Coffee at night: weird customs in society

The other day, I was working a dinner shift at my restaurant day job. One of my tables was a group of immigrant folks celebrating their first anniversary living in Canada. And as I cleared their dinner plates, I asked what I always ask customers: “Would you like anything else? Coffee or tea?” These folks paused and, giving me an odd look, asked why they’d want coffee at nearly 10 PM.

 

Which is a good point. I mean, offering a stimulating, caffienated drink at nighttime? Am I trying to keep them awake all night? I winced chucklingly and said, “Uh. You’ve probably noticed that Canadians drink a lot of coffee.”

johnny_automatic_coffee_couple

If you’ve never been to northern Ontario, Canada, let me tell you that coffee is a vital part of life. In some areas of my city, “throw a rock and you’ll hit a coffee shop” isn’t an exaggeration. People walk around with big paper cups of takeout coffee at all hours of the day and night. We use terminology like double-double or four-by-four to describe how much cream and sugar a particular cup of coffee has in it. You’d think that Canada grows coffee beans but no, we definitely don’t. Importing coffee and drinking it all the time is just a habit that has taken hold in our local culture.

 

Maybe it’s an extension of how hot beverages work well as a friendly, welcoming gesture? Coffee can be easily tailored to a guest’s tastes, served boiling hot or chilled over ice; with no cream or lots of it; with no sugar or several heaping spoonfuls; with non-dairy milks or calorie-free sweeteners. Canadians have a reputation for their friendly melting-pot culture and coffee suits it well. But that’s the only real reasoning I can think of. As those new immigrant customers pointed out, sometimes the most mundane customs will defy all rational explanation.

 

It makes me think of fictional worldbuilding, and the standards we hold fantasy worlds to — or even historical stories based in our true past. It’s easy to read a book and say, “That’s a dumb custom. Why would the characters do that? Don’t they notice that it makes no sense?” It’s easy to look at a fictional custom that doesn’t make sense and accuse the author of poor worldbuilding. But I go to my day job and offer people caffeine right before their bedtime, so I’m apparently not one to talk. Societies grow in strange ways sometimes.

 

Related articles:

Teas and tisanes: What’s in a name? (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Food culture of Aligare (Part 2: Daily meals) (heidicvlach.com)

Milk consumption in fantasy worlds (heidicvlach.com)


Social attitudes toward other people’s loose hairs

Y’know what I’ve always found weird? That people get so deeply alarmed at finding a human hair in their food.

I mean, sure, it’s a sanitary problem if a restaurant’s employees are routinely shedding hair into the food. Not a sanitary problem that’s likely to kill anyone — as opposed to, say, storing food at an temperature that fosters bacterial growth — but it’s still a problem. Even though we’re living creatures who make mistakes sometimes and it’s easy enough for one stray hair to fall off someone’s head. Personally, I don’t fly off the handle and summon a manager if I find someone else’s hair. I just pick it out. I’m probably getting all kinds of human skin particles in the air I’m breathing, so why place extraordinary importance on this one human cast-off I’ve just happened to notice?

But I’m definitely in the minority in my society. I know that. Hair is thought of as beautiful and attractive when it’s attached to a human’s head, but remove the hair from its human and it instantly becomes an object of revulsion. At my restaurant workplace, we routinely get customers who discover one of their own hairs in the food and angrily complain to the management, wanting a new meal prepared. (No, seriously. Just a few days ago, a customer with long, curly red hair found a long, curly red hair in her food and lodged a complaint. None of the staff present that day had hair even remotely similar to hers.)

It’s part of first-world North American culture, I guess. We take hygiene very seriously, and many of us are privileged enough to throw food away just because one hair off a stranger’s head has touched it.

It makes me wonder how my Aligare folk would react to finding someone else’s sheddings in their food. Since 3 species of people live closely together, there’d be a wider variety of sheddings to be found.

"Waiter, there's some dragon in my soup!"

“Waiter, there’s some dragon in my soup!”

But whether Aligare folk find weasel fur, dragon feathers or betweenkind’s waxy hair, I can’t imagine they’d get in a flap about it. They don’t have germ theory, and they’re used to a much more rustic style of living than first-world humans are. Worst-case scenario, a particularly fastidious Aligare person would pick out the offending hair and the spoonful of food surrounding it. It wouldn’t be a reason to reject the food or make the cook feel badly.  More relaxed personalities would probably crack a joke while picking the hair out — particularly if they’ve found a korvi feather, since korvi do sometimes trade their own moult feathers. “Hey, friend! I’ve found something of yours! Are you paying me and letting me eat your food?”

It’s just one tiny aspect of culture. Even on Earth, different cultures have widely varying opinions on whether trace amounts of hair and saliva are something to worry about. But one thing’s for sure: I doubt germophobes read much high fantasy.

