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Historical Food and Holidays

Posted By Scott Martin On May 5, 2010 @ 7:25 am In Tools for GMs | 9 Comments

Our self image as a people of leisure is a little skewed. The industrial revolution was notorious for twelve hour days, six days a week, of tireless, dangerous, back breaking labor. So it makes sense that we’ve finally transcended that– we have the 40 hour week and most people are scheduled for two days off a week. That’s more than ever before, right?

Not really, it turns out. I was recently reading with the history channel on in the background when a show came on that sucked me in. Let’s look at foods and holidays that you can borrow for your game.

Medieval

Medieval Feast The show’s representative medieval village got every Sunday off plus 60 holy days a year. That seems pretty comparable to many modern American’s Saturday, Sunday and 8 holidays per year. They varied– many celebrations were local to lands around a specific cathedral or monastery, while the largest festivals were constant across all of Christendom, which made for common experiences throughout Europe.

What you ate varied throughout the year, based on what was harvested and still available. Much of the peasant diet was based on filling grains, like barley– often in the form of beer (for calories and because the water was untreated) and pottage. Peas and beans were the primary source of protein for peasants– they didn’t have access to a lot of meat. Most peasant dinners were pottage: berries, nuts, grains, and various veggies stewed together. If you were lucky, you might have some salted meat or bacon to add, but it was rarely available to poorer peasants. The miller’s services were expensive, so bread was often skimped on.

Wealthy merchants and nobles had access to better breads (made with wheat) and meat was much more common at their tables. Spices were rare, particularly before the crusades brought them to more people’s attention. For your game, spices can make a light– and consumable– type of wealth. Instead of packing heavy gold coin, consider hauling packets of pepper between towns!

If you’re particularly ambitious, you can borrow recipes from reenactment sites (like the SCA, or your local Renaissance Faire site) and cook up a period feast for the players in your group.

Roman

Honestly, Roman foods sound tastier to me than most medieval foods, despite being further away in time. Aurlaea’s article about ten foods by ancient civilizations mentions the roman breakfast. Their breakfast consisting of porridge, dates, honey, and pancakes is one I’d love to eat today. History for kids has links to localized food pages, illustrating differences based on income and location. Roman Feast

Wikipedia’s Roman festival page has a great listing. Notice how many week long (and longer) festivals of games there were, in addition to the over 40 individual holidays. Historians point out that it was only the rich in the city who got to celebrate them all– but in the countryside many of the days involved at least a feast, even if you had to work instead of getting the day off. Many of the holidays were local: if no one in town worshiped a god, there wouldn’t be a place hosting a feast.

The other thing to keep an eye on is the accumulation of holidays over time, which means more and more holidays were on the books the later into the empire you go. There were far fewer holidays early in the republic, before conquest added new gods to the pantheon and Emperors needing their names glorified hadn’t begun twisting the calendar.

Other Cultures

Spring RollsAnother easy way to borrow is across space, rather than across time. Travel shows are great at showing different takes on foods, though a trip to strip malls around town can be just as eye opening. You can do a lot of different things with the same ingredients: Asian noodles often look quite different from Italian pastas, despite the common ingredients. Once you add the different toppings: chicken in a curry broth, spaghetti sauce, or finely chopped duck, no one would ever recognize the common platform.

If you’re looking to really vary dishes, watch something like bizarre foods. Freshly fried dung beetle, fermented fish, cooked rats, or a cow eaten warm during the butchering can give your culture a very exotic feeling. Poor fare like cooked rats might be a sign of poverty, a holdover from a time of famine, or just a cultural quirk like lutefisk.

Adaptation

Unless you’re playing in the historical world, you’ll probably have to adapt the diets to match your world. While in our world, tomatoes and potatoes came late to the diet (because they were from the new world), your world may have a very different distribution of foods– or you might be playing in the new world.

Technological change is common in games: the introduction of gunpowder, a new type of armor, the dispersion of wind mills and water wheels, or even a new enchantment can change the game dramatically. Introducing a new food or spice can change the feel of an area too, and while it could lead to dramatic changes (witness the widespread adoption of potatoes in Ireland), it won’t affect the numbers in the system. Introducing a new food, or finding a shorter (if more dangerous) route to the valuable spices, can be ways to incorporate food into your adventure planning.

