Novelists, ask yourselves: Is your protagonist getting enough to eat?

Sure, you’ve shown us compelling details. The contents of your character’s medicine cabinet or their elaborate grooming rituals or how they behave in a traffic jam. But the sentient beings whose stories we tell have gotta eat. Are you using that fact to full advantage?

We all know food can tip the reader off to culture, class, historical period and always comes in handy for a sensory hook. But is there something we could learn about your protagonist from what she does with a meal or a mere morsel of food? Something that would give the reader a hint about her flaws or intentions or fears? Might your protagonist clean his plate to a mirror-like shine or a does he flick his cigarette ash onto a heap of steaming, buttery mashed potatoes? Or maybe she carefully plucks every last mushroom out of the sauce or pinches the mold off a scrap of bread, wraps it in newspaper and saves it for later.

No need to look further than the novels of Grub Street authors who have imagined scenes where food is used to great effect. Here are just a few:

In Emily Ross’ Half In Love With Death, a YA thriller set in 1960s Arizona, teenage Caroline is in a car at a roadside stand with the seductive Tony, who buys them soft-serve ice cream cones. While Caroline’s vanilla cone drips down her arm, she stares at Tony’s tongue as he devours his chocolate ice cream. “For a moment it was just the two of us in the hot car, licking, like two cats with bowls of milk.” It’s sexy, right? Tongues and licking but also devouring, so there’s a hint of menace, too. As well there should.

Might you’d be interested in how food is used in a scene that is more post-coital? Sure you would. In Christopher Castellani’s, All This Talk of Love, the final volume in his Italian-American family saga, Frankie Grasso, a graduate student, is having an affair with a married woman who is also his thesis advisor, whom he refers to as The Professor. After marathon sex at his crummy, student ghetto apartment, “by two-thirty in the afternoon, they are sitting at the kitchen table, two bowls of Rice Krispies loaded with raisins and sliced bananas between them. He keeps plenty of her favorite cereals and add-ins on hand, in all varieties, as well as the full-fat milk she prefers.” We learn that Frank is willing to make the effort to please The Professor with food she likes, though it’s hardly a lot of effort for this charming man-boy— but what caught my eye was the Rice Krispies, a childhood comfort food. With this subtle detail, Castellani shows us two things: that The Professor is calling the shots and that her food preferences are a signal that for her, this relationship is more of a game, a playful escape, than a desire for real intimacy between adults.

What a character eats can also tell us how she feels about herself in a given moment. In Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, set in rural Arkansas, Emily is at a drug-fueled party and is offered something from a rusty cake pan: “Clumps of picked-at brownies littered the pan, a vessel of germs from greasy fingers and unwashed hair.” She eats one and describes it as “a mixture of flour clumps, what tasted like dried twigs, and sugar crystals without a hint of sweetness coalesced. She might as well have reached down and shoveled a handful of dirt into her mouth.” In addition to the sensory hook that brings us right into the moment, we know Emily is not just in trouble, she is beckoning it to come quickly. She has so thoroughly absorbed the loathing of others she’s willing to eat something that looks and tastes like dirt.

Some characters tell you what they value by how they eat. In Louise Miller’s The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, Olivia bakes professionally but when she is eating food prepared by someone else, Miller subtly tells us more about her protagonist. When she sits in a small town diner with a friend and dips the end of a French fry into a chocolate frappe, her companion pronounces the combination “disgusting.” But Olivia riffs on the virtue of contrast, sweet and salty, soft and crunchy, and then, in a whisper, marvels that her friend knows everybody seated around them. It’s a little building block Miller uses to help us understand that Olivia is sorting out the contrasts within herself, simultaneously attracted to the everybody-knows-everybody culture in this little town while longing for what has been for her the safer anonymity of city living.

Thomas Lynch, a gay, closeted police chief in small town Connecticut grieves the loss of his lover, Rick, while investigating a murder in Stephanie Gayle’s Idyll Threats. Guilt-drenched grief and the strain of constant homophobia within the department make Lynch irritable. Over and over he orders food he barely eats or tosses. He regards himself as such an outsider he steers clear of the town’s signature country fair food, a candy-covered pretzel. When he observes others eating and drinking, we get grossed out with him, as when he questions a very anxious woman who “squished her bagel bits into a ball. Butter leaked out.” And he torments his alter-ego potted plant with coffee, soda and cigarette ashes, surprised that it stubbornly survives. While we wonder how the murderer will be unmasked, we also want to know if this police officer will ever end his self-denial and finally, publicly, acknowledge who he truly is. We sense that maybe then, among other things, he’ll be able to eat a complete meal and quit torturing that poor plant.

What a character eats can also tell us about their changed circumstances, the very arc of their story. E.B. Moore’s historical novel An Unseemly Wife, portrays Ruth, an Amish woman and her growing family’s ill-fated covered wagon journey from Pennsylvania to Idaho. Before they leave their community in Lancaster, they consume plain but abundant food prepared by strong, competent Ruth: bread slathered with butter, pigs’ feet, corn pudding. By the end of their journey, Ruth, near death and despairing, is offered the only food that remains by her very young daughter. Ruth says she will save the slice of dried apple for breakfast, but her child informs her that the meager morsel in her small hand is breakfast. The parent-child roles are reversed and Ruth knows her capacity to nurture is at its lowest, maybe even destroyed. This exchange over a scrap of dessicated fruit underscores the story’s “all is lost” moment.

Each of us knows, even without Proust telling us, that food can be magical in the way it fosters powerful emotional associations.The sight and smell of beef brisket conjures up my mother without fail. In my own unpublished Grub Street Incubator year novel, Hope In Sunlight, Jack, a thirty-five year old adoptee meets his birth parents, Hope and Walker, who were once lovers in college until they went their separate ways. I wrote three scenes involving meals: Walker prepares a lunch (salmon) for Jack, over which they forge a strong bond over music, an interest that Jack’s adoptive parents do not value. Later, when Jack eats a birthday meal with his adoptive mother with whom he has a strained relationship, he does not order his customary reuben sandwich, he orders…salmon. And when birth mother Hope makes an elaborate dinner for Jack, Walker and herself, she serves—yeah. You guessed it.

When I finally noticed all this bumper-to-bumper salmon, I was appalled at my lack of imagination, culinary and otherwise. But then I thought it actually made sense and even suggests small revisions I should make to the manuscript.  Jack, consciously or not, seeks out something to remind him of Walker’s fortifying presence while he takes on his manipulative, adoptive mother. Later, Hope, guilty and plagued with self-doubt, hears from Walker about his own successful lunch with Jack, including the menu. One month later, without quite meaning to, Hope serves Jack and Walker virtually the same meal the two men previously shared, as if salmon and potatoes would magically give her the same easy, emotional access to her son. (Maybe I’ll go with this. We’ll see. Stay tuned.)

So whether its borscht or baklava, Spam or caviar, moldy fruit or juicy steaks, don’t neglect to feed your characters. Check the pantry, the fridge, the Dumpster and the garden in your novelist head. See what turns up. Remember: a missed fictional meal is a missed literary opportunity.

3 comments

  1. Gerald Whelan

    Very insightful and witty post, Deborah. Only problem is, in future, whenever I eat in your presence, I may get indigestion, knowing you can see right through me. Bon appetit, even so!

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