Related articles:

Forgetting about plumbing: why the worldbuilding details matter (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Conflict in reality and fiction: must we fight? (heidicvlach.com)

Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? (heidicvlach.com)


Tea and tisanes: what’s in a name?

In the Aligare world, people prepare tea. Warm, steeped beverages are very popular. They’re comforting, and that means that offering a visitor some tea is perceived as a kind gesture.

Masala Chai 039

 

From the author’s end, though? I had a lot of semantic trouble with this simple custom. You see, in our world, “tea” refers to the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. We colloquially call it “tea” when we’re drinking a cup of hot steeped plants, but that’s not always accurate. Caffeine-free “herbal tea” isn’t tea at all. If you’re drinking chamomile or peppermint or any blend that doesn’t contain tea, it’s called a tisane. (As a waitress, I struggle to bite my tongue when people ask for “normal tea” as opposed to “herbal tea”.)

 

But as much as I wanted to use accurate terminology in my Stories of Aligare, few people know the difference between tea and tisanes. If I had my non-human folk talking about drinking some tisane, I’m sure the average reader would be annoyed that I didn’t explain what this invented fictional drink is. And if I explained the difference between tea and tisanes, it would seem like an unnecessarily big deal. The difference between tea and tisane is not a plot point in Remedy or any other story. When I’m writing my human-free world and introducing new ideas to the reader, I need to be careful to pick my battles — and hot beverage terminology isn’t important enough to fight over.

 

So when aemets, korvi and ferrin make a hot drink out of steeped plant matter, it’s called “tea”. The tea plant does exist in their world, but it’s called camellia. And, actually, camellia isn’t primarily used for drinks.

 

“I’ve got some camellia,” [Rose] said.

It was Father’s, a cache of tea-plant meant to dye his clothes a rare sepia shade. He had thanked the friend who gifted it – then he told Rose, in murmured confidence, that camellia was wasted as dye when it made such a fine energizing tonic.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 8

 

The point I’m getting at is that Aligare folk drink tea, but it’s not the cup of milk, sugar and caffeine many humans think of as tea. And the Aligare world doesn’t have coffee trees. So, um. If humans were welcomed into an Aligare home, we would be welcomed warmly but we might find it hard to get up in the morning.


Food culture of Aligare (Part 2: Daily meals)

In Part 1, I talked about the eating habits of the Aligare races in their ancient history. But in the timeframe of Remedy and Ravel, what would mealtime be like?

Family meals are a valued time for Aligare folk — especially since they might define “family” as everyone they care about. Most folk have at least one hot meal a day together, sitting together by the hearth fire on a designated meal blanket. But there are also vendors selling street food and snacks —

It had turned out to be a plain stretch of town street, with milling people of all kinds, with vendors sitting behind rainbow blankets.

Yes, here, Zitan had said. The vendor to their left was selling cider; Zitan heard liquid splashing and Peregrine had mentioned something about wetting his throat, hadn’t he?

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 2

— and ultimately, Aligare folk don’t wait for a particular time to eat food or share it.

Aemetkind prefers stewed meals — finished with wholesome greens and seasoned with chutney, accompanied by pan bread. Korvikind tend more toward roasted and fried meals, cooking up items that can be carried in the hand, making hash out of the leftovers. Folk influence each other, though, and it’s not unusual for aemets to roast corn or for korvi to stew up some thornwood root.

What are these meals made of? Because of the heavy aemet influence on food production, most meals are plant-based. It only makes sense when a third of the population is very good with plants!

Grain: Corn is common, mostly dried and ground into corn flour or cornmeal. Legends say that corn grew up from the ground as a response to Maize, an aemet woman who asked plantkind for a gift of aid. Barley is used to thicken stews and make barley crackers. Wheat is present but it’s not seen as a very nutritious food, and it’s certainly not the civilization-builder it was for Western humans. In Aligare, wheat is pretty much a niche crop used by artisan bakers and brewers.

Instead of one grain being the overall favourite (like how some countries on Earth rely heavily on wheat, or rice), variety is preferred. Each village and town tends to have a majority grain, and they might trade with neighbouring communities for a different type.

Vegetables and legumes: Along with a majority grain, villages have a few preferred crops that add bulk to the diet. Usually one root (like potato, turnip or the roots of thornwood shrubs), and one green vegetable (spinach or peas). White beans are also grown, so that a handful can go into every stewpot. But major crops grown in fields don’t provide a lot of variety. So some folk work as foragers and spend their days searching out wild nuts, shoots and mushrooms. Folk of all kinds might keep a small garden of vegetables and herbs — because even if you’re a korvi or a ferrin with no plantcasting magic, growing a bit of mint and onions is manageable. This bounty is improved further by travelling merchants who carry food crops around. Aligare folk eat what we would consider a varied, healthy, organic diet.

