Thursday, July 27, 2006

A La Carte

While on a reading binge of knock-'em-and-stomp-'em books, I ruminated on the fact that the characters never ate - other than the occasional steak in a passing restaurant that they never had time to finish.
In a series of romantic suspense stories, the hero and heroine barely had time to scoff down a hamburger and fries.
Of course, while the hero was off at the fast food kiosk, the TSTL heroine has time to make The Phone Call which blows their cover.
And usually, the hero can whip up bacon and eggs The Morning After to show how sensitive, caring, or domestic he is. Or something.
Food isn't just about vitamins and minerals and carbohydrates any more.
An industry person observed once that he was allergic to tea drinkers, because it was a sure sign of several pages of tedious internal monologue.

On the other hand, anyone who has read Rex Stout's Nero Wolf series knows the the daily menu of gastronomical delights served to round out the characters, expand the detective's private world - as well as several other plot functions I'm too lazy to follow up this morning - and make some readers drool all over the pages.
Of course, the prominence of food depends on the story. It depends on the characters. It depends on the time and setting. Like anything else, has to be appropriate.
In narratives where world building is a key part of the scene, one cannot always ignore food, whether it's a banquet in medieval times or some alien society on a distant planet.
Food is a ceremonial social interaction as well as sustenance.
Food can be used to show a character's mental state ( gagging, choking), express conflict ( pie in the face), detail setting ( Waterford crystal), sketch back action ( flies settling on), sexual tension/intention ( oysters/pickles), etc.
Food is an unobtrusive tool, a subtle metaphor, because it is always there, part of the natural and expected order of things.

Modern fiction often reflects the current social mores and morals regarding food, as it does with declasse activities such as smoking and drinking or the usually awkward, promotional instructive exercise about condoms.
Seldom does one see a main character check the batteries in the smoke detector, however.
The point will be made that the heroine's sandwich is made on whole-grain bread, her tea is herbal and her salads organic.

Found I tend to neglect food in my first WIP.
Even avoided the nefs and courtesies of the lord's high table by having my Damie served in seclusion the solar while she's in the 12th century and made only passing references during lunch in real time.

Do you use food and its associated rituals to any degree in your stuff? And how do you use it? Does it show or tell something beyond background realism?


M.E Ellis said...

other than the occasional steak in a passing restaurant that they never had time to finish.


My last two books have Chinese meals in them. Perv has a selection of food.

Found this post funny, and of course, thought provoking.



Bernita said...

I find most food descriptions interesting, Michelle.

Erik Ivan James said...

Very good, and original, post.

I'm using it some in mine.

Sure as hell not a "metrosex" menu, though.

December Quinn said...

Oh! My people tend to eat so much I'm making a conscious effort to have them eat less!

Honestly, they eat because everybody eats, you know? :-)

But I do find it useful for all kinds of things. In one story the heroine had just escaped an abusive marriage, so she made a point in the first few chapters of eating junk food that the ex wouldn't allow her to have.

In another it was not only a good way to do some character-building for the hero but a bit of a red herring as well, and the food issue was used in the beginning to show their mistrust of each other (they hid behind the food-not literally but making sure their mouths were full so they could watch each other, etc). In one scene having the heroine refuse her favorite food was an illustration of how upset she was (I hope. Keep in mind none of the scenes I'm describing may actually work, it's just what the intention was.)

In another the hero made the heroine cook in front of him, without mentioning why or making a big deal of it because he wanted to make sure she wasn't poisoning his food.

I've never used food in a sex scene, though. Hmmm.

MissWrite said...

Interesting post. Food, although intrigal in our everyday lives is really rather mundane, unless it brings some sort of revelation with it to the character the way you pointed out.

There is another 'rule' although not really often discussed in writing and that is 'a writer should avoid two deadly surroundings' (I came up with the wording myself, and surroundings was the only word I could think of on the spur of the moment, lol.)--driving, and sitting around eating.

Nothing is more stagnant - usually- than a scene with characters in a car, or sitting around a table.

I've done them both. I've seen both carried off very well. It's extremely tricky for the writer though.

Here I go again with the 'the writer really needs to know why they're doing this' thing again. They do though. If you find yourself getting ready to put your character behind the wheel of a car... stop. Think 'why'. Is it going to be active enough? Is there going to be something important happening there? Funny? Suspensful? Whatever fits your story... but don't just put them there and then go one for several paragraphs about the trip. Snooze city.

Table talk. Really good when it's for a reason. Reeeeaaaallly boring if it's not.

Food itself. It's a lot like clothing description. Should be used like a strong seasoning. Some writers use so much that it's overpowering. Some don't use enough and it may taste a little watered down. Some use just the right amount to add flavor, and it makes the story more fun.

Just my two cents. :)

Love your cartoons too, Bernita. Always a little smile in the morning. Cool award, too!

Scott said...

