I recently read a book which, for various reasons, left me cold. It didn’t do the job of engaging me in the story or making me care about the characters. There were several reasons, but one was that the characters never ate.
Off the top of my head I can think of several books where the people who populate the goings on don’t eat. Thrillers have to keep the pacing up, and eating isn’t thrilling (well, to most folks). Other authors have the good habit of skipping all the boring stuff even if they aren’t writing thrillers.
On the other side of the coin are the mysteries that revolve around food. Over time they’ve carved out their own subgenre: culinary mysteries. And boy, are they popular.
My Home Crafting Mysteries don’t really fall into that vaunted category. There are no caterers, no bakeries, no restaurants. Some of the home crafts are food oriented – cheese, mead, and home canned veggies. But really? My characters simply eat a lot. Not a lot in terms of volume, but certainly on a regular basis. Almost like actual people.
Food can be a useful tool to enhance storytelling. Another layer to add to atmosphere, an indicator of things going on under the surface. And some food has deep symbolic roots the author can tap into. It can:
Reflect regional tastes. My books are mostly set in the Pacific Northwest, and many of the menus include salmon, crab and other seafood which is readily available there. When I moved the fourth in the series to Colorado, meals reflected dishes from south of the border and also featured some of the Southern cooking that Sophie Mae’s mother grew up with.
Indicate the time of year in which the story takes place. Heaven Preserve Us is set in February, so the fresh offerings are limited while the canned goods get a good working out. Spin a Wicked Web is set in June, when fresh peas and new potatoes tossed with parsley butter or salads made from baby greens are realistic options.
Show emotion and the relationships between characters. Missed meals indicate stress and urgency but so can eating peanut butter out of the jar with the biggest spoon in the drawer or wiping out all six portions of chocolate mousse chilling in the fridge. When eleven-year-old Erin is upset about the death of a neighbor, Sophie Mae and her housemate make her favorite meal of spaghetti and meatballs. When Barr refuses a square of Sophie Mae’s classic carrot cake, she knows something is seriously amiss.
Offer additional sensory data without hijacking the story or purpling the prose. Eating is basic, and adding the layer of cooking and food to a story can help ground the reader more firmly.
How else do you think food/eating can enhance a story? Or do you think it detracts from the important action? As a reader, do you enjoy culinary touches in a book? As an author, do you use food as an element of your writing?