Using Recipes for World Building

I have a love of the 1940s through to 1970s (I blame my late Mother for this – too many MGM musicals when I was young and impressionable). My historical fiction is set in this era and recently I’ve been using recipes and food as a way to world build. World building is important for fiction writing as it creates a setting that readers can believe in.

The National Library of Australia’s Trove database has been my starting point for test recipe collection. Trove holds newspapers, magazines, books and artefacts relating to food, recipes and menus. The Australian Women’s Weekly (my favourite source for recipes – vintage or modern) is available in digital versions from 1933 to 1982.

How Recipes Help with World Building

Recipes provide a snapshot of society, they detail:

  • what food was available and popular
  • how long food took to prepare
  • how much effort was required to produce a meal
  • indicators of social classes

Recipes provide depth to characters, for example a complex recipe that is cooked on special occasions can show how a person loves their partner or family. They also provide opportunities for creating background details such as grocers, butchers and delis so that readers can not only see the scenes in their mind’s eye but also smell and taste the scene.

How to Use Recipes in World Building

You can read recipes and get a feel for the era that you’re writing about and use the details from the recipes in your writing. I prefer to test cook a few recipes to immerse myself in the experience. When I cooked the Bacon and Macaroni Casserole that was featured in a 1961 Australian Women’s Weekly edition I completely underestimated the length of time it would take for the processed cheese to melt into the sauce (cue dinner half a hour later than planned). I realised that this meal was not one that would be cooked on a weeknight when meat and three veg would be a faster option.

1961 Australian Women’s Weekly