To round off the menu after fruits and vegetables, today let us look at protein. After Masterchef, it is known as the hero of the dish, and certainly many a diet revolves around the 50’s traditional meat and three veg. But how does this change in the future, the past, in a fantasy world or in a romance? Or the traditional ‘rat on a stick’ apocalypse menu?
Protein is an essential part of the human diet. It builds bones, muscles, probably brain cells and all sorts of things you need to get about. These days, for much of the developed world, we get more than enough protein to meet our needs. Most sources of protein are animal based, but there are healthy quantities in plants – lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, nuts and peas. The 70’s seemed to be a time when people worried about protein levels, possibly coinciding with vegetarian diets becoming more mainstream. Many of the cookbooks focus on often peculiar ways to food combine for the ultimate protein meal – rice and beans for example. This was also the time when fad foods such as nutritional yeast and blackstrap molasses became strangely interesting, and lentils were consumed in alarming quantities.
Amusing as 70’s cookbooks can be, a lack of protein is not funny. Low protein levels affect hair growth, cause bone growth deformities and have some bad effects on your innards and your muscles waste away. Quite a few explorers have discovered this, as well as people in poor situations and most likely throughout history. For large families – the norm before contraception – each child would deplete the mother’s energy stores. There are horrible stories of the decreased health levels of subsequent children, not to mention that the mother will often give her food (meat especially) to the husband and children first.
High protein diets are popular now, with the paleo phase and numerous others. These can also cause problems as your body then has to excrete the unneeded protein and your innards get stressed. While this is a fad today, in the past it was the disease of royalty and the rich.
So what sorts of protein are we talking about? For much of history it is most likely that animal protein formed a small portion of a diet rich in plants, legumes and grains. Even hunter gatherers relied heavily on the gather part. Plants are easier to hunt! But humans are bold omnivores, and if it tastes ok, it is most likely someone has eaten it.
So historically, hunted animals would have been a food source, depending on the environment. Mammoths and elk in an ice age, gazelle on the grasslands, kangaroos in the desert. But don’t forget the easy to catch small fry. Lizards, mice, birds, insects, guinea pigs and shellfish are all eaten somewhere. Just don’t have your characters eating rabbit before they were introduced. It is hard to remember that just because it is everywhere now, doesn’t mean that it was so in the past. Even chicken was a luxury food before breeding and farming made them a cheap meat. Oysters used to be so abundant they were food for the poor in London. Hate offal? Look at how many recipes there are in Mrs Beeton for tripe and things to do with kidneys (and pig ears, lungs, liver, sweetbread and head). Try working boiled pigs head into a romance!
In a fantasy, food can be hunted or traded. Think of markets where the meat is sold hanging in the open air. Are they cooking it soon? Scraping maggots off? Drying it? Pickling it in brine? Without refrigeration, meat storage is a lot harder. Who of the party knows how to gut things, or deal with all the purple wobbly innards? Are they keeping the fur or feathers for lighting a fire? Using the hide? Cleaning intestines for twine?
Science fiction can make the whole issue of where protein comes from go away. With a replicator, you can produce meat that never had a face. But you still need the raw materials. Recently there were photos of a 3D printed steak made of vegetable protein, so that’s’ one option. Another is in the supermarket, with a growing variety of vegetable based meat products that even bleed beetroot juice. Yet another option is vat grown meat. A few muscle cells from an animal, a growing nutrient solution and you have a lump of meat to make into things that resemble food, like chicken nuggets. While it probably doesn’t taste like it ran across grass, it is also likely that future consumers will not know the difference, or might even gag at the thought of eating an animal.
Post apocalypse, well anything goes. Depending on the characters, they could survive on a large store of dehydrated meals. Hunting, garden growing and looting all become valuable survival skills.
So a protein should be accessible in your world, palatable to your characters (and readers, so you can sell a spin off cookbook!) and have some realism to it. While Romans and Victorians might have sat down to roasted plover, it is unlikely to feature on a billionaire boyfriend’s menu.
Thanks for reading my blog during 2020. I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a safe holiday season, and hope that a vaccine is not far off now. Until then, mask up, wash up and keep your distance and we can get through and look forward to better times ahead. Cindy Tomamichel
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