You know the advice to incorporate more senses into your game? Remembering to describe the roar of a troll and the buzzard’s eye view of the battlefield are easy ways to add more sensory input– but smell and taste are often harder to incorporate. (There are only so many piss stained alleys characters can head down before it becomes repetitious.) Remember meals and festivals, and you have a feast for all of the senses.

Research is fun and easy: kids sites can give you a quick overview, as can wikipedia and google searches.

Two late additions: How foolish was it to miss the fact that today is Cinco de Mayo? Cinco de Mayo has its own rapidly growing traditions– today’s paper called it A Cousin of St. Patrick’s Day. Parades and tasty food– very much a modern festival. Hit your local celebration and call it research!

Second: Please chime in. What was the last festival you used in your game? Has food played an interesting part in your games? How do you work it in for your group?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Historical Food and Holidays"

#1 Comment By BryanB On May 5, 2010 @ 10:27 am

These sorts of things are great for adding depth to a roleplaying setting. Grain was the staple for most of Europe. It was used to make gruel, bread, and beer. As you mentioned, beer was the most common beverage for the peasantry as most water supplies were not clean enough to drink safely.

Another factor that one can use in their RPG settings is famine. Famine could be so deadly to European peasant populations. The nobility had much better access to meat, fruit, vegetables, and milk/cheese. The nobles also had wine. Peasants saw meat at festivals, when a noble or the church had something prepared for the masses.

Peasants were much more dependent on having successful grain crops than nobles were. In famines, it was not uncommon for nobles to be short just on bread, while the peasantry was all but starved for lack of bread and everything else made with the grain.

Of course this led to a revitalized concept of bulk grain storage (Ancient Egypt & China did this). People could thus store grain when harvests were plentiful. Ironically, grain storage places are very attractive to rats. And rat infestation brings about a whole host of other issues including dreaded diseases. So while grain storage reduces the probabilities of starvation, it does increase likelihood of having the presence of vermin such as rats and mice.

#2 Comment By happyturtle On May 5, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

Try this at your next game: Take up a collection and send someone to the grocery store (or go as a group) and hit up the deli and bakery for ‘adventurer food’ – stuff you can imagine your D&D characters eating. A roasted chicken, cheeses, sausages, fresh bread, fruit cobbler… sure, it’s a lot richer fare than most medieval peasants would ever have, but then most medieval peasants weren’t demon slaying badasses with purses full of gold. It might be a bit more expensive than splitting a pizza, but oh so worth it.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On May 5, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

The two major innovations that have revolutionized what we eat and when we eat it to my mind are transport infrastructure improvements that mean stuff can get from a warm place to a cold place quite quickly and moreover reliably, and the much-maligned technologies that enable us to grow hardy crops, prevent the freeloading bugs from getting the lot before we can harvest and keep the stuff in a controlled climate during transport.

Many Americans take the wide availability of food for granted these days, but I was brought up fifty years ago in England where even in the 70s Strawberries at Xmas were a fantasy rather than a bit more expensive than they are in the summer and oranges were expensive ‘cos they came from Israel and every stage of that trip was expensive. The wide variation in the domestic climate and huge tracts of arable land (I’ll pause while you lot go into your MP&THG routines) mean cheap and plentiful food just about year round.

Which is why, although I don’t much like them for their own sake, I get particular enjoyment from scarfing strawberries on Christmas day.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On May 5, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

@happyturtle – Bah. everyone knows bronze/iron age adventurers ate Nachos, Skittles and Girl Scout Cookies washed down with pints of foaming Coke, Seven Up and Mountain Dew while on the road.

I’ll allow that a Slim Jim is authentic trail food and counts as “iron rations”.

#5 Comment By Lavachild On May 5, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

I’ve done 2 festivals in the last year of my campaign. The first was an early spring festival “Vunestag”, celebrating the end of winter. As such, I gave the festival a strawberry theme in that peasants were cooking strawberry cakes and drinking powerful strawberry wine. It also had a religious element in it as well. I think my players enjoyed the seasonal food elements in the festival. Also, take time to look up the lavish presentations of the medieval feast: pies with living birds, castle centerpieces, and whole roast large animals make an impression.

