Food Glorious Food!


What and how characters eat can alert us to deeper issues.

I really enjoy cooking – but I enjoy eating even more! Perhaps that’s why my writing is littered with food references. Setting scenes at the meal table gives our characters something to do whilst they are talking. They can reach for the salt cellar, slurp their soup, butter a bread roll…. The possibilities are endless! Readers will enjoy the familiarity of meal times, whilst tuning in on the subtext of characters’ conversations. References to the texture, smell and taste of food, set against the backdrop of sound, also appeal to our senses, increasing the immersive experience.

I’ve just been reading Victoria Hislop’s ‘Those who are Loved’ and her descriptions of the dwindling food stocks in Athens during and after the second world war, and the necessity of inventiveness to make limited provisions go a long way, really helps to establish the poverty and deprivation that abounded at that time.  In ‘Chocolat’, Joanne Harris uses the reference to a sweet indulgence forbidden during Lent, to tell us something of the nature of temptation. Of course food can help establish period in historical novels too. In my first book, ‘The Oceans Between Us’ I have a character use gravy browning to draw a line down the back of her legs to simulate a stocking seam! Most people would recognise that as a nineteen forties feature. References to roast peacock, marchpane and sweetmeats would probably suggest the Tudors.

The way characters eat can also alert us to their feelings. In my latest novel, ‘The Child on Platform One,’ I write: ‘her … toast suddenly turning to sawdust in her mouth’ to imply anxiety. Similarly, ‘Josef wiped a splash of soup from his beard with his fingers’ suggest a character who is less than fastidious, subtly alienating the reader. A reference to ‘the blissful surge of sugar’ when a girl eats a slice of bread and honey suggests there have been food deprivations in her life, causing her to be appreciative of foodstuffs we take for granted. What and how our characters eat can tell readers a great deal about them.

So food references are really useful. Not sure they are helping my diet though!