Descriptions of food aren’t always enticing although I have to admit that my favourite literary depictions of food tend to be. For instance, when Elizabeth David writes about mayonnaise, I long to slather my sandwiches with it, even though I actually really, really dislike the taste.
I am fascinated by this scene, from Provenance by Ann Leckie. The food and drink isn’t described in detail and this underlines how basic it is, but Ambassador Tibanvori’s reactions are hilarious and extreme, revealing her prejudices and her reluctance to adapt to the culture of the species to whose world she has been assigned.
These paragraphs demonstrate how one civilisation’s gastronomic delights may seem disgusting to another. When you taste some foreign flavours you may decide that they need to be acquired over long periods of time, practically from the cradle even. Perhaps you need Geck DNA to enjoy ‘poick’, and Malaysian DNA to love durian — I’m thinking how so many people from the West are disgusted by the taste and smell of durian, yet love the taste and smell of blue cheese, which I liken to unwashed feet.)
“There’s food here now,” said Garal. “Everything will be going on whether we eat or not. And it’s easier to think things through when you’re not hungry and thirsty.”
Ingray frowned, and opened her mouth to argue, but then she remembered Garal on the trip to Hwae, saving food. Talking about how difficult it could be to get something to eat in Compassionate Removal.
“You haven’t eaten in way too long,” Garal said.
She didn’t trust herself to answer but went to the back of the room, in the direction the spider mech had indicated. She found a niche in the wall with a basin of body-warm water in it. Gingerly, she scooped up a small handful and tasted it.
“It’s plain warm water.” Ambassador Tibanvori’s voice. Ingray turned to see her come into the room. “They won’t make anything hotter, even if you ask.”
“What do they eat, then?” asked Garal, sitting down on an extrusion beside the table.
“Raw things,” Tibanvori said, with utter disgust. “Or rotted ones.” She gestured at the packets on the table. “This is your kind of food, though. We took it on board at Tyr Siilas. I have no idea what any of it is.”
“Nutrient blocks,” said Ingray. “Those are mostly yeast with flavors.”
Ambassador Tibanvori wrinkled her nose.
“Noodles,” Garal added. “You add hot water to them. I guess warm water will do.”
“It won’t,” said Tibanvori with disdain, sitting down next to Garal.
“And there’s serbat.” Garal looked over at Ingray. “Instant serbat.”
“I could do with some serbat,” Ingray said. “Are there any cups or bowls or …” She trailed off, unable to quite complete the thought.
“Touch the wall above the basin,” said Tibanvori. Ingray did, and the surface of the wall contracted away from her fingers, exposing a cavity underneath that held a stack of shallow bowls, some small cups, and a few large, deep spoons.
“It’s disgusting, isn’t it,” said Tibanvori, behind her, and she had to agree at the very least that there was something disturbing about the way the wall had reacted, how it felt. Like a muscle, or at least something biological, not a nice, solid, dependable wall.
Tibanvori continued. “Those spoons are only for scooping up water. They eat with their fingers.” She shuddered. “What’s serbat?”
“It’s a hot drink,” Garal said. “It’s serbat.”
Ambassador Tibanvori gave em a sideways, disapproving look and then sighed, rose, and came over to where Ingray stood. “Here.” She took a stack of bowls and cups out of the cavity and handed them to Ingray, then scooped a few cupfuls of warm water out of the basin. “Whatever serbat is, it can’t be worse than poick. The salt water I was telling you about before,” she added, to Ingray and Garal’s exhausted incomprehension. “The noodles you just have to let sit longer. I don’t know about the sort you’re used to, the ones I’ve had are generally not very good cold, but it’s better than live sea worms or
“I like algae paste,” said Ingray, following Tibanvori back to the table. “And I like fish, cooked or not. I don’t know about worms, though.”
“Trust me, they’re horrible.” Tibanvori took the dishes out of Ingray’s hands. “Sit down.” Brusquely, but, Ingray realized, she had been standing there clutching the stack of bowls, unable to form any idea of what to do with them.“I’m sorry,” Ingray said. “I’m very tired.”
“Apparently,” Tibanvori agreed, tearing open a serbat packet and peering at the contents. “You mix this with water, I take it?”
“Yes,” Garal agreed, as Ingray sat. And stared as Tibanvori poured lukewarm water onto noodles, and into cups of serbat powder.
“And I need to know what’s happening on the station,” said Ingray.
“Not bad,” the Radchaai ambassador said, after a sip of warmish serbat. She sat at the table. “Not tea, but not bad. I wonder if I can get some of this shipped back to the Geck homeworld. Tea is hopeless when you can’t get hot water. Real tea, the way it should be drunk, I mean.”
“I need to know what’s happening on the station,” said Ingray again. She blinked open her messages, but she was too tired to make much sense out of what she saw. Nothing from Netano at any rate, and nothing from Nuncle Lak. She sent them both a brief, barely coherent message asking for whatever information either of them had.
“Whatever’s happening on the station doesn’t concern us,” Tibanvori said. “Your friend is right, you should eat something. And then see if you can find some news, I suppose. And get some sleep. Though I’m sorry to say there’s nothing like civilized sleeping quarters here. These people, the ones who live in orbit, they generally just lie down on the ground wherever they are. This room”—she gestured around with the cup of serbat still in her hand—“is a concession to foreign habits. Even the Geck humans on the station generally
eat squatting or standing. Though I guess you don’t need anything like comfort or manners when you’re just shoveling slimy animals into your mouth with your bare hands.”
“I can’t imagine why the Geck ambassador doesn’t like you,” Garal said.
Tibanvori made a sharp, sardonic hah. “Well, I don’t much like her, if it comes to that.”
N.B. That contracting wall!