In the first two articles on this subject, we gave some thought to scenes in novels we’ve read where food played an important role, and how their attitude to food can reveal things about your character’s character. We looked at some examples, and talked about how important food is in our lives and, by extension, the lives of fictional characters.
I thought it would be interesting to think now about food as a central character in its own right. For instance, in Chocolat by Joanne Harris, chocolate plays the most important role. Without it, there would be no story.
When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud denounces her as a serious moral danger to his flock – especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial. As passions flare and the conflict escalates, the whole community takes sides. Can the solemnity of the Church compare with the sinful pleasure of a chocolate truffle?
What I love best about the story is that Vianne finds the chocolate that matches the person’s personality best, demonstrating that, just as the foods we have our characters choose can tell a lot about them, so the character’s personality and the role they play can determine the food we might choose to have them eat in our story. I mean, would you really have your romantic hero eat tripe and onions? Or give his lady-love a box of frozen peas bound with a ribbon?
Similarly, in The Sweetness of Forgetting, by Kristen Harmel, there would be no story without the delicious sweets and pastries inspired by Rose’s youth in Paris, and passed on to her daughter and granddaughter. Again, the main character, Hope, matches pastries to people, offering them those she thinks will please them.
The recipes in the book are delicious.
Some people love to cook, others have no interest in the workings of the kitchen, and there can be many reasons for this. For instance, the overbearing mother who never allows her child near the stove or the mixing bowl for fear they might make a mess, and knowing she can do it better herself, is unlikely to rear a happy chef. By contrast, the mum who bakes fairy cakes with her three year old, with flour clouding around her elbows and pink icing in her hair, may well produce the next Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and from time to time there will be someone determined to strive against discouragement to become a master at the craft.
Another reason many people don’t cook is lack of time. There are many frustrated gourmet chefs sitting in stuffy offices dreaming of steamy kitchens, planning the dinner party they would throw if they only had the time or funds.
Some learn their craft at their mother’s side, others in a school of Haute Cuisine.
The popular film, Julie & Julia, contrasts the life of chef Julia Child in the early years of her culinary career with the life of Julie Powell, a young woman in New York who sets out to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook. She aims to do it in one year. That’s 365 days for 524 recipes. She describes her efforts on her regular blog.
The screenplay, by Nora Ephron, is adapted from two books, an autobiography by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, called My Life in France, and a memoir by Julie Powell, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen documenting her daily experiences cooking each of the 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
In Julia Child’s book, My Life in France, she describes how she signs up for cooking classes at the École du Cordon Bleu where she learns the art of French cooking.
While the books and the film, Julie and Julia, are not actually fiction, I think the film, in particular, made a very interesting drama and could be used as inspiration for writing food into your fiction. Perhaps you could write a short story about attending a cookery class. It could be a class in the local village hall or in a College kitchen. Ask yourself, why does this character want to learn to cook? Perhaps they can already cook, but want to improve. Perhaps it’s to pass a rainy Thursday night in good company.
But remember, writing a story where food is a central character will only work if the other characters are as well-prepared and presented as the dishes. Food can play a central role, but it will seldom be the whole story.
However you use it, as the central theme or as something to ‘spice up’ the action, food can be a great subject to bind the ingredients of a story together.