I am writing this blog entry while on vacation. So, naturally I am thinking about my next meal.
When we consider food and its role in stories, food-themed movies come to mind—Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Chocolat, Julie and Julia, and The Thousand Foot Journey, among others. These films focus on the preparation and presentation of food and the enjoyment, nay even the rapture, of eating it. But food, eating, and even dining locations can play quieter, though important roles, in story-telling.
Recall the iconic scene in the diner in When Harry Met Sally. First, we have Sally’s highly specific order to the waitress about how she wants her pie. “What?!” she says when Harry gives her a look as the waitress (who rolls her eyes) leaves. The order tells us reams about Sally’s approach to life, a fussiness and certainty that we know from that moment on will drive Harry crazy. Second, we have Sally’s unbridled rendition of a female orgasm, followed by the older lady at the next table saying to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Sally’s lack of inhibition in this public space where people are eating (even if it is to make her point that all women fake orgasms at some time) gives us some hope that maybe she’s not as uptight as she seems.
Although my post often refers to movies that may be familiar to most of us, the following ways in which food can enhance writing apply to novels just as easily (as well as short fiction and memoir).
Personality traits as shown through approaches to buying, preparing, or consuming food. As with Sally and her famous order, a character’s relationship to food can be a window into personality. A quirky food preference that others notice. Nibbling versus devouring food. Cutting vegetables into large chunks and throwing them into a salad bowl versus meticulously chopping them into tiny pieces. A refrigerator with only two six packs of beer versus one stocked with healthy foods.
Food as symbols of a person’s or group of people’s background. What a person eats (as well as how she eats, buys and prepares food) gives information about her identity—ethnic background, geographical origins, class. Recall this snippet of dialogue from My Big Fat Greek Wedding (the Greek mother to her daughter’s non-Greek boyfriend).
Maria: Ian, are you hungry?
Ian: Oh, no, I already ate.
Maria: Ok, I make you something.
Food and its description can make for fascinating detail in stories set in other times or other places (including fantasy settings).
Characters’ emotions. Eating and food can highlight characters’ relationships to others present and their reactions to unfolding events. If a normally calm character attacks her steak like it’s an intruder, we might guess that she’s feeling angry, frustrated, or anxious.
Food and desire. Another iconic scene, this opening one from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, shows Holly Golightly, dressed in a long Givenchy gown, eating her pastry out of a bag and drinking coffee from a paper cup, while staring into the windows at Tiffany’s at dawn. The scene hints at both her aspirations and her actual circumstances.
Eating as setting for dialogue. Unless you are writing a fast-paced, action-filled story, there will be times when you want your characters to have a conversation. A fancy restaurant, a park bench, or a kitchen table can provide both the time for dialogue as well as an opportunity to learn about your characters. The choice of setting will help determine the mood of the scene and potentially uncover conflict if the setting is at odds with one of the character’s routines or preferences.
Food as motif for character growth. Writers can use food/eating to represent a character’s arc. In one of my novels, I use shrimp as a motif for my protagonist’s growth. At first, hungry, she sees succulent shrimp, but can’t have them. Then she is able to have all the shrimp she wants, paid for by customers at the snack bar where she works. Finally, she rejects some beautifully prepared shrimp because it represents a life she no longer wants.
Jenna, in the movie Waitress, expresses her feelings through the pies she bakes (and which she names appropriately). She eventually finds her own voice although the pies remain central to her life.
An opportunity to use all the senses. A bonus of using food as a tool of expression in our writing is that it can tap all five senses, something that film can’t do as well. The intoxicating smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in an oven, the angry hiss of onions frying in a pan, the rough firmness of a crusty bread or the squishiness of an overripe fruit, the soapy taste of cilantro for 10% of the population, or the visual presentation of food on a plate–a small artwork or a hodgepodge? These can all evoke the mood of a scene or a character.
Food as fuel, inspiration, and reward. Now, as for you, dear writer, don’t forget to eat while you are writing, reward yourself for a job well done with foods that tickle your taste buds, and check out the following best food on film moments to inspire your imagination.