Well, I’m always thinking about food, but November is THE food month. And what’s more important to worldbuilding in our fantasy realms than food? Those two words just seem appropriate together: food and fantasy. Whether you’re snuggling up with freshly baked cookies and a good book or practicing the incredibly important elevensies or perusing one of the many fantasy cookbooks for a nerdy supper, food is an important aspect of fantasy as it adds a little cultural flavor (ha) to worldbuilding. As someone who grew up on the great banquet scenes of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, nothing quite piques my interest in a book like a peek at their dinner table ensemble. Nor am I ever so disappointed when it’s nothing but boring old non-descriptive bread and stew. Or porridge. Meh.

Considering the variety of cuisines throughout the world, I expect fantasy worlds, especially those of epic proportions, to have equally epic menus for our intrepid cast of characters, but there’s almost an overwhelming amount of food to pick from that it easily becomes a reflex to simply choose from the groups of foods we ourselves are most familiar with. But no need to drown your woes in homemade Butterbeer quite yet! Rather let’s dive into what defines and affects cuisine culture in a worldbuilding sense, which will hopefully provide some method to the madness and maybe strike an idea or two about the most essential and most enjoyable of pastimes: eating!

Time to pass around the lemon cakes.

What Foods Does the Environment Allow?

Factors that will automatically affect what foods are available in any given society are climate, terrain, and water access. For example, I expect a society living in the alpine regions will mostly eat the meat and dairy products of goats, sheep, and yaks and perhaps forage for tree nuts (i.e. chestnuts are popular in the Alps and Appalachians) or grow fruits like blackberries, strawberries, plums, etc. Whereas a desert society might herd camels and goats for meat and dairy and eat cactus and yucca fruit. On the temperate plains, people will have a wider selection of crops and livestock from cattle and pigs to corn and potatoes to cabbage and turnips to wheat and barley. In hilly regions, these could take the form of terrace farms. In coastal areas, I expect seafood and tropical fruits like oranges, pineapples, and plantains. Have a wetland? That’s where you should find paddy fields of rice in abundance. What about a river? That’s a potential source of fish and mussels and an attractant for all sorts of wild game. In the tundra, meat from seals, fish and caribou as well as cold-tolerant livestock will likely be the primary food source.

It doesn’t hurt either to pick an ecosystem from our own world after which to model your society’s cuisine and agricultural resources. The current society I’m writing is semi-nomadic and living primarily in a temperate broadleaf and mixed forests biome, so I researched examples of the types of edible foods and game found within that sort of biome to give me some ideas. Wikipedia has a handy list of the different biomes found throughout Earth if you need a place to start. Additionally, here’s an interactive map of the origins of various crops throughout the world, which is interesting in how trade routes dramatically reshaped food supply throughout the world. Trade routes may bring otherwise unheard-of foods, spices, and oils to parts of your kingdom, and if growing is conducive to these new foods, they may potentially supplant traditional crops. Imagine: food warfare!

What Type of Agricultural Systems Does the Society Employ?

Having grown up on a cattle and poultry farm in mid-Mississippi, agriculture has always interested me. It is, after all, the backbone of society—what moved humanity from bands of hunter-gathers into ever-evolving settlements. Chances are unless your fantasy book is taking place in a more industrial era of a post-1900 likeness, your agricultural systems will mainly center around pastoralism and subsistence farming with perhaps some more intensive farming systems around major cities. So let’s take a moment to delve beyond the grocery store line and take a look at what that involves.


Pastoralism is simply raising livestock on pastureland and moving them around from field to field so as not to overgraze the land. It can vary from more sedentary farm-style pastoralism, where herds are moved locally from pasture to pasture, to true nomadic pastoralism, where herds are moved irregularly across wide swaths of land in search of the best grazing grounds, to anything in between. Mountainous areas typically practice transhumance, or the seasonal movement of livestock between the higher pastures in the summer and the lower pastures of the valley in the winter. Of course any time you have a sedentary and nomadic peoples sharing the same region, there is opportunity for land disputes and conflict that can be perfect for driving plot.

