Your podcast hosts missed lunch this week, which means it’s time for an episode about food in speculative fiction. OM NOM NOM! We discuss the classics of fantasy food porn, of course, but also more craft-focus topics like what purpose food serves in the plot and how it can assist in character development. But also, can people really tell the difference between replicated and unreplicated food? We demand answers!
Generously transcribed by Clementine. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren with me today is…
Oren: And today, how about instead of recording a podcast, we go eat lunch and just have delicious food and describe the food in a lot of detail and then edit out all the chewing noises because nobody wants that.
Chris: Well, I have a question. Does our lunch have blue milk? And, is it in the shape of cubes?
Oren: It’s obviously going to be in the shape of cubes, this is Spec Fic, come on. What kind of amateur operation do you think I’m running here?
Wes: Do I drop water and the cubes expand into real food? Or do I put them in a machine and they turned into a full course meal or both?
Oren: I think you might just have to eat some cubes. And some celery sticks with some kind of red mash on top of them.
Wes: You have to get fiber, somehow.
Chris: Nationally, there has to be something in her lunch that is moving. But it’s still alive and then we have to like, oh no, and then eat it anyway.
Wes: That’s how you know, it’s fresh. Come on.
Chris: It’s very fresh.
Oren: I think in a Force Awakens and Star Wars, the instant bread that they made was more appetizing looking than I think it was supposed to.
Chris: I liked the instant bread.
Chris: That was some of the best Star Wars food.
Oren: Well, it’s admittedly pretty slim pickings, right? Like Star Wars. Doesn’t have much food, in the movies anyway.
Chris: There’s just the bread and blue milk and green milk.
Oren: Yeah, there’s different colored milks and then there’s the instant bread. That’s what we got.
Wes: Well, don’t forget. There’s Yoda’s stew also.
Oren: Oh, right. Yeah. Yoda makes stew and Luke’s weird rations that he was trying to eat, which I think will live well, like some kind of sausage.
Wes: I do like the appearance of weird rations in stories because they don’t really ever show you what it is. Just want you to know that someone is eating something just because people do, I guess, eat in stories.
Oren: Well, I mean, that’s what we’re talking about food in Spec Fic and that is actually the first reason that I have on my notes of reasons why you would put food in a Spec Fic story is that people eat and it might get a little weird if your character has never eaten anything.
Chris: Especially if there’s questions about what they would be eating.
Chris: So if your character ends up on the alien plant for days and they’re not in civilization. You really have questions about how they’re managing to sustain themselves.
Oren: Like how did they get food, right. Or it can even get a little weird or uncanny if, for example, your character gets out of bed and you narrate them, getting ready for work and then they leave. You’re like, hey, hang on a second. They didn’t eat any breakfast. Like, you know, if you skip over some time, we can assume they ate breakfast. But if you narrate the whole experience, which some people do as part of a getting pumped for whatever the conflict is about to be and they don’t eat breakfast, it’s like, hey, where’s the breakfast? They’re going to be hungry. Did they at least pack a banana?
Chris: One thing I’ve seen in a couple of stories recently that bugs me is when you have a depiction where you have a human going to some other world. And you show them with like a piece of food, that they can technically eat, but it’s really gross and they don’t want to. Or, they have trouble eating it. And then we just gloss over how that gets resolved.
So for instance, Disney’s Amphibia, which is a really cute little animated show about a girl who goes to a frog world for those frog friends. We just show a bunch of bugs that they eat. And I liked that part. I liked that we are showing them eat bugs that are gross to her, but then we just kind of skip the part where she learns to like the food to later when she’s just eating their food. And I’m really wondering what it is that she’s eating. Like what did she find there?
Oren: Has it ever actually shown her eating the food? She says she eats it, but I don’t think we’ve actually seen it. I suspect maybe they think it would be too gross so you just don’t show it.
Wes: If we learned anything from the Lion King, it’s that if you have the right musical montage, anything can be slimy, but satisfying.
