Feed me: Fiction and food

One of my favourite things about Haruki Murakami’s work, especially from the earlier years, is this: His characters are always eating. They’re cooking, they’re finding weird restaurants and eating in them, they’re talking about food with other characters. Food becomes another character in the text, a rich and complex and interesting part of the story that’s always there, and adds to the depth of the tale.

The foods that characters eat — or don’t eat — tell me a lot about them. In contemporary fiction set in a familiar culture, food tells me a lot, from the type of cheese people use to make grilled cheese sandwiches to whether they’re vegan (or not). Food is a tremendous cultural shorthand and touchstone.

When I’m reading books set in unfamiliar cultures, I’m often learning a lot through food, mediated by the characters. I see when people are snobbish and how people interact with the food system. I see which members of the household go to market, and who does the cooking. I learn about attitudes surrounding readymade or frozen foods, about culinary shortcuts. When characters are nostalgic or eating traditional things, that, too, tells me things.

Which is why I always think it’s so strange when I read a book where hardly any eating takes place. I’ve commented on this phenomenon in book reviews, usually while looking at books where some high-quality eating is happening, but it’s an everpresent thing for me.

Food should be part of worldbuilding. If you’re crafting a fantasy or science fiction landscape, you have an opportunity to decide things like where food comes from, who grows it, what people grow. Whether climate threatens crops. What happens if there’s a blight. Who has the power and control and how they exercise it. The scene in a science fiction novel where a character is transfixed by an orange seen on board another ship, growing in an orchard, that tells me so much about the character, and about her world, and about her culture, that a single orange should be such a figure of fascination.

In historical fiction, food can make or break the setting for me. I pay attention to what characters eat and whether their food is historically accurate — did they even have that food then? Does this character’s social class match with what they are eating, and the foods they know about? Is this food that I think of a luxury now not actually the case then, and if so, why is a wealthy character eating it and exclaiming in delight? When characters are going through hardship, what are they eating? Where are they getting it? What kind of porridge do they serve at the poor house? What is the healer using in that soothing tea?

And in contemporary fiction — or close enough, with some changes — food also matters intensely. Food says so much about cultural background and community and class and experience. I think of Sarah Rees Brennan and the children of a wealthy family in the Demon’s Lexicon who have no idea how to cook anything because the cook always makes it, or they order something in. I think of Ramona Blue and the cake. I think of what characters eat when they get home from a fight, when they wake up with a lover, when they’re going to school and standing in line for free and reduced lunch. I think of regional variations and how they can be used to tremendous effect, and how they can jar readers out of their setting, too.

Seeing characters explore food isn’t boring or unnecessary or secondary to the plot. It’s part of the scene setting. Maybe I don’t need to see every single meal, every single snack, every spoonful of peanut butter guzzled down for extra energy in the middle of the day. But when I see no food at all, ever, it’s alienating and makes me a little bit suspicious. Who are these people? What are they doing? Because if they’re poor, believe me, food and where it is coming from is definitely a concern. If they’re wealthy, they may have a complex relationship with food, whether they’re new to money or living on generations of ill-gotten gains.

What are people eating when they travel? Do characters get sick when they eat unfamiliar food, like a poor character wolfing down an extremely rich meal, or a traveler encountering something way spicier than she’s used to as she sets out across the land to rescue the prince? Does anyone have allergies? Do people know what allergies are? When eternal winter sweeps across the land, what happens to crops? If the earth is bathed in fire, where are the food stores? What is Cinderella eating as she scavenges in the kitchen for scraps? Are the housemaids punished when they’re caught with the juice of a forbidden fruit on their lips? When a character tries to impress a partner by cooking a meal, what’s on the menu?

Are there foods in your world that are strongly associated with specific cultures? Are there things that make people feel cozy and warm? Are there things that seems gross and repugnant and dirty and beneath some people because of their cultural associations? What do parents and lovers and friends turn to when they want to make something soothing at the end of a bitter day? What do people eat after the funeral? What’s on the table at the wedding? What’s the first thing parents feed their children when they’re weaning? What kind of bread does the sin eater consume? What foods do people leave on the family altar? When the priest is invited to dinner, which special foods make their way onto the table? When a child begs for a birthday cake in a time of privation, what does a parent or sibling have to do in order to round up the ingredients, as a gesture of love?

Which opening line is more evocative?

We ate dinner crowded around the hospital bed, the air filled with the scent of Italian food, and I felt a vague sense of guilt at the creamy perfection of the seafood risotto on my plate. 

Or

We ate dinner crowded around the hospital bed. 

Image: dinner, allie pasquier, Flickr