Subsistence Farming vs. Intensive Farming

Subsistence farming is simply growing crops to meet the needs of one’s family or community with only excess being sold for commercial use. If your novel mainly deals with one or a few families in a homesteader scenario, this is fairly straightforward. However, once you begin dealing with larger communities, this can become more complicated as land ownership becomes an issue or the demand for food by these more heavily populated area becomes critical for the survival of the society. This is where intensive farming comes into play. The primary goal of intensive farming is to produce large amounts of food for commercial sale so they employ high amounts of labor and advancing technology to produce high-yield crops and livestock. For this reason, intensive agriculture is often called industrial agriculture as it became increasingly practiced around the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, although many intensive farming methods began as early as the 16th century. Improving the soil health of specific tracts of land through irrigation, fertilization, rotational grazing, and the use of various additives is one of the most important aspects of intensive farming in order to maximize the output of concentrated areas of land, whether that be by maximizing grazing potential for herds or maximizing crop production.

Irrigation is a huge part of intensive farming, so it’s always important to consider the placement of your cities and populated areas. Where are they getting the water needed to irrigate all these huge tracts of farmland? While smaller subsistence farms may rely on wells or streams or ponds, large cities will need equally large sources of water such as rivers or lakes. Even the most ancient of our cities have relied on some form of irrigation to sustain themselves. The first instance of canal irrigation was discovered to have occurred as early as 6000 B.C.

Forest Gardening

Forest gardening is considered to be an ancient agricultural practice where various trees, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables are specifically selected and laid out in layers by means of companion planting to essentially create a food-producing forest habitat. Ancient humans were believed to have practiced this by selecting for and protecting desirable plants while eliminating non-desirable or harmful plants. This type of crop farming continues to be practiced by small communities. The horticulturalist Robert Hart, a pioneer of agroforestry, developed a seven-layer system to promote this method of agriculture, and I think it’s just neat.

Shifting Cultivation

Shifting cultivation is also an early agricultural method practiced by smaller communities. With this method, tracts of land are temporarily cultivated and then abandoned once the land has been exhausted or overrun with weeds. The land is allowed to lie fallow for years while farmers move to other tracts of land to grow crops. Sometimes a slash-and-burn is employed to clear the land and rejuvenate the soil with potash from the ashes before the land is replanted.

Who Owns the Farmland?

Ah, the age-old struggle of landowners versus non-landowners. It makes for great fictional conflict as it has had some very real-world effects upon our own societies and its class warfare. Take the Irish, for example. In 1870, 97% of Ireland was held by landlords with 750 families owning half of the country.

Half! Of the whole country!

Most people were tenant farmers, renting the land from these landowners in order to feed their own families. Their unfair treatment led to a great emigration of farmers from Ireland to the United States, creating religious divide and leading to major social reforms that ultimately helped the remaining tenants to buy out their landlords. This isn’t an unfamiliar scenario. Throughout history all around the world, there have been various forms of landownership practices that have affected agriculture. Here’s a few to consider when strategizing your mighty fantasy empires.


This is the one we’re all most familiar with—the practice of a “lord” or person of equally fancy title who lives in a manor and manages large tracts of land worked by laborers. During the Middle Ages, the manor was more a castle, and the laborers were more serfs bound to the land through debt or indenture. But with the rise of disgruntled peasants, these laborers were later called freehold laborers, and they actually owned the land they worked either outright (freehold), as co-owners with their lord (copyhold), or in the form of a lease (leasehold). Freehold laborers typically had more rights than serfs as landowners or semi-landowners in their own right, but sometimes those rights were still at the mercy of their particular lord and his level of affluence. Freehold laborers supported themselves and their own families off their land’s yields while also paying their lord through labor, produce, or rent.

Tenant Farming

In the absence or decline of nobility, landowners who had accrued large tracts of land hired tenant farmers to live on and work sections of land. The landowners would often contribute some operational expenses and oversee management of the land while tenant farmers contributed their labor, though sometimes they might help with operational expenses or take on management responsibilities. Normally, a contract was drawn up between landowner and tenant that outlined the form (i.e. money, crops, etc.) and frequency of payment by the tenant for use of the land and the duration of the tenancy or indenture. However, some places a landlord could evict his tenant farmers for any reason at any time. Reminds me of “at-will” employment.