Fruit: In the Aligare land, fruit is mostly used the way we’d expect. Much of the fruit harvest is eaten fresh. There are honeyed fruit treats, and fruit biscuits baked in small tin ovens, and stewed condiments like jam and chutney. But a notable Aligare custom is the sharing of mull.

Mull is a boiled (or, um, mulled) drink. It consists of water, fruit/berries, and sometimes herbs or spices. The end result is sort of like tea, but with more pulp and body to it. Mull is a common hospitality drink — mages in busy towns often keep a pot of mull brewing at all times, to be offered to anyone who drops by.

And there are bird cherries, which make aemets and ferrin sick. Bird-like korvi have no trouble digesting them, so korvi-majority communities might quietly make birdcherry wine or other specialty treats.

Meat: With aemets providing an abundance of vegetable foods, meat is quite optional in the Aligare diet. Pigeons are the most common livestock. They’re kept in cages, raised for their eggs and for occasional stewing birds. Wild animals like rabbits, partridge, deer and nurls (a breed of giant, herbivorous weasels) are sometimes hunted. Folk also raise horses, which aren’t thought of as primarily food animals but when one goes lame and needs to be put down, its meat doesn’t go to waste.

Because of their carnivorous origins, korvi don’t require large amounts of meat but they’re usually happy to have it. If a korvi has performed a valuable service, a big piece of roast meat would be an ideal payment. Aemets, on the other hand, are often uneasy at the thought of eating a big chunk of animal. Aemet villages that go through a lot of meat are usually feeding it to others — korvi allies, or sometimes service animals like dogs or chakdaw birds.

Since salt is a relatively expensive commodity for Aligare folk, salt-preserved meats aren’t common. It’s more typical to dry meat over the hearth fire.

Fish: The Aligare world doesn’t have any oceans or similarly huge bodies of water. Aquatic foods are usually crusteceans — little crawfish-type things that make great soup. A handful of lakes are large enough to harvest finned fish from, and towns near these lakes are renowned for their fried and stewed fish.

Eggs: Pigeons produce a steady supply of eggs, and foragers occasionally find wild bird nests. But most eggs go into baked goods and products like glue. Eating a boiled or fried egg is a very special treat for Aligare folk.

So if a human fell through a portal and landed in the Aligare world, they’d have a hard time finding a steak or a piece of wheat bread. But they could still eat a delicious meal. And the Aligare peoplekinds would be glad to share.


Food culture of Aligare (Part 1: History)

When I was designing the Aligare society, I had to involve food. Because I’m a chef-trained foodie who finds it interesting? Well, yes. But food is also an important part of life as we know it — not just on a basic survival level, but as a huge component of culture and development.

Take humans, for example. We’ve changed a lot over the eons and a lot of it is directly related to our food. First, we gathered whatever we could cram into our mouths. Hunting developed, and so did customs of who ate meat when. We learned to use fire for cooking and preservation. We refined methods like fermenting and pickling, and took up agriculture, both of which made it possible to stay in one settlement instead of wandering to find more food. Every province and region produced its own style variations of those basic food methods. Now, in our modern era, there are long-standing food cultures developed by our ancestors,  as well as a rapid new encroachment of processed convenience food brought on by technology. And all of our products and methods are trades around to places they didn’t originate from. Our food is actually kind of crazy complicated if you think about it.

The Aligare land doesn’t have as much cuisine complexity as our Earth. Mostly because it’s a relatively small region: the entire habitable land is the size of a small-ish Earth country. There isn’t wide enough distribution to cause a lot of variation in the races’ views. There simply aren’t enough aemet settlements, for example, for there to be hundreds of aemet subcultures and accompanying styles of cooking. But I still felt it was important to figure out each race’s ancestral eating habits and development.

