The Seven Meals:
Sodish Food Ways
Saturday, May 13, 2017
Traditionally, there are three meals in the contemporary American day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I won't go into it too much here, but we have some pretty firmly-established cultural attitudes on what those three meals are supposed to entail. Most notably, breakfast meals are typically chosen from an alternative and much smaller category of possible foods; lunch meals are typically built around convenience and lightness; and dinner meals are typically large and elaborate and involve the greatest amount of planning, cooking time, and formality.
When it comes to the three meals there are a number of society-level variations, like the widely recognized brunch and midnight snack (or, as Taco Bell calls it, "Fourthmeal"), but the real variation happens at the individual level, where, both in general and on any particular day, a given person could eat anywhere from zero meals to more than ten. Mostly, the variations have to do with available time and money, appetite, and weight-control goals. Yet in the back of our minds there is always the default: three. There are three meals in the day, and anything else is merely a departure from this unassailable baseline.
Except, that's not true. Humans evolved from a world of few guarantees, and there's no part of our evolutionary heritage that says how many meals a day is optimal. It's simply too abstract a proposition, too rigid, and there's too much individual and circumstantial variation.
So let's talk about variation.
It's hard (though certainly possible) to go down from three meals, simply because the human appetite generally requires gratification more than once or twice a day (though this problem goes away if you declare that your fantasy species has suitably different metabolic needs), but it's quite feasible to go up to four or more meals—and herein lies an incredible worldbuilding opportunity.
In 2008 I was briefly the lead writer for an MMORPG startup. The project didn't go anywhere, but while it lasted I created a fair amount of lore. The world was a cold one, and wet—meaning lots of snow. The generally humanlike people who lived there had evolved accordingly fatter bodies, to reduce their surface area to volume ratio, reduce metabolism, and provide added thermal insulation against the cold. On top of this slightly different biological model was a very difficult cultural when it came to the daily division of meals: The norm, instead of three, was seven.
I found it fascinating to challenge the default—and, specifically, I was intrigued by the conceptual departure: There are three words burned into our heads: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We take them completely for granted. How many fantasy and sci-fi stories have you seen where the storyteller unthinkingly affirms those words, and thereby unwittingly consigns their fictional societies to a remarkable cultural sameness with our own? In contrast, a world where seven meals is the default is going to have some pretty impressively different attitudes about specific meals, and eating in general.
When the MMO failed I retained the rights to the lore I had created, and vowed to fold as much of it as possible into The Curious Tale, including the concept of the seven meals. The problem I ran into is that I had done such a good job of creating a highly specific cultural tapestry that I had a hard time finding a suitable society on Relance to graft a lot of this stuff onto. Where in Relance would they eat seven meals in a day?
(To be clear, these seven meals are not one-to-one in quantity as our own three, so, as you would expect, the seven meals of these snowbound peoples were generally smaller than our three meals here in the real world. The time inefficiencies of making a larger number of smaller meals were compensated for by the high population densities—these snow peoples lived together in large groups in small spaces—and therefore it was feasible for a small number of them to specialize in preparing food all day long, just as restaurateurs do here on Earth.)
Seven meals a day isn't possible in the societies that are highly agricultural. Given how spread out people are, it's much too wasteful to make time for seven meals. That leaves the hunter/trapper/fisher/fowler societies, the urban societies, and the enlightened societies.
I eventually realized that the peoples of the Sodaplains are well-suited to having a higher number of meals in their day—both the nomadic tribes of the Sodaplains, and the denizens of the commercial metropolis of Soda Fountain. Soda Fountain's culture descended from the Panathar Empire, and I had wanted to fit the seven meal paradigm into the Empire anyway, so I figured this made for a natural through line. And that was the nucleus of it.
This idea received many tweaks over the years. For one thing, any Relancii society is open to the possibility of variations in its traditional division of meals. In general, I assigned more meals per day to societies with higher population densities, technological sophistication, and cultural enlightenment.
In the end, only Soda Fountain itself retained the original seven formally-identified meals, because only Soda Fountain had exactly the right combination of cultural and physical variables to make seven meals feasibly the dominant archetype. (Seven, it turns out, is a lot.) Moreover, the peasants of Soda Fountain, being peasants, place less emphasis on formality in such matters, so, really, the practice in its purest form is limited to the upper classes of the city. And even then there is some variation on account of foreign cultural influences and attitudes toward tradition, as many in the Sodish upper classes are foreign-born or brightly irreverent, respectively. And then there's the matter of individual variation, which is as diverse as here on Earth, meaning that what I'm about to share with you is only a cultural default, and by no means a description of all meals all the time for everybody.
Nonetheless, with the caveats safely behind us I think it will be interesting for you to read about the names and customs of these meals. Today I'll introduce the first meal, and next week I'll introduce the remaining six.
