September 22, 2023

Underdark Ecology: Dwarven Staples

Let’s face it: Dungeons and Dragons specifically and fantasy RPGs more broadly have problems with biology. For a pretty innocuous example, can you recall the last time you saw a privy in a bandit fortress? But then we also have to consider the logic-shattering problems of subterranean living. How are you supposed to support a biome that includes massive creatures like beholders, ropers, myconids, and the bevy of races like dwarves and drow without any plant life at the base of the food chain? These kinds of things keep me up at night. We’ve previously written on how tube worms and shepherd tree roots could partially solve this puzzle, and we’ve also considered how farming giant bats could help import valuable nutrients from the surface world. Now let’s add a few more building blocks to chthonic life, shall we? 

The above-ground merchants were often baffled by what the dwarven traders would purchase. Obviously, they prized preserved meats, dry goods, and textiles. However, they would often want to buy things with seemingly no value. Rather than the cotton itself, they were interested in seeds as well, which were usually just discarded. Additionally, they wanted the seeds of all manner of weeds or undesirable flora. Of course, the surface dwellers were more than happy to furnish these odd requests, although they sometimes felt guilty for profiting off the unusual tastes of the dwarves.

Little did the sunlight-loving farmers know, the dwarves had an innovative use for these otherwise worthless seeds: Using their great machines, they were able to press them to extract invaluable (and edible) oils. Despite dwarven fondness for beef, pork, and venison, these commodities are luxuries below ground. The rendered fat from these beasts is accordingly quite pricey, so the demand for an inexpensive alternative is high. Because they often don’t separate the seeds by type before extraction, the oil often possesses a green hue due to excess chlorophyll. The resulting flavor is far too bitter to be palatable to elves, halflings, or humans, but the strong taste suits the dwarves just fine.

Further complicating their pursuit of fats for cooking, butter keeps very poorly in many dwarven settlements. Some cities just a few hundred feet below ground can be warmer than the surface. In cities such as these, butter will be liquid at room temperature. Regardless of the difficulty in storage, what modest amounts of milk the dwarven bat farms produce is almost always converted to hard, durable cheeses. Using wands made of pure nickel, wizards of the underdark have found a way to stabilize their seed oils into a semi-solid compound, with a much higher melting point and near infinite shelf life owing to its extremely low water content.

The surface merchants did not even realize the pale-green blocks of “dwarven shortening” were the product of the seeds their partners in commerce so ravenously bought up. Although rare in human cookery, this materially made for an unusually stretchy consistency when used in baked goods.

One thing the topsiders did recognize were the strange rhubarbs common in dwarven caravans. The leaves were yellow rather than green and the stalks were bright red. Generations ago, traders from beneath the mountain inquired about any vegetables the humans knew of that could be grown in complete darkness. Of course, no such thing exists, however there is a pretty close real-world analog.

“Forced rhubarb” is an offseason variety that is initially plated outdoors, but once it receives the requisite sunlight to begin its growth cycle is transferred to a hothouse or cellar to grow in complete darkness. The absence of light causes the rhubarb to grow extremely quickly. Its stalks expand in a desperate attempt to expand into sunlight again. The rhubarb grows so quickly it’s said to be audible as it expands. Absolute darkness is so essential to this process that they are often harvested by candlelight. The extra effort not only leads to quick yields, but also a sweeter and more tender plant. In our imaging, the dwarves replicate this by exposing a crop of rhubarb crowns to a daylight spell. They absorb enough light and magic to begin this majestic umbral dance.

There’s one last treat the dwarves enjoy that rarely makes it out of their citadels owing to its popularity: the mineral cake. There are two real world analogs for this delicacy, the first is kaolinite clay consumption. In Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, silicate minerals are seasoned with black pepper and cardamom and consumed as a pick me up or neonatal vitamin supplement in some cases. In a use you’re probably more familiar with, tablets of 25% calcium are consumed to settle excess stomach acid (you might call these Tums). Granted, over consumption of either can be dangerous in humans. Kaolinite clay can cause anemia and heavy metal poisoning and calcium carbonate can lead to kidney stones. But the dwarves have been consuming these minerals for millenia and take to them quite easily. They mine calcium or clay silicate materials and combine them with the aforementioned dwarven shortening to make flat consumable disk. Not unlike a hardtack biscuit, these consumables keep for an extremely long time. The dwarves prefer to flavor them with the spiciest herbs they can get their hands on to overcome the naturally chalky bouquet of these creations. Humans stay away from these as a food stuff, but do often break small bits off to use as a treatment for mild to severe dyspepsia.

So there we go, three more items to place on your dwarven dinner table. It might be a meager meal, but many a working class dwarf has dined on forced rhubarb with a seed oil dressing and a hearty mineral biscuit on the side. It may not sound good to us, but life is different underground, and these hearty folk eat what they must to survive.