Michaeline: Writing Good Food Scenes

Dinner at the Crachits from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens used food very effectively in *A Christmas Carol*.

Good Saturday, everyone, or whatever day it may be for you. Remember last week when I asked you to share food scenes that moved you as a reader? Today, let’s identify what made those scenes work for us, and think about how we apply that to our own writing.

I think it’s important to remember that food is a very basic need – right at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with friends like water and shelter and sex. When you write about food, you are writing about basic human needs that every human reader has.

I noticed four important things that turn food porn into something that makes a great food scene. It’s not a comprehensive list, and I’d love to hear what you think.

1. It’s got to be something that the characters need. It might mean a break, or it might be about needing warmth, friendship, truce, or all the other things that “breaking bread” signifies.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid, showing food at the bottom

We’ve all got needs . . . .

In Lord Miles Vorkosigan’s case, he’s been isolated by an off-planet career, and he’s been subsisting on Reddi-meals (think futuristic TV dinners). The lunchbox from Memory (Lois McMaster Bujold) that I quote in the comments last week leads him to hiring a cook, which is a key to his social re-integration. Now he can throw fabulous dinner parties and use those for the politicking that his position requires. Ma Kosti’s food expertise will help Miles help his brother, and her meals and snacks play a key role in his courtship. Ma Kosti’s food will help Miles get the things he needs: not only food, but love, friendship, shelter and everything else Maslow talks about.

2. The food will often carry memories, particularly childhood memories, and often those memories will carry connotations of fun and comfort. The bratwurst sausages that Cal feeds Min in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me remind her of the times when her father would take Min and her sister out for brats, pulling one over on the girls’ mother and her draconian nutritional rules. The sausages, for Min, carry memories of male bonding, fun, defiance and getting away with something – all elements in her courtship with Cal. It’s like a psychological profile in a bun, and works really well in the book.

3. Just like Baby Bear’s porridge, the level of detail should be “just right” – enough to spark those associations in readers’ minds, but not so much as to cause eyes to glaze over.

4. Like a good sex scene, a food scene should be an important scene that turns the book. After that meal, snack or tidbit, nothing should be the same.

I leave you with one last, great food scene. This is from Arsenic and Old Lace. Thanks to that play and subsequent movie, elderberry wine and sweet old ladies have developed a deliciously creepy vibe that still shows up in pop culture from time to time.

What foods are making an appearance in your WIPs? How hard are they working?

14 thoughts on “Michaeline: Writing Good Food Scenes

  1. Food’s not working very hard in my book. So far there’s only one scene where eating is important: my hero and heroine go out to a diner after work, and they chow down on fried chicken. It’s mostly about my heroine’s eating with her fingers and digging in—it’s about the style she’s employing (huh—she’s eating like a character in Tom Jones, the movie I referenced in your last food post) rather than the food that’s going in her mouth. But it’s the scene where the professional association turns personal, so it’s fairly important. And my hero is amused by how my heroine pays more attention to the fried chicken than she does to him.

    • (-: I think that’s great! A person eats differently in front of a boss, a contact and a friend/potential lover. Huge difference between insisting on a knife, fork and serviette, and digging right in, maybe wiping grease fingers on jeans . . . .

  2. I love food, so maybe it’s no surprise there’s plenty in my book 🙂

    Ian goes to black-tie galas and fund-raising events at which elaborate meals are served. He appears to enjoy them, though actually he’s fantasizing about trout caught from his loch and cooked right away on a barbecue on the terrace of his house. Rose is broke, and she lives on the London budget staples of porridge, cereals, toast, soup and jacket potatoes. Her fridge is almost empty. Sasha’s fridge is also almost empty, but that’s a choice. For her it’s about control. She goes to an awards dinner with Ian and is appalled at the sight of people spooning up a chocolate dessert with a melted chocolate centre and caramel sauce. The brown, smeary mess on her plate makes her feel physically sick.

