Story and character development are often considered the two main goals of good fiction. Partly for this reason, we often speak of writers’ work as been plot-driven or character-driven. Authors can even be criticised if they focus too much attention on setting, clothing, or other details considered to advance neither characterisation nor plot development. However, I’ve encountered a few authors for whom a large component of world-building is centered around details of food and, as a result, I’ve come to believe that description of food in novels can be a healthy contributor to the tone of the work as well as to aspects of character and plot.
The first books I encountered that devoted lengthy passages to food were those in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. The series mainly follows groups of anthropomorphic animals who live in the somewhat medieval setting of Redwall Abbey, and who together face dangers often embodied by the threat of more sinister woodland creatures. Throughout the series, the denizens of Redwall often throw great feasts, with each dish described such that the reader will want to jump into the narrative to sample them (particularly the Deeper ‘n Ever Pie). However, the food in Redwall isn’t just about enticing the reader. Rather, the descriptions set the tone of the Abbey as a home, as a place of safety and community that contrasts starkly with the troubles faced by its protagonists.
Later on in my childhood I encountered the foods of Pern (from the novels by Anne McCaffrey) and those of Middle Earth (from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). In both series, the meals are less completely described than those in Jacques’ Redwall novels, yet both stand out in my memory. In McCaffrey’s case, this is likely to do with the more subsistence lifestyle of the people of Pern, the fact that characters such as Menolly (from Dragonsong) derive their livelihood directly from fishing and agriculture. The foods of Pern also seem iconic of the culture — simple but hearty — meant to provide the energy necessary for the Pernese to survive on their harsh world.
In Tolkien’s work, there is likewise less focus on individual food items but there’s also more focus on the different peoples’ relationships to food — the hobbits’ voraciousness, the elves’ ability to happily live on Lembas bread, the special and mysterious properties of Ent draughts. These relationships help to establish the goals and character of Tolkiens’ peoples which, in turn, helps to explain their actions as the story progresses.
My most recent discovery of food in fiction is that in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. One could probably write a dissertation on Martin’s use of food as a literary device, but in some ways Martin’s technique is simply a combination of those explored above. From the many and various wines and ales, to the lamprey pie of the royal and lordly tables, to the pot-shops’ bowls of brown, to the fiery spices of Dorne and the horse meats of the Dothraki — food in Martin’s novels is both an indicator of physical place and of social status. The foods characters crave, indulge in, or are driven to consume can also help the reader understand what motivates these characters and what their weaknesses are. As with most objects in Martin’s work, food can be a comfort or a weapon. This sense, if nothing else, shows how a single detail, like food, can embody the entirety of the world an author has created.