Food is one of elements in writing that offers readers all five senses and it’s been featured in text for thousands and thousands of years. From the prehistoric cave paintings to early runes and hieroglyphics, we’ve recorded our key relationship with what sustains our physical bodies.
Food is a significant power tool in your writer’s kit and here are 10 ways you can use that tool in your work:
1 Establish place: You’re not going to find citrus fruit growing on a northern tundra; conversely, apple trees will wilt under a tropical sun. Geography governs what natural foods will be at the table. But, if you bring in an non-native food, it can serve to underscore the local geography:
She placed a bright yellow fruit in front of the hearth. “He says it’s a lemon,” she whispered. “The stranger had it in his pack. Said we should squeeze out the juice for Papa. Help his fever.”
2 Establish time: That microwavable dish is going to burn to a crisp when it’s stuck on a spit and roasted over a fire. Conversely, a woolly mammoth carcass is not going to fit into a standard oven.
Like fashion, there is an element of practicality in the kinds of foods consumed in eras past. They should match the time in terms of access and ability to devour.
3. Establish elements of character: Consider Dickens’ miserly Scrooge and his thin, watery gruel versus the loving and optimistic Cratchit family and their small goose for Christmas dinner.
A fussy eater can be a difficult guest, leaving room for rising tension. “Oh, I’ll eat anything” that becomes, “Well, I don’t like cucumbers. Or peppers. And no spice. It’s hard on my stomach.” A sure sign that this houseguest could prove trouble in other areas too.
4. Engage the senses: In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, readers are treated to the delights of a cavalcade of candy, albeit with strings attached. Chocolat by Joanne Harris explores the sensory freedom that a chocolate confectioner delivers to the residents of a small French town in the 1950s. Oooh-la-la.
5. Surprise readers: Of course, we all have to eat. But what about a character who opts to eat, well, strange things? Dirt, for example. Or deep fried crickets. Or guinea pigs — a delicacy in Peru and adored family pets in North America.
6. Include a recipe or two: A nod to epistolary narrative, a recipe can be a delightful diversion to a story– a memoir could be enhanced with a recipe that relates to a scene in the book. Or a thriller novel could feature the family secret that betrays the real reason Grandpa passed on so abruptly. A pinch of salt and two tablespoons of cyanide…
7. From farm to table: Consider the satisfaction of the harvest. Tilling the soil in the first part of the story; caring for the tender shoots and vines and blossoms; finally, gathering in the bounty to preserve or devour. The backdrop this offers a story helps to ground the reader and weave a metaphor for the full circle of life.
8. Compare and contrast status: Imagine a table laden with all sorts of foods. Mountains of fancy breads, stacks of carvery choices with slabs of juicy meats, bowls of glistening fruits, platters of cheeses, pitchers of rich creams, decanters of wine — all placed on fine linen with crystal and silver and delicate china.
The domestics serve it. They tidy up afterwards. And the scullery maid sneaks a bit of leavings from the plates and slips it into her mouth. A small simple act after such excess underscores a harsh reality.
9. Deliver the fatal blow: In crime fiction and murder mysteries, food is often the method by which death is delivered. When arsenic-infused omelets are on Madame’s menu, we know it’s just a matter of “thyme.”
Seriously, food is essential to our well-being and relates directly to nurture, so to use it a vessel for murder, is to cross a sacred line. In the case of Hannibal Lecter, food becomes a motivation for murder: liver and fava beans, yum!
10. Food as an escape…or vocation: A tub of ice cream or a big bag of potato chips can be a comfort for some people in distress. Many of us have cravings that increase in intensity when we’re stressed. Food is a sanctuary for some and a curse for others, but can be a treasure trove for writers seeking interesting characters or plots.
What must it be like for a chef who is surrounded by food day in and day out: menu planning, preparation and presentation?
What if that chef develops food allergies and has to give up their life’s dream? Conversely, what if someone with no sense of smell or taste has to work in a kitchen? A chef in training who can’t read or write?
No matter the scenario, types of food, or kinds of characters, when you are working with such an essential element of life, you have the power to take your writing from lukewarm to searing hot. Bon appetit!