Oren: Well, the Lion King is hilarious because it’s like a visual version of what a lot of fantasy books do where they just kind of make the food look good, even though objectively, you know, it probably wouldn’t be. Man, those grubs are drawn to look very tasty. They’re drawn to look like bug candy, you know, bug shaped fruit snacks.
Wes: We all watched that and wanted to eat some.
Oren: I did want that. Yes. My parents were not happy. [laughter]
That’s actually something that I’ve noticed because, obviously when you say food in Spec Fic, the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is going to be RedWall. Right. But I looked at the way RedWall describes food and it’s actually very light on details. It often just lists types of food. Here’s a description: “It was a joyous meal for honest creatures, dishes were passed to be shared both sweet and savory, October ale and strawberry cordial, tarts, pies, flans puddings served out and replaced by fresh delights.” It goes over, it lists more food, turnovers, truffles, breads, and it’s like, yeah. Okay.There’s a lot of food. I get it.
Wes: He did mix in quite a lot of lists like that with other dialogue from the first RedWall book, the excerpt that I like is, “Bring the white gooseberry wine fetch me some Rosemary time, Beech nuts and honey quickly. And now friends. He squeaked, waving a dandelion wildly with his tail. I, Hugo, will create a grayling, all a red wall, such as will melt in the mouth of mice, fresh cream. I need lots of fresh cream, bring some mint leaves too.” I think it’s a little more compelling than a list, but he still does just list things. I think there’s something appetizing with known foods to kind of rattle off a couple. Cause you don’t have to waste time describing what it is. That’s helpful.
Oren: I also have questions because RedWall mice use a lot of cream in their cooking. Where are they getting that cream?
Wes: That’s like the one thing you definitely don’t talk about with the RedWall books.
Oren: They don’t have cows, guys!
Chris: They have cats like in Dune or there’s a cat that’s being milked. That’s where their prisoners go.
Oren: This is why I shouldn’t have asked.
Chris: You should not have asked, but that does bring up something about, if you have a different world that’s not our own, and you’re supposed to be making foods that are not like our food. Usually in fantasy, you can get away with just having the same foods as Earth. Some people find that anachronistic, but I do think that trying to stay away from all terms of specific, like fruits, apples and oranges, because you are in a fantasy world is just impractical. If there’s trees, there can be apples and oranges, but I think you can mix up things by adding new adjectives. Like you would have cricket bread or sea hog, or, you know, other things like that, but staying with some of the food terms that we’re familiar with, and that can make it feel a little bit different.
Wes: We’ve talked about that with other speculative elements too. Like if it walks like an elf and talks like an elf, probably just call it an elf, unless you have a really good reason not to.
Chris: But in this case trying to make it creative enough, right, that if you have a world that’s really different, especially if you have really different creatures in your world that it’s not supposed to feel like Earth, how you kind of communicate food without making it feel like we have exactly the same agriculture.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, you’re probably not going to be able to invent an entire fictional menu. That’s going to take a lot of time and unless your story is really food focused, it’s probably not worth it. ‘Cause this even goes beyond food. ‘Cause we’re sort of talking about at what point does using real world terms start to feel weird. And it’s, you just have to find where the boundary is. It’s not rational like “days of the week” sound weirder than “minutes and hours” even though those are equally arbitrary and made up and culture specific, you know, specific names sound weird in fantasy. I was really weirded out when I first read the Gunslinger and he asked for a hamburger. There’s no reason to be weirded out by that, hamburgers are a food that would make sense in the setting that they’ve created, but, it just was not what I was expecting.
Chris: Well it is named after a place. Just like, having champagne in your setting instead of wine, like, that would be a little weird, right?
Wes: That’s a good point. Yeah.
Oren: Although, again, a case where it’s not really rational, it just comes down to how people use it. I feel like champagne is kind of generic, even though it is named after a place. And, you know, technically if it doesn’t come from there, it’s sparkling snobbery. But I think we could all agree, it would be really weird if someone slapped down a big Mac in your fantasy setting unless it’s urban fantasy. Right. Like, that would be weird.
