Worldbuilding: Growing Cultures

Unless you’re dealing with a Star Trek-ish future where people can use replicators to construct food out of stray atoms, your society has to feed itself. This is going to have effects on your characters, your world, and what conflicts might show up in the plot.

For most of history, acquiring food has occupied the vast majority of the population. Hunting and gathering, herding, fishing, agriculture – to this day, a lot of people on the planet are busy with all of these. In a modern society you might just run into hiccups in the food supply; less wheat one year, more strawberries the next. Go back a century or more and things get tighter. Especially in areas with locusts. A common pattern in locust-prone areas is a year or two of drought wrecking crops, and then when rain finally comes… locust outbreak. Ow.

Go forward a century or so, and food might be tight again, depending on exactly when and where you are. Space colonies and spaceships won’t have the resources of a whole planet. A settlement on Mars won’t have all the living things of Earth; everything down to the settlers’ atmosphere will have to be cracked out of local rocks and carefully prevented from escaping. It can be done, especially if you brought hydrogen along to combine with electricity and carbon dioxide and make available water, but it’s going to take time and work. You can grow some food hydroponically, but for some food plants you’ll have to make soil that microbes can colonize. And fishing is going to be… interesting. Of the, “First we need to build the waterproof tank” variety.

Any stable culture depends on people knowing that if they do X, Y, and Z, they will most likely be able to feed themselves. What they do can differ; nomad survival strategies lean toward “move and fight for new pasture” while agriculturalists are “stay put and try more”, and fishermen often see if they can sail farther, or develop new lines and nets. But they know How Things Are Done that usually works. Usually.

…And then too often you get layers of bureaucrats who are convinced that it can’t be that hard, after all, it’s “just” working with your hands, anyone can do that….

(For the record, no. Not anyone can. It takes a lot of knowhow and hard work to pull off most food-creating. Just ask anyone who’s tried to feed themselves from a backyard garden. With something besides zucchini.)

Have an idea what your world’s cultures eat, where, and where they get their exotic imports from. There are entire books written on the differences between wheat-growing and rice-growing cultural areas, for example. Wheat can be grown by a lone farmer but rice generally takes organized groups for irrigation – and the irrigation creates perfect conditions for malarial mosquitoes. Which further affects what people do, wear, and how many mothers and children survive birth. Good arguments can be made that Oliver Cromwell being as hard-headed and sometimes vicious as he was handling Ireland can be directly traced back to growing up in the fens of England – an area so prone to malaria and lethal with it that farmers were infamous for going up to the highlands for one wife after another as they died trying to bear children. Seven or more wives in as many years was not unheard of. Imagine growing up in a culture where the men shrug, bury the last wife, and go buy another one….

Ahem. And this is why anti-malarials are A Good Thing.

Know how your characters’ society is getting their food. It makes a difference!


39 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Growing Cultures

  1. It could also be a good idea to know what happens if catastrophe hits an area. Strasbourg in France was hit with decades of droughts and early frost, (I think the time frame was the Little Ice Age but I could be wrong), not to forget the brief reunion tour of the Bubonic Plague, which resulted in a rather, ah, call it *interesting* response.

    And if your world doesn’t have the understanding of what causes problems, well, people will always be quick to point fingers at each other.

    Especially of the “Everything was fine until that family moved in” variety.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. peaces tend to necessarily rely on some assumptions about causes of problems, and of methods to resolve disputes

      one approach is simply disbelieving that random neighbors are necessarily the magical cause of whatever problem

      another approach is trusting the magistrates of whoever to somehow have the magical power to sort things out

      neighboring populations whose cultures have wildly distinct views, ideas, or theories about all this stuff can potentially have a lot of issues with peace

      presuming that their values even let them have internal peace in the first place

      Liked by 2 people

    1. The thing about corn as a staple, you need to be able to release the niacin in it or you get things like pellagra. The Native Americans used to soak it in water with a specific rock (that turned out to be a relative of limestone, these days you can just use slake lime) to soften it. It has the benefit of also releasing the niacin in corn making it bioavailable to humans. When the South started making corn a staple of the poor man’s diet, they didn’t throw in the lime, so we get the lovely yet now forgotten disease of pellagra.

