When I first started reading Haruki Murakami, one thing struck me enough that I ended up having a long conversation with my father at the dinner table (appropriately) about it: The constant inclusion of food in his novels. He always tells you what his characters are eating, frequently in detail; whether a character is preparing a meal or rooting through the fridge to find leftovers or going out to a restaurant, you know what’s being eaten, and if you read between the lines, you know why. Food becomes an integral part of the narrative, a critical part of the story, because messages are being sent through the contents of the character’s plates.
It provides an intimate glimpse into small daily minutia that brings characters to life for me. I want to know what people are eating because everyone eats (or, sometimes, doesn’t eat, or doesn’t eat often, in which case that, too, is a critical part of the story, as seen in books like Wintergirls), and food can tell you a lot about someone’s mood. How that person feels, and what’s going on in that person’s life. What do people eat when they are sad and in need of comfort? How do people prepare food when they are hurried and just need to get some calories on board?
Other people tell me they find this aspect of Murakami’s work immensely tedious. They don’t want to hear the details of every meal eaten over the timespan of the book, let alone each time the character goes to sleep or uses the bathroom. They’re more interested in the action and while they might sit still for an important meal, they don’t need to read recipes embedded in the text. Everyone gets something different out of what they read, of course, but I always have room for pause when people tell me they don’t want to read about food.
A lot of Western fiction doesn’t really include meals, unless it’s integral to the text. One place where I saw it pop up and was somewhat surprised was in Twilight, where there are several discussions about meals, including those made by Bella and her father (enchiladas, fish fry) and by the werewolves (remember Leah’s house?). Meyer included food consciously as part of her scene-setting and it was interesting to see how she used it to convey information about her characters and underscore specific social attitudes.
Bella cooking at home for her father reminds us of her backstory; with a flighty mother, she was relied upon to make meals, and she had to be proficient at making basic food. It also reminded us of some cultural expectations, particularly in Mormon communities like those Meyer knows, where women need to be able to make food for men, and should prepare pleasing meals, too; we see Bella debating what to make for her father Charlie in the knowledge that he’ll reject some dishes because they are not to his taste. She must stand in as a housekeeper and manager of basic needs not only for herself, but for her father.
Likewise, Leah’s position in the werewolf community is closely connected with her role as a woman; she’s a nourisher and protector, rather than a huntress, as she is reminded when the male characters attempt to protect her. Leah feeds the boys when they come in from romping because this, too, is her job, even though she’s their age and also has supernatural abilities. We even meet her in a food-based setting, a pasta party, which underscores the sense of community among the werewolves, who frequently eat communally and share responsibilities.
As a narrative device, food can be important. The food scenes in the Twilight Saga tell us a lot about the characters as well as the author’s own attitudes to food and culture, just as they do in Murakami. I’d argue that Murakami’s use of food in his narratives is deeper and more complex, but it, too, is an authorial insertion of a form because it’s so everpresent in his texts. One thing in common across his books is food and deep relationships with it, especially men who cook, and particularly men who enjoy cooking elaborate meals for themselves and passing them off as ‘simple’ or ‘quick.’
Why aren’t more authors working with food and using it to their advantage? Given the less-than-thrilled response from many Westerners to the food in Murakami, and the lack of attentiveness to food in Twilight, I guess that’s one answer. Authors may not be consciously thinking of it, or could be aware that their audiences may find descriptions of meals dull. But I think it also speaks to something deeper about our social attitudes when it comes to food, which many people seem to consider to be a shameful, solitary, private pursuit, rather than a communal one or something that should be talked about. No one wants to hear about what you’re eating unless the food is associated with an event, in which case the event takes centre stage and the food is secondary.
Food tends to play a prominent role in cozy mysteries, and that’s about it. Yet, it can and should have a place in literary fiction, because it is such a critical aspect of our survival and experience of the world. I want to know what people in a post-apocalyptic world are eating on a regular basis. I want to know what food wealthy members of the elite are eating in a fantasy. I want to know what an ordinary character is eating in a contemporary YA. And I want to see how the dietary habits of characters shift in response to changing circumstances, moods, major events in their life; I want to see people eating funeral baked meats and heartbreak cakes.
Characters are alive. That means they need to eat. Why not show us what they’re eating?