Jeanne: Food for Thought

The September 6th issue of The New Yorker featured a reprint of a 2007 essay by Adam Gopnik, titled Cooked Books, on the uses of food in fiction. According to Gopnik

There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by the author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.

Gopnik cites examples of each of these types of food use from literature:

  1. Trollope uses food strictly as a way to keep his narrative flowing through his characters’ days by way of their meals in much the same way that Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cops seem to spend a lot of time in coffee shops without ever actually drinking any coffee.
  2. Proust and James use food to illustrate his characters’ status in life–they eat lobster and veal and crushed strawberries and madelines. Similarly, romance novelists who are fond of the “Billionaire” trope find things like caviar and champagne to be short-hand for fabulous wealth.
  3. Fleming’s iconic character, James Bond, is food-obsessed, advising his Bond girls and his co-workers about what to eat. Romances about heroines who open bakeries, restaurants and B&B’s use food in a similar manner. It tells us more than what economic strata the character inhabits, which is almost always “hanging on by a thread.” It also demonstrates their level of social and environmental consciousness—vegetarian? fair trade? In the romance world, it’s not uncommon for such books to contain actual recipes.
  4. Robert B. Parker’s novels feature Spenser, a detective with no first name, who spends approximately one-third of every book in the kitchen, whipping up gourmet meals for his girlfriend, Susan. Susan then delicately munches a single lettuce leaf, thus demonstrating how self-disciplined she is. (Susan grates on my last nerve—can you tell?)

In my novels, I use food primarily for the first two purposes–to create a sense of time passing (breakfast, lunch and dinnertime speak to us all) and to demonstrate what kind of lives my characters live. In The Demon Always Wins, there’s a scene in a grocery store where, after my nurse-heroine, has banished the sexy demon from her clinic, he runs into (okay, stalks) her in the grocery store and proceeds to critique her admittedly terrible food choices.

In The Demon’s in the Details, Ronobe, the Hangel (half-Hade, half-angel) butler who has proven weirdly popular with my readers, prepares delicious meals for artist Keeffe and demon Bad to enjoy without their having to put any effort into meal prep. Keeffe also frequents a little hole-in-the-wall diner owned by a Hispanic family. Again, great food with no effort.

(Perhaps Gopnik should add a fifth category—the fantasy food life of the author.)

In The Demon’s Secret Baby, my work-in-progress, the hero lunches with a co-worker at an outdoor restaurant called Bel’s Bistro on the Third Ring of Hell where, unfortunately, snow and freezing rain fall constantly and the stink of the garbage dump at the center of the ring makes it impossible to enjoy your meal. On the other hand, your fart-prone camel is welcome there.

(Okay, again food with no cooking required for the diner, but definitely not my fantasy food life.)

If you’re a reader, what kind of food use in novels tickles your fancy? If you’re a writer, how do you use food in your books?

2 thoughts on “Jeanne: Food for Thought

  1. I don’t know what category it fits in, but I like food in books for the sensory appeal. Louise Penny does a good job of that in her books—from her descriptions I can almost taste whatever it is the characters are eating and it helps me feel a little more connected to the story.

    I’ve read other books where food was a plot device or something that felt like filler when the author ran out of things for the characters to do–that doesn’t work nearly as well.

    I notice in my early drafts my characters are almost swimming in all of the tea/coffee they drink. That’s one of the things I have to revise out in later drafts.

    As an aside “your fart-prone camel is welcome there” is a great line. It makes me laugh every time I read it. Thanks for that.

    • Vual (the camel) is one of my favorite characters. I actually had a conversation with a zookeeper about what his poop would look and smell like. (Surprisingly small pellets and not unpleasant, as they’re primarily, though not strictly, herbivores.)

      I’d classify both of your examples as what Gopnik called “ribbon of narrative” devices, like Trollope’s.

      That Penny describes the food so you almost taste it is less about the food than her general unhurried sensory prose, I think. While I have, on occasion, wished I could try a dish she’s described, I’ve never wished she’d include a recipe. But then, I wouldn’t, so maybe that’s not indicative.

      The example I connected with Gopnik’s 4th category was Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. The food was almost a character.

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