When I was a kid, I used to sit in my grandpa’s filling station and eat peanuts I’d poured into my bottle of pop. I didn’t know other people did this until I read a most gratifying account from a student of their own childhood Planters/Pepsi snack. Food is memory and connection.
It’s also a life essential, so at some point in your story, especially if you’re writing a novel, you’re going to have to think about how your characters are going to interact with food and how you’re going to write about it. Food has always been a key way in which we understand each other, from group social behavior to individual dispositions. You’ll discover many narrative opportunities if you can get your story people eating.
I’ve chosen some examples of writing about food in fiction and I want to point out some ways you can use these authors’ strategies in your own stories.
1-FOOD AS PART OF THE PLOT
In Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake, the author explores complicated relationships and family secrets. At the center of the book is a black cake recipe that becomes a symbol of identity and agency.
“On that Thursday, Pearl turned up the fire under the heavy-bottomed pot and opened a sack of cane sugar. She sank a measuring spoon deep into the well of brown crystals, releasing the smell of earth and molasses. It was the finest raw sugar produced on the island but it was about to be wasted, along with eight hours of labor, to make a wedding cake for what would be a sham of a marriage.”
What happens with this cake at this wedding is a critical part of the plot. On a practical level, by taking a story about heritage and tradition and giving the themes a physical representation—in the form of a cake—Wilkerson gives herself material for scenes, including opportunities to give her readers a sensory experience.
2-FOOD AS A POSITIVE
Narnia is a dangerous place for the Pevensie siblings, and C.S. Lewis uses the Beaver’s kitchen as a location of safety and peace for them in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes . . . Mrs. Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle onto the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out.
Descriptions of food are a great way to bring some hopeful contrast to troubling times for your story people. Or just as good, to set a tone of comfort and pleasure before you yank that happy rug out from under them.
3-FOOD AS A NEGATIVE
The unappetizing dinner descriptions in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections are some of my favorite food in fiction moments.
“A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister. Boiled beet greens leaked something cupric, greenish. Capillary action and the thirsty crust of flour drew both liquids under the liver. When the liver was lifted, a faint suction could be heard. The sodden lower crust was unspeakable.”
Don’t default to thinking that the food descriptions in your story need to be pleasant. When it comes to cuisine, it’s a universal human experience—whether we’re talking haute or lowbrow—to have an encounter with the gross.
3-FOOD AS CHARACTERIZATION
In T.C. Boyle’s short story “Sorry Fugu”, a restaurant owner has just read a review from a merciless food critic and thinks back on a moment in his childhood when he realized food would be his life’s work.
Albert himself, a pudgy boy of twelve, ridiculed for his flab and the great insatiable fist of his appetite, had experienced the grand epiphany of his life in one of Udolpho’s dark, smoky, and—for him, at least—forever exotic banquettes. Sampling the vermicelli with oil, garlic, olives, and forest mushrooms, the osso buco with the little twists of bow-tie pasta that drank up its buttery juices, he knew just as certainly as Alexander must have known he was born to conquer, that he, Albert D’Angelo, was born to eat. And that far from being something to be ashamed of, it was glorious, avocation and vocation both, the highest pinnacle to which he could aspire.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of the 1825 book The Physiology of Taste, said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Indeed, food can give us great insight into our characters. “Sorry Fugu” is filled with brilliant examples of writing food in fiction. The descriptions are grandiose, hilarious, appetizing, and grotesque. Now that I think about it, I could have written this entire article just using quotes from this story. So good.
5-FOOD AS WORLDBUILDING
Check out this detailed cocktail moment in The Lies of Locke Lamora, a fantasy novel by Scott Lynch.
“Conté moved adroitly to fill this request, first selecting a tall crystal wine flute, into which he poured two fingers of purest Camorri ginger oil, the color of scorched cinnamon. To this he added a sizable splash of milky pear brandy, followed by a transparent heavy liquor called ajento, which was actually a cooking wine flavored with radishes. When this cocktail was mixed, Conté wrapped a wet towel around the fingers of his left hand and reached for a covered brazier smoldering to the side of the liquor cabinet. He withdrew a slender metal rod, glowing orange-red at the tip, and plunged it into the cocktail; there was an audible hiss and a small puff of spicy steam. Once the rod was stanched, Conté stirred the drink briskly and precisely three times, then presented it to Locke on a thin silver plate.”
The great thing about fantasy is that you can make stuff up completely (Google says there’s no such thing as ajento liquor—flavored with radishes?). But even in realism, you can make your reader feel like they’re in another world. Lean into what’s unique about the time period, the culture, and the characters.
6-FOOD AS DELIGHT
When I was around five years old, my favorite book was Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban. The adorable badger Frances had my heart. The passage I loved best, and still think about from time to time, is this one—
The next day when the bell rang for lunch, Albert said, “What do you have today?”
“Well,” said Frances, laying a paper doily on her desk and setting a tiny vase of violets in the middle of it, “let me see.” She arranged her lunch on the doily. “I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,” she said. “And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread. I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery. And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and a spoon to eat it with.”
Unlike Frances, I was not a finicky eater, and I was enchanted when she not only gave up her bread and jam but advanced to food like lobster salad (fancy!). And how sophisticated to have a cardboard shaker of salt. And how confident to bring flowers for her desktop. Oh, how many times I imagined eating that very lunch.
If you want to include a food moment, but infusing it with meaning feels like a burden, you can also let your character cook or eat as a break from all that story-striving and obstacle-overcoming. Indulge in an enjoyable food digression for the sake of it. Or even use a food-prep moment as background “movement” while your character spends time thinking.
People, including your readers, are always interested in someone’s favorite recipe, their weird eating habits, and the mini-adventures everyone takes when exposed to a new food. A food moment can be integral to your plot or completely superfluous. It can be humorous, serious, laden with meaning, or only there for fun. But writing about food in fiction is an opportunity you should capitalize on. Figure out what purpose you can fulfill with food in a scene and then give your reader something to chew on.