“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” So said James Beard, the renowned chef, often called the father of American gastronomy.
As a former food writer and cookbook author, I’ve always been impressed by how food imagery can make our senses come alive. When I started writing fiction, I discovered that this type of imagery can also help connect with a character, spicing up a passage or adding zest to a scene. Note that I am not referring solely to food-centric novels, such as Chocolat by Joanne Harris or The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella. Nor am I suggesting that you incorporate recipes in the text, as Nora Ephron does in her novel Heartburn. Your novel might have nothing to do with food, but it can still benefit from a judicious sprinkling of culinary references.
Why? As James Beard said, food is our common language. You can draw the reader in simply by writing about food: describing the color, smell and texture of a piece of black forest cake slathered with whipped cream and cherries on your protagonist’s plate. Nostalgia about a childhood favorite, innocuous as it might seem – an apple, a licorice twist, a plate of spinach lasagna – can also evoke emotion and transport the reader back in time.
The daily lives of our protagonists offer ample opportunities to show them noshing, whether dashing to a café or appreciating produce at a farmers market. Globalization, by drawing the world closer, has also brought new ingredients and cooking techniques to our kitchens. We whip up guacamole, flip a salmon croquette or toss pizza dough in the air without a second thought. Our literature reflects this reality, as can be seen from the many fiction titles that delve into cooking and eating.
“Cooking is to our literature what sex was to the writing of the sixties and seventies, the thing worth stopping the story for to share, so to speak, with the reader,” writes Adam Gopnik, essayist for the New Yorker and author of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, about the morals and manners of food mania.
How? Have characters sit down to a Greek dinner, and let it go at that. You can, however, make far more effective use of food by making it a meaningful entity, be it in plot actions, character revelations or in descriptions. Here are some suggestions.
As a setting: In describing the place where your plot happens, don’t limit yourself only to the sights, sounds, weather and economy. Mention dishes that are particular to the region. The South, for example, is noted for fried chicken. France is proud of its foie gras. Thai cuisine isn’t complete without tom yam soup. Such a reference can add authenticity and take the reader on an arm-chair dining excursion.
As an element of contrast: Food often symbolizes love, joy, desire, warmth and appreciation. How do you insert it into a plot that crackles with tension with the themes of crime, betrayal and vengeance? You can end a scene with a cliff-hanger, such as a man facing a gun-toting intruder. Begin the next scene with a different thread of the story, a couple having a lakeside picnic of wine and cheese. Such contrast will both heighten the reader’s curiosity and bring welcome relief.
To fine-tune a character: Your protagonist’s eating habits can provide a clue to his character. (Check the sidebar for an exercise.) What is his favorite meal? How does he study a restaurant menu? You can also decipher the emotional state of a character by having her putter in the kitchen. In my book Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries, Sunya, a bakery owner, reflects on her signature cake: “It’s a secret recipe I carry in my genes. I’m the one who created it. This very thought gives me a fleeting feeling of power. Today I badly need that.”
As a subtext: Adding a food note of underlying tension to a dialogue can increase interest. Here’s an example. A man comes home from work and suggests Vietnamese carry out to his wife. “A bowl of pho soup is just what I need,” he says.
“Why do we always have to have Vietnamese?” his wife snaps. “Why won’t you try something new? I can’t stand Vietnamese. I never could.”
The wife’s blow up may have nothing to do with that particular cuisine. She might simply be dissatisfied with her marriage. In this case, the meal serves as a subtext and foreshadows conflict.
The language of food: In describing a comestible, you can employ adjectives, metaphors and similes, provided the images are fresh and have sensual appeal, taking care not to overdo it. M.F.K. Fisher, the eminent food writer, likens the smell of good bread baking to the “sound of lightly flowing water.” In her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender describes cake as a “small warm spongy chunk of deep gold.”
Allow your characters to live and breathe and dine on your pages. The reader might just be tempted to curl up with your novel and a plate of something similar.
Bharti Kirchner’s latest novel is Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.
*This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Writer.