In my last post, EAT SCIENCE FICTION (link opens in new tab), I discussed the role of food in fiction, especially science fiction. I focused on the social element of eating meals and the way food and smells of food can evoke memories and feelings in us and in our readers when we include food in our fiction.
There’s another important aspect of food in fiction, too. One that’s very important to the writer. Food is a good element to use to evoke and to flesh out characters and settings. Just as describing the warm kitchen-filling smell of a hot and gooey baked macaroni and cheese can evoke cozy feelings of family and friendship in your readers, it can also be the touch that nails down a character’s nurturing trait (who doesn’t feel cared for with a slab of baked macaroni and cheese set before them?) or makes the scene of a family get-together feel real.
Think about the role that food plays in real life settings. If we travel to Maine, we look for a lobster roll. In New Orleans, you have to try the jambalaya, the beignets, seek out an oyster po’boy. A trip to Chicago calls for a deep dish pizza, or at least a Chicago dog. If you traveled abroad, wouldn’t you seek out the local cuisines? Or maybe you’re someone who craves a reminder of home in a strange land, and in the middle of Beijing you’d seek out a handy McDonalds. Foods are part of places for us, and how we relate to them says something about us as people. Consider that last example, an American in Beijing. The McDonalds seeker might be prone to homesickness, might be timid in the face of the different, or might be stuck on notions of cultural superiority, thinking that an American burger must be better than whatever these different people think is good food.
Your story and dialogue (internal and external) sort out those differences in character traits. Food can be a good way to introduce or emphasize them. Same goes with settings. Maybe your story is set in Chicago. You name the city. Maybe the action touches on the Loop, Lake Michigan and Navy Pier, the river running through the middle of the city, the tall buildings, the traffic, the sprawling suburbs, the harsh consonants of the natives, the snowy winters. Great! All of that says Chicago. Fiction is about details, and the details can make the difference between a good story and a great, engaging story. If your Chesapeake Bay native bemoans the difficulty of finding fresh soft shell crab in Chicago, that can be a valuable detail that makes that character live for the reader. And if you’re writing SciFi, maybe your Earthling character misses cheesy, crusty deep dish pizza on a world full of carnivores. Maybe, like in Niven’s Ringworld books, your carnivores complain a bit about having to microwave their meat to make it blood-warm, instead of consuming it still living. Think of the way that the differences between klingons and Federation humans are outlined by a scene where the humans are offered klingon delicacies. We know they’re different—just look at those foreheads and costumes. But the food really drives the differences home, doesn’t it? As another example, I’m also reminded of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, in which noodles eaten with chopsticks become food shorthand for ‘look at all of the Japanese and Chinese influence going on around this place, huh?’ It’s hardly the only detail that says that, but it’s a good one, and it delivers its message well when it appears. Often, it also says ‘these guys are pretty poor, they end up eating cheap noodles a lot.’ Food is a complex thing; it can deliver multiple messages simultaneously.
I’m not saying there has to be food involved in a story to define your characters and settings; good stories have been written in which food makes no appearance at all, and more of them will appear in the future. I’m just saying, food is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox.