Writing about food

The preparation and consumption of food is a rich source of material for writers, and not just cookery book writers and food bloggers.

Many people eat particular things to mark special occasions and have treasured recipes or particular rituals based around food – cakes can mean celebration, soup convalescence. This kind of food has meaning that goes well beyond the simple intake of calories for energy. Many of us have a close relationship with food: for some, food is a fraught issue, a locus of tension and unhappiness; for others, food is a source of pleasure and comfort.

So it’s not surprising that writers often bring food into their stories and poems: the way that a  character relates to food can be a shorthand for letting the reader know something significant about their personality or their relationships.

In ‘A Temporary Matter’, a short story from Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri tells us about her character Shoba’s shopping habits:

‘When she used to do the shopping, the pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil […]. There were endless boxes of pasta in all shapes and colors, zippered bags of basmati rice, whole sides of lamb and goats from the Muslim butchers at Haymarket, chopped up and frozen in endless plastic bags.’ (Lahiri, 2000:6).

Shoba uses food as a buffer between her and the world and that having plenty in the cupboards is a way to stay safe. The repetition of ‘endless’ serves to emphasise her obsessiveness, her anxiety.

Food has long been associated with seduction, a connection explored by Joanne Harris in her novel Chocolat (1999) in which a young woman opens a chocolaterie in a quiet, old-fashioned village. But food can be a chore or a penance too. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, the preservation of walnuts is both a chore and a way of maintaining family bonds:

‘There is no work more tedious than shelling black walnuts, and the two of them did it every autumn of the world. My mother said they tasted like furniture, and I’m not sure anyone disagreed. But she always had them, so she used them.’ (Robinson, 2005: 219)

In Seamus Heaney’s classic poem, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, the promise of the plump, juicy harvest turns sour, but the poem conveys a feeling of disappointment that goes deeper than a few mouldy berries.

If you’re looking for writing inspiration, try using the theme of food to create new work. Here are a few writing prompts to get you started:

  • Which dish do you most/least enjoy preparing? Make some notes on the process, being as detailed as you can and using as many of the five senses as possible.
  • What was your most loved/loathed food as a child? Why did you love/hate it so much – was it just the taste, or did it have other associations?
  • Create a character from scratch, starting with what they love to eat. Can you use their food preferences to suggest something about their personality? Don’t be predictable – allow the penny pincher to have an obsession with rare truffles, or the Dowager Countess to crave fish and chips…

At the Ilkley Book Festival on October 14 I’ll be leading a relaxed creative writing workshop using the theme of food as inspiration. Anyone interested in attending can book via the Ilkley Literature Festival website. OCA tutor Suzannah Evans is also leading a creative writing workshop at the festival on 29 September exploring writing and place.

There are thousands of examples of novels, stories and poems with food and drink at their heart. What are some of your favourites and why?

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  1. Liz Cashdan 14 September 2018 at 10:59 am

    Important subject matter for writing. But never mind writing: when the OU’s Arts and Humanities courses were first set up years ago, food preparation and consumption was one of its Arts areas for students to study.

  2. barbarahenderson 14 September 2018 at 6:50 pm

    Wish I could be at the workshop – it sounds great!

  3. Liz Newman 20 September 2018 at 4:43 pm

    C.S.Lewis said that he always included food in his books, as children liked reading about it so much. When my children were young, we used to have a Narnian tea every so often, just like the one Mr Tumnus prepared for Lucy. A boiled egg, sardines on toast, toast and honey and a sugar-topped cake… I think I’ll just head into the kitchen as I’m feeling a bit peckish…

  4. Vicky MacKenzie 20 September 2018 at 6:08 pm

    Mmmm! That sounds fun (and tasty)!

    CS Lewis has a point but I’m sure it’s not just children – I love reading about food. I often remember what characters ate when the rest of the novel’s plot has faded from memory…

  5. Linda Razzell 25 September 2018 at 1:16 pm

    I think Babette’s Feast (Karen Blixen, 1958) is hard to beat for food writing. The food wasn’t just about eating – but then isn’t that always so?

  6. Linda Razzell 25 September 2018 at 1:19 pm

    It’s from a collection of short stories called Anecdotes of Destiny.

  7. Vicky MacKenzie 25 September 2018 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks Linda, a great example. I’ve seen the film version (which I loved), but I’ve never read it – will definitely be reading it soon. And the title of the collection is brilliant!


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