Tuesday, October 20, 2009

FOOD FOR THOUGHT


Current Project:The Baby's Bodyguard
Status: page 216

I love the children's book called THE SECRET GARDEN. Every couple of years I reread it. It's a book of change and hope and understanding and the power of a child to overcome herself and awaken those around her. Who doesn't crave a secret spot, a garden to bring back to life and to hold close and secret and in which to blossom as surely as the roses do?

But I also have a secret agenda with this book. The little girl, raised in India, catered to on every physical level, knows nothing of making her own way. Her first friend is a local boy, as barefoot and independent as she is spoiled and rotten. And as he teaches her the wonders of nature, he also teaches her how to build a fire at the "end of the garden" (don't you love that phrase, the "end" of the garden -- is your garden large enough to have an "end?" Mine sure isn't...) and in which to "roast" eggs. Yep, he puts the eggs in the ground, I believe or in the smoldering coals (time to reread) and cooks these eggs; it's an empowering wonder to her. And it's a wonder to me, too. I love this part of the book and every time I read it I have the overwhelming urge to hard boil an egg. Do I read the book for this scene? No. But it's part of the enjoyment. Excuse me while I go boil an egg....

That was yummy. This author (whose name I can't spell and I hate to navigate away from this site and have to start over, but you all know who she is, her first name is Francis the next two start with a B and a H) also wrote THE LITTLE PRINCESS. There's a scene in the movie -- I haven't read the book -- where the heroine is banished to attic with another little girl to live as a slave. She is always cold, she is always hungry. The grils become fast friends as they share their misery, and it's the stories of India our little heroine shares with her new friend that keep them warm. But one morning, they awake to a magical golden room with silk robes and Indian slippers, courtesy of the man from India who lives across from them, and in the middle of all this golden splendor is a table laid with the most succulent fruit and juices, meats and muffins. The children eat to their hearts' content.

This is an old part of fairy tales, you know. The magical table. The soup pot that is always full. So many people were hungry -- scrapping for food was practically a full time occupation. The thought that one could procure it by settling a special cloth over a rock and the dishes would appear hot and steaming was one of the most compelling fantasies of the times.

Off to my next food type encounter in a literary sense. THE LORD OF THE RINGS. If you are one of those acquainted with Tolkein's work by virtue of the movies and not the books, you may have missed one of the most memorable experiences (or a bevy of them) found within the pages and they have to do with -- food. Mushrooms: sauteed, fried, steamed... those Hobbits love them. But all along the way, it's food, from bacon rashers (I always crave bacon after reading this) to honey to apples to everything imaginable. Imagine the elfish bread that satisfies every need and comes wrapped in a leaf; or the sausages. Every place they land, they eat. And the beer! And the wine!

I also read a Bed and Breakfast cozy mystery series written by Mary Daheim. Her main character battles a few extra pounds though every day at 5:00 o'clock she fixes canapés for her guests. Crab wantons, stuffed this and that. Salmon. It's her cousin, though, who really brings the food to life. Her cousin and partner in (solving) crime is a high maintenance tiny woman who can eat anything and never gain a pound. It's a bone of some contention between them at times as the cousin is also a sloppy slob. Every time they go to lunch or stay at a death-haunted house or help out a soon-to-be murdered relative, they eat. And the author describes the food. It's the Pacific Northwest, so there's plenty of seafood, sorry Becky, but there's everything else as they travel the world and the country. One book took place with them both in the hospital for separate operations (SUTURE SELF). The main character ate whatever the hospital gave her without much appetite. But the cousin brought a huge bag full or apples and cheeses and crackers and her stash of Pepsi, slung the hospital trays into the garbage and then began importing things, having Chinese delivered during a snow storm, fried chicken snuck in by another patient... and it was the introduction of food from outside that figured into all three murders that happened around them so the food even got tied into the plot. And often, as I read these books, I find myself yearning for prime rib or crab cakes or even a hamburger -- the food is huge in the books. Every so often, the cousin takes up smoking and stops eating and the books suffer for the change. Who doesn't dream of having the income and the appetite to go to a very fancy restaurant and order three drinks, an appetizer (ooh, prawns) and dinner. Oh, and an aperitif and a desert? Where do they put all that food? It's a mystery.

