I’ve been thinking about food a lot. About how we think about it, talk about it, choose it, prepare it, enjoy it or feel guilty about it, but mostly how it works in story. I’ve always said that setting is time, place, and people. Now I’m thinking it’s time, place, people, and food.
Here’s what I think about food in fiction.:
It establishes character
The way characters think about food–as a pleasure, as something to be avoided or controlled, as a way of relating to others, as a comfort and escape–can be a great way to characterize them. In Bet Me, Min’s old boyfriend was always watching calories and paying too much for expensive meals because he liked to control the way things looked; Cal just enjoyed good food because he liked to experience pleasure. Min was caught between them until Cal seduced her over to the butter side of things. There were people who objected strongly to that, which I think reinforces the food-is-character theory: they didn’t like Cal because he kept sabotaging her diet.
And there’s another thing about fictional food: The kind of food makes a difference because it characterizes the people eating it. For example, hot carbs are comfort food. In my first published book, long before I was having deep thoughts about food and character, there’s a scene in which the Wrong Guy tries to take the heroine’s mashed potatoes away from her, and she stabs him with her fork because he’s clearly the enemy. I’ve been using carbs as love ever since–Agnes feeds Shane (and everybody, really) pancakes, Andie makes banana bread for Alice, Nita shares her French toast with Nick, and god knows, people eat thousands of potstickers in my books. The whole idea of comfort food is a natural match for people in relationships who want to make each other feel warm and loved. It has nothing to do with calories and everything to do with how good food can make you feel. It wasn’t until I started thinking about this that I realized I have a protein things, too, with the sausage and ribs that Agnes slings at her men and the eggs that Nita shares with Nick, even before we get to the garlic chicken and mu shu pork later, not to mention the Chicken Marsala that Cal teaches Min to make. Solid, practical food for solid practical people.
It shows relationship growth
I pretty much built the relationship between Agnes and Shane on food and sex, and after awhile, Shane collated them because they were both intense pleasures associated with Agnes. That aligns with research on the dinner date as the first move in a relationship. Cautious people meet for coffee first; if somebody turns down a love interest’s invitation to dinner, that character is saying no to a lot more than food. And once people begin eating together regularly, they begin to know each other’s habits and tastes. One of my favorite food scenes in any movie is from Two Weeks Notice, when, during a business lunch, George puts his ice cubes in Lucy’s drink and then takes her beets. These people have a relationship, and it’s shown through their assumptions about each other’s food.
But food doesn’t just build romances, it builds all relationships. In Maybe This Time, Andie knows the kids are in a bad place when she sees the food they’ve been getting. Alice lets Andie in as her foster mother when Andie makes her banana bread and then shows her how to make it, too. And it’s not a coincidence that Alice knows the woman who looks like Andie isn’t her when she gets banana bread wrong, it’s one of the cornerstones of their relationship.
Food is also a good way to show community by showing people who are comfortable sitting down to eat together on a regular basis. Agnes does that, of course, but I’m also building that deliberately in Nita’s book: Nick and Nita start with breakfast on their own, have dinner with her family and Rab and Dag that evening, have breakfast with Rab, Dag, and Button the next morning, and end up with Rab, Dag, Button, and Max at dinner that night. There are plot reasons for all of those meals, but there are character and team reasons, too: eating together builds a fictional family.
It demonstrates social power
The person who controls the table, controls the interaction. My fave example of this from my own work is the dinner scene in Strange Bedpersons because it’s arranged by the wealthy parents of the hero’s best friend to humiliate the blue-collar best friend of the heroine in order to break up her romance with their son. The heroine gets angrier and angrier and eventually takes over the dinner to defend her friend, using the swanky restaurant as a weapon against the parents. But there’s also the table scene in Fast Women (“Drink to me, I’ve slept with everybody here”) and the rehearsal dinner in Bet Me that Min controls even though her mother thinks she’s in charge, and the endless breakfast scenes in Agnes where she makes Shane accept Garth and where Lisa Livia meets Carpenter, finishing with the late night leftover dinner she makes everybody eat when she finds people pointing guns at each other in her kitchen. I love a dinner scene when my heroine’s in charge.
It reinforces setting (time, place, and people):
It’s probably no secret to anybody here that I love a good diner, and that’s because I love the people who go to diners. They aren’t people who are trying to impress anybody, they just want to eat good, hot, simple food. My kind of people. I also like people who like take-out; these are people who like eating where they live, like inviting others into their spaces to share food without making a big deal out of hard they worked to prepare that meal. “I ordered Chinese; who wants potstickers?” One of the reasons I’ll never write a historical is the food: there are certain foods I cannot live without and neither can my characters.
But food also says a lot about place. We workshopped a story once in my MFA program about a girl who lived in Appalachia and who brought a casserole to the home of somebody whose relative had died. And the prof, who was brilliant, said, “Couldn’t you think of anything less cliched than a casserole?” That was one of his less brilliant comments because the fact that it was a casserole was important. There’s a reason people in middle class and poorer communities bring casseroles: they’re cheap, they’re easy, they freeze really well, and everybody likes them. Beyond that, they’re a tradition. It’s what you do in that community unless you’re trying to stand out, make a statement, and this character would not want to stand out, she wants desperately to make sure nobody notices her. So hell yes, she’d bring a casserole. That’s part of your time/place/people setting: at this time and in this place, that’s what people do.
The key to food scenes is that they have to serve a purpose in the story, eating that food in that time and place with those people has to make a difference to the characters and the plot; so that if you took that food, that meal, out of the story, it wouldn’t work. Any food scene (like any other scene) must be necessary.
And now I’m starving and must go find food, so it’s your turn..
What’s your favorite food scene in a book or movie? Most important, WHY did you like it so much?