Lastly, a word on naming conventions: I try to minimize non-English vocabulary in The Curious Tale, given that I regard these works as "translated into English from the original tongues of Relance." When I give you Relancii words, I'm failing in that duty of translation, so I try to save it for special occasions. Yet, by creating meal names for one culture, I also create the daunting prospect of having to develop meal names for Relancii cultures worldwide. I haven't made a final commitment on that, so it's possible that some of these naming conventions will change in the future to English terms.
Aleo – The First Meal
Aleo is a hot meal. For those who do not have a hot bath in the mornings, the aleo is a cherished source of warmth and comfort, especially in the colder season. Aleo is almost universal in Sodish society: Even those who on sandships or completely out of the Sodaplains will partake if possible. Many affluent Sodish families have causal dining lounges—not so different from a breakfast nook—specifically for aleo (though sometimes also used for flame, one of the other seven meals), and the richest families sometimes have two such lounges—one that is strictly enclosed for the harsh cold of winter mornings, and one open to the outdoors, suitable for the rest of the year.
Aleo is taken within an hour of waking (though of course there are exceptions; some people perform morning chores first). Those who develop an appetite in this time will eat at aleo; others will merely drink. In many homes it begins with a ceremonial (but practical) cleansing of the mouth, and the customary prayers. Soda Fountain is quite a secular society by Relancii standards, so these prayers tend to be less about piety and more about gratitude or utility.
For the beverages, sweet drinks like fruit juice, fruit creams, and honey milk are frequently imbibed. These are traditionally served hot. Cold water is also served. For the food, a typical aleo might feature crushed or candied nuts and melted cheese served on toast, alongside roasted jor or hesbreene and steamed leafy greens—greens being a delicacy for a nation with few arable fields! The meat is slow-cooked, having traditionally been wrapped and placed by the fire the night before. The candied nuts are also made ahead of time, usually in batches to last many days. (Likewise, of course, things like cheese and cured meats.) Everything else can be prepared on the spot. The food may be more primitive when cooking facilities and eateries are not available, but the point is to have something hot to eat, a sweet drink and a savory food.
Because the meal is so rich, relatively little food is actually consumed, generally. The point is not to glut the belly but to assuage any nocturnal hunger and supply the body with energy to begin the day, in a comfortable and easy setting. This is said to prepare the mind for the tasks ahead.
Aleo is a social meal, but intimate: It is considered one of the "private" meals, meaning that one so able will customarily take aleo in their own home. Indoor clothes are worn, and the only dining mates will consist of others already present in the house. The meal is highly conversational in spirit: After the customary prayers, personal conversation usually dominates, including discussions of the day's agenda, the recounting of dreams, reflections upon intellectual or emotional preoccupations or elations, and other recreational chitchat.
There are two noteworthy subcultures in Soda Fountain who subvert the aleo to reflect a set of altered values: A society of ascetics who call themselves the folden consider it fashionable to eschew aleo in favor of tea, and speedily commencing the day's labors. Conversely, by way of foreign influence from societies in the southeastern Sodaplains, those who wish to gain weight (usually for beautification purposes) typically eat heavily at aleo, and in that context aleo is considered one of the three "glutton's meals."
In the languages of Soda Fountain, aleo is the word for the evaporation of darkness (i.e., the process of morning twilight proceeding from gloaming to sunrise; our closest word for describing twilight as an active process is daybreak). For much of the year, it is typical (though not universal) in Soda Fountain to wake up very early, while it is still dark, so as to take advantage of the milder temperatures around dawn, and so aleo is often eaten during the early twilight murk.
Aleo rishpetl is a supplement or variant to aleo. The key distinction is that it is considered an "out" meal (rather than a "private" one), meaning that one has dressed for the day and will be prepared for "out and about" social encounters. Indeed, aleo rishpetl typically is taken out of the home, at restaurants, siphouses, or street carts. It can be either a hot or cold meal. Some people take both aleo and aleo rishpetl, consecutively, as a meal with two parts, with the metaphorical value of making one's daily debut from slumber and privacy to the social sphere. This is particularly popular on days of rest and holidays, where people will dine together at home, then go out and dine further.
More often, however, aleo rishpetl is for those who have to get to the day's labors right away and don't have time for the leisure of aleo at home. This is especially common in the peak of summer, when the day's heat becomes oppressive soon after sunrise. As you can imagine, aleo rishpetl is sometimes taken at home in these circumstances, with a bite of bread of whatever else, but generally people eat out.
Aleo rishpetl is one of the most fluid meals of the day in terms of what is traditionally eaten. As befits a meal of such pragmatism, typically one will eat whatever they want: cold or hot, sweet or savory, much or little. On the whole the fare tends to be less rich than aleo, with carbohydrates being more prominent and fats and spices less so, and the quantities of food tend to be greater and more filling.
Rishpetl means "[balancing] on the arm," a reference to carrying vats or baskets. The most meaningful English interpretive translation would be "on the go."
Tune in Next Week
There's your appetizer. Next week comes the main course, with the remaining six meals. Until then, may you too find new meal experiences outside of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!