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The Gamer's Guide to Hitch Hiking

Gustatory Digressions

by Justin Unrau
Nov 02,2005


Gustatory Digressions

It was Christmas and we were maybe a dozen people sitting at a round table with a pot of boiling spicy red broth in the centre. This is hot pot and it's the big specialty of the Sichuan region in China. We were dipping all sorts of meats and vegetables in the broth letting it cook before pulling it out. It's a very social kind of meal; you lose lots of things from your chopsticks and people help you fish them out again.

Yeah, there's probably a hygiene issue but let's not think about that now.

My neighbour pulls something bizarre and Y-shaped out of the cauldron. I watch him pick a tiny bit of meat out of the centre of the slingshot and then dump the bones on the floor. My other colleagues are eating these things in the same way. It doesn't look like guts or organs, but I can't place it. So, realizing that this means I probably won't end up trying it, I ask.

"What's that?"

"This?" my neighbour says. "It's umm..." there's a brief flurry of conversation amongst the English teachers to figure out the translation "tongue of bat."

It should have been a Halloween party.

Let's preface this with the admission that I am no wandering gourmand. I eat when I have to but often forget if I'm doing something more interesting. This is why I travel with people; they generally realize they're hungry. So don't expect me to wax rhapsodic about the culinary delights available in far off lands. But neither is it all that scene from Temple of Doom.

The first thing to keep in mind for any adventuring character who is far from home is that that home has a lot to do with the food you eat there. You know, home cooking and such. It's not just those characters who are chauvinistic about their dietary preferences (I'm thinking the stereotypical dwarf dissing poncy elfwine here) but given enough time even the most broad minded and accepting traveller is going to want something familiar.

That isn't to say you don't get familiar with the food you eat on the way. In fact, you can get sickeningly familiar with it. I'm sure everyone who's lived out in the wilderness for any amount of time knows about the monotony of eating easily packed food, but it happens even with more elaborate kinds of devourables.

When my buddy and I were in the Middle East we were eating cheaply, not going to five star hotels for our meals or anything. We were doing the bog-standard stay in a traveller's inn kind of thing like so many adventurers in my games before me. The complication was that I was a vegetarian.

When you think of Middle Eastern food you may think of hummus and falafel, maybe tabbouleh, which are all vegetarian things. And that's all well and good, but those were practically the only three foods I could eat for three months. I like falafel. I still like falafel. But you'd better believe that as soon as I could get anything different I leapt on it, wrestled it to the ground and smeared it all over myself in rejoicing at the culmination of an arduous but successful hunt (note: may not have happened as described). We got to India and I had whole menus of things to choose from and it was great again. And the first meal my buddy ate there was a sheep's brain on a pile of rice. Different strokes, I guess.

Now, there is variety in food, it's just subtle. In China you've got Chinese food, which does mean I eat a lot of rice, but it's not all the same. I live in Sichuan where the food is loaded with hot peppers and mouthnumbing spices that have no English name. (Actually, to tie in with last month, food is really hard to explain in different languages.) Out East, sweetness is more popular.

But possibly more important for the gamers out there is the idea of local specialties. In China each little town has its own thing that isn't anywhere else. Unhappily for me, my city's specialty is steamed ground-up lamb back, including vertebral chunks. I'm not such a fan. I've been driving through towns with Chinese people who had to stop and buy the town's specialty. One place was all about the dried tofu. There were a dozen identical dried tofu places on the main road (see The Hammock District for more on clusters of identical stores). Getting the specialty was a major part of the trip even for the locals (and in the end it was good tofu). The WFRP adventure Fear the Worst isn't too far out of line even today.

So keep in mind the impact that variety has on your enjoyment of food. Maybe it's because I've never had huge world shattering quests hanging over me but when you're hiking from one Himalayan village to another your mind tends to wander, and conversation can't always keep up in the thin air. And that brain meandering tends to hit on food. Your stomach's growling and your energy's being depleted and you know that when you're done for the day you're going to be eating lentils and rice, just like you have for the last week.

Depicting these kinds of distractions probably aren't something to worry about in game. The monotonous hike (or spaceflight to Europa) isn't the stuff of high drama. But the return to a place where food is the way you like it can be.

I tend to forget what a cosmopolitan affair North American restaurants are. We get a variety of food from all over the world, and we can get used to having something different. In China we've got Chinese food. That and McDonald's.

And that's the difference between today and most fantasy games. Those Golden Arches and the soft drink makers have an incredible market penetration, that we don't usually see in fantasy settings. You really do get a weird sense of locationlessness. And it's weird being a person who nominally should see it as a taste of home, but who doesn't really like it. If you're doing scifi with megacorps it might be worth putting in those kind of ambivalent feelings toward your own cultural imperialism.

If you're keeping score, of all the Chinese cities I've been to the only ones that didn't have a Clown's Palace were in provinces that people in backwater Chinese cities think of as remote. Hong Kong had one every two blocks. But, at least in the mainland, Big Macs and Happy Meals are stupidly expensive compared to Chinese food, so it's a weird (to me) demographic that frequents the restaurants, mostly middle class parents with kids. Very few teenagers or university kids. (And you'd better believe that information is showing up in my Unknown Armies game.)

This sort of digressed a bit, but the fact remains that food is a bit more than just background to the non-world-hanging-in-the-balance traveller. It's one of those things that you talk about. "What's the first thing you're going to eat when you get home?" is a question I've been asked many a time. You don't need to be an effete snob (or a provincial rube) about food to miss stuff. Places that have a lot of tourists tend to try doing "Western food" which is almost inevitably a strange analogue to what you might have been looking for.

For the record, first thing back I'm going to have a sandwich.

J Unrau
Hungry J Propaganda

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