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Food sensuality in fiction

A good meal can sustain our stories just as much as our hearts and bodies.

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The scent of bread baking in the oven. The crunch of a fresh carrot. The tartness of a wild strawberry. The silkiness of a perfect custard. The breath-taking beauty of an elaborate, detailed wedding cake.

The sensory elements of food and our reactions to them affect our day. Sour milk sours the morning. A fresh-baked cookie gives us an afternoon perk. Hunger interferes with physical and cognitive functions. The right meal at the right moment can comfort, seduce, or conjure memories long forgotten.

When I mince garlic or chop an onion, I remember a passage in a book I read years ago. The protagonist hated that her boyfriend, who worked in a restaurant kitchen, always smelled like onion and garlic, something she associated with poverty and working too hard for too little. I remember feeling the violence of her emotion, followed by sadness from my own frame of reference. Garlic and onion have positive associations for me: my own escapades in the kitchen and years of warm welcomes from friends who used them in their cooking. But I’ll always remember the power of that moment in the novel, even though my memory of the rest of the story is hazier.

As a writer, I use food in my scenes and plots for specific reasons – to either foster community or show the lack of it. To comfort, to heal, to withhold. How characters share or don’t share food and the place food holds in their lives are important. They reflect my own changing relationship to food. I grew from not caring about food and only eating the minimum when necessary to enjoying the planning, preparation, serving, and sharing of food and using all the senses in each aspect.

There are dozens of cozy mystery series that are built around food and not always to poison the body drops that drive the plot. It’s not just blood and chocolate. It’s character and relationship. Jenn McKinlay writes three different mystery series, one of which centers on a cupcake bakery, and romantic comedies including Paris is Always a Good Idea. Food and its enjoyment are central to all her books.

“The most frequent comment I hear from readers is, ‘Your books should come with a box of cupcakes because you start craving them while reading the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries.’ This is when I high-five myself for a job well done,” says McKinlay. “Cupcakes are wanton and decadent and elicit the innocence of childhood birthday parties mixed in with the naughtiness of adulthood – you know, when you decide cupcakes for breakfast is perfectly acceptable because you have a mortgage and carpool duty. Buttery cake topped with luscious frosting in any flavors you can imagine – cupcakes lend themselves to adjective-laden paragraphs that read like love scenes. Food porn is real, and it clicks with readers, but it’s also a vehicle for the writer, allowing them to give a glimpse into the inner lives of the characters through their relationships with food. In one of my rom-coms, The Good Ones, the hero seduces the heroine with sheet cake. Sheet cake! Seriously, does it get any more romantic than that?”

“I think that food has become such an important part of the mystery genre because it provides an antidote to murder, in a way,” says author Carole Buggé (who also publishes under the names C.E. Lawrence, Carole Lawrence, and Elizabeth Blake). “Since it makes life possible, food is the opposite of death – you could say the same about sex, and that does figure into the cozy genre in the form of romance, of course. But food is immediate and physical and satisfying, something everyone can relate to, and something we all need. I use food even in thrillers as a balance to the action – it provides a welcome respite where the characters can relax, and the plot can still move forward over a good meal. A story that is all action is boring, and, as my New York friends would say, ‘Hey, we all gotta eat, right?’”

Other novels use food to soothe and heal and restore. Barbara O’Neal, author of novels including The Lost Recipe for Happiness, How To Bake a Perfect Life, and The All You Can Dream Buffet, says, “There’s a reason we turn to ‘comfort’ food when we are weary and worn down by the world. Coming home, leaving the challenges of the world outside to sit down at a table with a loved one or a dog or yourself to eat a dish you love, perhaps one cooked for you or one you cooked yourself, is a radical act of healing, of respite, of peace. What could be simpler?”

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When I’m having a rough day, making the mac and cheese recipe from the original Moosewood Cookbook soothes me. The physical experience of preparing the food slows me down. It’s a mindfulness practice. I’m aware of the way the food feels as I handle it, what it looks like, how it smells. The choice of mac and cheese is ironic. I ate boxed mac and cheese during college because it was cheap and easy; by the time I graduated, I never wanted to see it or eat it again. Yet now, when I make it from scratch, making it and eating it are foundational comforts.

Other foods I eat because they remind me of people I’ve loved. Strawberry jam reminds me of laugher in the large kitchen making jam with strawberries from my grandmother’s garden; rare, juicy filet mignon with creamy mashed potatoes and a velvety Bordeaux brings back memories of a romantic dinner in London. When I think about what I miss about living in New York City, it’s not just the rugelach, Korean barbecue, fajitas, and heaps of Fettucine Alfredo. It’s the friends and families with whom I shared them.

If I’m stuck on a plot point, I often cook a meal. As I prepare the ingredients, I run the characters through my head, often preparing the meal as the character would (influenced by all those years of working in theatre). As I work, I discover something about the characters and their desires, even if I don’t write a similar meal into the story. When friends are sick or grieving, I make them food. When there’s a celebration, I make them food. If I don’t know what to say or do at a party, I go and help out in the kitchen. Food is a way to weave us closer together, strengthen our relationships, and care for each other. I’m drawn to reading (and writing) books that do so, too.

Author Erica Bauermeister, adept at weaving glorious food into her fiction, adds, “In my novel The School of Essential Ingredients, a chef is talking about her life and what makes it worthwhile. She says: ‘Every night, people used to come into my restaurant, and I would watch them as they ate my food. They’d relax, they’d talk, they’d remember who they were. Maybe they went home and made love. All I know is I was part of that. I was a part of them.’ The chef is dying of cancer, but she knows that even though the meals she cooked were eaten and gone, those small but crucial changes she made in each person’s life were important and would last. I believe this is the gift we give each other with food. The love and creativity we put into each dish become part of the person who eats it. Maybe that occurs consciously, maybe unconsciously – but I believe it happens all the same. “

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The sensations created by well-written food scenes that drive plot, reveal character, and support theme add a layer of intimacy to the interaction between reader and author, drawing them closer together. Food sensuality makes a book even more experiential, another way to let the reader live the story with the characters.

—Devon Ellington is a full-time writer, publishing under multiple names in fiction and nonfiction. She is an internationally produced playwright and radio writer. Her blog on the writing life is Ink in My Coffee (devonellington.wordpress.com), and her main website is devonellingtonwork.com.

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