#6 Comment By Hawkesong On May 6, 2010 @ 10:41 am

In my current game (medieval but urban based), I have four major festivals per year. We haven’t done much with the feasting side of them (especially not when Midwinter Feast in-game fell nearer to August in real time). But I have plans already in place for times when it might be appropriate to feast.
Midsummer Festival involves a good bit of beer and cider (I have players who don’t care for alcohol, so I always have alternatives to beer or liquor), as well as “fiery” foods. The “theme” for the food is more or less red and/or spicy. For Midwinter, it’s much more like the medieval Christmas feast might have been; we draw the line at goose and fruitcake though. If I decide to make a turkey dinner for the whole group, no one objects!
The festival in autumn is more like Day of the Dead, so for that I may get some sugar skulls and other similar items. I’m still doing a good bit of research on that one, since I’m not familiar with it or with the old feast of All Souls’ Day. I plan to blend the two festivals. We’ll see what comes of it!
The Spring festival is the best one, and the only one that we actually did a small feast for: for that one, we used spring vegetables and eggs. It was perhaps a little odd to have deviled eggs and cabbage and stir fry at one meal. But it was tasty!

I’ve considered doing some “feast table” type layouts. Whole roasted anything would look pretty nice – but the issue there is having to cook the blamed thing. Plus, unless your group is really huge, anything larger than a roast duck or hen is going to be way more food than they can put away. If you’re going to cook something big (like a turkey) then be prepared for leftovers, is all I’m saying.

Although the idea of finding some way to craft a fake, roasted swan redressed in its plumage, with lots of fake fruit placed around it, is a reallllly nice thought.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On May 6, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

@BryanB – I didn’t realize that grain storage had fallen with Rome; it sounds like that puts another spin on the black plague. Prosperity enough to stash grain is prosperity enough to lure diseased flea bearing rats…

@happyturtle – Great idea!

@Roxysteve – I’ve been surrounded by plenty for so long that it still surprises me how much produce is shipped in. IT’s particularly surprising, because I’m in the state that ships fresh fruits and veggies to the rest of the nation.

@Lavachild – That sounds like a great feast– and strawberries in springtime sounds memorable.

You’re right about those medieval feasts: if you thought Turducken was a bold move, you should see the meat stuffed in meat at some of those feasts.

@Hawkesong – That sounds wonderful… I know what session I’m showing up to, fork in hand. ;)

#8 Comment By BryanB On May 6, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

@Scott Martin – To be clear, I’m talking about mass storage. Some cities or towns in Europe may have had some storage, but nothing like that of Rome, Egypt, or China.

Constantinople on the other hand did have massive grain storage, which was a contributing factor in the spread of the black death that consumed much of the Eastern Empire’s population after Rome had fallen around 475 AD. So the Byzantines carried on the storage methods, ironically to their detriment.

It is almost one of those damned if you do and damned if you don’t predicaments. Store the grain so you won’t starve during famine. When there isn’t famine, the grain storage is high and thus rats more plentiful. Of course no one knew the plague would be brought in by the rats.

What they needed was a lot more cats. :)

#9 Comment By Gamerprinter On May 7, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

While many spices came from the orient, Japan’s traditional fairly bland seafood and rice diets was even more so back in their feudal period. Spices are generally cultivated in warm/hotter climates where meat spoils fast, so spices are added to dishes to hide the rotting taste meat tended to have. Japan being a more temperate climate really didn’t use much spices at all.

In fact, one method of sabotage against the government or other powers in control was taking pepper and dumping it into rice grain stores. To the Japanese, this meant you just poisoned their primary food supply.

Also regarding BryonB’s post just above this one, when bumper crops of rice were around, rats were more prevalent around the grain stores. Thus in Japan, rats are a symbol of wealth. If you’ve got rats in your grain stores, that means there’s plenty of rice. And since Japan was a rice-based economy. Having rats invading your stores, meant you were rich!

GP


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