So you have the scale of big Mac to potato and you just got to find what feels right for your setting. Or you could spend 50 years arguing about whether or not this setting would have potatoes. Cause does the setting have a Colombian exchange equivalent? Uh, who knows? I don’t know. I don’t care. I put tea in my Roman empire story, even though probably the Romans wouldn’t have actually had tea. Like probably, it’s hard to say for sure.
Chris: Look if it doesn’t have the tea plant, it’s an infusion.
Oren: the sparkling infusion
Chris: the sparking infusion
Oren: The era of Roman history that I very loosely based this story off, they probably would have been drinking wine, but that just had completely the wrong vibe for the scene I wanted. So I was like, nope, they’re drinking tea. I don’t care that it doesn’t fit. I’m just going to do it. I don’t think most people are going to notice. But if you listen to this podcast, and my book is ever published, you can find it and give it a one star review because I said you could ‘cause you noticed the tea is wrong. [laughter]
But you can also use food as a form of world-building like Chris was just talking about, if there are fantasy creatures and fantasy plants in your setting, people will probably eat them or we’ll try to eat them. So you can think about that.
Wes: I think a follow-up on the world building bear is food preparation which is inextricably linked to culture. And so, that’s a really great way, you know, if you’ve got some kind portal story or you’re encountering a new group and your protagonist is experiencing new food, they are also experiencing culture, which also means you should be delicate with that too. Because there’s lots of ways to miss step around that and be disgusted by things that have cultural significance. And that can be a little inappropriate. I would say there’s a bad history of certain foods just not being acceptable to let’s say white palate.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, you want to be careful, right? You don’t want to end up being like, ah, I was so grossed out by X thing and it’s like, X thing is a thing you can order at the Thai restaurant and it’s like, hmm…don’t…no, don’t do that. Bad plan man.
Wes: Or even just, if you’re indicating that food has spiritual significance in your setting. Then, I would leave that food alone from inducing the gross out feeling or something like that, because that is then commenting on a faith practice in the story. And that does have real world associations.
Chris: I do think world-building is why rations often work so well is because they say something about the setting. And it’s specifically often in gritty Sci-Fi settings, like Firefly. Right where they have just protein blocks they’re eating all the time. Or, in Matrix, I think they have some kind of like, grool that they eat.They’re saying something about the fact that they have the technology to supply people with the necessary nutrition, but life is a little bleak and utility is more important than enjoyment.
Wes: That reminds me of something that I saw in Oren’s notes too, about how food in Spec Fic can serve like a wish fulfillment aspect. And, those examples are not fulfilling any wishes of mine! That’s for sure.
Oren: No, and that’s actually an interesting thing about Sci-Fi is that I think Sci-Fi just doesn’t tend to do food wish fulfillment or food porn, as it’s sometimes called, nearly as much. And my gut instinct on that is anything that they can come up with that feels new and or fits in the setting is going to seem weird. ‘Cause it’s Sci-Fi and you invented it. But if it is normal food that people like, it just feels a little too normal. Now of course, that doesn’t stop Sci-Fi shows, the new Star Trek has Pike throwing a barbecue for the second episode. It’s like, okay, that looks delicious. I’d be down for that.
Chris: Yeah. Star Trek is often an exception. I think the Star Trek food that stands out the most to me is we have a scene in TNG where Gaiden is very carefully mixing these drinks because she’s supposed to make the temperature is just right in comparison to the person who’s going to drink it so it evaporates off their tongue.
Oren: Yeah, that was neat.
Chris: And it just sounds cool.
Oren: If we’re talking about food and Star Trek, I’m obligated to mention the horrible missed opportunity that was Neelix. Because man, among all the other problems with Neelix, the fact that they decided his defining trait was that he was going to be bad at cooking was just such a waste. You could have real interesting, cool storylines about trying to cook food for a ship of several hundred people on limited resources and, you know, having to take into account different species and their nutritional needs and palate. That could be really interesting, but instead it was like, oh look Neelix made food no one likes again.
Chris: Right, and they really needed him to have a useful skill.
