Food is an intricate part of literature.
Eating While Reading
A joke from I don’t know how far back is that literature is a one-handed occupation, ostensibly because the reader is supposed to be doing something with the other hand. I confess that usually that other thing for me is eating. Nothing makes me hungrier than a book. If you’re looking for advice on easily consumable items whilst one hand is occupied holding your Kindle or paperback, The Kitchn has a wonderful little list of foods to eat while you’re reading.
Food is also social. I’ve heard of book clubs trying to schedule food-themed meetings. One book club I have enjoyed is a wine and words club. Even if it is in poor taste that it is one partitian from an AA meeting, but I digress.
One particularly good food and wine-pairing is for Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave. The usual book club guides include lists of wines that go with this chick lit novel that centers around wine country.
Having food-themed book clubs makes perfect sense in a world where it seems you can’t go to a movie without popcorn and every event or social occasion must have a food component. So, it’s positively American for book clubbers to make choices that have particularly good food pairings already set up, or they can stretch the theme a little to accommodate both their love of food and love of literature.
Book clubs that focus on food may have to sacrifice one for the other, and they’ll set aside books where the food is unappetizing. I will vow never to write a book with food-pairing in mind, but I promise that characters in my books will eat “on-camera.” I can’t be held responsible for it happening unintentionally.
Food Between the Pages
Food is the stuff of real life. It helps make world building real. Food creates the kind of sensory details that give a setting specificity of time and place. While the room and the dinnerware may tell part of the story, the food is tangible, three-dimensional, relatable. Food, by showing characters in real activities, elevates them into human beings.
I reread Heidi to my children a couple of months ago. My personal memory of the book was mainly food-related, and when I would mention it to other avid book readers, it is a universal experience. “The cheese!” everyone seems to say, nodding in agreement. There’s even a post from The Toast that delights in the consumption of cheese inspired by the book. (Talk about food/book pairings!) Heidi’s appetite for life becomes the reader’s hunger for cheese. In this instance, there is a direct correlation between the food described and the food I have the urge to consume.
It is that (innocent) sensuality, the biological imperative that unites us. It is as much how characters eat as what they eat that tells the story.
What is Oliver Twist without that watery porridge? I’m hardly running to the pantry to pull out the Quaker’s Instant Oatmeal. But Dickens was doing as much with the contrast between Oliver’s request for more gruel and the indulgent suppers shared between his “benefactors” as he was with the contrast between the boy’s inadequate rags and elaborate waistcoats of his betters. When the poor orphan’s fortunes change and he gets to eat puddings and fill his belly, I’m right there with him, enjoying the feast after the famine.
Food gives the reader a sense of place, it can establish conflict, and it is an important element of a good novel. And it can symbolize so much more.
It can stand in for actual sensuality—as Thomas C. Foster describes the very carnal feast scene from Tom Jones in his chapter, “Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion from How to Read Literature Like a Professor. The gross, noisy consumption between Tom Jones and the woman of his desires, Foster points out, signifies something else.
In contrast, another indelible image I have carved into my memory is of a meal from Eric Jong’s Fear of Flying. A newlywed, she is nervously, painstakingly cooking for her husband, but doesn’t realize until afterward that she has cooked an entire meal with no variety: all shades of white. It has probably been thirty years since I read that depiction, but the visual and emotional impact, the dryness in her throat, my empathetic nausea, have stayed with me.
Writing About Food in Literature
Aaron Hamburger emphasizes a more sensory approach in his article Bon Appétit: How Food Writing Fed My Fiction. His journey into food writing had an immediate effect on his writing overall. For instance, as a food writer, he was tasked with close observation, specific sensory descriptions, while still trying to say something others had not already said.
I see it as a great test of writing success to describe something familiar in a new way. Writing, like all art, is taking the ordinary and elevating it. Novel writing is by definition doing something new. Unless it is rooted in reality, however, novelty will fail to engage the reader.
Writing eating scenes is not easy, and the meal, however well-described, should be more than incidental or “happy people in Happy Land” as James Scott Bell describes in his post “How to Write an Eating Scene.” He suggests using the activities during the meal to drive elements of the story, specifically, tension.
Good books in any genre don’t waste the readers’ time. Like any sex scene or fight scene, meals can serve to carry the book along nicely, or can drag on too long, depending on the skill of the writer and readers’ personal tastes.
What is your favorite food scene from a book you’ve read lately? Or better yet, what is a meal you remember from a book you read years ago?