Food for thought 2

Food for thought
Food for thought (Pic: Henley Design Studio on Unsplash)

Food for thought: so you want to use food as a way of bringing your character to life but you’re wondering how to do it? Do you sit them down to a meal? Do you have them sprinkling spices into a pan of sautéed vegetables? Do you have them ordering-in pizzas?

As you can see, those options all say different things about your characters. The sit-down meal shows conviviality but it could also be a serious and formal business occasion, or a rowdy family meal, or a meeting of gangsters sharing a tub of KFC nuggets, or elderly people in a retirement home dining hall.

Cooking says many things, too. It shows an inventive and creative character. A caring character. Possibly also a character who likes to show off. While the takeaway option could indicate laziness or urgency or desperation.

There are lots of options when it comes to how you have your characters relate to food and drink. Here are some very different examples of how authors have used food in their stories.

Food for thought: Sally Andrew

Sally Andrew hit the bookshops with her hugely successful Recipes for Love and Murder in 2015 which introduced the character of Tannie Maria and her love of cooking and sleuthing. It also started a series and since then two more titles have been added: The Satanic Mechanic and Death on the Limpopo.

Recipes opens with Tannie Maria making apricot jam which just goes to show how important food is for Andrew in the characterisation of Tannie Maria:

“Isn’t life funny? You know, how one thing leads to another in a way you just don’t expect.

That Sunday morning, I was in my kitchen stirring my apricot jam in the cast-iron pot. It was another dry summer’s day in the Klein Karoo, and I was glad for the breeze coming in the window.

‘You smell lovely,’ I told the appelkooskonfyt.

When I call it apricot ‘jam’ it sounds like something in a tin from the Spar, but when it’s konfyt, you know it’s made in a kitchen. My mother was Afrikaans and my father was English and the languages are mixed up inside me. I taste in Afrikaans and argue in English, but if I swear I go back to Afrikaans again.

The apricot konfyt was just coming right, getting thick and clear, when I heard the car. I added some apricot kernels and a stick of cinnamon to the jam; I did not know that the car was bringing the first ingredient in a recipe for love and murder.”

That recipe is given in full in Chapter Three but I won’t spoil the suspense in case you haven’t read the novel. At the end of the book there are pages and pages of Tannie Maria’s recipes (26 pages in all).

Food for thought: Deon Meyer

Over the range of Deon Meyer’s cop novels featuring Bennie Griessel, his protagonist has gone from Zinger burgers and Fanta orange ordered at KFCs to Steers burgers and chips to takeaway meals from the Woolworths food stores. Which is a one hundred and eighty degree swing.

So here is Bennie in 7 Days weighing up his options in a Woolies food store at an Engen garage.

“Without any appetite he looked at the sandwiches and the microwave meals, angry all over again at Steers, for discontinuing their Dagwood burger. ‘It takes too much time, sir, the clients don’t want to wait that long, sir.’ What was happening to the world – people didn’t want to wait for decent food any more. Everything had to be fast: tasteless, ugly, but fast.”

Later, in his kitchen he shoves a chicken and broccoli in cheese sauce takeaway into the microwave. And there you have it. Griessel has gone from burgers to chicken and broccoli – a fairly significent character development. Is he going soft? Is he on the wagon? Who is influencing his choice of such healthy food?

In Icarus, Griessel arrives home to find Alexa (girlfriend) has left “a Woolies ready meal on the kitchen table: Luxury Smoked Trout en Croute, with a note in her handwriting on how to cook it.”

A little later he gets home to find “On the kitchen table was a packet of cold meat, Woolies Wafer Thin Selection, beside a packet of Low GI Mediterranean Chickpea Salad.”

We know that something drastic has happened in Griessel’s life.

Food for thought: Anthony Bourdain

Apart from being a highly entertaining food writer, Anthony Bourdain wrote three really good crime novels. As you’d expect there’s a lot of food in all of them but my favourite examples are in Gone Bamboo.

The novel starts off with a character wanting a sandwich from room service but it’s the making of breakfast by Tommy who, we are told, was once a “chef in New York” that does it for me. He “expertly” cracks four eggs into a copper mixing bowl with one hand and then gets down to business:

“The kitchen smelled of cloves and gun oil. Tommy sprinkled ground nutmeg into the copper bowl added some cinnamon, a shot of Cointreau, and a few ounces of heavy cream, then whipped the mixture together with a balloon whisk. He unwrapped a loaf of panettone from the bread box and with a sharp, carbon steel knife sliced off three thick hunks from one end.”

It turns out that Tommy is making French toast and if this attention to detail – let alone his confidence – doesn’t make you go in search of food, then I give up. You’ll find lots more like this throughout the novel.

Writing tip

Food is important when it comes to characterisation. You don’t need to have your characters eating all the time but if they become associated with a particular meal or takeaway or drink you go a long way to bringing them to life in your reader’s imagination.

Part three of Food for thought will discuss people eating people.

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