Chris: That was the weirder part about that. He really needs a way to contribute so if he was just good at cooking, that would do it, but no. Neelix has to be bad at everything.
Oren: And, if you want it to have a thing where people don’t like Neelix’s food and there’s some conflict about that, the way I would have probably done it was go with the idea that Neelix is used to emphasizing nutrition first, because again, Neelix isn’t from the Federation, he doesn’t have access to super cool stuff most of the time. And so maybe he makes stuff that’s nutritionally balanced, but flavorless and bland. Right. Because that’s just what he thinks is important. And then you could have a little conflict about that and that could be fun. And not just, what did Neelix make today? I don’t know. It looks like regular food, but everyone says it’s gross.
Chris: And we even have a scene where he’ll make people’s traditional foods for them, but then take the liberties to change them. And it just feels very racist. Right. Where he’ll make Vulcan soup for Tuvok but then he’s like, oh, but it was too bland. And then he just adds lots of spices to it because it’s not what he likes. It’s just ugh Neelix why.
Oren: It’s like I ordered some macaroni and cheese and it comes with a bunch of carrots in it. Look if you like macaroni and cheese with carrots, that’s fine. But that is not what I… why would you do this?
Chris: But the funniest thing about Star Trek is they’re waffling on whether replicator food is good or bad.
Oren: Oh man. I want one of the new Star Trek shows to do like a controlled anonymous test for replicator food. And I want them to explain if in fact it turns out that people can tell the difference between replicated food and non replicated food. ‘Cause I suspect they can’t. I suspect it’s just snobbery, but if they can, I want to know why. What imperfections is it in the replicator process that make it so that you can tell the difference because I could buy that there are some. There’s a lot of very delicate chemistry that goes on with cooking and it can be altered by things like altitude or pressure, or like if your oven doesn’t preheat fast enough or what have you. Those things can matter so I’m willing to buy that there’s something weird about replicator food, but you gotta tell me what it is. Okay. Explain yourself.
Wes: I’d really like that episode or series. It should be a series, a whole series. To run with the fact that just asking for one big Mac as opposed to somebody doing a really detailed order. I would like to see that. I would like Chicken a la King, and somebody comes in like, I want it breaded this way and at this temperature sorted with this. You know, like cooking in Star Trek with the replicator should be descriptive based to really get the maximum output from the replicator. That’s what I want to see.
Chris: One of the interesting things in Deep Space Nine is because, Quark’s establishment has replicators and also a holodeck that’s for pay one thing that he trades in things like replicator recipes, which I really liked because it showed that the replicator needs really sophisticated information to get the food out of it. So even though you can basically transform matter into food, you still have some information property that goes into populating it with options.
Oren: I wonder what the legal setup is that stops him from reselling that. What’s the DRM on replicators? I have so many questions.
Chris: Yeah, it’s a product, a service where you have to subscribe to an ongoing account. And then if at any time you lose your account, you just lose all those recipes.
Oren: Just deletes it from your hard drive. I hate it. I thought this was an optimistic future. I do think it would be really funny to do like the great Starfleet replicator off, where instead of it being about cooking, it’s about: here, we gave you a replicator that’s half broken, and now the captain wants coffee and croissants and it has to be perfect. Can you get the replicator to make a croissant that tastes good? An engineering reality show, that’d be great.
Wes: Yeah, this blend of engineering, cooking, and reality TV show, but set in the Star Trek universe. We need this.
Chris: There is one episode where Janeway fails to make a pot roast with a replicator. They show other characters failing at cooking occasionally before, but usually they’ve actually chosen to really cook from scratch. They’re not just using a machine that can just magically make a pot roast for you. So how? Janeway ends up with this pot of what looks like a really, really burnt pot roast but then she says the replicator liquified it. I guess it has some liquid at the bottom, but that looks like a burnt pot roast, but how did she get the replicator to do that? And why can’t you just ask it for a new one?
