The need to eat is one of our most basic survival instincts. Every living thing has to do it, and humans have, as in so many other areas, taken the processes of collecting, preparing, and eating food to a level unseen anywhere else on Earth. Many inventions have come about solely for the purpose of making our food better. Sometimes, better means more nutritious. Much more often in history, however, better food is simply food that lasts longer.
And don’t forget about drinks. There’s not an animal alive that doesn’t enjoy a drink of water, but humanity has taken water and flavored it in myriad ways to create beverages. And we use more than just water as a base for our drinks: orange juice is one of the most popular “natural” drinks around, and all we have to do is extract it.
In the world
The history of food is tied to the history of mankind. Cooking seems to have emerged about 10,000 years ago, right around the same time as so many other parts of the Neolithic Revolution, like pottery and plant domestication; before this, we have some evidence of open fires and cooking pits, but not cooking vessels. An announcement in December 2016 (the very week I wrote this post, in fact) details a pottery find in the Sahara that shows biological markers of cooked plant matter dating back about this far. The timing can’t be a coincidence: the first domesticated cereal grains, the oldest ceramics, and a technique that just happens to use both of them? If anything, that sounds like cause and effect to me. Not sure which one’s the cause, though.
Anyway, preparing food has a long history. So does producing it, whether through growing crops or raising stock. Domestication of animals for food took a bit longer than plants (animals are a bit more willful, you see), but it happened. Some would say we’re doing too well at that these days—the free-range movement is all about lowering food production, because the techniques we’ve developed to get the extreme yields lead to extreme suffering on the animals’ part.
Cooking was, for most of human history, something you did over a fire. You could build a box to contain the fire (an oven), put a slab on top of it (a stove or griddle), stick a pot full of water over it to boil (a cooking pot), but it was still a fire. It’s only very recently that we got rid of that, with our gas and electric ovens, our microwaves, and our coffee makers. Yet we go back to the fire even now, when we’re camping or roasting marshmallows, or when the chef breaks out the blowtorch. And gas stoves still use flames, so a lot of Americans retain that millennia-old connection to their Stone Age ancestors.
If there’s anything we have undeniably improved on in the modern era, it’s food preservation. As little as 200 years ago, that was largely limited to salting, pickling, and similar curing processes. In colder climates, you could freeze food through the winter by stuffing it in the snow; everywhere else could get a mild cooling—but not freezing—effect by digging a deep enough hole, which works well for, say, wine. But much food was eaten fresh, or near enough to it. What wasn’t usually came out in some other form: pickles, jams, etc.
Today, by contrast, preserved foods are the norm. We’ve got refrigerators, freezers, canning, vacuum-sealed plastic packaging, and an array of foods specifically designed for a long shelf life. (That’s something else olden days didn’t have. Food sitting on a shelf was food gone to waste.) We have “instant” mixes that, while they may not taste like the real deal, are close enough for people on a budget in time and money. I eat frozen dinners all the time, and they’re basically the same thing. And even when we do use older techniques, we combine them with the new, putting our pickles in the fridge.
Finally, our modern world has given us another benefit in terms of our diet. As we’ve become more connected, as the apparent distances between us have shrunk, we have expanded our palates. Any decent-sized American city will have not only American food, but Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and many more. India and Thailand are about as far from the east coast as you can get while still on the same planet, yet immigration and modern food production have combined to let us sample their cuisines from thousands of miles away.
Now with magic
In the general timeframe of the Middle Ages, they didn’t have all that. Sure, there was a booming trade in spices, as there has always been. A few exotic foods made their way to distant locales, though rarely in fresh form. And the European climate in most places was so different from their nearest “exotic” trading partners, the Muslims of the Middle East and North Africa, that many of the food plants simply wouldn’t grow.
Magic, as we’ve provided for our magical realm, won’t change that too much. The distances will still be great, and magical transportation won’t move that much faster than sea travel, once you take into account the often winding roads, the customs checkpoints, the weather, and so on. Grain can keep for a long time, and so can a lot of other food items, but the “goes bad quickly” set won’t shrink very much, because the timing isn’t right. Thus, this part of the exercise won’t be that different from what the real world gives us.
Producing food, however, will get a big boost from magic. Indeed, there’s almost no reason why that won’t be one of the first areas of interest our mages work on. Higher crop yields, protection against crop failure, larger stock, more eggs…these all help everybody in an agrarian society. If the mages don’t focus somewhat on improving agriculture, what good are they? (Even combat-oriented RPGs get this one right. D&D 4th Edition has Bloom as a 2nd-level ritual. Pathfinder’s Plant Growth can be cast at level 5, and it only takes 6 seconds. And that’s not counting the direct “Create Food” stuff.)
So we can assume our magical kingdom will have more food produced. Next up comes harvesting it, often a labor-intensive task. Again, we’ve seen how magic can reduce the labor needed by creating industrial-like machines. All that’s stopping the mages from moving into farm machines is imagination. They may not be to magic-powered combines and tractors yet, but those aren’t too far into the future.
Even a marginal mastery of heat and cold—one we’ve already said this realm has—opens up a lot of avenues for research into refrigeration and cooking. Everything from starting fires to chilling wine gets a boost, along with too many other things to name. Remember that cooking in pre-modern times is mostly about fire. Make that fire easier to work with, and the improvements naturally follow from there. The other processes of cooking, such as chopping, don’t benefit as much, but control over temperature more than makes up for that.
Last, let’s take a look at drinks. Most of those won’t be too modern, as our sodas and imitation fruit juices and “lite” beer take a lot of chemistry and machinery that is out of their league. But cold drinks will be more common, even in summer, and this magical kingdom may learn the joys of iced beverages far sooner than ours did. Fruit juices, easier to extract thanks to magical machines, will likely become popular. Distillation will allow for stronger alcoholic drinks. And then we come back to plain old water. With magic, purification gets a boost (it’s about the same as with alcohol, actually), so clean drinking water isn’t a problem, even in cities.
We’ll leave it on that note, but keep that last idea in mind, because that’s where the next post will go: into the magical cities.