A friend asked after reading my Blogfeast entry, "How do you decide what your characters should eat?" This friend mentioned that she thought the food was particularly detailed, so how did I come up with it? At the risk of lapsing into an anthropological rant...
Food is important to all societies. and in all cultures. Love of food, humor, and music seem to be some of the few human universals. But all of these are informed by culture, experience, etc. So for me to decide what some characters eat versus other characters I have to rely on world building.
The first questions:
A) where does this ethnic group originate?
B) What is the weather like there?
C) What makes sense as the "common" species?
D) Could there be any religious prescriptions about food that would make sense to the culture?
A) What Earth societies are geographically comparative?
B) What Earth societies am I drawing on for influence?
C) What is the socio-economic standing of my character?
D) What prestige within his/her group does my character receive?
E) What prestige within the larger society does my character receive?
F) What makes sense for individual relationship to food?
How does this play out in the story?
We identify food with home. So when characters are taken outside of the familiar, the little things that mean "home" gain a lot more importance. Add in societies that ritualize meals (my Maldians), individual characters' personality and you have a recipe for tension, world building, character development, and plot advancement.
There is more that goes into food-rituals than just what's on the plate.
Political games are particularly evident over meals.
How a character eats can reveal much of his/her identity, not only to the reader, but to the other characters attending the meal.
Also, the level of ritual speaks much for social status and the importance of the event. That means--how do your characters dress for the meal? Chara themselves? What sort of discussion transpires over eating (this could communicate gender roles, familial connections, social organization, wealth, prestige in community, what one has to do to earn respect--which communicates cultural value systems that can inform plot).
Then, to bring in reader emotion, think about prestige of food items in our own society.
Who drinks tea?
Beer or Ale?
What about meals served in courses?
how much food is available?
For Tati, who grew up an ethnic Maldian in the Meiseon realm, food rituals make sense because her people are the land's farmers. Maldians value food because they know the hard work it takes to get it on the table (so to speak) and because it is the time in which the family gathers, no one working. So it is doubly significant to a society that is trying to hide the fact they have retained memory of their once-noble lineages. Tati, being descended from a family that once ruled the Maldians is allotted more prestige in her agrarian society, and thus has had more access to food than others in the community. She just doesn't realize it. That, and her mother's reputation/skill at cooking inform her attitude about food and culinary education :P Which works for the character because it represents half of her internal conflict. Balance between her two "sides" is her personal, internal goal. The outward representation of her struggle influences the plot. As does the prestige/expectations her society places on her, and the limitations caused by being a member of a marginalized ethnic group with abilities the Meiseons should be afraid of...
So I need to be detailed with food whenever Tati is around because of the importance she imbues in it.
Does this translate to other pieces?
Yes, but it will be dealt with differently. In Kordic (where Silver Mask is currently taking place) food marks socio-economic status. The Rextians are the overlooked ethnic group, and Kyr's importing of Rextian tea and herbs for Gellayna permits her to have a sense of home when living outside her community. It says a lot about Kyr, who is a lord in a xenophobic Empire, and it gives the smugglers a reason to ferry goods to his castle...allowing their network to flourish and carry news of the Empire, and assist Kyr in planning a rebellion. So food, trade, and the like plays a different role in this piece, but no less important.
Europe conquered the world for resources after all. The settlement of the Americas was a result of seeking South Asian spices...so I think food, identity, socio-economic and cultural politics is informed (in part) by food. So...it's important to the whole world-building effort and should be integrated into stories with care.