Oren: I feel like the props department like missed the memo on what this prop was supposed to look like. And then for some reason they decided to film with the scripted dialogue. Instead of just having Janeway change it to the computer burnt the pot roast now, like why it would do that. I don’t know. We have established the Voyagers’ computers are extremely temperamental. ‘Cause it’s made out of meat gel and they can get sick. So the computer probably has a cooler.
Chris: Yeah that’s true, they can get infected by cheese.
Oren: Yeah. Which everyone blames Neelix for but to be perfectly honest, I don’t think that one’s his fault. If the ship is so delicate that bringing some cheese on board can break it, there should be warning signs.
Chris: Which leads me to another reason that food is included, which is for comedy or novelty. Sometimes just like why they decided to have Janeway somehow burn the pot roast with the replicator, which must’ve taken a lot of engineering to do that. I think baby Yoda is a good example. We have one scene seeing where he eats a whole frog,
Chris: Which is just great. And then there’s the episode with them eating it. That’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not funny.
Wes: Yeah. He’s just murdering them
Chris: I’m hoping they’re at least not fertilized yet. Right. Okay, so the situation for anyone who’s not seeing the Mandalorian is that they are transporting this alien woman who has a tank full of eggs. She’s kind of a frog like creature and so she has these large eggs that I think are not yet fertilized. The premise is that she’s traveling with her eggs to where her mate is and they want to start a family. So it’s really important that her eggs make it intact to him, and they’re species is really rare. We really build up a lot of sympathy for this poor woman. Who’s like traveling with her eggs. So then baby Yoda starts eating them when he’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s too upsetting with what they establish.
Oren: This lady is trying to have babies. Come on. Why are you hurting her chances of having babies? She’s had a hard life.
Chris: Yeah. As we’ve previously explained, if humor ends up invoking negative emotions, it’s not funny anymore. So you kind of have to be careful. Somebody who was really callous wrote this joke and considered it funny. But there are some other, like, I think baby Yoda steals some like blue wafers ‘cause everything gotta be blue in one episode.
Oren: Yeah. They’re like little like blue, what are they? Macron’s that’s like the little French cookie.
Wes: Yeah that’s what they look like
Oren: Macaroons. I don’t know, the name of the French president is sort of similar. I just know that they’re blue and he ate a bunch of them and then he threw up cause that’s comedy. Although, on a slightly more serious note, food can also be used to create social situations. Janeway burning the pot roast thing was in fact, part of a lead up to a social scene between Janeway and a random extra who has returned from the dead and is turning into an alien. So that’s a weird plot, but the point is that Janeway burning the pot roast is designed to set up the instance she’s talking, to feel kind of awkward ‘cause she doesn’t know what to do. It’s designed to make Janeway feel a bit like she needs to compensate because she’s being a bad host. And that’s just one of many ways you can use food in social situations. My favorite is that you can use meals as a reason why characters, who don’t normally like each other or spend time together, have to be in each other’s company because that’s basically 90% of fiction is forcing characters who don’t like each other to talk.
Wes: Yeah. And that act of sharing a meal is interesting way of kind of experiencing communion in a sense. And I don’t mean like, in the Christian sense. Every religion and most cultures have some kind of ritual involving coming together to share sustenance. ‘Cause if you’re sharing food, you’re not beating each other’s skulls in, usually. And so breaking bread is an important way to put some personal beef aside and talk things out. And then, yeah, like you noticed with Janeway, and then when things go wrong in the meal scene can really be a nice foreshadowing of something wrong that’s going to come in the story or people who just simply violate mealtime conventions or communion, gets cut up later or establish themselves firmly as antagonists like Walter Frey in Game of Thrones.
Oren: Yeah, how dare you interrupt mealtime. And also, I guess there was a wedding, mainly the food. Think of the food! Although Game of Thrones is hilarious because Game of Thrones is like the opposite of RedWall and that the way it describes its food is kind of gross to me. Even though it’s food, I would absolutely love cause it’s basically just meat, bread and cheese, which is most of what I eat. Whereas in RedWall, they’re eating a bunch of fancy food that I wouldn’t actually be interested in, but it like sounds good. Whereas in Game of Thrones, I’ll spare you the details, ‘cause it’s kind of gross, it’s described in a way that sounds really unappetizing.