    • There’s that food dichotomy, isn’t there? Or maybe I should say spectrum. On one end, people vilify food in order to control it. On the other end, people give food a kind of super-healing power to fix everything . . . even though food doesn’t work that way. Somewhere, there’s a happy middle of healthy eating, well-enjoyed. (-: Sounds like Ian has a very good relationship to his food! Rose seems almost . . . virginal in her choices. Things that don’t take a great deal of time or investment — she’s got other things to think about.

  3. Hmm…this is an interesting question. The only food that plays a role in my book is the “kiddie” foods Cheyenne whips up for the impending disaster that is River’s western-themed birthday party. When she arrives on the scene there is no theme, no decorations, a lopsided cake and some guy food (Reed and his foster father, Catfish are in charge to that point). Cheyenne takes control and focuses on using food to advance the theme (western) whipping up things from her own childhood: butterscotch haystack cookies, pigs in blankets, and cupcakes with chocolate fondue horse heads as decorations.

    I also have a fairly important date scene that occurs in a restaurant (Reed prematurely gets down on one knee with disastrous results) but the food isn’t the star there.

    Cheyenne is definitely not into food, but I could see Reed (or Catfish) being a huge foodie.

    • That sounds like an excellent way to show Cheyenne trying to connect with River. I’m guessing it succeeds (-:. You bring up another good difference: guy food vs. girl food. LOL, I can just imagine Reed serving hot-off-the-grill steaks or something at a little girl’s birthday party.

      (-: Chocolate fondue horse heads. These sound adorable — are they horsey cake pops that you dip in melted chocolate? Sounds so fun!

        • Oh! Got it! Yeah, I think I know that stuff as fondant. Such a cute idea!

          Chocolate fondue (as in chocolate fountains) are a huge trend in Japan right now. And cheese fondue . . . feels like Mad Men has taken over the kitchen. I don’t know what’s next here . . . maybe centerpiece Jello molds with all sorts of crazy things inside . . . . (Although, I do appreciate a good Jello “salad.”)

  4. Hello from McD 13/14!

    I’m a foodie and love to cook/bake. Food is front and center in my WIP/novel. My protagonist is the assistant manager of a family-run bakery. There is lots of opportunity to include food: opening scene in the bakery, a candlelit dinner, cookie baking. Kitchens are a motif.throughout. The timeline covers late-November through Christmas. Lots of food there.

    FYI there is a big difference between fondue and fondant here in the States. I didn’t know other countries referred to “fondant” as “fondue”. I can only imagine the possible confusion in ordering it at a restaurant.

    Thanks for the Arsenic link. It’s been a long time since I watched it. I might need to do that again soon.

    • Hello, Ann! I’ve seen you over on Argh, too! Hope classes are going well. I remember a busy spring last year (-:.

      I think food hits some of the same “whee!” sensors as sex, so it seems natural to me that romance and food would go together. (-: Of course, a really good work-out can produce some of the same endorphins — I guess that’s why romantic suspense with lots of scary stuff and running is so popular!

      I remember reading the play Arsenic and Old Lace as a high school student and being delighted with it. I love to see a good trope turned on its head. The movie is on my watch list (-:.

  5. Yes, the classes are great! This one ends this weekend. A two-week break, then the final 8-week course. Jenny and these gals have given me so much to think about. My WIP has changed in a very good way. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

    Well, at least as far as writing is concerned.

  6. Nobody mentioned it…yet. We do have our private one for the group. I’ll certainly let you ladies know if we do. I think it would be fun.

    I’m on another blog with two other writers – The Guac Sisters. It’s a home for the non-writing-related posts we want to write. It’s a bit inactive now as all three of us have been super-busy. I’m going to get it back up and rolling with more frequent posts.

    My other writing is on Examiner.com as the Baltimore Writing Education Examiner…also a little slow. I’m trying to stay active enough until we get through the last course. Everything will be back on track by then. I hope.

    • (-: It takes time to process stuff. I think our course ended in early August, we started this blog on September first. I can’t speak for everyone, but things didn’t settle down for me until late September, early October. The course work was over, but tidying things up in my brain still took some time — I’m still pigeonholing bits of information from the course!

      That private blog has been a huge help for our group — several of us still regularly use it for writing business, and it’s a great way to keep in touch.

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