Recently I’ve been thinking about the significance of food in fiction. Yes, that arguably minute detail that often gets neglected in a story. But is it so minute? Eating plays an integral role in most people’s lives whether our relationship with it be problematic or the joie de vivre. For me it’s a little of both, however that hasn’t stopped me from appreciating descriptions of food in fiction as a book lover over the years and incorporating it into my own foodie fiction.
A CLOSER LOOK AT FOOD IN FICTION
This fixation with food in fiction came about when I read novels about food as a child and began to associate feelings with the descriptions. Feelings which I still distinctly remember today. For example, I have a vivid memory of reading The Perfect Hamburger by Alexander McCall Smith as a ten-year-old in class one day before lunch time. The vivid descriptions of the character’s pursuit to make the perfect hamburger with the right selection of ingredients had my stomach rumbling and made me crave burgers! That precious memory has never left me and it’s all owed to the ‘minutiae’ of food in fiction. Who says that a fiction story has to be all plot and characters? I would argue that the subtle ways in which they relate to something such as food really can offer a broader sense of who a character. Furthermore, it offers yet another branch of analysis for book lovers.
The Perfect Hamburger (Young Puffin)
EXAMPLES OF FOOD IN FICTION AND NON-FICTION
Through the often-overlooked lens of gastronomy, we get to understand what it is that drives a character, how they react to scenarios, how organised or disorganised they are or even how healthy their bank balance is. For example, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s non-fictional ethnographic pursuits into the life of the working class of Northern England led him to the home of the Brookers. His description of breakfast in their home included a ‘pale fried egg’ and bread and butter which ‘always had thumb-marks on it.’ I always found the vivid description of the food utterly repulsive yet brilliant in communicating the squalid nature of his lodging abode. On the contrary ‘runny fried eggs’ are used in Toni Morrison’s Beloved as main narrator Denver recounts a second-hand story about her absent father and how ‘a plate of soft fried eggs was Christmas to him.’ Food becomes the medium through which we understand the distance between herself and her father and how this distance metaphorically becomes smaller with an endearing recount about his favourite food. This makes him appear more present and attached to her life in some meaningful way, however trivial.
The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin Modern Classics)
HOW I WRITE FOOD INTO FICTION
As a writer who is a self-confessed foodie, I find it hard not to write food into my fiction. There is something comforting about rendering an appealing description of food into a scene. It’s almost like a piece offering to a character, something for them to relish. I must admit, upon reflection, I don’t seem to incorporate unpleasant experiences of food or food of an unappealing nature in general. Certainly nothing like the disgusting bread and butter offering Orwell received in The Road to Wigan Pier.
A consistent pattern that I have spotted in my own fiction is that food represents relationships. In my collection of short stories Sausages, Motherhood and Other London Tales, food consistently rears its head. In one story, a family express their gratitude when the husband returns home with soggy bags of fish and chips, especially the burdened housewife who no longer needs to cook. In another short story I have written about Post-Natal depression, a new mother has forgotten to cook and love expresses itself when her empathetic husband takes over and gently suggests they pick a take-away of her choice instead. Elsewhere in the collection an estranged mother and daughter have a brief run-in over what they are going to order, a detail I used to represent the awkwardness of their encounter. The mother eventually settles on what the daughter is having, showing a willingness to cooperate and make the already strained reunion run smoothly. Here food moves away from being a medium of pleasure to more of a negotiation barometer of how much are we going to get on today?
As a writer I definitely find food to be an alluring tool to map out relationships that characters have with themselves and their issues and how this arises from the presence of food or whether food becomes a remedy to aid this. The latter becomes apparent in one of my stories where a woman battling a failing relationship and disused gym membership turns to food for comfort.
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
I find myself naturally inserting foodie descriptions into my fiction. On the other hand as a bookworm, I feel it enhances the experience in a very subtle sensory way which can sometimes be taken for granted. As a booklover, the small details really catch my attention. For example, if a protagonist is in a café, I want to know what they’re having. On a superficial level it adds decoration to a scene. It’s oddly satisfying to be privy to the contents of a character’s meal but it is quite pleasing on a sensory level also. For me, the more attractive the food, the better, as opposed to the mundane or repulsive.
Sausages, Motherhood and Other London Tales
CHARACTERISATION AND FOOD
On a deeper level it can add to the characterisation aspect of a story. For example, if a character has chosen to eat something superfluously indulgent or on the contrary meagre, It leads us to think about why this is the case. Simply writing food into fiction can inform us about the underlying circumstances of a character and of an extra layer of intrigue. It can support the theory that a character is greedy, self-medicating, rich, broke or whatever else the writer is attempting to convey through their choice of words in relation to the food in the fiction.
A SPECIAL PLACE FOR FOOD
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything
Food will always have a special place in my writing. It’s too interesting not to and I’m sure many (well, perhaps a humble percentage) of my fellow writers would agree. Additionally, as a bookworm I am certainly grateful for the morsels offered up in indulgent food novels such as Eat, Pray, Love. Let me propose this to my bookworms out there: the next time a scene includes a description of food, don’t skim over it. Think closely about what is being signified, it might sound boring but it could actually enrich your reading experience! Seriously, try it. I promise it won’t bite. Do you enjoy descriptions of food in novels or is it something you skip over. Let me know in the comment section!
I am reading a beautiful book called Will Write For Food, which is all about food writing in cookbooks, blogs, fiction, and memoir. With writing exercises at the end of each chapter, it is a great way for me to try my hand at new ways of writing.
Your post reminded me a lot about the book and made me realize how much food intersects with our lives!
Great post! Made me remember a book I LOVED when I was a kid-something about raining meatballs? It’s true, food adds so much to a character.