Aemets: As pacifists with plant elemental magic, the first aemets found their food through large-scale foraging. Aemet groups would graze their way through forests, using a light touch of plantcasting to ensure that the harvested plants lived to grow more food. They eventually learned to use their plantcasting for agriculture, allowing them to settle and form towns. Now, aemets produce a wide variety of vegetable and grain crops, providing the majority of Aligare food. Foraging is still a common trade, to harvest wild-grown foods and lessen the burden on aemets’ magical skills. Most aemets aren’t strictly vegetarian, but meat is not considered a requirement for a meal.
Korvi: With their fiesty nature, sharp claws and ability to fly over distances, the first korvi were primarily carnivores. They dropped onto their prey from the sky — everything from small snakes to full-grown deer. Korvi also ate small amounts of fruit and green vegetables, developing these into condiments to season their meat. Aemets were mostly responsible for introducing grains, roots, and other carbohydrate-heavy foods to the korvi diet. Since its predatory origins, the korvi diet has changed radically. Most korvi now eat a chiefly plant-based diet, especially if they live in an aemet-majority community. Hunting large game is a niche profession, often considered brutal and frightening despite the resources it provides. But the korvi knack for boldness has found plenty of other uses, including slaughtering livestock and beekeeping.
Ferrin: Wild ferrin have changed their ways very little since ancient times. They’re omnivores, searching the forest floor as well as the treetops. Nuts, fruit, eggs and insects are preferred — especially nuts, which ferrin can easily crack with their powerful mustelid jaws. When those preferred foods aren’t available, green vegetables or carrion will do. All of it is eaten raw; other races’ cooked foods are a valuable trade commodity.

Town-dwelling ferrin adopt the eating habits of the aemets and/or korvi they live with. Because of their small size and high metabolism, they prefer snack-like foods and frequent meals. It’s customary to offer food to a ferrin guest more often than an aemet or korvi guest.

As I discussed in a previous post, none of the Aligare races have a good reason to consume other animals’ milk. There’s no cheese or butter in this society’s meals. But other than that, the cuisine in mixed-race towns has a lot in common with familiar human foods. Grain flour for breads and crackers. Fruit preserved into condiments and alcoholic beverages. Root vegetables stewed into a hearty dinner. I imagine that if our hundreds of human cultures have commonalities (like how nearly every cuisine has some sort of dumpling), surely a three-species compromise would come up with many of the same ideas we did.

Okay! I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hungry after all this talk of food! Let’s break for lunch. Next post, I’ll get into a bit more detail about how a typical Aligare character eats day-to-day.


Milk consumption in fantasy worlds

As a Canadian of 97% northern European descent, I grew up drinking cow’s milk. Lots of cow’s milk. Great big glasses of it, because everyone in my white-majority communities knew that milk was necessary for good health. Lactose intolerance was some sort of rare disability that didn’t affect anyone I knew.

At least, it seemed that way until I worked a few jobs in Asian restaurants. I spent time with coworkers of Japanese, Korean and Thai descent. Most of them loved the taste of the Western world’s dairy treats, but couldn’t eat much of them. Not without adding a chemical digestive aid, anyway. Their ancestors didn’t have a good reason continue digesting large amounts of lactose into their adult years — unlike Caucasian people from cold climates, who faced vitamin deficiences and health problems unless they drank animal milk during the winter months. Fermenting milk to make yogurt or cheese does break down some of the lactose, but doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

Milk consumption is actually kind of amazing. Human lactose tolerance has mostly come about in the last 10 000 years, which isn’t very long at all when we’re talking about evolution. In that time, milk has become a broadly integrated part of culture — as in, “the milk of human kindness” and other ideas of nurturing. Some cultures even value animal milk and use it widely, despite lactose tolerance being surprisingly uncommon in their population (India is an example of this). Again, we often take for granted that people can drink milk.

Most of the time in speculative fiction, we can make convenient assumptions about what’s going on. If a fantasy world resembles Europe and has white people in it? They probably function like white people on Earth. If we see some elves who strongly resemble the humans they live alongside? They probably function like humans in day-to-day matters like eating food, unless we’re told otherwise. But if a fantasy race or its world doesn’t closely match what we know to be true, we have to be more careful with our assumptions. I was careful not to mention dairy products anywhere in Remedy, because I didn’t want to impose that idea without good reason.

When I considered whether my world should consume animal milk, I found few pros and lots of cons. Aligare society doesn’t keep large mammals other than horses, and doesn’t have any particular herding culture. No one has adapted to a cold climate that would encourage milk consumption — heck, “cold” is a scary concept linked to apocalypse. And the korvi people, a whole third of society, are reptile-birds with no good reason to digest lactose. When it’s typical to offer a korvi food in exchange for doing some odd jobs, it’s important to make sure your everyday food products won’t make that korvi sick.

What really secured my decision? It’s the way Aligare society respects personal choice. Aemets, korvi and ferrin respect each other’s differences and the fact that every individual walks their own path. They don’t feel a human need to impose “normal” values on anyone. I think they’d be more inclined to see milk as a temporary food for infant furkind, because that’s the right choice for them at the moment. Everyone else has their own appropriate foods.

Now that I’ve written this post and thought so much on the subject, it’s a little weird to open my fridge and see a big carton of cow milk in there. Oh, right. White human who grew up thinking this stuff was vitally necessary. But I really think this highlights why it’s important for speculative fiction to question what’s normal and why we’ve declared that “normal”. If a culture puts cheese on their dinner table, it can mean a lot more than you’d think.