Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Food is one of those little things writers tend to forget about. After all, you want to focus on the aspects of your novel that push the plot forward – the seething contest of wits in the drawing room, the raging battle on Raynar VI, the primeval old one stirring beneath the waves – not on the cream cakes on the coffee table or the soup over the campfire.
This is understandable; after all, it would be a mistake to describe a glistening ham in vivid detail at the expense of the character drama occurring beyond it. That said, food isn’t asking to take center-stage (you’re not writing a recipe book after all), it just wants to make the most of the small part afforded to it, and it’ll pay for the privilege.Your story doesn’t have to be about food to use it well.Click To Tweet
Done well, food can act in surprising ways in fiction. It can break up extended sections of dialogue, interrupt action, or ground scenes that would otherwise be a little too high-flying. Beyond that, food evokes the sense of taste, and brings all the benefits of good sense writing. Food can also reflect your characters and the settings and cultures they inhabit, and can be used more broadly in a metaphorical or symbolic capacity. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; before we talk about what food can do, we should discuss how to write it effectively.
How to describe food
The main danger you face when sitting down to describe a meal is overdoing it. Sentence after sentence of detailed description isn’t the way to go. After all, it’s rarely the case that the food is significant in its own right – instead, it’s the effect the reference has on the wider story that is doing the work. Consider, for example, perhaps the most significant ‘food moment’ in the history of western literature: Marcel Proust’s famous madeleine scene.
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
– Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way
Here, Proust dedicates very little attention to the appearance of the madeleine – we get a lovely comparison to St. James’s scallop shell, but that’s pretty much it. Beyond that, it’s all action and sense writing. Proust slows down the actual act of consumption in a way that mirrors the narrator’s feeling of finally getting home after a long day, and when he eventually gets to the ‘warm liquid, and the crumbs with it,’ the reader can taste the tea and cake on their own tongue, an effect that is only hammered home by the narrator’s visceral physical response.
But we don’t need to go quite so deep into the literary canon to find good examples of food writing. Any good food journalist or blogger will tell you that sense writing and avoiding cliché are central to effective food writing. This means you avoid the multitudes of empty adjectives (‘delicious’, ‘tasty’, ‘cooked to perfection’), the twee pretensions (‘yummy’, ‘delectable’, ‘epic’), and the tired old hyperboles (‘an explosion in my mouth’, ‘to die for’, ‘food orgasm’).
Often, simplicity and a focus on the affected senses are key: talk about the flavors, the texture, the temperature. ‘A delicious orange’ tells us nothing, but ‘the sweet, fresh smell stung my eyes as I peeled the skin from the wet flesh beneath’ brings the action of peeling an orange into focus; the reader remembers the taut sting of citric acid, the yielding of soft peel, the pale membrane of the segments, and is suddenly there with the narrator.
Why sense writing?
We’ve talked about sense writing in more detail before, but since it’s so central to writing food effectively, it’s worth a brief recap.
Sense writing involves, unsurprisingly, the in-text evocation of the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. In this way, a writer enlivens a scene, grounds the action, and focuses the narrative on a particular moment in time. Additionally, sense writing can help us empathize with the sensing character – we are reminded that this character is human and, like us, has a whole back-catalog of sensory memories to draw upon that grant their experiences personal significance.
Consider, for example, this passage from Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See:
I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads.
– Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
What is remarkable about this passage is how it draws up boundaries around a certain time period. The evocation of colors (an instance of visual sense writing) is linked intrinsically to the passing of time, and Doerr, after marking his boundaries by leading us from dawn through to evening, zooms in on the current moment, taking care to use the tactile words ‘dragging’ and ‘touching’ to evoke motion and the sense of touch. The result is an incredibly vivid description that feels both real and alive; the reader can picture the lazy drifting of gulls, the shifting colors of the sky, and, perhaps most importantly, can empathize with the first-person narrator, which makes him seem more human. After all, who has not at some point been struck by the beauty of the sky over the sea?Sense writing is essential to writing food well.Click To Tweet
With food, sense writing is the only logical way to go. It is, after all, something we judge in terms of its taste and appearance. But wait – Doerr’s quoted description of the sea makes sense; the ocean is this big, beautiful, elemental thing that’s ripe for metaphor or symbolism. Food can’t quite boast the same level of grandeur. Why would you want to write about it in the first place?
What food can do for you
As I mentioned before, food can perform a multitude of roles in fiction. We’ve already seen how Proust’s madeleine caused such a visceral reaction in his narrator that it sparked 1.2 million(!) words’ worth of novel, but there are plenty of other writers who’ve used food in potent and novel ways. Let’s look at a few.
