Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writing and food

Food is fuel in more ways than one. It nourishes physically when we eat it. It nourishes emotionally and socially when we gather around it. And it even nourishes creatively when we (writers, I mean) use it in our work.

Eating out was a key component in my field trips to writers’ homes, partly because I like to try new (to me) restaurants and partly because I like to write about food. It’s about details—looks, smells, tastes, textures. Recalling the meal can capture the moment.

I like writers who incorporate food and eating into their work. (Of course I do—it allows me to eat vicariously.) One of my favorites is Julia Child’s My Life in France. Restaurant meals and relationships get equal emphasis in her recollections. Learning the ins and outs of the marketplace was like learning the language. It’s a book about people, places and food.

She celebrates a local shopkeeper who sold butter and cheese with this description:

“Madame was a whiz at judging the ripeness of cheese. If you asked for ac Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and ask at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it for lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or would you be enjoying it a few days hence? Once you had answered, she’d open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff, and—voila!—she’d hand you just the right one. I marveled at her ability to calibrate a cheese’s readiness down to the hour, and would even order cheese when I didn’t need it just to watch her in action”

I love that Julia Child loved food and loved people who loved food. She captures not only the details of the skillful shopkeeper at work but also her own joy and enthusiasm.

A fictional take on incorporating food into life and story is Laura Esquirel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate. It’s a beautiful, magical love story, and food is one of the beloved objects. Recipes are incorporated into the family history. The reader knows exactly what’s in the oven or on the table, and the food has an undeniable influence on the characters and the course of the story.

“The cut-up ox tails are placed in a pan to cook with a chunk of onion, a clove of garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. It is advisable to add a little more water than you normally would, since you are making a soup. A good soup that’s worth something has to be soupy without getting watery.

Soups can cure any illness, whether physical or mental—at least, that was Chencha’s firm belief, and Tita’s too, although she hadn’t given sufficient credit to it for quite some time. But now it would have to be accepted as the truth.

About three months ago, after tasting a spoonful of soup that Chencha had made and brought to Dr. John Brown’s house, Tita had returned to her senses.”

In this fictional world food is an expression of emotions and sometimes even a catalyst of the action.

Food has played an important part in my adventure in National Novel Writing Month. I think about it as a distraction—hmm, I know I have a thousand more words to crank out before lunch, but what will I have to eat when I do get that break?

But even more importantly, I use it in the work. Whenever I’m not sure what my characters are going to do next, I sit them down around food. They drink coffee and talk—oh, and don’t forget the homemade cookies and brownies to go with the coffee. They gather around a meal, sharing it and themselves. Like real people, my characters fall into easy conversation over their plates, and suddenly they are revealing things about their pasts and their prejudices that I hadn’t known.

“We gather together …” and who knows what will happen.


  1. Such an appropriate posting for Thanksgiving week and so elegantly written!

  2. I love the food aspect of your writing. Food is such a present tense, here and now kind of thing, and taking time for to savor food can also provide a time for reflection, conversation, and insights.

  3. I don't know what happened. I posted a comment yesterday, but it never showed up. This blog entry is, of course, most appropriate for Thanksgiving and is as elegantly written as the earlier ones. The Julia Child memoir is a classic!