This whole piece got started by an idle discussion between my husband and I about food in the Lord of the Rings. After that, I just started noticing all of the references to food, food preparation and meals in the books I was reading. It's not an exhaustive survey, just what I've noticed recently and some examples I remember reading in the past.
The Importance of Food and Drink in Fiction
Food and drink. The two are integral to every society I can think of or have read about in real life or in fiction. From a meeting in a coffee shop to a lavish feast being served up in front of the main characters, it can range from an elaborate background setting to something far more integral to the plot, or the characters.
The familiarity or strangeness of the foods being served or made by the characters can act as a barometer to the intended familiarity or strangeness of the worlds that the books are set in. A few examples might be the foods that the hobbits eat in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (apples, beer, bacon and mushrooms for example), meant to represent our own Europe in a distant past, or perhaps the foods from Pern (Klah, wherry, packtail, redfruit, tubers), the world created by Anne McCaffrey, an alien planet. Some authors have taken a middle ground, where some of the foods are our own, but perhaps some of the seasonings or drinks are unfamiliar – the direction taken by Elizabeth Moon in the Paksenarrion's World books (cheese, onions, stews, but also sib and asar).
Done well, the use of food in a novel can be a way of involving the reader's senses into the story through their own experiences and memories. To use one of Mercedes Lackey's books as an example, in Magic's Price there is a scene where the main character is enjoying a piece of bread fresh out of the oven with butter melting into it. Who doesn't know the taste and smell of that? Or the smell of a large pot of soup on the stove?
Some books use food and drink to illustrate elements of the characters personalities, as Mercedes Lackey did in The Fire Rose. Rosalind Hawkins' preference for unladylike sandwiches went along with her other unladylike interests in reading, history and languages, as well as her desire for a university education. Another Mercedes Lackey novel, By The Sword opens with the main character, Kerowyn, supervising the preparations for her brother's marriage feast. Really, her place should have been out participating in the feast itself though. However, for various reasons she's in the kitchen, which suggests in hind-sight that she's something of an outsider at the Keep – which is proven throughout the book. Then, going back to Tolkien and The Hobbit for another example, you have Beorn, the skin-changer, who could also take on the form of a great bear. He lived, according to Gandalf, mostly on cream and honey, which you might say reflected his other form as a bear.
Outside of restaurant scenes, how meal and food preparation is presented to us as the audience can also say a lot about the worlds the characters are inhabiting. If we only see perfectly done, finished meals presented to the characters, it suggests to me one of two things. Either they are upper-class with servants to do all the work, or else the world is a high-tech one a la Star Trek with its replicators to do most of the day-to-day cooking. It's not only how the foods are presented, but also the ingredients used, however – venison, hare, rabbit, onions etc all say to me “good, solid, homey food”. On the other hand, eels and other exotic dishes are more likely to suggest that the meals are designed to be impressive, and often expensive.
Eating and drinking is also very much a social thing to do. Especially when it comes to historical fiction and fantasy, though it's still very prevalent in more modern settings. How often do you see the characters agreeing to meet up for a drink? These days it would be a coffee and a muffin. In historical fiction it's more likely to be wine or scotch (for men) and tea and biscuits for women. One of the biggest set-pieces as well is the great feast, with all of it's attendant preparations and rituals. This is one that you see most often in the historical fiction and fantasy realms – either from the preparation side as in By The Sword, or from the perspective of one of the diners – think of some of the feasts in Diana Gabaldon's books for example.
Continuing with a further look into the third book of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, nearly every time characters are meeting socially there is food involved: Ginger biscuits in one of the 1960's scenes. Sherry or port for the men in the 18th century scenes – or, hare pie or a savory in the same time period in Scotland. Diana Gabaldon is an author who isn't going to shy away from the kitchen and food preparations in her books, and it adds so much richness to her writings.
Broadening out, food, or the lack of may well be a plot-point in and of itself. In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, the prevalence or scarcity of food is one of the keys to the characters' emotional states. The less food they have, the more irritable and angry they get – and several times, they run out of food entirely, or believe they are about to, adding more tension to the story. Similarly in the early books of the Change series by S. M. Stirling (Dies The Fire and The Protector's War) we see the lengths that the characters will or will not go to to get food due to the sudden scarcity thanks to the Change, and the meals are certainly more than a background setting. Another example of the lengths that characters will go to in order to get food is in Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy where teenagers are willing to increase their chances at being drawn for Tribute in order to get food for themselves and their families. Not to mention what they're willing to consider food!
Similarly, we see the cycle of the year shown through the foods and quantities of foods available as the seasons change in S. M. Stirling's books, and more subtly in the Outlander books. From seasonal feasts to scarcity, it's all there and it has an effect on the characters lives and actions. I know that after reading the early Change books, I have a greater appreciation for the humble backyard vegetable garden and it's potential.
And now, there's an interesting twist on the food in novels/TV-series that's growing: the novel-themed cookbook. I only know of a few so far, but they're definitely interesting. The first one I saw came out around 2012, for the Game of Thrones TV series, called A Feast Of Ice And Fire: The Official Game Of Thrones Companion Cookbook. It has it's own unique twist, in that the authors took known medieval recipes and modernized them. The Hunger Games has also inspired a few cookbooks, although I'm not sure just how inspiring some of what the characters are known to have been eating was.
The one that I want to read and test the most though is the Outlander Kitchen cookbook. Due out this summer, it looks like a good one, based on the blog of the same name. Diana Gabaldon has included many a dish both humble and extravagant, old and modern through her series of books, and the author of the Outlander Kitchen started a blog inspired by the recipes, which has since turned into a book. However, as far as I can tell, the blog is still being updated as well, and what's more, all of the recipes I've seen there look absolutely delicious!