Gosh, it’s been a while! A holiday and a getaway got in the way, but really, they didn’t. Stepping aside makes it better when you come back. And, can’t write if you don’t live life, right? And food is part of living…so…today author Katharine Britton talks about food in fiction! Coming off the spring religious holiday season, we’re all probably a little bit stuffed (matzah pizza will do that to ya) but it’s a good time to think about how we use food in our writing. THE GLASS WIVES readers told me they came away hungry. In FINDING IZZY LANE I incorporate much less “real” food, but the main character, Izzy, has a lot of fond food memories. I’d like use Michigan as a setting in a novel so I collected some menus and magazines on a writer-getaway there last week. Oh, yes, and there was wine tasting of Michigan wines. That was TOTALLY research. Yep.
Share some of your ideas and thoughts in the comments and—please welcome our friend Katharine Britton back to WFW! (And be sure to check out the trailers for Katharine’s books at the end of the post–maybe grab a snack first!)
Cooking Your Books
“You are what you eat,” the saying goes. In The House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III’s central character lives for what seems like weeks on nothing but Diet Coke and cigarettes. Sue Grafton’s investigator Kinsey Millhone doesn’t like to cook, but she does like to eat: A hot, hard-boiled egg sandwich served on a paper towel (no cleanup) is a favorite meal. Robert Parker describes in delectable detail the meals Spencer makes for himself after collaring a criminal and taking a long run along the Charles River. Sharing a meal with a character can provide valuable insights¾and be a memorable experience¾for readers and authors.
I love to read cookbooks, recipes in magazine, even descriptions of dishes on menus. I’m addicted to Cupcake Wars and The Barefoot Contessa. If you’re having a dinner party, call me. I’ll plan your menu. Just don’t ask me to cook. I’m tired of shopping, chopping, marinating, slicing, whisking, sautéing, grilling, broiling, and baking.
Writing about cooking involves none of these. Nor is there any shopping, no messy cleanup, no temptation to snack during the process. There’s nothing to sample when you’ve finished a scene, so no self-discipline is required. Once upon a time, I baked bread. And then I ate bread. A lot of bread. There is almost nothing on earth as good as a thick slice of freshly baked, lightly sweetened, whole grain bread slathered with butter. Unless it might be a warm chocolate-chip cookie, the middle still soft and gooey…
Dialogue, writers are told, should never be “on the nose.” One way to accomplish this is to give characters something to do while they’re talking. Why not let them cook? The dance that takes place between two people preparing a meal can reveal a lot. Are they in their ancestral home, at his loft apartment, camping? Are they both cooking, or is one cooking and another simply watching and commenting? What is he or she making? Oyster stew? Lentil loaf with bulgur and tofu? Corn dogs? Each can reveal a lot about character, setting, and plot.
A character can be a good cook or very bad, love it or hate it, do it by choice or by default, follow a recipe to the letter, or read a recipe and then toss it aside and start cooking. Are the results fabulous or inedible? Does a character have one menu that she serves at every dinner party? How do her guests feel about this?
As a literary device, food has few equals. It is visually pleasing (or not), has nutritional value (or not). We all need it, but we don’t all have enough. Food has texture, fragrance, color, shape, and size. You buy it, cook it, and eat it¾alone or with others. Some people live to eat; others eat to live. Food has historical, religious, and cultural connections. Traditions develop around it: turkey at Thanksgiving, latkes at Hanukkah, ham at Easter, matzo balls at Passover, barbeques on the Fourth of July, chocolate at Valentine’s Day, fasting at Ramadan. Our diet can extend our life or shorten it. We can dine in or eat out and choose fine dining or a picnic in the rough. Everyone eats, and culinary tastes vary widely.
Food and its preparation offer endless opportunities for writers. Scenes that involve cooking allow characters to develop dimension and relationships to evolve. They also allow writers to infuse plots and settings with meaty metaphors and redolent kitchens, not to mention indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading recipes and calling it research.
Is there food in your writing? If not, what’s your favorite hands-on research that makes it into your stories? I
Below is my current favorite recipe. (From Dishing Up Vermont.) Let me know how it turns out!
Crostini with Fresh Figs, Blue Cheese, Sage, and Balsamic Vinegar
1 crusty baguette, cut into 24, ½ inch slices
¼ cup extra -virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh ripe figs, cut into quarters (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, preferably fig balsamic
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 ½ ounces blue cheese (preferably Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen) about ¾ cups
- Preheat oven to 400
- Arrange the baguette slices in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, brush them with olive oil, and bake until lightly browned a crisped, 10-14 minutes. Set aside until cool.
- Lightly toss the figs with the vinegar and sage in a medium bowl,. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread the cheese on the baguette slices and top with the figs. Serve immediately.
Katharine Britton’s first novel, HER SISTER’S SHADOW, was published in 2011, by Berkley Books (Penguin, USA). Her second novel, LITTLE ISLAND, came out in September of 2013, from the same publisher. She has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College, and a Master’s in Education from the University of Vermont. Her screenplay, “Goodbye Don’t Mean Gone,” was a Moondance Film Festival winner and a finalist in the New England Women in Film and Television contest. Katharine is a member of the League of Vermont Writers, NEIBA, and The New Hampshire Writer’s Project. She has taught at ILEAD, Colby-Sawyer College*, and The Writer’s Center in White River Junction, Vermont. Beginning in 2014, she will be reviewing books for the New York Journal of Books.
When not at her desk, Katharine can often be found in her Norwich garden, waging a non-toxic war against the slugs, snails, deer, woodchucks, chipmunks, moles, voles, and beetles with whom she shares her yard. Katharine’s defense consists mainly of hand-wringing after the fact.
Visit Katharine’s website: http://www.katharinebritton.com/