Sharecropping is a type of tenant farming in which a landowner provides land, housing, tools, and other necessities in exchange for a share of the crop harvested by the sharecropper. Local merchants would often provide these sharecroppers with food and other items as a credit, to be paid off with crops when the harvests came in. Often this created a cycle of poverty and debt for the sharecroppers.

Crofting is another type of tenant farming particular to Scottland, where farms (called crofts) were established by a township on fertile land and the poorer land was shared communally for grazing herds.

Contract Farming

With contract farming, a land-owning farmer is bound via contract to a certain buyer of the farm’s goods. These contracts usually establish a set price the buyer will pay for the farmer’s goods and specifies the amount of goods willing to be bought, the quality standards those goods must meet, and the time the goods must be produced by. Buyers would often assist with the land, provide advice, and handle transportation of the goods. Contract farming had its issues as well, namely the violating of the contract, whether it be a farmer selling produce on the side to another buyer or a buyer refusing to honor the agreed upon price. Contract farming is most useful in sprawling, isolated farmlands because it can link them to one economy and bring food to areas of larger populations with little financial risk to the individual farmers.

What Methods Do They Have to Prepare and Preserve Food?

The hardest part of survival in pre-refrigeration days was how to prepare and preserve food so that 1) you and your family don’t starve in the middle of winter or during lean years, and 2) an overabundance of food doesn’t rot and go to waste. One also had to be able to carry food while traveling without having to worry about it spoiling. Please raise your hand if you’ve sent some character out into the wild on some long, tedious journey. That’s what I thought. Here are some preparing/preserving tips to help keep them from starving. Also check out this impressive timeline of cooking developments from All That Cooking if you’re looking for something specific.


1. Roasting

While cooking over an open fire was the first cooking method invented by early humans, ovens and roasting have been around for a surprisingly long time—30,000 years to be relatively precise. Ancient ovens usually consisted of a pit lined with stones, which was then filled with hot coals to heat the stones. Wrapped in leaves (the ancient equivalent of aluminum foil), food was placed on the stones and buried under the earth to roast very slowly. Terracotta and ceramic ovens followed soon after.

2. Baking

Baking too is a prehistoric cooking method, early humans cooking grain and water mixtures atop flat, heated rocks to create the first bread. The Ancient Egyptians had yeast for baking, and the Greeks developed enclosed ovens for bread baking. Amid the arise of Ancient Rome came a new and respected occupation: the pastry cook. Pastries were considered a delicacy by the Romans and were often served at banquets in varying flavors, patterns, and type. Rome even had a bakers’ guild in 168 B.C.

3. Boiling

With the advent of ovens and roasting, boiling followed shortly thereafter. Early ovens were used to heat water to cook certain root vegetables and render fat. By the Middle Ages, masonry ovens made of brick, stone, or clay were common and often contained a cauldron for boiling food. Note that it takes much longer to boil foods at higher elevations as atmospheric pressure affects the boiling point of liquids. (Good to know!)

4. Frying

Frying foods has been a cooking technique since ancient times, copper frying pans having been discovered in ancient Mesopotamia. Frying has significant advantages over boiling: 1) fat and oil reaches much higher temperatures much more quickly than boiling, reducing cook times, 2) frying adds more flavor, and 3) fat and oil can be reused whereas water is more likely to hold bacteria once it cools.

5. Steaming

Steam cooking was performed as far back as 5000 B.C. in China, which had early steam cookers made of stoneware, and 3000 B.C. in the American southwest, where steam pits were used. Steam cooking is generally faster and uses less water than boiling, and it tends to provide more thorough and healthier cooking with less risk of burning the food. Rice, vegetables, noodles, soups, sweets, and even bread can be cooked using steam, and this became a common cooking method throughout Asia.


