One of the best ways to get a sense of what a fictional universe is like, I’ve always thought as a reader, is to have an author speak to all of my senses. It’s easy as a writer to limit yourself to strictly visual and auditory information (the latter usually in the form of dialogue.) But don’t we get a much better picture of a world if we know what it feels like? And especially, if we know what it smells and tastes like?
I first started really thinking about this when I read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, and then again when I read the Aubrey-Maturin “Master and Commander” books by Patrick O’Brian. These writers don’t just tell us how things look, nor do they give us just the relevant dialogue info. McCaffrey tells us how scrubbing our skin with their cleaning sand feels. She tells us what the stench of burning dragon wings is like. O’Brian goes a step further. Not only do we smell the brine of the sea, and feel the hot sun on our faces while the sails creak, he gives us descriptions of the food his sailors are eating.
This is an ideal way to convey not only the taste and smell of a world, but it gives us clues to worldbuilding and to culture.
Cuisine and Geopolitics
For instance, my elves eat a lot of fruit, nuts and honey, and don’t eat a lot of meat. This tells you a few things. One is that elves probably require more vitamins, and less protein, than many other sentient species. The second is that elves find it easier to maintain a sustainable ethic in their agriculture than other sentient species might, and likely lack understanding for why others can’t seem to take care of their ecological environments.
Further, it suggests that they’re likely not as violent a culture as some others might be, since hunting is probably limited and mass slaughterhouses aren’t necessary. That, in turn, suggests that the elves would want to protect their worlds from the “depredations” of other races, and that they would likely look down their noses a little at those who aren’t as concerned with conservation.
On the other hand, my orcs eat a lot of meat and hot, spicy foods, and tend to disdain sweet things. They also don’t use wheat in their cooking. This tells you that they probably require more protein than other sentient species might, and that sweet things don’t grow as well as hot things on their world. It suggests that preserving food to meet their nutritional requirements is more difficult for them. The spice might partly be to help with that, and might partly be to cover the taste of meat that has gone rancid. So perhaps they are more focused on the present moment than the elves are.
It tells you that wheat is not one of their staple crops, and it probably doesn’t grow well in their climate. Last, it suggests that orcs have more difficulty maintaining sustainable agricultural practices, and that they are likely a more violent overall culture than the elves are; which has the natural consequence of making them an expansionist culture who are constantly seeking new resources.
Cuisine and Technology
Detailing the food of a culture also gives you a sense of the current level of available technology. I spend a lot of time concentrating on foods that have been subjected to various forms of preservation technology. It’s important because most of my primary characters are starfarers. They spend a lot of time travelling over great distances through interplanetary space, where there is nothing to eat or drink for light-years. They wouldn’t be able to do this without finding ways to make food last.
In considering this, I also considered the time period that inspired my setting, which is the Age of Sail. You will find that most of the food preservation technologies utilized by the characters existed, and were used, in or around the Age of Sail. The ones that weren’t are logical extrapolations of the conditions of the setting.
Readers Are Smart
The best part about approaching all of this in this manner is that I don’t need to bore you with a 30 page infodump on the geopolitics, climates, or technological levels of my cultures. Speculative fiction readers are smart. You will likely get the sense of all that without me having to say a word about their history, simply by doing something that’s fun to write (and read) anyway; which is a sense of what my cultures eat.
Consider some books you’ve read recently. Has the writer spent any time on the cuisine of their universe? Did it show you anything about the cultures you were reading about? I think, when you think about it, you got a lot more information than you realized at the time you read it.