      Lovely little thing, caused butterfly shaped rashes and insanity. But if you got the afflicted niacin, it would clear up. Nowadays everything is enriched with niacin, due to the fear and turmoil of all of that. I do feel terrible for the scientist who figured it out though. He told people it was a nutritional deficit of some sort, but no one believed him. They’d just figured out germ theory and didn’t want to hear about something else they didn’t know. They finally cracked it about two to five years after he died, still insisting that pellagra was a nutritional deficit even after decades of disbelief and humiliation.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I already knew about that. I have watched videos about that. And, it was only the poor man’s diet, and we only had that problem because when the guy brought it back, he didn’t have all the information needed to make corn, maze safe to eat.

        I have every intention of including the safe way to prepare it the first time it’s mentioned.

        …Sorry if I sound miffed. I have been watching Tasting History, so I already knew about that problem.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. It’s alright! I’ve been looking into what I’m going to be putting in the garden myself this year, and I’m in the midst of persuading my housemates that corn would be a worthwhile addition, so defense of it is high on my mind. Also, it’s one of the few facts that I took with my from the three tries it took me to pass Human Nutrition. (In my defense, I was taking another heavy course and working full time when I did the first two.)

        Liked by 4 people

      3. Oh, I know! It’s all very interesting! I love History. I watch Tasting/Drinking History for the history bites more than the recipes.

        His Escargo video made me a bit ill, because Eww, snails. But the history behind it was really interesting!

        Liked by 2 people

      4. The Japanese Navy had major problems with beriberi because they provided sailors with all the rice they could eat, free.

        They also proved its cause by duplicating a fatal voyage only with a more varied diet.

        During WWII, their army had major issues with beriberi. Ah, interservice rivalries.

        Liked by 3 people

      5. There are many types of corn that are pretty. Glass Gem and Japanese Striped are the prettiest, but Oaxacan Green is a lovely mottled emerald green, and Hopi Blue is a deep indigo. Bloody Butcher is a feed and flour corn that is deep rusty red. Montana Cudu is a Native American variety that is white with black spots on the top of each kernel. A relatively new variety developed
        from heritage Native American stock is called Painted Mountain which is a wide variety of reds, oranges, and yellows. Mexican Black is interesting because despite its dark color its actually a sweet corn variety unlike the others which are flour or meal corn. Of course, even flour corn varieties can be eaten fresh if they’re picked before full maturity.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Remember that you can’t import food before steam except by water. Everything else uses food to transport food, meaning it will literally eat up the cargo.

    Spices manage because they are trivial amounts per dish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I may have a different interpretation of importing than the one you’re using, but food and other goods went all over the world before steam, not just to places reachable by boats.

      The Romans imported/exported foodstuffs all over their territories; not just spices. Garum and wine were heavy, but vital to most of the empire.
      The Sumerian city states exported textiles (and stole them) on a massive level; ships were not required.

      The cool thing about donkeys, horses, oxen, camels, elephants and llamas is you can find most of their fodder as you travel. And some of your own, if you know what to look for.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. What is thought of as “human food” is almost never the same as what is thought of “animal food” for this exact reason. Eating meat is a way to turn food that isn’t (considered) very good for humans into something very good for humans (and a whole lot else).

        The difference between “human food” and “animal food” can also have effects on what kind of food is made in different cultures. In the Americas, *corn* is considered “human food” and we use it nearly anywhere we can. In Europe, corn is considered “animal food” much more often and it almost never shows up in European cultural food.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Yeah, there is discussion about alleged inefficiency of animals/meat.

        The thing it overlooks, is that animals can be fed on stuff that humans might be unwilling to touch, and that wide range of stuff can be grown on soils and in climates that are not optimal for whatever the preferred grain is.