1. Dehydration

Dehydrating meat, fruits, and vegetables is a popular way to preserve foods as removing water prevents or slows the growth of bacteria. This often involved cutting the food into thin strips and placing them on large flat rocks or hanging them on racks to be dried naturally by the sun and wind though this often took at least eight hours. Cultures in the Middle East and Asia relied on this method as far back as 12,000 B.C. In regions with less sun or wind, still houses were built to dry fruits, vegetables, and herbs by building a fire within the structure to create the heat needed for dehydration. Jerky was a valuable commodity in that it could last one to two months without refrigeration, up to a year in cool temperatures, and several years frozen.

2. Salt Curing

Curing is a means of preserving food by adding salt, which draws moisture out of the food and makes it inhospitable for harmful bacteria. It was the most popular method of food preservation before the 19th century and was often used in conjunction with smoking. Salt curing preserved food for three to five days without refrigeration and two to three weeks under cooler temperatures. Salting meat and fish was a common practice among the ancient Mediterranean cultures. In ancient Ethiopia, they even salted crickets. In medieval Europe, salted beef was so popular that the butchers’ guild became one of the most powerful guilds of the day. Salt curing eventually led to the use of brining in cooking.

3. Smoking

Smoking is a method of not only preserving but flavoring foods, particularly meats. It is believed to have been discovered by early humans building fires inside their huts and unintentionally finding that the meat in these smokey dwellings lasted longer. Smoking was later combined with salt curing to enhance preservation, the combination of which became quite popular throughout much of the world. The process of smoking, however, was very time-consuming, sometimes taking days to weeks. Smokehouses were popular before the advent of electricity and refrigeration as a place to not only cold smoke meats but also to store them for use by the community. Cold smoked meats, first properly salted, could last months without refrigeration and even longer if kept cold.

4. Natural Freezing and Cooling

Winter was a natural source of freezing utilized by cultures that lived in climates that experienced freezing temperatures. In 1775 B.C., King Simri-lim of the Sumerian city of Terqua built an ice house with a complex system of shallow pools and drainage structures that froze water during the night. These ice houses were frequently used by many cultures to store ice and keep foods frozen. In the mid-1800s, the icebox was developed to store ice harvested in winter and was often called a refrigerator, the progenitor of the modern electric refrigerator.

Even caves and cold streams could be used to store and keep food cool and preserved. In warmer regions, root cellars (also fruit cellars or earth cellars) could be dug into the ground to use the natural underground coolness to refrigerate vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other foods. Certain vegetables and fruits could keep for months under the right cellar conditions.

5. Burial

Burying food can prevent spoilage by removing light and oxygen and providing cooler temperature, acidic conditions, and desiccating properties. Sand, for example, is salty and dry and capable of dehydrating foods buried in it. Cabbage, if buried a certain way, can become crispier. If buried by another method, it can produce sauerkraut. Burying rice during dry seasons is capable of preserving it for three to six months. In Ireland and Scottland, butter substances were commonly placed in buckets, kegs, barrels, or butter churns and buried in peat bogs, which had great preservative abilities. This bog butter was discovered centuries later, still fairly well-preserved, well-preserved enough that celebrity chef Kevin Thorton dared to try it. Storage clamps are a type of burial method still used today by the agricultural industry to keep certain vegetables cool and dry for several months.

6. Fermenting

Fermentation is the microbial transformation of starch and sugars into alcohol, which was not only used to produce alcoholic drinks but also to preserve food. The alcohol produced by fermentation creates an acidic environment that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Fermentation has been in use since the earliest days of humanity. The first beer residue to be discovered by archeologists is about 13,000 years old from Israel. Alcoholic drinks were being fermented in the ancient eras throughout Iran, Babylon, Egypt, Central America, and Sudan among other places. When used with foods like cheese and barley, fermentation actually makes food more nutritious as the microorganisms produce vitamins as they ferment. This also led to the process of pickling, or preserving foods in vinegar produced from the fermentation process. Food was first pickled by placing it in wine or beer as a preservative. Leftover pickling brine was often used as a sauce itself by adding various spices. Most pickled foods would keep for four to five months in cool environments.

7. Sugaring

Using honey or sugar to preserve foods is another ancient technique for food preservation. The sugar both sweetens foods and also dehydrates any microorganisms, thus killing them and preventing food spoilage. Foods can either be stored directly in honey, as was common with many fruits, or they can be cooked in sugar until they crystalize, to be stored in a dry form. Sugaring led to the creation of jellies, jams, and marmalades for preserving fruits. (Interesting enough some meats can also be jellied, such as jellied eels.) Fruit preserves can be stored for a month at room temperature and a year in a cool environment.

