So in my stories, I always like to strive for a bit of realism. Of course, I gotta rely on some suspension of disbelief. There are certain things that just can’t work in the real world, at least not with our current understanding of the laws of physics and such. But the suspension of disbelief can only take you so far—talking animals in a fantasy story, sure, but talking animals suddenly appearing in a Batman movie, maybe not.
But sometimes this desire for ‘realism’ sends me down some interesting rabbit holes. Take, for instance, the land of Éomarun, the Forest. A mysterious realm where sunlight is but a rumour and nightmares stalk the waking world. And where the trees are sentient enough that if you light a fire within their reach they’ll likely come to life à la the Whomping Willow and strangle you.
So how are the Éomarisc dragons to eat? My world’s dragons are anthropomorphic enough that I can’t just make them ravenous meat eaters who dig into a deer carcass. They like a bit of cookery as much as the any human. So the question then became, what would the diet of a fire-less society look like?
Which is how I ended up researching raw food diets and the evolution of cooking in human history. Interestingly enough, I found out that raw food diets are a thing, and not just for dogs. Strap in, dear reader, we’re taking a dive into the story of food.
Now, why do we, as humans, cook most of our food? There’s a little more to it than just making it safe to eat—after all, humans have been eating food long before we worked out how to use fire to roast it. The whole story of when humans discovered fire and when we started using fire for more than just warmth is quite convoluted. I mean, we’re talking about unravelling mysteries from hundreds of thousands of years ago, if not upward to a million years ago.
As far as we can tell, humans started tending fires in Europe about 800,000 years ago—but that number can change depending on where you’re looking and even what you mean by ‘tending fires’. Before this, humans still ate meat, and seemed to have had a fairly well-balanced diet of meat and plants – all raw. But here’s the thing—raw food, meat or otherwise, is really chewy. Chewing a bite of food to the point where you can swallow it takes a lot of time and energy. Chopping or pounding the food could halve the work of your jaws—this is actually the idea behind dishes like steak tartare and carpaccio. Cooking, now cooking the food, that was the real game-changer. Cooking generally reduced the required chewing force by at least a third and provided much more energy than raw food. This, according to current research, played a big part in our Big Brain energy.
But raw food meals isn’t restricted to the distant past, and I’m not just talking foodie fads. Citatap (pronounced something like chee-ta-tap) is a dish from the Ainu people made by pounding meat or fish—the name itself means “we mince it”. It’s a handy technique for eating tough meat or meat where the bones are too small to be entirely removed.
Kitfo or ketfo is another raw meat dish, this time from Ethiopia, made from minced raw beef and a variety of spices. Like citatap, the name means ‘to mince’.
We also have çiğ köfte or chee kofta from Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish cuisines. These are basically raw meatballs made from ground meat, tomato paste, pepper paste, bulgur, pomegranate syrup, and lots of spices.
Of course, this still leaves the question of food safety. Raw food, especially raw meat, after all can be quite dangerous. Bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria can only be killed by cooking the food. Some foods are even straight up toxic unless you cook them. For the dishes I outlined above, only the freshest meat is used—we’re talking going straight from butchery to plate. Theoretically, this ensures that the meat has no time to spoil or grow bacteria (not that I’m endorsing the eating of raw meat, it’s still very risky). And when we’re looking at eras where fridges wouldn’t be a thing for at least another few centuries, this is exactly what would be happening, simply because they had limited means of storing food (especially 800,000+ years ago). Plus, I’d imagine that anyone who was susceptible to food poisoning probably didn’t live long enough to pass those genes along to the next generation.
So what does this mean for my little dragons? Well, for one thing, a bit of a change had to be made to their teeth. Carnivorous critters like dogs have teeth designed for slicing meat, while omnivores have a mix of teeth-types: sharpened incisors for ripping and cutting and flatter molars for grinding. So they ended up with a set of teeth somewhat like that of a bear’s.
Next, I had to work out their cuisine, namely what they do with meat. Nothing that needed to be cooked…but also nothing that required the use of fire for preserving (like smoking or even drying, which requires the sun). So basically, if the meat couldn’t be eaten fresh, it had to be salted. Thus, the meat portion of the Éomarsic diet would come from freshly-hunted animals, caught and slaughtered the day it is to be eaten, if it’s not being salted for later. The vegetables would be treated in much the same way. Everything would heavily flavoured with herbs and spices and whatnot, to make some nice flavourful dishes. I actually ended up taking a lot of inspiration from Ainu cuisine, at least in terms of preparation and style.
So that’s how I ended up with raw minced meat/salad eating dragons in a land where fire is forbidden, and down the rabbit hole that is the debate of humans and fire-tending. All for a couple of scenes where Odwyn is treated to a nice Éomarsic dinner, and I was suddenly confronted with the question of “what the hell do these guys eat?”.
This is also why it takes me forever to edit/write things. Even this post, which was supposed to be published at noon but here we are, nearly 7pm, took ages because I had to find some of the sources I had used when I first was looking into all this. And much like my writing, it ended up being a lot longer than expected.
Pointless? Maybe. Interesting? Definitely. At least to me, and hopefully you’ll enjoy a look into my writing/research process.