In this episode I meet the real Stein Cat, I get to see outside, and learn how food can be useful in understanding Dunari.
In the Context section I explain how I was taught to understand the geography of another world by studying food.
The Strange but True segment tells the origin story of Shell Valley Bread.
How everyday items in another world can lead you to better understanding that world.
Creating a realistic province.
Each show will be summarized in letter form. These are the letters I would have written from Dunari to my family and friends if I’d been able to do so at the time.
Reading time: 8 minutes.
I’ve decided to get up at 07:45 every morning. And not because I’m afraid of the bed. It’s just that it might be better to make friends with it, instead of peeing it off.
It’s not fear. It’s strategy.
The real Stein Cat arrived this morning. I knew it was the real one when she marched into my room because her big, wide claws clattered on the floor, and her eyes gleamed like emeralds.
Standing upright, she was dressed in a leather waistcoat, a flat leather cap, had a gold chain around her neck, and a bandolier slung around her waist.
It reminded me of Chewbacca’s bandolier.
This was a creature I certainly wasn’t going to call, ‘Puss.’
She stared at me, crinkled her nose, and said, ‘When was the last time you washed?’
Now, if a kid at school would have challenged me like that, they’d have got a punch on the nose. But Stein Cat’s paws were just too big to even think about punching her.
It was better to make friends with her, too,. But I couldn’t let her talk to me like that. So, I crinkled my nose, and said, ‘When was the last time YOU washed?’
I’m happy to report that the cat’s nose did twitch.
Abruptly, she started telling me how her mother killed after she was born. And when she was reborn, her mother dumped her into a nest of rats. During this story, the ghost of a kitten appeared from one of the belt pouches.
Ghost Number One, I assumed.
Of course, I only heard part of the story. When I asked questions, Stein Cat said she’d no time for tales, and led me off to the kitchen.
It quickly became apparent that Stein Cat and Shinytop disliked each other. Neither spoke to the other. As we made our way along the corridors, both of them tried to tell me the same things, while constantly interrupting each other. Their only direct communication involved the cat growling and the stick making a terrifying creaking, like it was about to split and shower splinters everywhere.
As expected, the kitchen was downright weird. Most of it was hidden behind a wall of dark mist. One wall in the visible part resembled a mini cliff-face. Water emerged from a spout at the top of this rocky wall and flowed down through a series of sinks cut into the rock.
One sink was packed with dishes. It reminded me of our kitchen sink at home after Sunday dinner.
A kitchen sink that I always had to clean.
I just knew I’d have to clean Ganhook’s sink, too.
Bunches of yellow, red, and green vegetables sat alongside a jar of liquid on a bench. Beyond it, the ‘oven’ consisted of a block of stone. Four circular metal grilles sat on the stone. Beneath each was a little, black fire pit. Six metal doors filled the face of the block.
The mist annoyed me. Once again, things were being hidden from me. When I confronted the others about this, Stein Cat said the mist was there to keep the remainder of the kitchen fresh. She encouraged me to take a look.
I pushed my way through the mist into the main kitchen.
And while all the cupboards, doors, and hanging food and tools, were interesting, what really grabbed my attention were the windows.
Very, very, very clear windows!
Visions of my great escape flooded my mind.
I looked out onto a courtyard surrounded by a wall of very tall bones crammed together like a stockade. My heart sank. I’d have climbed Mount Doom quicker because a serrated, pointy fang topped each of the bones.
Stone buildings sat in the shadow of the wall. And a waist high dome sat in the centre of the courtyard. Surrounded by orderly gardens and paths, it was bleached yellow, like the crown of a skull.
Only, it must have been ten metres long.
When I returned to the others, I learned the real and shocking reason why we’d visited the kitchen.
Surprise. Surprise. It wasn’t to get more Shell Valley bread.
Shinytop told me I would need to start school.
As the pair of them outlined the plan, they outshouted and interrupted each other so much it was amazing I learned anything.
The gist of it was: To fit into school, I would assume the identity of an orphan farm boy from a distant, agricultural province called Brogant. So, I needed to know everything about Brogant.
Especially Brogant food, because the place was famous for it.
To begin my education, I’d learn to cook a Brogant boil pot using those colourful vegetables. When I asked about the liquid in the jar, Shinytop told me it was an antidote in case any of the foodstuffs poisoned me.
I didn’t care. Hunger enabled my stomach brain to hijack my rational brain. I fell upon the vegetables, tasting each in turn. This stunned the others into a wonderful silence. Once I’d tried everything, I said, ‘No need for an antidote. After my Aunt May’s cooking, I can eat anything.’
I spent the next few hours cooking up the Brogant boil pot. But I never quite understood how I was supposed to learn about Brogant using food.
That came later.
As the cat disliked vegetables, and Shinytop couldn’t eat anything at all, I had the pot for myself. I was glad it was vegetarian. I’d seen enough bones for one day.
And, of course, I had to wash up.
Once I returned to room zero, I asked Shinytop why he and Stein Cat didn’t speak.
‘She hates ghosts,’ he admitted. ‘Absolutely hates them.’
I thought the concept of using food to learn about Dunari was ridiculous.
But it soon appealed to me.
Back then, I was always hungry, and it became a joy to learn about new locations through food.
How, you might wonder?
The Brogant economy revolved around its food and cuisine. The province was colonised for its prime land. They cultivated the finest tuber vegetables, and were famous for training chefs, farmers, and gardeners.
Although the City of Bones had many fine Brogant eating halls, I wasn’t ready to visit any of them. Instead, Ganhook used lavun to transform our kitchen into a basic Brogant eatery. While learning Brogant recipes, I also learned about Brogant art, Brogant music, Brogant history, and much more.
Of course, I had to read a lot of books about Brogant, too.
So, how can you build out your world using this method?
Visit a restaurant. Preferably, something more exotic than McDonald’s.
For example, an Indian restaurant. Note all the details to make the place authentic. The music. The wall art. The aromas, and other features.
Does it give you a picture of India?
Now, imagine that the hero of your world needs to travel to an unfamiliar, exotic city or country. Foreshadow the visit by creating a restaurant from that location, placing it in your hero’s city, and having her visit it.
By doing this, you’ll decrease the amount of description needed for your audience when your hero arrives at the exotic city or country.
And you can build on this in numerous ways. Perhaps the food disagrees with your hero. This could work as subtext to give an idea of how tough her trip will be.
Food can also be used to portray how a society developed.
Examine food items in your kitchen. Note where they originated. If preserved, what is used to preserve them? This could lead you to how certain societies in your world develop. For example, empires were built around salt alone.
A huge part of any society is based around food. And a huge part of food involves multiculturalism, which, in turn, adds more depth to your world.
An understanding of food can provide countless possibilities for creating countless details for your world. Are races in competition for land resources? Can famines occur? Are food supplies to certain areas subject to strict importation or exportation laws, taxes, or outright corruption?
Are certain foods dangerous to certain people in your world.
What about food allergies?
And so on.
Why not take your world building to a new, fun level by creating a recipe from your world. Then visit an Asian or African shop, discover some new foods, incorporate them in your recipe, and create a ‘Meal from another dimension’ to entertain your friends.
Whether you cooking is good or not, it’s a meal they’ll never forget.
I’ll sign off now. Next time, I describe my first escape attempt from Dunari, and how to create world building details by learning to avoid the familiar.
Bye for now. Or, as we say in Dunari, Dreavik.