This is Proust’s camp, but we’ve had enough of him for now. Let’s look instead at American writer Ralph Ellison and his 1952 novel Invisible Man. It’s a novel about the issues facing black Americans in the early twentieth century, and follows an unnamed narrator whose skin color has rendered him invisible. Consider this passage, where the narrator finally succumbs and purchases a yam from a street vendor:
I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom – simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating.
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
For Ellison’s protagonist, the yam isn’t just a yam, just as Proust’s madeleine isn’t just a cake – these foods become keys that unlock the sensory memories of the characters, dragging them back into their pasts and sparking entire narratives. This is a great way of encouraging readers to empathize with characters; after all, who but a complex and irrational human could be spurred into action by the simple pleasures of food?
Metaphor and symbolism
The great thing about Ellison’s yam is that is isn’t just a key – it’s also emblematic of his protagonist’s home, and becomes a symbol for his Southern roots and his African heritage. Those who’ve read Invisible Man will remember that the protagonist has been avoiding purchasing yams from the almost-grotesque street vendor, and that his decision to finally buy one is presented as a significant event; the act of buying and consuming (publicly!) a yam represents the protagonist’s acceptance of his past and heritage.
You see this kind of metaphorical use of food all over. Sylvia Plath, in The Bell Jar, uses avocadoes as symbols that represent protagonist Esther Greenwood’s rejection of traditional gender models, while David Foster Wallace references McDonald’s hamburgers in his short story ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’ to point to Americans’ damaging obsession with empty consumerism.Food has cultural, historical and contextual baggage ready for you to utilize.Click To Tweet
You can do a similar thing – foods, after all, have stories, cultural contexts, and associations behind them. Apples, for example, have all the Biblical and Edenic baggage; grapes conjure images of decadent ancient Greeks at Dionysian revels; and you can’t mention black coffee without Voltaire, Sartre, and Camus turning up, a queue of French philosophers in tow. With these examples in mind, it’s not too much of a jump to create your own, more personal associations and symbols – Plath’s avocados, for example, did not come pre-loaded with rebellious potential; she had to invent it. And you can too!
Pacing and characterization
I probably don’t need to tell you that people tend to feel rather strongly about food. For something that is so frequently glossed over in fiction, food in the real world often finds itself at the center of domestic disputes and passive-aggressive social conflicts. I’m convinced we reserve our most bitter resentment for those monsters who snaffle away the last slice of cake.
This quiet power makes food a surprisingly effective tool for disrupting pace and developing characters in fiction, particularly during sections of extended dialogue and/or domestic drama. Jane Austen was the master at using food to reflect the motivations of her characters and the tensions of a given social scenario. Consider this passage:
Mr. Elton was still talking, still engaged in some interesting detail; and Emma experienced some disappointment when she found that he was only giving his fair companion an account of the yesterday’s party at his friend Cole’s, and that she was come in herself for the Stilton cheese, the north Wiltshire, the butter, the celery, the beet-root and all the dessert.
– Jane Austen, Emma
This delightfully snarky section works on many levels. The opening line, with its ‘still talking’ and sharply sarcastic ‘interesting detail,’ almost breaks the fourth wall – it is as if Austen is admitting to the reader that these long, dialogue-heavy domestic scenes can get pretty monotonous. In this way, the reader and Emma immediately find themselves occupying the same space – both are assumed to be a bit bored of warbling men and gossip. Much more interesting (to Emma and, because of how the sentence is framed, to the reader) is the food that Austen describes simply and matter-of-factly, as if she was laying out a spread: ‘the Stilton cheese, the north Wiltshire, the celery, the beet-root and all the dessert.’ Take note of that hungry, longing ‘all’ that precedes ‘the dessert’; Austen leaves no doubt about Emma’s motivations.Food can create empathetic bonds between reader and character: “Mmm, cake.”Click To Tweet
In this way, the passage interrupts the dragging pace of the domestic scene and reframes it comedically while ensuring that Emma and the reader are left wanting the same thing. This is an ingenious way to ensure your reader empathizes with your protagonist; essentially, the reader and Emma have shared a knowing look and a raised eyebrow at the expense of poor Mr. Elton, who remains oblivious to the whole scene and to the insidious power of his food.
Food for thought
Whether it’s a key to a character’s sensory memory; a symbol of a particular culture, philosophy, or period; or simply a means of breaking up monotonous sections of dialogue, food can work wonders in your fiction. Of course, it has to be done well; don’t forget your sense writing, avoid empty adjectives and clichés, and don’t go on about it – as much as we all love éclairs, nobody wants a paragraph about them.
Can you think of any works of fiction where food plays an important role? Are there any other uses for food I haven’t touched on? Let me know in the comments. Of course, if I’ve left you feeling hungry, you could also visit our ‘Playing with food’ board on Pinterest, which is guaranteed to make things worse.