Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Food in Fiction

I'm one of those people who don't like overly detailed descriptions of a character's looks. I want the barest brushstrokes to guide my inner vision - a proximate height, a build and coloring. A penchant for long flowing skirts and army boots. That's enough. Any more and I feel tied down. Especially in a main character where I hope to inhabit this person, go along with her story and emotions. If she's got grey-green eyes with blond eyebrows, seven freckles per cheek and a nose like a button mushroom. I lose some interest. Because I'm being told exactly what to see, instead of letting my imagination sketch in the image.

The exact opposite is true for descriptions of food. So many books skim over the details of meals the protagonists eat - It was a fine meal with excellent wine. They ate well of many delicacies. He grabbed a sandwich and a bag of chips. WHAT MEAL? WHAT DELICACIES? WAS IT DORITOS OR FUNYONS?

These are questions I must have answers to. Because, more than a person's physical description, food description anchors the time, place and mood. Food should give clues about characters. What they worry about, what they indulge in. Because we have to eat so often (say, compared to a boa constrictor) we get to make new choices several times a day. Those choices reflect on us, even more than the clothes we wear and our hair cuts - choices we make less often.

In Maggie Stiefvater's THE SCORPIO RACES, there's food and blood and hunger. And there are November Cakes. November Cakes are not only a food item - an expensive luxury for Puck Connelly and her brothers - they're also a symbol of the isle of Thisby and the violent, chaotic and profitable festival they hold each November. It represents the lifeblood of the island, how dependent they are on the tourists that flock to see the Scorpio Races. November Cakes are part of the culture.

No one dies for a November Cake. A November Cake doesn't win the Scorpio Races. But the description of food in THE SCORPIO RACES is as much a character in the book as any other. It is vital.

Don't let your main character walk out of her next scene carrying a bag of nondescript sustenance - leave that for the Soylent food-substitute crowd. Treat food in fiction like the rich layer of meaning it should be.

I stumbled upon a website - Food Adventures (in fiction)  - and immediately fell in love. They have a picture of - and recipe to make - November Cakes. I'm going to try them this weekend.

What about you? How do you handle food in your fiction?


  1. Uh, let me know if you want me to come and give you my beta reading in person....and eat a November cake. But the mail works, too, for that. Really, I'm sure it would ship well. I'm sure of it, and if it doesn't, I'll eat it anyway....
    Now I've crossed the line to pathetic. Yup. It's official. I'm going to go eat more peanut butter 99 cent cake...


    1. i'm going to do it, Jenny - going to make November Cakes and I'll post my results on the blog. OR you take a train ride down and experience them for yourself ;)

  2. In No Place To Fall, food is mentioned fairly regularly because Amber's Mama is a true Southern cook. She makes a mean spice cake, too!

    I love books filled with food. I love food!

    1. CAN'T WAIT to read NO PLACE TO FALL - just put it on my Goodreads 'WANT' list. Now, is it 2014 yet? And any chance of a Spice Cake recipe with the book launch?I'm with you. I especially love reading about food that's out of my cultural norm. Last night I spent no kidding 30 minutes pouring over a ZABAR's gift basket catalogue. Even my 5 yo was like "we need this Hanukkah gift basket. How to explain we don't celebrate Hanukkah when chocolate gold coins are on the line? I think I'll order the Black & White cookies though. And maybe look up a Chocolate Babka recipe? YUM!

  3. found this link on the guardian site about food in books
    Have you ever followed a recipe from a work of fiction?

  4. Food! I love food in books! And the more detailed the better. The best part: is no calories!


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