My point : food matters. We all eat. Most of us watch cooking shows or read cookbooks even though we'll NEVER actually fix the actual dishes. With me, all I have to do is read that a character eats a bacon, tomato and avocado sandwich and it's a pretty sure bet one will show up for dinner at my house very soon. Are there books you read that demand you go cook a bacon and tomato sandwich or go out for really good Mexican food like the deep Molé sauces in the last mystery I read?

And how about your own books? Do you use the communal opportunity of food to share thoughts between your characters or expand the plot? Do the choices in their food help define their personalities? I know for myself that I tend to write books where everyone is under a lot of tension and seldom do more than scramble an egg because that's what I do when I'm really stressed. Sometimes, I forget to have people eat. I've had heroines pick at meals for days. My current hero was a captive in the fictional South American country of Tierra Montañosa for several months -- he didn't get a lot to eat. When he sits down for the first time to fish and chips in Northern California, he can't believe the taste -- or the crisp salty air, the cool ocean breeze, the beautiful woman across from him. That meal for him represents all the facets of freedom.

And now, because I am the world's worst promoter in the world (but trying to change--website improvements coming along soon, I hope), here I present my current release, AGENT DADDY:

For me, the food that stands out in this book is the fragrant bubbly stew in the ranch-style kitchen cooked by the Irish housekeeper and served with chucks of bread for dipping. There's a child in there, as well, who doesn't want to miss school because another child is bringing cupcakes. There's also hot chocolate....

Is there a book you can point to where the food became almost a character or just enhanced the pleasure of reading? And how do you introduce one of the very basic things we all do -- eat?

15 comments:

Paty Jager said...

Great post, Alice!

I can't say as reading a book has made me hungry... Although my friend Karen, some of you have met, said a procedural essay I wrote about making a ham sandwich for a writing class made her mouth water.

Food is a part of life an I do have several scenes in each book where they are eating and it usually is where there are conversations that move the story forward or show a growing attraction between the hero and heroine.

In my second contemporary, the heroine equates cinnamon rolls to home, love, and her mother.

In the spirit book, the heroine scrambles into a pile of brush to get quail eggs because she is hungry.

I think to make a story believable you need food because we all know it is needed to stay alive.

Bethany said...

Food in books rarely makes me hungry. I read Sherry Thomas's Delicious (which is an AWESOME, AMAZING book), and I should have been ravenous, but I was too engrossed in the characters. There was an episode of House a week or two ago where he was cooking Italian food, and it made DH hungry (and he's not a big Italian food person), but I was too caught up in the relationship drama subtext. In children's books, however, the food is often the star, and I do find myself hungry for birthday soup, birthday cake, porridge with honey, milk, and other picture book staples. I think I'm very big on sense of smell and on pictures of food rather than just descriptions.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I love me some hobbits. "Second breakfast". LOL One of my favorite scenes is when Merry and Pip are feasting after the fall of Isengard, smoking long-bottom weed and drinking, what else, beer! when everyone else shows up.

Great blog, Alice. Food is a big part of life so it makes sense it should be in our books. We need it to survive and think. I know I've included lines in books about the heroine not functioning well because her blood sugars are low - and that's a direct correlation for me. When my blood sugar's low, I can't think straight, let alone figure out how to outsmart a killer!

One book where food stood out to me was Twilight - in a bad way. The author spent way too much time describing what the heroine cooked her father for dinner. I felt like we were getting a weekly menu list. I know why she did it - to show how the heroine was taking care or her father and that this was their only real connection - but it got old way too fast.

I'm trying to remember if I've included food in my books. In FURY there's a scene where the hero grills steaks and the heroine makes a salad. It's a lull before the storm, where they get to know each other a little better, and my DH commented on it after he read the book. In HEAT they have a meaningful conversation about who knew what when over dinner in a run down diner - he has a burger and fries, she orders breakfast. I think what they order and how shows a little of their character. In SEDUCTION there's a scene at 2am where a secondary character is making omelets, the heroine is making coffee and several other people are milling around the kitchen working. The hero walks in the room, a little bit of an outsider in the group, and doesn't join in the prep.

But the paranormals? I can't remember if I have food in them or not. Now I'm worried I haven't included any! Hm...since I just got my line edits today on MARKED I'll have to look and see...

