Writing About Food

Pumpkin Pie
I like pumpkin pie. I still would probably never think to write about one, though.

Lydia Schoch tweeted this the other day:

…and it reminded me that this is one of my big weak points as a writer. I can’t describe food very well.

Partially, this might be related to my well-documented issues with describing anything. But only partially. If I buckle down and get in the right frame of mind, I can describe a landscape or a building or even a piece of clothing. But food really is the hardest one for me.

Part of it is that I don’t think much about food. My mind pretty much checks out after I ask the following questions about food:

  • Is it good for me?
  • What side effects will it have?
  • How does it taste?

The answer to the last question is either “good” or “bad”. I’m not someone who can write at length about how something tastes. I’m always baffled by people who can describe food or drink in complicated terms.

In all my time writing this blog, I’ve covered quite a few subjects. I think I’ve done three posts about food, and one of those was about Doritos, which barely qualify.

I’m a bit better about having characters in my stories drink stuff. I think that’s because I once wrote a story where a character drinks something with poison in it, and in order to keep that scene from standing out, I had to constantly (it felt like) make references to what people were drinking in other scenes.

There’s a scene in The Directorate where two characters have lunch together. That was at the suggestion of a beta reader who specifically complained about people never eating anything. I think I even specified that they ate sandwiches. That’s about as much detail as I could stomach. (pun intended.)

I know plenty of authors who do a great job describing food, though. Two  came to mind when I read Lydia’s tweet: food is a key thematic element in Carrie Rubin’s Eating Bull, and so she is careful to describe what characters eat, and why. In Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes, there are vivid descriptions of the meals that characters eat while on a scientific cruise.

Later, I thought of a couple more examples of the use of food in fiction I’ve read recently: in Mark Paxson’s One Night in Bridgeport, there’s a running joke (for lack of a better term) that the protagonist keeps craving a cheeseburger. (Mark himself is a skilled cook, as he documents on his blog.) There’s a similar idea in Ben Trube’s Surreality, where the detective is always hankering for a Reuben sandwich.

I’m currently reading Eileen Stephenson’s Imperial Passions, and I happened to be reading a chapter in which the characters are having dinner. It occurred to me that it is very important for historical fiction to describe what people are eating, not only by conveying authenticity to the reader, but by helping to describe the structure of the society they live in.

This is why food is a key part of world-building generally. One of the famous questions asked by (good) designers of fantasy worlds is “what do the people here eat?” Because if you can answer that question, you end up answering a lot of other questions about the society you’re creating. When you write historical fiction, that information already exists for you, but you have to research to get it right. (e.g. “in the 1800s, Americans founded cities and towns along bodies of water over which agricultural products could be shipped…” etc.)

So food is a very important part of any story. (Well, any story about biological life, anyway.) I need to do a better job keeping that in mind. But I still don’t see myself writing an extended paragraph about the texture and aroma of a meal anytime soon.

11 Comments

  1. You’re kind to include me here. Thank you so much. I sometimes struggle with description, including food, so I’m glad it resonated with you.

    I read a book once called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (I think that’s the title). It’s about a women who can feel the emotions of the person who made whatever she’s eating. Very good book, with food descriptions I would love to be able to write so vividly.

  2. If you describe food you have to get it right. Historical fiction you have to be a stickler for the types of food available at the time. Eating a potato in the ancient world is a no-no. No tomato paste in Ancient Rome. At Southwest Writer’s Conference a number of writers giving presentations said to mention meals, but skip the description as it slows down the pace and too much description can be boring. (murder mystery and spy novels excepted if you’re using poison.)

    1. Good point. I think I’m going to make a mental note to be careful about describing food in the historical novel I’m working on now. Too much danger of an embarrassing historical error for a non-food enthusiast like me.

      1. That’s the trickiest part of historical novels. Food and technology trip up writers. Too time sensitive.

  3. Good post, Berthold.

    As I’m reading more diverse stuff, I’m finding it useful to study writers who focus on that particular thing… Just like Sports Illustrated has handed me hundreds of metaphors and adjectives to describe the swing of a golf club, Car and Driver have given me another hundred ways to talk about acceleration. English is a rich language, for sure. Obviously, depending on what you’re writing, you don’t want to go overboard, but it’s those telling details that provide great context (as you mentioned with historical fiction in particular).

    1. Thanks, Phillip! I think it’s amazing, all the diverse things you are reading. I love seeing how it all influences your writing.

  4. Thank you for thinking of Ocean Echoes for this! It’s funny – I think I ended up taking some food out because I was describing it too much. Meal times were a chance for the characters to get together and talk, so it was fun to describe the food, even if it did make me hungry.

    If you’re looking for more books describing food or how things taste, Hemingway does that in A Moveable Feast (and probably most of his other novels).

  5. Reminds me of the “Redwall” books by Brian Jacques. Lavish descriptions of food are a big part of the enticing aspect of the pastoral setting and the framework of its morality tale.

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