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Food for thought 1

Food for thought
Food for thought (Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

Food for thought: It struck me recently while going through proofs of my next novel – The Rabbit Hole – that there was a lot of food and drink in the story.

Not only pizzas, pasta, sushi, fish ‘n chips, delicious takeouts from such places as Giovanni’s Deli in Green Point, but meals consumed in fancy (and not so fancy) restaurants and cafes. It’s as if the characters eat their way around Cape Town.

And as Cape Town is wine city there is also a fair amount of wine uncorked. Of course, these days the craft IPAs have cornered a niche market in the city among the discerning, so they find their way into the story as well.

The role of food

Which all gave me food for thought: what role does all this eating and drinking play in fiction? Seems to me quite a lot.

Okay, I like eating and drinking so that’s why it’s in my stories but it goes beyond that. Meals can also play a major part in creating tension, especially if it is one of those meals where characters have gathered to plot and plan or families to fight around the dinner table.

Or the meal itself may be about characterisation. You know the old adage: we are what we eat? Well, adapt that to what a character cooks and eats can tell a reader a lot about that character. Food is characterisation.

More than that, the meal can say something about where the character lives; the culture that gives the character a context; and food and drink add texture and interest to a story.

Of course, there are novels where the references to food are scanty or in passing. A character is in a kitchen preparing a meal but we never know what they’re cooking. Or there’s a scene set in a restaurant and, again, we never know what the characters ordered.

Personally, I prefer the details. Or at least some of the details to whet my appetite. These little insights into the lives of characters go a long way to making the characters come alive while they can also create that all-important sense of place.   

Preparing a funeral meal

Funerals and their rituals are important in many cultures. About a third of the way into Sindiwe Magona’s Beauty’s Gift, she describes a meal made after the death of a young boy. What happens and how it happens says a great deal about the cultural rituals of the mourners.

“The young men of the family had just finished slaughtering a sheep when the FFF arrived. Now, Cordelia and Doris went out to the two makotis kneeling over huge plastic basins in the backyard. These were Nomvo and Sange, whose new blue German-print dresses announced their newlywed status. The old-fashioned way they were cleaning the innards marked them as novices. Cordelia quickly took over. She dragged over the garden hose and thrust it into the opening of each intestine, letting the water do the flushing. What would have taken each woman a full hour or more was done in seconds.

The same could not be said of the work Edith and Amanda had chosen. They’d joined the vegetable-chopping crew. In the kitchen, all you could hear was the sound of a small army of knives. Chop-chop. Chop-chop. It seemed to go on forever. Chop-chop-chop. Chop-chop-chop.

While waiting for the rest of the food, the men put some of their meat, set aside for that purpose, directly on the open fire to roast and eat.

While the cooking was under way, the eldest of the men, Tatomkhul’uXolo, took some of what the woman had cleaned out of the innards before Cordelia had interfered with the time-honoured process, put it into a beaker, mixed it with bile from the slaughtered beast, and then added a little water to thin the mixture to a thick but drinkable consistency.”

Great meals

Splendid meals are scattered throughout literature. In her book, Stories from the Kitchen, Diana Secker Tesdell, described some of the most memorable meals in literature from Marcel Proust to Virginia Woolf, Günter Grass to Nora Ephron, Amy Tan and TC Boyle. Tesdell listed 10 of those meals in an article in The Guardian.

Sometimes meals are not only about enjoying food, sometimes they are occasions where grisly things happen. You’ll find this in Harry Potter, the Game of Thrones, Dickens, and Alice in Wonderland. Lots of food for thought.

A particularly horrendous massacre at a wedding feast happens in George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords where the Stark family are taken out. And the “black fungus” of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake is enough to turn the strongest stomach. You can read about these and other delectable revenge meals here.

Cooking the books

During lockdown last year, crime writer Val McDermid had the brilliant idea of a creating a YouTube video series called Cooking the Books, where she cooked dishes that the characters in her books eat.

“We were all doing these Zoom events, and I was worried people would get bored, so it was something to give them a bit of a laugh that was loosely connected to the books,” she told the Sunday Times. “People often talk about the food in the books and ask me for recipes.”

You can find the full interview here.

Writing tip

Having your characters prepare or buy food, eat the meals, or go out to restaurants can create fascinating scenes rich in texture, characterisation, culture, tension and story. Food for thought, yes?

Being prepped

In a coming blog I’ll look at how Sally Andrew uses food in her Tannie Maria series, the Woolies takeaways that keep Deon Meyer’s cop Benny Griessel happy, and what Anthony Bourdain dished up in his crime novel, Gone Bamboo.

Get more out of your writing.

Click here for a short course on Writing Fiction. The next course starts in March 2021. Click here for a short course on writing a memoir, Writing Reality. The next course starts in March 2021. If you’re looking for supervision while writing your novel or memoir, join The Writers’ Masterclass. There’s a new class starting in February 2021.