Chris: Another speculative food I’ve seen a couple times is Ambrosia. It’s a Greek food of the gods. Humans are not supposed to eat it and in Xena it’s red jello.
Oren: What else would it be?
Chris: It’s like in the shape of a flower and they have to go through a dungeon with traps. But I think specifically in Xena, if you eat ambrosia you become a God. I think that’s the deal.
Wes: That’s cool
Chris: So it’s very powerful red jello. Percy Jackson has a funny scene where the Ambrosia is a liquid and it tastes whatever you like the most, but to Percy Jackson, this liquid tastes like his mom’s chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven, which just it’s a little disconcerting because it’s the liquid.
Oren: It was really hard for me. It was supposed to be a nice little heartwarming reminder of home and he was supposed to be feeling better because of it but it just felt so off putting, you know. He drank some liquid, but suddenly it was like, I was eating cookies and it’s like, hang on a sec. So now I’m getting this image that the liquid is like pureed cookies. Is that what is happening here? It was weird. I didn’t like it. I was not a fan as long as it’s not an actual Ambrosia salad though. I don’t, I can’t do it. Sorry.
Chris: Somebody named that salad after Ambrosia, little audacious.
Oren: They did. And they will answer for it one day.
Wes: I do like the notion of the food of the gods, conferring, like godly power. I believe there’s one Norse myth that talks about how there’s an apple tree, and basically every day someone collects the apples and gives them out to the gods of Asgard and they all eat their apples and that gives them their divine power but Thor’s deal is that he hoards them until there’s a battle or something. And then he just feasts on apples like you would feast on cheese and Skyrim in the kind of way to just save your life. And then he’s like “apple strong” and goes out to be the most glorious bad-ass there ever was.
Oren: So, what you’re saying is that Thor is playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild and when he gets injured, he pauses the game to eat five cakes.
Wes: I think so, the ancient myth from thousands of years ago, definitely said that.
Oren: That was one of the most fun parts of Breath of the Wild was doing all of the cooking and discovering what you were and weren’t allowed to combine. It, if anything, made me wish that the cooking was a bigger part of the game ‘cause there weren’t enough combinations for my liking. Chris was the one doing it, I just had the game on while she was telling me what to do, but you know, it just felt more like I should be able to combine more things. Right.
Wes: Yeah. Combined enough to have a peaceful resolution with Ganon by just making the best meal ever.
Oren: Look at this souffle I prepared for you Ganon, look how delicate it is.
Chris: Yeah, it’s seems really fun at first, but the more you do it, the more you figure out the limitations. They don’t have enough ingredients and you just can’t make enough things. But, it was pretty fun.
Oren: The very funny, old polygon video, I think it was where they made a bunch of the recipes from Zelda and it was okay. You can see how this feels a bit limited. It’s like you’re allowed to put one meat and salt and that’s about as good as it can get. At least it has some salts. There’s that?
Chris: Yeah, the omelet was definitely the most realistic one because he just had eggs and butter. You can just stuff an omelet with anything. I don’t think.
Oren: Oh, man. One of the weirdest Star Trek food bits was when like Rikers making omelets for everyone. And it like shows him make the omelet. It’s a pretty big part of the scene. And then they’ll try it. And they’re like, actually, this is really bad.
Chris: What, nooo
Oren: That is not where I thought that was going. It’s kind of weird to have a character make food on a show and have it be bad.
Chris: It’s also pretty hard to ruin omelets. I mean, if you ruin omelets, they’re just like scrambled eggs.
Oren: I don’t know why they thought that maybe the eggs or maybe because there were replicated eggs. They could tell. That’s the true test. I made you this food and which one of them was made with replicated ingredients. All right, well with that delicious little anecdote, I think we’re going to have to call this episode to a close cause I’m hungry. I’m not going to go eat because we have more episodes to record, but just realize that I am living in discomfort.
Chris: And that’s the important part.
Oren: Before we go. I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. We have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening-closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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