I thought readers of this blog might enjoy my latest post around the craft of fiction, reposted from the wonderful site Writer Unboxed. This one’s on food in fiction.
In life, people’s days are punctuated by meals. Food is an important part of our lives: of course, we need it for survival, but it’s much more than that. It’s pleasure, it’s penance, it’s anxiety, it’s joy—depending on our relationship with it. Eating together or alone, eating at home or out in restaurants and cafes, eating on the go or around the family table: it’s all part of the fabric of human life, all over the globe.
And in fiction? Well, it always used to puzzle me, as a kid, when people in books never stopped to eat or drink or you never got to hear what was for lunch, if it was mentioned. For me as a child, it was important to know: my diary as a twelve-year-old is full of mentions of the delicious things my mother had cooked up for us that day, or the yummy thing I’d bought at the school canteen that day (which my mother would have considered rubbish) or, conversely, the yuckiness of something I’d been made to try by a friend, such as vegemite—an Australian classic but not to my taste. Sure, I’m from a French background and food was intensely important in our family, but we certainly weren’t alone in that. To read a story in which there was no mention of food at all seemed odd. But to read one in which exotic delights like ginger pop (as in Enid Blyton) were mentioned—often!—was such fun. I had no idea at the time what ginger pop was but it sounded exciting, like the adventures the Famous Five or Secret Seven went on. And when Edmund, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, is offered endless Turkish Delight by the White Witch to bribe him to betray his siblings, I was horrified, but understood. Hard to resist Turkish Delight! Growing up through adolescence and into adulthood, I never lost my interest in food and cooking, and never ceased to wonder why in some novels, people seemed to exist on air.
When it came to writing my own books, that was never an issue. Food always appeared, whether glancingly or more substantially, in both my fiction for young readers and for adults. Sometimes it was just for the sheer pleasure of the description, sometimes to evoke an atmosphere, sometimes to symbolize something about a character. I couldn’t imagine leaving it out altogether. In my recent adult novel, for example, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, which is set in the French part of the Basque country, where my mother’s family is from, food functions very much too as an expression of an ancient, distinctive culture and landscape, as well as illuminating certain aspects of family. If you’re interested, the publisher produced a lovely, free digital magazine which featured some of my Basque family recipes as well as entries from a microlit competition they ran, as part of the publicity for my book.
Right now, I’m working on another adult novel in which food—and especially the creation of dishes and meals–is absolutely central, indeed a crucial part of the characters’ emotional journey. That’s a challenge in itself: because of course you can overdo it. You can cook up too rich a stew, you can overwhelm the senses with too many smells and tastes, you can nauseate the reader with too much indigestible detail. You can’t be too self-indulgent; but equally, you can’t be too restrained. It’s a fine line to tread.
I’d read recently a number of contemporary novels which featured food as a central theme—ranging from Jenny Colgan’s Meet Me at The Cupcake Café, to Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients to Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and others, all of which handled the food theme adeptly and enjoyably and with great diversity too. They all showed something important to me as a writer: in a time when people watch cooking shows for fun and cookbooks sell like, well, hotcakes, at the same time there’s less time for many around the actual stove or table. Getting the balance of ingredients right in a food-themed novel is more important than ever. Sure, they’re about dreams, escape, pleasure: but also about being grounded, about rediscovering simple things, about the basic human joy of creating something delicious that for the enchanted space of a good meal might unite us all.