There are two things I love more than anything in this world. The first is my kid, and the second is food. I looooove food, both cooking and eating it. I even love watching Food Network, which means I love watching other people eat food.
You might be wondering what this has to do with writing, and the answer is a lot. And not just because the writers on Chopped give Ted Allen the cheesiest puns.
Food can be a valuable tool for a writer when it comes to inspiration, and not just in regards to flavors and the use of taste for sensory details.
The idea of using food for character development extends past preferences; you can actually use food as a way to give the reader insight into your characters and who they are. One of my favorite uses of this is in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
“In front of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitamin pill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dish containing honey, and another plate with an egg cup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt. Under the skirt is the second egg, being kept warm. The egg cup is white china with a blue stripe.
The first egg is white. I move the egg cup a little, so it’s now in the watery sunlight that falls, brightening, waning, brightening again, on the tray. The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds would not be distracted by profusion. I think that this is what God must look like: an egg. The life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside.
The egg is glowing now, as if it had an energy of its own. To look at the egg gives me intense pleasure.
The sun goes and the egg fades.
I pick the egg out of the cup and finger it for a moment. It’s warm. Women used to carry such eggs between their breasts, to incubate them. That would have felt good.
The minimalist life. Pleasure is an egg. Blessings that can be counted, on the fingers of one hand. But possibly this is how I’m expected to react. If I have an egg, what more can I want?
In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects. I would like a pet: a bird, say, or a cat. A familiar. Anything at all familiar. A rat would do, in a pinch, but there’s no chance of that. This house is too clean.
I slice the top off the egg with a spoon, and eat the contents.”
–Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, pgs. 109-110
It takes the narrator two pages to eat one egg, but this whole scene is magnificent because it demonstrates so much about the world in which the handmaid finds herself. She’s very smart and self aware and because she has so little, she examines everything down to a minute detail. This is similar to earlier in the book when the narrator describes investigating her bedroom, something many of us take for granted. But by offering this level of detail, the narrator draws us in fully to her mental state, especially in a world where she isn’t really allowed to speak so her ideas and opinions are locked within her.
Your characters have to eat at some point, so why not let food act as a setting for them? Maybe an important conversation happens over a meal; take a moment to really consider their food. Why did they order what they ordered? Did they select their favorite dish? Did they choose it solely based on price because they’re worried about money? Did they order in a hurry, not really paying attention because they’re distracted? Maybe someone chokes on their food. It’s totally up to you!
The world is full of amazing foods and flavors–why not let them inspire your writing? If you love Italian food, send your characters to Italy! I once spent a few months in a small town in northern Italy and the food there was so great that I’m still talking about it almost nine years later. My favorite place was this little pasta shop where if they didn’t have exactly what you wanted when you walked in, you just had to wait a few minutes until the grandmother in the back room was done making more.
I also had kind of a funny experience when walking by a restaurant that was near my apartment in Italy. I’d just returned from the grocery store and my arms were weighed down with bags of food (for some reason, I’d forgotten I didn’t have a car to transport a metric ton of food). I passed by the restaurant and man who worked there was sweeping the front walk, preparing for the restaurant to open. He said something to me in Italian and I apologized because I couldn’t understand what he said (“Sono Americana” worked pretty universally as an apology in Italy). Then the man got so excited that I was American that he motioned for me to follow him and he led me inside the restaurant to where another server was setting up the dining room.
“English,” the first man said, pointing to me. “English!” he said, pointing to the second man before gesturing to both of us at the same time. The first man had a huge grin on his face, thrilled that he could bring two English speakers together.
I explained to the second man that I’d just been walking by on my way home, and he graciously offered to help with any kind of translation I might need. Then I bid them both goodbye and headed home.
What is your favorite passage about food you’ve ever read? What are your favorite ways to use food in your own writing? Let me know in the comments!
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