A number of gamers like to mix their passions– at the moment, food’s on the upswing for me. I’m not the only RPG Blogger with this strange blend of interests: Dice Monkey’s Bridget  stirs in articles of real world recipes with game world names. (Once recent dish: Troglodyte Tequila Lime Fillet.) On the stew, Adam Nave wrote provocative articles about food at the gaming table, including GMing for weight loss .
My current interest in food has two sources; a new cookbook  (a Christmas gift) and finally tracking down and subscribing to a local CSA farm. Long story short, I now get strange vegetables every week, along with some interesting recipes.
Gee that’s nice, but how does that affect my game?
It is sometimes difficult to remember, but we have access to a huge amount of cheap and varied food today. Depending on when and where you set your game, you can tell the players quite a bit, indirectly, just by inviting the characters to dinner.
One big item is the relative price of food to income. In 2005, the USDA Economic Research Service compared food shopping  in several countries. Their results were vaguely familiar– I know I’d read them before, and recently, but the still surprised me.
“U.S. consumers spend approximately nine percent of their income on food compared with 11 percent in the United Kingdom, 17 percent in Japan, 27 percent in South Africa and 53 percent in India.”
(The link includes many more countries and updates to 2007.)
Inviting a character to a meal can be an act of beggaring hospitality, particularly for those on the lowest end of the economic ladder. Conversely, many of us were raised to disdain wasting food, so one way to subtly vilify an NPC is to introduce them to the PCs while they’re eating piggishly, spilling, and wasting food.
Food in History
Our heroic versions of the middle ages don’t often linger on food, despite the grim reality of famine and instability in real world history. If you are running a more historical medieval game, famine and its threat are huge influences on the world. Kingdoms often came to crisis during famines; rulers may deplete their treasuries to fend off the starvation of their people, while farmers wiped out by bad weather turn to banditry or poaching [hunting animals in the ruler’s woods] to feed their families.
The poor transport typical to the medieval world can lead to famines only a short distance (as the crow flies) from abundance. For example, rulers of England often had trouble feeding their citizens during famines, because sea transport was so much better developed that English citizens would break the law and sail to the continent to unload their desperately needed crops at foreign markets. They’d do this because it was much easier and safer to transport the goods by sea.
Pendragon, set in Dark Ages England, has the winter phase, where you check on the year’s harvest and see if your peasants provide you a profit, or if you have to put off your armor purchases for another year.
S. John Ross’s article, Medieval Demographics Made Easy, tells you upfront that “There are many factors that determine the population density of a land, but none as important as arability and climate. If food will grow, so will peasants.”
Irish characters in Westerns are often recent immigrants driven from home by the Potato Famine  of 1845 to 1852. (Far and Away was a 1992 film that featured immigrants fleeing the famine and trying to adapt to life in the US.)
Even in relatively modern history– like your Call of Cthulhu game set in the 1920s, buying food still took more than 20 percent  of the average family’s income. The bread lines of the great depression, or the Joads watching farmers destroy produce while they starve, mark the 1930s. Rationing during World War 2 meant that sugar and chocolate were very rare treats. Incorporating details like these can add texture to the everyday experiences of the characters, and help immerse players in the era.
Food and Morality
Moral conundrums from food are easy to introduce into your games. Bandits who are failed farmers are probably more sympathetic than murderous scumbags, and everyone has been asked “Would you imprison a mother who stole a loaf of bread to feed her children?”
Al-Qadim (an Arabian inspired setting for AD&D) features several food related customs. The Bond of Salt  was a formal tie that could force a host to defend his worst enemy. By offering the salt, the host vowed to protect the guest from harm for the duration of the salt bond, three days. In the game world, infiltrators would go to tremendous lengths to avoid sharing salt– even an assassin might feel compelled to defend their host if they had shared salt earlier.
The health of the land was often tied to the ruler’s deeds in myth and legend. Diane Duane’s Tales of the Five shows the Kingdom of Arlen in the grip of famine because of the rightful king’s absence. Mage the Ascension’s Verbena sacrificed kings to bring rain to a land in drought. Each is a good chance to ask if the sacrifice of one for the many is justified, or about the responsibilities of rule.
Modern games add intent, turning shortages into policy, not just the result of ill weather. Movies like To Live  show the toll of starvation while China attempted to make the Great Leap Forward. North Korea is often used as a short hand for an irresponsible nation today because it maintains a large military while its people starve. Or, how does your character feel about selling food at exorbitant prices because your Megacorp has an exclusive contract?
Normal and Exotic
In the Europe of the Middle Ages, spices were an ostentatious luxury good. Today, it can be hard to find a recipe that doesn’t call for several spices– and foods without them often taste bland. Salt was valuable enough that it was kept in locked salt cellars, and few were trusted with the key. Today a pound of iodized salt can be found for 33 cents at the super market.
Smells can make a good shorthand for what’s comfortable or strange to a character. A pot of roasting meat with rosemary might be one character’s comfort food, while another character dumps Tabasco on everything after their stint in the military. When you read books set in Narnia, notice that the Calormen always smell of garlic.
Historically, meats were much less a part of the average person’s diet, grains and vegetables had to fill up hard working peasants and serfs. Many traditional meals (like borscht) stretch food through the long winter; Haluski is a big pot of noodles and a head of cabbage– a way to provide lots of nourishment inexpensively. If your peasants don’t include a meat dish at their meal (and except for feast days, many won’t), make sure you mention it. It’s another shorthand that reinforces the differences an adventurer’s life brings.
Making use of it all
Many articles have been written about the power of smells in memory, in setting a scene, in making a description vivid. Mealtime is a great time to bring in those smells, to subtly mark certain characters as exotic or local, wealthy or poor. Many adventurers get beyond scraping by for food quickly, but a feast continues to impress for a long time.
Food can build conundrums into your setting and are a great chance to introduce shades of gray. Starving farmers turn to banditry, angry mobs riot in protest of bread prices, or wealthy lords eat imported delicacies while their people starve. Food related taboos and customs can add depth to a culture quickly.
Have you made food a center point of an adventure? Are your taverns and restaurants constantly filled with the aroma of slow roasting pig? Have your characters picked out a favorite baker and lurked outside his store at 6 am just to smell the fresh baking loaves? Tell us about how you’ve worked food into your games. I look forward to borrowing lots of additional tricks from this comment thread.