Last week, Atlas Obscura published an article by Anne Ewbank titled Why do Fantasy Novels Have So Much Food? This article provides many interesting examples and discusses the role that food can sometimes play in fantasy, but I don’t feel like it really answers the question posed by its title: why do fantasy novels have so much food? I’ll offer my own answer: immersion.
As a fantasy author, I am constantly looking for ways to provide description that engages all five senses. In most fiction, the vast majority of description is focused on what characters see, but if you really want to place the reader in a setting, it needs to feel tactile. When a character walks into a boggy marsh, I don’t just want to describe the tepid pools of water; I want to describe the pungent stench of rotting wood, and the texture of the soggy ground underfoot. It’s one thing for a character to remark on how hot and humid it is; it’s another to describe the feeling of the wet, vaporous air as beads of water are condensing on your skin and coalescing with your sweat.
Food is great at engaging all five senses. Not only is it one of the few places where you get to talk about taste, but food gives off aromas. Eating food is a tactile experience: you can feel the stickiness of a sweet jelly as you lick it off your fingers. Food has a texture that you can feel on your tongue, and it feels different in your mouth depending on whether you allow it to slowly slide down your throat or stuff your cheeks with it. And kitchens are full of sounds that add richness to the setting: you can hear the crackling of a fire, the sizzle of a piece of meat dropped onto an iron cooking surface, the delightful shing of a carving knife being sharpened. You hear things at the dinner table, too: the delightful crunch of biting into a cracker, or the clattering of cutlery on plates. A baked pastry will make different sounds when you bite into it depending on whether it crust is hard or thin and flaky.
Fantasy is often viewed as one of the most immersive genres, largely because it spends so much time on providing detailed description that not only tells you what is happening in the world, but giving you a sense of what it feels like to live in that world. This often means that fantasy novels are longer and slower paced, but one of the reasons that many people enjoy large fantasy tomes is that they enjoy the feeling of being transported and immersed in another world.