New Worlds: Where Does the Food Come From?

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Where Does the Food Come From? — 27 Comments

  1. The implied assumptions of the writer sitting comfortably in her armchair also extend to sources of light and heat.

      • the real problem is you have to Keep — On — Remembering — Them. Habit is a horrible thing.

        I knew that underground tunnels need lights, but when I was writing A Diabolical Bargain I had to remind myself that when my hero is shoved into one (in the dead of night no less), he was operating blind until he managed to stumble out into the moonlight.

        • And in our time of strong light-pollution, we tend to forget how very *dark* ordinary night can be. I remember walking my grandmother’s dog 40 years ago, on a moonless country road with overhanging trees, and I literally could not see 5 feet in front of me. I had to judge where I was from feeling the verge.

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  3. Thank you. The blythe assumptions that sustenance instantly appears has irritated me for decades. Starting with LOTR. That long long cross country hike with no baggage train. Weeks and weeks in the wilderness … I don’t care how magically sustaining the Lembas was there is no way they could have backpacked enough.

    • I got a very vivid illustration of how much people eat when I spent time at an archaeological field school. Admittedly this was for a camp of sixty to eighty people at any given time — but each day the camp’s manager drove to town and came back with her station wagon completely full of food. Every. Single. Day. No way that pony was carrying enough for the four hobbits . . .

      • (near)-bottomless Bags of Holding? though there would need to be a way to keep such bags only available for use with food.

  4. Snork.
    At least the film gave a reasonable image of how unwashed people look after a few days in the wild without soap and hot water. The greasy hair look was well done.

    • I always thought Strider’s woodcraft meant that he was foraging/gathering as they went, and Samwise at least would pick that up quickly, and probably the others as well. Carry a pointy stick (and maybe a gathering sling) while walking, and when you pass some rutabaga leaves you quickly dig up the tuber and put it in your sling (or capacious pockets); pick the fresh nettle-tips if you’ve got good gloves on; see some watercress when pausing at a stream to fill your watersacks and pick it, pass some brambles and pick & eat the ripe berries for 10 minutes before continuing on… then set snares for a rabbit when you camp for the night, clean it in the morning if you’ve caught one, and you can cook it that night if you’ve got a fire. Strider knew those forests well enough to pick a route that would pass by useful known plant sources en route – as all wilderness travelers and animals would like to search those out, trails might wander by those naturally anyway.
      That would mean that from the point they teamed up with Strider, after Bree, the hobbits would have received a crash course in wilderness survival, food recognition and gathering techniques – and with hunger and survival at stake they would be likely to remember those lessons.

      Now I’ve never even camped wild and know nothing about wilderness survival, so this may be a totally unrealistic view of what that would be like… maybe gathering grubs and toasting worms would be more realistic than snaring rabbits, though I think I remember reading about them snaring a rabbit and picking small and sourish apples from a tree in the wilderness in the books, and no grub-eating except by Gollum.
      The movies didn’t show any of that, of course.

  5. Food is a significant problem, but water much more so; it’s the real reason that Minas Tirith could not possibly have existed. Tolkein’s poor grasp of geography/geology put the city too far from the river, and with less than zero chance of adequate wells within the walls. And then there’s that pesky problem of raising water more than 10m without the assistance of electrical or steam-powered pumps (I can almost envision a Sarumanesque steam-powered pumping station, spewing forth smoke and manned by convicts, keeping the Steward’s bathhouse ready…).

  6. One of my quibbles with many Romance novels is that the heroines never eat. No wonder they all faint at the sight of a handsome man!

    With my autoimmune problems, I am always planning the next meal–what, where, and when. So going camping or hiking is a major exorcise in making sure I have food. I’m working on showing people gathering or begging or whatever is necessary to make sure they are as well fed as I am.

  7. I think stew gets a bad rap. It’s a good way to feed travelers on limited resources – the rabbit that ought to feed two people poorly can be stretched (with veggies and lots of water, of course) to feed six decently.

    I remember sour apples in LOTR, too. And Tom Bombadil’s feasts! 🙂

    • Besides, stews and soups appear in so many different cultures IRL. We don’t all put in the same ingredients, but a lot of us use these same formats (more or less) alongside the other stuff that differs more from tradition to tradition (holding onto savory substances between slices of bread vs. holding onto them wrapped up in rice wrapped up in seaweed, etc.). 🙂

      • I don’t think it’s the universality of stew as a concept that’s in dispute in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, just its practicality and generic-ness (it’s frequently just “stew” without any specific defining characteristics).

    • My impression — based on, admittedly, limited experience with cooking — is that stretching your rabbit to feed six requires a relatively big (and therefore heavy) pot that you carry around with you in your travels, enough firewood or other fuel to keep a fairly substantial fire going for a fairly substantial period of time, abundant veggies and water to fill it out, etc. So yes, very practical in some situations . . . but not at all the “easy five-minute roadside meal” it often gets depicted as. Especially since the characters who eat Stereotypical Stew also tend to be the ones never shown packing a pot, carrying more than a handful of sticks to the fire, or spending an hour or more of their time trying to catch a rabbit and gather the vegetables in the first place.

  8. A few years ago I heard a rerun of the first two radio episodes of the Lone Ranger. The action covered several days. Every time our fearless heroes sat down at their fire to have a meal something happened and they had to immediately gallop off, My impression was that they went at least three days without a meal – a probably a potty break too!

  9. “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”

    Maybe they grow that stuff upstairs?

    • Urban farms — or at least urban food gardens — were definitely a thing in early modern London, and I presume other cities as well, so it isn’t just a recent idea! But they supplemented the food brought in from the countryside; they didn’t produce all that was required themselves.

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