I hadn't given food a serious thought, but after reading this, I may have to. I didn't realize so much was going on at the dinner table.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Hmmm... fascinating observations, Bernita! I think I tend to avoid food most of the time.

On the two occasions I have made mention of it, 'twas only to illustrate that the characters were 1) starving due to homelessness, and 2) starving due to being abducted and tortured for several days.

Never even considered having them eat like normal people. Perhaps because I don't eat like normal people (breakfast=coffee, lunch=grab sandwich, keep working!).

Great post and definitely something to think about!

MissWrite said...

S.W.--You too? I totally forget about breakfast, although I NEVER forget coffee. Lunch is whatever I can grab during a run through the kitchen. Dinner--I am forever being reminded around here that 'it's getting late, are you going to make anything?', and usually the others in the house go about making something for themselves when I don't answer. LOL

When I do make dinner, I've burned more pots, and pans while cooking and going off to write just a little more while it's cooking. Maybe I should check the batteries in my smoke detector more often, it sure has come in handy at times.

S. W. Vaughn said...

OMG, Miss Write -- that is exactly what happens around here! :-) Last night around (late) dinner time, I put some water on to boil and went back to just do a little bit more while I was waiting. By the time I remembered to check on it, the pot was almost empty, having all boiled away...

We are kindred spirits! :-)

Bernita said...

Thank you, Erik. Think food choice should reflect the character.

That's the sort of thing I'm driving at, December, a reinforcement.
BTW, I have used food as a followup to a semi sex-scene, am not sure it would be...erm...tasteful to repeat it here though.

Thank you, Tami. Really nice of Michelle, I think.

I'm following the writing theory that every detail should do double duty. And I think eating scenes should be 9 parts dialogue.

Sometimes one cannot logically escape a dinner scene, Scott, but one should make it count, not be a filler.

Ha, Sonya, makes two of us.

Bernita said...

Hee, you two. Am another pot that can call the kettle black anytime.

S. W. Vaughn said...

That's too funny! We should start lobbying for a new law: All spouses and/or children of writers must be responsible for the preparation of dinner, so as to ensure the household writer does not starve and/or burn the house down. :-)

Flood said...

Two books that come to mind that use food as an integral part of the plot are Like Water For Chocolate and Thinner.

In my latest short story, a kid eats an ice cream cone, but now I am wondering what the hell the point is. Does it matter? Can the kid show hot it is without the cone? Is it just filler?


Carla said...

Suspect most writers have the same problem with dinner, unless they can afford staff :-) I remember seeing an interview with a famous author once (Jack Higgins?). He lived on his own and he solved the problem by using one of those slow-cookers - he made up a stew after breakfast, before he started writing, and then left it to simmer all day so that no matter how late he finished he knew there'd be a meal waiting for him. Sounds very logical, but for some reason I've never done it myself.

I didn't think I consciously used food in writing, but now you mention it, Bernita, it does play a role. I have to think about plausible military logistics for credible (I hope!) battle stratagems - as someone said to me by email, even imaginary armies have to eat (!). Because I'm dealing with a subsistence economy, food was the most important preoccupation in most people's lives. Food reflects social status, but it also reflects the seasons and the locality. Even the top brass have to put up with preserved food all winter and long for the return of fresh foods in the spring. Hunger is used to lure a group of outlaws into a trap. A girl in a captured city manages to not only survive but thrive by recognising that warriors get fed up with barbecued camp-cooking and want a bit of domestic bliss. Guests who have outstayed their welcome are persuaded to go home by feeding them on food that has gone rotten in store. (Don't know if this is the sort of thing you meant?)

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Bernita! Your right...this is a psychic link or what...Or are we already know what I have to say about this, ad nauseum! LOL

Bernita said...

Flood: Oops...Seems natural though.

Carla, that's exactly one of the things I meant, and thank you for the excellent illustrations.
One cannot ignore food.
Even vampire novels fixate on it...

Bernita said...

It's the Evil Twin syndrome, Bonnie.

archer said...

My favorite food line is "For the love of God, Montresor!"

Bernita said...

Eaten cold, I assume, Archer.

archer said...

Seriously, though. Here is my favorite passage on food. It is from David Copperfield. I think it's so good because David is supporting himself at age ten or so in Murdstone's factory, and every bite seems precious:

I was so young and childish, and so little qualified - how could I be otherwise? - to undertake the whole charge of my own existence, that often, in going to Murdstone and Grinby's, of a morning, I could not resist the stale pastry put out for sale at half-price at the pastrycooks' doors, and spent in that the money I should have kept for my dinner. Then, I went without my dinner, or bought a roll or a slice of pudding. I remember two pudding shops, between which I was divided, according to my finances. One was in a court close to St. Martin's Church - at the back of the church, - which is now removed altogether. The pudding at that shop was made of currants, and was rather a special pudding, but was dear, twopennyworth not being larger than a pennyworth of more ordinary pudding. A good shop for the latter was in the Strand - somewhere in that part which has been rebuilt since. It was a stout pale pudding, heavy and flabby, and with great flat raisins in it, stuck in whole at wide distances apart. It came up hot at about my time every day, and many a day did I dine off it. When I dined regularly and handsomely, I had a saveloy and a penny loaf, or a fourpenny plate of red beef from a cook's shop; or a plate of bread and cheese and a glass of beer, from a miserable old public-house opposite our place of business, called the Lion, or the Lion and something else that I have forgotten. Once, I remember carrying my own bread (which I had brought from home in the morning) under my arm, wrapped in a piece of paper, like a book, and going to a famous alamode beef-house near Drury Lane, and ordering a 'small plate' of that delicacy to eat with it. What the waiter thought of such a strange little apparition coming in all alone, I don't know; but I can see him now, staring at me as I ate my dinner, and bringing up the other waiter to look. I gave him a halfpenny for himself, and I wish he hadn't taken it.

Bernita said...

Yes, excellent background, cultural context and all that...but, Archer, how do you write about food?
Do you nutmeg it?

Candice Gilmer said...

For me, in one book, I hardly mentioned eating, except that the characters bought some food stock for their space ship.

But in another one, I talked about a couple preparing sandwiches and such in the kitchen, and found the hero musing about the fact that they moved so well in tandem in the kitchen, something he and his ex couldn't ever seem to do.

There seems to be a lot of eating in that book, now that I think about it -- a power lunch, feeding the heroine's daughter, the dinner in the kitchen, sunday dinner at the heroine's family's home... a lot winds up around food.

Interesting.... :)

Bonnie Calhoun said...

"It's the Evil Twin syndrome, Bonnie." Mhwahahaha1

Oh, by the way...your two bad apples in the picture...they're rotten to the core! Bwhahahaha!

EA Monroe said...

Heck, Bernita! Even in my Sims2 computer game virtual Sims can jump behind the wheel of their car, drive to a restaurant, order food, converse, flirt, feed each other, smooch, play footsie under the table, eat something bad and puke!

So, you bet I am going to use food/eating to show characterization, characters acting, interacting, reacting, having reflective moments, and "attitudes."

Whether it's pushing peas around on a plate, gobbling sandwiches, guzzling beer, inhaling brandy fumes, sipping tea and gazing at the tea leaves in the bottom of the cup for portents of the future, or just feeding the birds, I make food/eating work, especially for sensory descriptions, and sometimes for "layering," etc.

Oh, and one more thing. Sooner or later everyone has to make a pit stop and use the facilities. Just don't get caught in a dark alley with your pants down, or unzipped, or whatever!

Bernita said...

There are a lot of wind-ups around food, indeed, Candice.

Bonnie, I thought I was the Evil Twin. We taking turns now?

Excellent examples, EA. Wasn't suggesting anyone put their characters on bread 'n water, you know.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yes, you must share...momma always made me's my turn to be the evil twin...*insert manincal laughter here*

Gabriele C. said...

Food is part of my 'worldbuilding', so yes, I do have eating scenes.

kmfrontain said...

Last use of food. Syrup. Maple syrup and Johnny cakes. Mostly syrup. I hate it spitted everywhere. :D

kmfrontain said...

I meant I had it spitted everywhere.

What my fingers do when I'm not watching them...

kmfrontain said...

Come to think of it, I would hate it spitted everywhere, too.

Bernita said...

Maybe we are THE Evil Twins, Bonnie...

I'm sure they add richness and texture to that world, Gabriele.

What were you reading, Karen?

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

Oh, Bernita, I’m such an unabashed foodie! I love shopping for it, cooking it, serving it, eating it, dreaming of it and writing about it. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story where some pronounced discussion or description of food hasn’t appeared. Most of my female protagonists are food oriented in some way. They’re either addicted to it, are compulsive about it, struggle with it, or simply celebrate the sheer splendor and sensuality of it. This is definitely one of those areas where the adage “Write what you know” really works for me. (And just so you know, no, the same adage doesn’t hold water when it comes to the explicit sex scenes I pen…well, unless they involve chocolate, of course. LOL)

I adore reading cookbooks as though they were novels, especially the colorful narratives written by cooks like the late Julia Child or Bert Greene who clearly had a love affair with food and appreciated its influence, sensuousness and infinite delights. I’ve found great inspiration and enlightenment by reading such books.

Ah, food, glorious food! Oh, I could go on…but suddenly I find myself simply ravenous.

Bernita said...

Know that when I read Nero Wolf mysteries I certainly do get ravenous - even to the thyme honey used to braise....
Think that a well-done food scene can be entirely sensuous, Daisy, but you knew that...

kmfrontain said...

No, it was my last use of food in writing fiction. I had syrups and Johnny cakes, and the protag spat the syrup all over the place shouting at the table.

Sorry, wasn't clear enough.

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