Coffee, Tea, and Worldbuilding

One component of worldbuilding that’s often forgotten is background economics.

Take coffee, for example. Coffee originated in Africa. It wasn’t readily available in Europe until after 1616, and didn’t start to be cultivated on a large scale by Europeans until near the end of that century. Chocolate and tea both made it to Europe a little earlier, not much. Yet how many times do characters in fantasy novels, who are living in thinly-veiled Medieval Europe, drink coffee? Or if not coffee, some made-up beverage that is really coffee with a name like caf or cof or possibly c’ff’ee.

I admit most people won’t notice or care, because after all, “it’s fantasy.” But now I’m aware of the historical issue, every time I see it, I’m thrown out of the story. (So I’ve shared it with you! You can share my peeve!) And I think “it’s fantasy” is not a valid excuse. Fantasy needs to be more realistic, not less. If the details aren’t right, the world falls apart.

We, as modern people used to modern travel, forget that many things commonly eaten today all over the world originated in North America. Before that, they were not eaten in Europe. Eleventh-century Italians did not eat food with tomato sauce. They had no tomatoes.

It’s easy to remember things such as copper, silver, and gold coinage. But me, I wonder where does the coffee come from? And if they have coffee, who sold it to them? How did it get there? What are their relations with the people who sold it to them? Or did they steal the coffee?

…Maybe I’ll go have a cup.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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2 Responses to Coffee, Tea, and Worldbuilding

  1. Megan says:

    Tea is a big one for me. It’s the drink of choice for a lot of fantasy, and I always wonder where it comes from, since there is no mention of trade with a semi-tropical culture.

    Also: potatoes are native to South America. They haven’t been European staples for much longer than coffee. Yet somehow every pseudo-medieval peasant grows them by the bushel in fantasy.

    But, economy aside, re-naming “exotic” foods just sounds silly. Apples are called apples, so why is coffee called “khaffee” or something equally silly? We can all tell what it is, for goodness sake.

  2. I think someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea to give a fantasy “feel” by the funny names, and lots of writers adopted it because it was easy, and they thought since so many others did it, it must be the thing to do.

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