Writing Fiction: Food, More Than Just Food

‘Real sugar.  Not saccharine, sugar.  And here’s a loaf of bread – proper white bread, not our bloody stuff – and a little pot of jam.  And here’s a tin of milk – but look!  This is the one I’m really proud of.  I had to wrap a bit of sacking round it, because – ‘

But she did not need to tell why she had wrapped it up.  The smell was already filling the room, a rich hot smell which seemed like an emanation from his early childhood…

‘It’s coffee,’ he murmured, ‘real coffee.’

And if I told you that the next line is: ‘It’s Inner Party coffee,’ you’d probably know exactly where this was from.

In last Monday’s post I was talking about the effect of detail.  Details about food have particular power.  In 1984, one of the ways that the effect of repression and freedom are conveyed are through the food.  This is what Winston Smith eats in the canteen: ‘Pinkish-grey stew, a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of milkless Victory coffee, and one saccharine tablet.’  That’s to say nothing about the oily taste of Victory gin: ‘Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.’

Later, Winston will taste wine with an Inner Party member.  But it will disappoint.  Only the food of freedom tastes good (though look out for the chocolate).

A writer will often use food to convey more than just a shopping list of details.  It can tell us, for example, about a change of character.  Scrooge’s saucepan of gruel is contrasted throughout A Christmas Carol.  Even the Cratchits’ meagre goose is ‘eked out by the apple-sauce and mashed potatoes…the youngest Cratchits in particular were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!’  What does he do the moment after his redemption but get a boy to buy the prize turkey.  Oliver Twist is a given.

Sometimes food is used to evoke an era and a culture.  This, from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love:  ‘They went up to the rooftop with a few bottles of beer and steak sandwiches on Italian bread, smothered in onions and salt, and set out a blanket, feasted and drank, passing the night improvising songs as if for the yellow-and-blue-and-white-lit buildings of the city.’

In Andrea Levy’s Small Island, Gilbert joins the RAF and lives to regret the diet.

This was war. There was hardship I was prepared for – bullet, bomb and casual death – but not for the torture of missing cow-foot stew, not for the persecution of living without curried shrimp or pepper-pot soup. I was not ready, I was not trained to eat food that was prepared in a pan of boiling water, the sole purpose of which was to rid it of taste and texture. How the English built empires when their armies marched on nothing but mush should be one of wonders of the world.’

And she is not the only one to get humour out of food.  Most people know that Bridget Jones serves blue soup at a dinner party, and perhaps even that it was followed by omelette and marmalade.  But big points if you remember that the intended menu was: ‘Veloute of Celery;  Char-grilled Tuna on Veloute of Cherry Tomatoes Coulis with Confit of Garlic and Fondant Potatoes; and confit of Oranges. Grand Marnier Creme Anglaise.’  Though my favorite line comes near the end of the book when she goes into a supermarket at Christmas, ‘The air vents by the entrance which usually pump out baking bread smells were pumping out baking mince pies smells instead.’

In horror, writers can use food to play odd games that put the reader in the position of empathising with a murderer.  Vampires never seem to go out of fashion, conflating sex and food with their predilection for biting necks.  When Hannibal the Cannibal is forced to sit next to a loud boy in an economy seat, who insists on sharing his food, it isn’t the boy we empathise with:  ‘What’ve you got in there then?’  The child turned his face up to Dr Lecter in a full wheedle.  ‘Gimme a bite?’  ‘I’d very much like to,’ Dr Lecter replied, noting that beneath the child’s big head, his neck was only as big around as a pork tenderloin.  ‘It’s liver.’

But there are higher virtues.  In Raymond Carver’s A Small Good Thing, a couple have to face the death of their child while a baker plagues them with phone calls demanding payment for the birthday cake they ordered before the accident.  When they finally visit him, he is opening his shop in the early hours of the morning.  Realising his mistake, he says, ‘Let me say how sorry I am.’  Then, ‘You probably need to eat something…I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls.  You have to eat and keep going.  Eating is a small good thing in time like this,’ he said.

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny.  He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter.  Then the baker sat down at the table with them.  He waited.  He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat.  ‘It’s good to eat something,’ he said, watching them.  ‘There’s more.  Eat up.  Eat all you want.  There’s all the rolls in the world in here.

This is not intended as a comprehensive list – though I should give a name-check to Proust’s madeleine.  I’ve had fun asking people to remember their favourite passages.  Thanks to those who shared.  I’ll finish on an elevated note, with Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, where only a feast of turtle soup, champagne, Amontillado Sherry, ‘Blinis Demidoff’, and ‘Cailles en Sarcophage’ can defrost the hearts of an isolated spiritual community.

Of what happened later in the evening nothing definite can here be stated. None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance of it. They only knew that the rooms had been filled with a heavenly light as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance. Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it. Time itself had merged into eternity. Long after midnight the windows of the house shone like gold, and golden song flowed out into the winter air.

Feel free to add your own examples.

For more on food as a cultural marker in the books of Timothy Mo, Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie have a look at Mark Shackleton’s essay at http://blogs.helsinki.fi/hes-eng/volumes/volume-3-special-issue-on-literary-studies/more-sour-than-sweet-food-as-a-cultural-marker-in-timothy-mos-sour-sweet-zadie-smiths-white-teeth-and-salman-rushdies-the-ground-beneath-her-feet-mark-shackleton/

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