Preparing, cooking and eating food are simple everyday acts that carry many connotations — all of which can add a tantalising layer to your story for your reader to devour.
The ritual of sitting down and sharing a meal with family, for example, could be used to demonstrate the conflict between two sisters. The uncontrollable butterflies felt on a first date could disappear after the couple are served terrible food. The bitter chill of winter is melted away by a steaming bowl of granny’s vegetable soul. The possibilities are truly endless. So, I think the best way to illustrate the power of writing food in fiction is to flesh out an example together.
Let’s picture a woman living in the upper east side of Manhatten. She wakes up the morning after her fiancee left her and decides to recreate the Sunday afternoons of her childhood by baking some fairy cakes. As she opens the cupboards of her modern kitchen and scans the bare shelves, she thinks back to her grandmother’s quaint little kitchen cottage.
Eventually, she finds a wooden spoon and bowl tucked behind the shiny and unused KitchenAid. As she mixes the butter and sugar together, she is reminded of the sound of her grandmother’s laugh after she caught her licking the buttercream off the spoon.
While this idea isn’t fully fleshed out, it’s still instantly more interesting than having our newly single character sit on the sofa with a pint of ice cream. By having her bake something from her childhood, we are inviting the reader to peer through the window of her past and learn more about her. Plus it opens up other interesting paths to explore.
At each stage of the recipe, for example, you could reveal to the reader something about either of the women’s lives. Prehaps, the night before she made fairy cakes with her grandmother, she overheard a fight between her grandparents. The following morning, she watched her grandfather pack a bag and leave. As he closed the door behind him, her grandmother turned and smile to her. Not a sad smile but a warm and hearty smile. The pair then baked the fairy cakes and ate the plateful in the garden.
By using the fairy cakes to tell the story of these two characters, we learn so much about these two characters in a single scene. Better yet, by engadging the reader’s senses, the story unfolds in a way that feels more organic.
This is just one of the ways that writing about food can add depth to your stories. It can also help with:
World Building – The environment, biomass, location, financial standing or your characters will affect the type of food that they eat.
Character Attributes – For example, instead of telling your reader that your protagonist is thoughtful and kind show them by having the character give a hungry beggar their sandwich.
Character Flaws – The same can be done to show character flaws. Perhaps they do not follow a recipe when preparing for an important dinner party, showing they are too brazen and free-spirited.
Create Motion – Use the actions and senses to tell a story. Walk your character through a recipe, getting them interacting with the kitchen, the contents of their cupboards (which will tell you a lot about a person), the utensils as well as the ingredients.
I, personally, always make a conscious effort to make food a part of my storytelling process. It keeps the characters in motions and makes for more interesting scenes. Want to try it out for yourself? Here’s a writing prompt to get you started.
Write about a character eating a bag of penny sweets.
Describe how they eat them. Do they tear the chewy strips with their hands or their teeth? Do they toss the sweets into the air and catch them in their mouths? If so, do they succeed? Are they more interested in digging around in the bag than listening to their friend? Do they offer one to their friend? If they do, what sweet do they pick?
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