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty -- I like the way you've used food in your books. I'm amazed you've never had a craving for something you've read about. I must be very suggestible!

Alice Sharpe said...

Once again, I'm stunned. I just figured everyone reacted to descriptions of food with a longing once and awhile. Making me feel a little freaky!!!!

Too cute with the animal crackers and honey and milk.

Alice Sharpe said...

Eli, I love that scene in Lord of the Rings where the Hobbits are eating the fruits of their labors while waiting for the others. In the books, they scrounge up more food for some of the new arrivals. Can't remember if they do that in the movie. The other very vivid scene, to me, is the one in the last movie when Faramir's father is eating that meal while Merry sings. War is afoot, the man is crazy, the blood red tomato is skirting in his mouth and running down his lips -- very vivid and makes a huge impact.

As a matter of fact, I think you have used food well in your books. I've read Fury and I remember the scene where they cook the steak, too. And wasn't there another when they showed up at her family's house or am I remembering poorly. I have also enjoyed scenes you've written with the wine seduction and the whole coffee while looking at pictures (an excerpt I read on some blog somewhere) was well done.

I think food in the paranormal would be great as wouldn't it be nice to know what they ate? Maybe she can feed him some grapes or something, LOL.

Genene Valleau said...

Interesting post, Alice!

In my books, I have to be careful not to have too many scenes revolve around meals, though I don't describe the food in great detail. Maybe because I eat when I'm writing but don't really pay much attention to what I'm shoving in my mouth. (Yes, I'm working on changing that habit.)

However, I can't recall that reading a book with a food scene made me hungry. Hmm...maybe I need to upgrade my palate--or eat breakfast, because your blog post made me hungry. :)

Lisa Leoni said...

Fun topic, Alice! I haven't noticed food in many books. I didn't notice the food as much as Eli did in Twilight, but I'm sure when I reread them I will. There's one book I've read that opened each chapter with a recipe, but they were seafood dishes so I had little interest. There was another book centered on the heroine losing weight and there was a lot of healthy food mentioned. It was more a guilt book haha!

Alice Sharpe said...

Lisa -- There's a mystery writer who puts in recipes -- a Colorado writer by the name of Diana Mott Davidson. The character is a caterer. I can't say as anything she's ever written about food has moved me in any way. It's usually very strong coffee and lots of decadent chocolate that her characters eat and crave and neither of those things do much for me. Even dishes that sound tasty as she makes them for gatherings do nothing for me and I just realized why. In the books I mentioned, the food is communal, shared, enjoyed, conversations exist throughout the eating and because I identify with the characters, I enjoy the experience vicariously. In the Caterer books, the food is just prepped and served and eaten by other people; it's little more than a prop.

I may have issues that need addressing...

Paty Jager said...

LOL
Alice, you crack me up! I think the reason you do see/experience the food in those scenes is just what you say, they are part of what is helping you to become the characters. Or making the characters real to you. Nothing wrong with that.

Bethany said...

Alice,

I just wanted to say that you made me think about food and my current WIP, and I'm talking to my characters about their eating preferences. I don't know if food will play a central role in any scenes, but thanks so much for making think about food today.

Alice Sharpe said...

Bethany -- I had to laugh when you thanked me for making you think of food today. That's not something you hear every day, LOL. Hope it gives you continued insights!

Deborah Wright said...

Alice, you're not alone! Virginia Rich's Eugenia Potter mysteries always make me hungry, especially The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders. I craved my dad's homemade jailhouse chili and cornbread for weeks the first time I read that book!

I'm with you regarding Diane Mott Davidson's food and recipes in her books. They really don't do anything for me -- in fact, I'm at the point where I find the interspersing of recipes in "culinary" murders more annoying and gimmicky than clever. I wouldn't mind seeing that trend die a timely death, but there are probably too many of those series out there for that to happen any time soon.

Deborah Wright said...

Argh! I meant "culinary mysteries" not "culinary murders!" That's what I get for trying to be coherent late at night. ;-)

Alice Sharpe said...

Debbie -- you have to give it to Mott-Davidson as I believe she might have been the first to do the recipe thing. But I agree with you -- way too many of them now and if I see them coming, I quickly walk the other way, too. And it's funny, because I really don't care about all the steps for making something -- it's the feelings the food engenders as it's shared that make it memorable.