Surrounded by bookish types at a Girl Friday party the other night, I was devouring party nuts and my mind drifted to food in literature. And to the astoundingly powerful role it plays in books—and, more specifically, character development. We all have a strong, visceral reaction to food, from the comfort foods we grew up with—the buttery smell of cinnamon toast or the instantly uplifting taste of a roasted chicken—to those unusual foods that will forever evoke the first moment that we tried them—perhaps our first oyster or the dim sum we happened upon on a first date. Because we all have such deep associations with it and often no lack of very strong opinions about it, food in books can be a potent detail.
Food and drink in a story offer subtle but powerful cues about a given character or moment. Just think of how much food comes up in The Goldfinch—there’s Hobie’s comforting melted cheese on toast, which is the first food that makes Theo hungry after his mother’s death; there’s Xandra’s enthusiasm over her bright-red manicotti at a touristy restaurant in Manhattan that Theo was surprised his father chose; and there’s Boris, with his rye bread at Christmas and his pickles.Each detail helps define that character. Bridget Jones’s lists of “Food consumed today” reveal absolutely everything about her frame of mind at any given time. Read “13 cocktail sticks securing cheese and pineapple” and you know she’s hit a rocky patch in her romantic life. In Herman Koch’s The Dinner, the entire narrative takes place over a single meal in a restaurant. So much about the narrator’s feelings about the evening ahead is expressed in how he describes the waiter presenting the aperitif course: “These are Greek olives from Peloponnese, lightly doused in first-pressing, extra virgin olive oil from Sardinia, and polished off with rosemary from…”
Food can also provide an avenue into a foreign culture. Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is an entire memoir/history of the Soviet Union as seen through food. She recalls the single cookbook used by all citizens during the Soviet Era, which evolved over time to propagate different political messages. (Food was considered a bourgeois luxury, so its image was refashioned to suit the Communists’ agenda.) The culture and politics of the Soviet Union was so complex that it can feel utterly opaque, but Anya makes it all immediately accessible with her descriptions of selling black-market Juicy Fruit gum on the sly at school, her unabashed delight at enjoying a rare orange, and forty-dollar pizzas in Moscow enjoyed by Putin’s oligarchs.
My children and I just read about how the pioneers made butter in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. They were wide-eyed when they learned of all the trouble Ma went to just to dye the butter yellow in winter (which, in case you’re curious, involved grating carrots, mixing them with milk and then adding them to the cream, in addition to churning the butter and then making butter pats in a special mold). Now, when my kids pour maple syrup onto their pancakes in the morning, they know where it comes from and how Laura’s family went about procuring it. That syrup provided a concrete (and delicious) point of entry and connection to Laura’s world.
Food can be used to identify a character’s class and aspirations, to convey joy, discomfort, or confidence. It can be sexy. It can be comforting. It can be almost anything. Use it wisely.