Food. It is something all of us need to survive. So it would make sense that food would also weave itself into our fictional stories. After all, characters need to eat, unless they are a strange alien breed who only needs air to survive. But a lot of writers don’t really know where to start with incorporating food into their stories. And, frankly, a lot of writing simplifies the important meanings food can add to books.
Here are some things writers should think about when adding food to fiction.
1. The Place for food
Every culture, society, and place has a different purpose for food. You might think of it simply as survival, but the reality is that food is so much more.
First, it is a way to show wealth. Historically, the wealthy always flaunted their fancy food. In Elizabethan England, sugar was considered the food of the wealthy because only they could afford it. Similarly, in the Medieval Europe the best meats were saved for the wealthy. So depending on the status of your characters or the world which surrounds them, they would eat very different things.
Another purpose of food is about belonging to a society. That is, one might eat certain foods because they are influenced by others to eat it. One example might be in the modern day, one goes out with friends to eat or drink in order to fit in with the group. In England, tea is a staple in the typical British diet. Likewise, if you do not like certain staple foods, you might be ostracized by the society or labeled ‘weird.’
But food is also about enjoyment. People eat what they like to eat. But you also have to look at the setting. For example, if you story is set in an apocalyptic era with little food, your characters would take any food they could get. However, if your story is set in modern America, likely the characters will have very particular tastes on what they eat. In this way, you can also develop their personality. One character might hate beer because their parent was an alcoholic, or another character might be unable to eat peanuts because they are allergic.
Also, food has always been about access. In the modern day, I think we take for granted how much variety of food and ingredients we have access to due to speedy traveling. However, for most of history it took weeks or months to transport food. As a result, the ingredients in food were limited to what people had access to nearby. When formulating what food your characters should eat, think of what ingredients they have access to. For example, in India (and most of South-East Asia) the food is very spicy because they have access to such amazing, colorful spices.
Think about the purpose of food in the society you are writing (whether historical, fanciful, or modern).
2. Meanings of Food
Food can serve as a metaphor, foreshadowing, or analogy (among many other writing techniques) in fiction. This is something that some authors have played with, and something that can add depth to a simple story.
For example, let’s take a murder mystery about someone being poisoned by eating their daily piece of pie after dinner. You might add suspense and foreshadowing by having people witness the eating of the pie the night before and seeing something strange (thus foreshadowing the victim’s death the next night).
You can use food as a type of metaphor as well. An evil man might drink only black tea because it symbolizes the blackness in his heart. A very sweet girl might literally love sweets. Or a boasting Medieval warrior might love his ale.
Certain characters often have signature foods as well. Take James Bond with his martinis “shaken, not stirred” or the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who who loves Jelly Babies. Food can add quirks to characters and set them apart in the readers mind (like, “oh, he’s that character that hates olives!”). The foods might be normal, or the foods might be odd by our standards (like blood is the food of vampires).
Take a look at some of the meanings you give to your food. Why do you like certain food? What do you associate certain foods with (negative or positive)?
3. How to describe food
This is probably the hardest question to talk about, simply because there is no right answer. If you’ve read any book written over a hundred years ago, you’ll notice they describe things in great detail. One author might go on for an entire page or more just describing food (talk about a food lover). However, if you read modern books, you will probably notice the opposite. Very little to no time is spent on describing food in most fiction books.
Personally, I believe there needs to be a balance. Descriptions are very important and they can add visual interest to any scene, especially when talking about food. However, that does not mean you need to spend hours writing pages and pages of describing a certain meal (a paragraph is enough).
But do not forget about food after you introduce it. I find so many authors introduce the meal by describing it at the beginning of the scene, and then forget it for the durance. Instead, it is better to integrate it into the entire scene. Start off with a quick description, but as the scene progresses (whether around a family dinner, a Viking feast, or Victorian high tea) elaborate further as the characters partake, especially in concerning how they eat it. Food habits (including utensils) change drastically depending on the location, era, and culture.
But most of all, just have fun. Food is something that can bring an odd quirkiness and uniqueness to any bland story. It can add deeper meanings and tell you something about characters that you could never show any other way. Experiment. Try different things. Learn about food. And, most importantly, write about it. And, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,