Food can play many different roles in fiction writing. It can set a scene, tell much about a character, even become a player in the story. Since it’s important to engage as many of the reader’s senses as possible, food can be a very useful tool in the author’s toolbox since food description can involve sight, sound, texture, taste and smell – all five of the senses. A real bargain package.
According to The Good Food Guide:
“Children’s literature makes for rich pickings when it comes to culinary descriptions: there’s moment after juicy moment in Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or James and The Giant Peach.
The description of Amy’s ‘pickled limes’ in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – ‘plump and juicy’ in their ‘moist, brown-paper parcel’ with their ‘delicious perfume’ – pops out from the pages.
Other mouth-watering moments can be found in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, or Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, and the fabulous tea party in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
The Good Food Guide rounds off with: “one of the most extraordinary ventures in the entire history of catering: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, from the book of the same name by Douglas Adams. The restaurant ‘is built on the fragmented remains of an eventually ruined planet which is enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe. In it, guests take their places at table and eat sumptuous meals whilst watching the whole of creation explode around them.’
So, which of those titles have you read? Can you remember some of the scenes where food played a part?
You can probably think of many, many more books, not just in children’s literature, where food features in fiction:
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Mrs Bennet uses food to impress, being very proud of her table. She cared more to serve fine food than think how to make her guests feel comfortable at the table. Her verdict on the meal tells such a lot about the shallowness and vulgarity of her character:
“The venison was roasted to a turn – and everybody said they never saw so fat a haunch. The soup was fifty times better than what we had at the Lucas’s last week; and even Mr Darcy acknowledged that the partridges were remarkably well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least.”
Dickens, A Christmas Carol, in which food plays a huge role, and Scrooge is shown a scene from his youth in which his boss, Mr Fezziwig threw a party where “there was cake, and there was negus (a hot drink consisting of wine, sugar, water, lemon juice, and nutmeg), and there was a great piece of cold roast, and there was a great piece of cold boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.” in sharp contrast to the scene he was shown where his own employee, Bob Cratchit, “said he ‘didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked.’ Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family.”
In this example, food is used to make the point, which Scrooge gets, that ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.’ (Proverbs 15:17)
In more recent fiction, what about Chocolat by Joanne Harris, where some of the descriptions of the sweet treats can only be described as mouth-watering, and the heroine uses her delicacies to win the hearts of her customers. Clever lady!
Oh, there is an endless list where food is mentioned in passing or dwelt on enough to make your mouth water.
Here are some of the books remembered by one of the readers of my blog:
Wendy Janes remembers, “the amazing picnics that the Famous Five had in the Enid Blyton books that I read as a child.” She goes on to say, “Bringing things bang up to date, Susan Buchanan’s books Sign of the Times and The Dating Game feature food and drink that forms the backdrop to some great scenes between her characters.”
Susan Buchanan herself comments that Anthony Capella’s The Food of Love has to be her all-time favourite. That one is described as “A delicious tale of Cyrano de Bergerac-style culinary seduction, but with sensual recipes instead of love poems.” Hmmm … interesting … this one gets you on two sensory levels! Good ploy!
In my novel, Making It Home, two of the main characters meet regularly in a coffee shop. A coffee shop or tearoom is a neutral location. No-one has to act as hostess. No-one has to assume responsibility for the business of getting fed and watered. So it is a useful setting for a writer to use. It allows dialogue to flow as easily as tea or coffee from the pot, or with as many splutters and stutters as a malfunctioning coffee machine. That’s up to the writer and what he or she wishes to accomplish in the scene.
I used the setting to allow space for the characters to get to know one another and the reader to listen in and get to know them too – or not.
“Oh you don’t want to hear about me.” Phyllis held out the delicate china plate of cakes. “Here! Why don’t you try one of these strawberry tarts? They really are delicious.”
As you can see, the topic Food in Fiction, brings quite a variety of books to mind.
The fact that eating and drinking is something we all, without exception, must engage in, gives it an importance in real life that can be reflected in fiction.