        Meat is a means for less monoculture, and hence various sorts of hedge against risks.

        Forex, bitter vetch, etc.

        Logistics of plants that humans eat directly has to deal with people living all over the place, and hence can have fairly significant switching costs and delays.

        But, you can put animals where you can feed them, and maybe also have lower costs if the soybean fails but you have a lot of bitter vetch. (of course, this assumes a semi-modern transport network, and various other modern trappings.)

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Also, not everybody has to run caravans or long haul semi trucks. Normally what happens is that the farmers grow stuff, and various transporters bring it part of the way and then offload to somebody else. And then the original transport brings stuff back from the other town. A carter or wagoneer might have all kinds of goods and passengers on his trips. Same thing with stagecoaches.

        On that note, apparently the northeastern US has a lot of areas with a settlement pattern of every main highway having had a tavern every hour’s journey, and a large town every day’s journey.

        The taverns were also places where you could stop if weather got bad, or get maintenance help for horses, wagons, human feet, etc.


  3. The part about the Fens and the procession of wives explains a great about them emotionally as well. If you view your wife as property (disposable property at that) it’s easier to excuse how you treat them. If you aren’t emotionally attached to something, it hurts less when you lose it.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. A lot of food for thoughts. Thank you, Vathara.

    I second the amount of know-how necessary – there is a steep learning curve in gardening, and worse in farming at scale. Worse, every new kind of plant you try to grow means you need to learn about this plant, either hands-on through trial and error or from other gardeners.

    I managed to grow potatoes on my balcony one year. Pretty decent crop, especially when one considers the constrained space. The next year it did not work, and i do not know why.
    Carrots are astonishingly forgiving in regards to temperature and amounts of sunlight but absolutely have to be harvested before the first frost… etc.

    One thing i learned from history and would like to see in fantasy and science fiction is the concept of the citizen-farmer (Bürgerbauer). In the early modern era in the germanies, a lot of inhabitants of town and cities (Bürger=citizens) grew most, but not all, of their own food (Bauer=farmer) In Weimar, capital of the princedom of Saxe-Weimar it was the majority of the inhabitants, including skilled craftsmen. They had large gardenplots, orchards, kept chicken and pigs in their backyards, and bought everything they could not grow themself from the money they earned from their craft. Since the households consisted of extended families, there was enough manpower for this to work.

    In science fiction this could be adapted as people who work mentally draining task (directing traffic at a spaceport, for example) working half-days and spending the other half in their personal greenhouse/hydroponic unit/large garden. Which half would depent on their personal circadian rythm, for optimal job performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carrots are astonishingly forgiving in regards to temperature and amounts of sunlight but absolutely have to be harvested before the first frost… etc.

      I am fascinated because I don’t think those are things I have ever read about carrots before. I have read that they get bitter with heat but survive and sweeten with a few frosts.

      I kind of wonder if this is like how tomatoes get described as loving sun and heat, but then it turns out a bunch of them can’t set fruit if you’re hitting highs above 90F or whatever. Some cultivar/location combos just do not behave the same.


  5. Your ability to preserve food for transport or storage also affects things greatly. This is why Chicago had such huge stockyards, meat had to be kept fresh on the hoof, and Chicago was a major railroad nexus so sheep and cattle from west of there would ride to Chicago, be slaughtered, and then sent east. First for Union troops when this really got going, then the large eastern US cities after the Civil War.

    Pork and beans were a staple because both could be preserved for long term storage when you lack any refrigeration.

    Speaking of pork, pigs are not native to the New World. They are an invasive species transported by the Spanish. Some escaped, others were deliberately released into the wild so later expansion and expeditions could collect their descendants up for meat.

    A bit like some Martian expedition plans, where you send supplies on ahead of the actual mission.

    Speaking of Mars and farming? The Martian shows exactly how you make soil, because about half of it is organic compounds. OTOH as the movie shows? With the right set up colonists can eventually produce that on site with their initial stores of food…

    Liked by 1 person

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