Just as Halloween provided me with a good theme for October’s posts, the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving inclines me to talk about food: where we get it from, what we eat, and what kinds of practices we build up around those things.
Fantasy and science fiction often don’t give much thought to food. On the science fictional end, you sometimes see the assumption that the only real purpose of food is to provide us with nutrients and calories, and therefore in the future we will all be glad to get those from pellets; this completely ignores the social and sensory aspects of meals. On the fantasy end, Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland mocked the ubiquity of stew — a trope that showed up in a lot of novels for a while because the authors basically didn’t think about the foodways of their worlds at all and just plugged in what they thought of as a Generic Meal.
Let’s start with the basics: what archaeologists and anthropologists refer to as subsistence strategies.
This isn’t a very sexy term, or even a very sexy topic — but most if not all of us are used to thinking of food as something you get from a grocery store. We’re so disconnected from the actual process of feeding a community that it’s invisible to us, and as a result, we don’t think about how it works for the communities we write about.
Subsistence strategies fall into two broad categories: foraging and production. Foraging is the exploitation of wild resources, while production brings that under human control, making rather than just acquiring food for people to eat. The shift between the two is a tectonic one, utterly transforming society.
Let’s talk about foraging first. This is also called “hunting and gathering,” though sometimes anthropologists will use other terms as well, like “collecting” for the process of harvesting stationary animal resources like eggs or clams. Most people (including a sad number of past anthropologists) used to put the emphasis in that phrase on hunting, assuming that it provided the bulk of people’s food, with gathering basically providing a side salad.
But the truth is that studies of modern hunter-gatherers — admittedly in fairly marginal lands — show they succeed maybe one hunt in four. Quite a lot of the caloric intake of a foraging society comes from a huge variety of wild plant sources, and when animal protein shows up, it’s often from collectible sources or small trappable prey like birds, rabbits, or fish, rather than big impressive game like deer and bear. Hunting larger animals is quite frankly dangerous, as we see from broken bones in the archaeological record. But it’s also more glamorous, and mostly associated with men rather than women, so for a long time there was a bias toward paying attention to that and downplaying gathering.
Foraging imposes some limitations on a society. The usual rule of thumb is that a hunter-gatherer group will be a band of roughly twenty-five to fifty people, because that’s how many you can feed with the resources within a reasonable walking distance — get beyond that and you start burning more calories than it’s worth. This varies depending on the environment, though. Likewise, foraging societies are almost always mobile, moving on when they’ve exhausted the resources in one area, or migrating to exploit seasonal abundance in a certain place . . . but there are environments, like the Pacific Northwest, where it’s possible to support a large sedentary population just off wild food sources.
Sedentarism usually comes with agriculture because agriculture creates more human-edible calories per acre of land than a natural environment does. The intermediate step here is usually called horticulture, i.e. the small-scale growing of food, and may have started with humans trying to encourage wild stands of things like grains. The animal side of things is pastoralism, i.e. the herding of livestock like horses, camels, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and more.
Once you ramp up from horticulture to agriculture, you get a whole host of changes: permanent settlements (because you have to stay and look after your fields), population explosion (because you can feed so many more people and don’t have to worry about small children making long journeys), increased specialization (because food abundance means not everybody has to engage in food production and can spend their time on other tasks), malnutrition and famine (because people are relying on a much smaller range of food sources and are more vulnerable to crop failures), social stratification (because of increased wealth and increased need for organization to manage everything), more widespread infectious disease (because dense sedentary populations offer more opportunity for its spread), a spike in interpersonal violence — in fact, Jared Diamond wrote an article called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” and while the title is deliberately provocative, the article itself is an antidote to the assumption that early agriculture was an unmitigated blessing. Without it we wouldn’t have anything like the society we live in today — but it came with a lot of costs that aren’t obvious in these days of mechanized production.
The vast majority of our novels and short stories take place in societies that rely more on food production than foraging. (Even in a science fictional future where meat is being grown in vats, that’s still production.) But foraging shows up here and there: in epic fantasies when the characters are bushwhacking across the wilderness, in post-apocalyptic stories where agriculture and shipping has broken down, in survival stories where the characters are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, many of the writers who include that type of thing often seem to have very little understanding of how it works.
And even when production is assumed, authors often fail to think about any of the pragmatic requirements. You get cities in the middle of nowhere, with no sign of the fields that ought to support them or the infrastructure that would bring food to them; you get abundant consumption of meat without the pastures necessary to feed the livestock. Next week I’ll go into more detail about specific food resources, but for the time being, just take a moment to look at something you’re writing or reading and ask yourself: do you know where their food comes from and how? If you don’t know, does a sensible answer fit easily into the picture you see? Or is this like Lothlórien, with no sign of the fields or the farmers who produce the ingredients for lembas, let alone anything else the elves eat?
It doesn’t have to play a role in every story. But it doesn’t hurt to think about it, either.