8. Canning

Canning is the process of cooking food and then sealing it in cans or jars, which were then boiled to reduce bacterial contamination. It was first invented by the French confectioner Nicolas Appert in 1804, some sixty years before Louis Pasteur discovered the relationship between microorganisms and food spoilage. Glass bottles were first used to seal and heat food to preserve it from spoiling. It wasn’t until 1810 that Peter Durand of England first used the tin cans common today. Canning has become a modern technique capable of preserving food for years.

9. Pemmican

Pemmican is a calorie-rich food made of tallow, dried meat, and dried berries that was developed and used by the Native Americans of North America. It could used as an ingredient in meals or eaten raw, but its significance here is in its magical ability to keep for long periods of time. Pemmican can last from one to five years at room temperature and even longer if stored in a cool cellar, perhaps even up to a decade. The pemmican trade was so important to frontier life in North America and Canada that Governor Miles Macdonell of the Red River Colony actually started a war with the Métis called the Pemmican War.

Why Does Food Matter in Fantasy Writing?

Food supply is one of, if not the, most critical aspect of maintaining a society. Empires have collapsed due to famine. Wars have been lost because of dried-up food stores. Ecosystems have been destroyed due to certain farming practices. Gods and goddesses have been born of the hopes for a good harvest. Many ancient weapons originated as farm equipment.

Agriculture affects not only the everyday lifestyles of individuals and communities but also influences their folklore, traditions, technology, and even religions. Then throw in different cultures who have differing ideologies surrounding the practice of agriculture. Our own societies are rife with disagreement on the topic, and so I wouldn’t be surprised to see such elements in the background of any society (or hell, the foreground—why shouldn’t farm life be at the center of a fantasy novel rather than just a backstory? Why couldn’t there be an agricultural revolution in place of a military campaign?)

Just in pondering the agricultural situation of your own fictional worlds, I’m sure you can come up with a handful of potential conflicts and plot points. Consider even how horses may be considered livestock or a food source or a pet or a wild animal depending on what part of the world you may live in. Perhaps in a certain region of your fictional kingdom, falcons are considered to be messengers of the god, but in the neighboring kingdom they are seen as a nuisance species because they are the primary predator of the prized purple pigeon, whose eggs are a favorite dish of the royal family. Perhaps some poor kid from the slums is discovered to be the “chosen one” and suddenly foisted into high society. Don’t you imagine their eyes might pop out of their skulls at the lavish banquet table laid with foods they’ve never even seen before and dishes whose names are completely foreign to them? Maybe they get to sample the eggs of the rare purple pigeon and questions aloud why only the nobility is allowed to eat this delicacy. Maybe the nobility site some religious rite to the purple pigeon eggs, who knows. But suddenly you have the elements of revolution in your hands.

Consider that a piece of fertile land is discovered on the border of two neighboring lands, and in this fertile land a certain fruit is grown. Do the locals try to keep it secret and hoard the land and its rare fruit for themselves? How do they achieve this? How far are they willing to go to keep it a secret? If word does leak out, would different local governments or even countries try to claim ownership? Could this lead to war, to trade negotiations, to political scheming and sneaky marital arrangements? What if the fruit holds some spiritual significance and was believed to be extinct until now? Will there be a religious movement? What if the fruit has magical properties? Or maybe its magical properties are what makes the land so fertile in the first place? See, possibilities!

I think I may have gone on a slightly rambling tirade with this one, but it counts towards my NaNoWriMo word count, right??? (My novel whimpers in the corner as I avoid eye contact.) Seriously though, I hope this has provided some insight into your worldbuilding and offered some inspiration during this the most gluttonous time of year. Sometimes the best nuggets of writing are in the most basic foundations of society and daily life. Don’t be afraid to scrape those rich details out from the routine and serve them up to your eager readers!

And don’t neglect your word counts. Happy Feasting Month! Happy National Novel Writing Month!

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