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They lusted for my piece of lemon-iced pound cake. As I passed the pair of stupendously fashionable, incredibly taut and tended women, their eyes yearned at my plate, flicked at jeans and clogs me, then zoomed back to the dish. I sat at the table beside the window and heard them order large, black espresso coffees.
We don’t know one another, never said anything other than “Excuse me,” but I know who they are, at least the story that I tell myself about them. These are women who refuse sweetness and bolster resolve by telling themselves stories of essential denials– while I enjoy cake after thrashing my way through story thickets sustained by coffee and carrots because that’s all I had in the house.
You could picture them, couldn’t you? Possibly you imagined the story about who they were, who I am, and the tension inherent in seeing someone enjoy your most heartfelt, denied pleasure.
Living beings must be nourished. Humans eat food, vampires drink blood, aliens suck life force from their hosts. For a story to ring true, characters must eat, sleep, and function as their physical selves.
While eating and drinking may not be important and may in fact get in the way of your story, food and drink can provide poignant and powerful moments:
- A woman returns to her home after a long separation and discovers someone else’s diamond studs earrings in the refrigerator beside a very expensive, already-opened bottle of champagne.
- An ambitious executive equips his kitchen with high-end appliances that he never uses. Possibly a hard-charging businesswoman uses her oven for sweater storage because her apartment is so small and she never eats at home.
- A hopeful and lonely person cooks a meal for a potential lover — and things go terribly wrong, starting with life-threatening food allergies. Alternatively, the meal goes incredibly well when the eager cook prepares a favorite food just as the other remembers from childhood.
- A divorce is ignited over a long-anticipated anniversary meal.
- The dishwasher floods and a reclusive renter is forced to meet the neighbors.
Consider how food and nurturance have played important parts in movies, novels, and nonfiction. In Amy Reichert’s magical The Coincidence of Coconut Cake, the protagonist cannot eat anything that her mother or another troubled person cooks because of the painful emotional charge the food has on her. The movie Babette’s Feast features a protagonist who cooks a feast as a way of sharing who she really is, the life that she has lived, and the gifts she has to offer. Another movie, The Lunchbox, shows how lives can be changed when lunches are delivered to the wrong person.
Character is revealed in poignant, memorable ways in books such as Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler where a man and his adult daughters eat meals of noxious, pureed, optimally nutritious foods. In A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness highlights the differences between “warm bloods” and vampires when the vampires yearn as humans eat a freshly baked batch of chocolate chip cookies. The desperately sad, dysfunctional, and isolated life is summarized with a single plate and glass on a drainboard of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.
As you work with your own characters in the world that you create, consider ways that food and drink can be used to advance plot, deepen character, reveal backstory, and illuminate relationships between characters and within individual characters:
- Do characters eat and drink? Is your story an action-packed rollicking thriller where no one needs to eat or sleep unless it’s a major part of the plot? If a character will not eat — or eats to excess, why and how does it affect the story? Is a character a teetotaler and judgmental or permissive about what others do?
Alternatively, is eating and drinking central to the story, critical to how relationships develop and the plot advances? Think about that all-essential couch at the Central Perk coffee shop in television’s Friends. What would Gilmore Girls be without Friday night dinner at Richard and Emily’s house or that critical cup of coffee at Luke’s Diner?
- What does it mean to the characters to nourish themselves? Is food safe or dangerous; are there rituals and rules around eating that highlight how a person thinks and lives? Is food a joy or dreaded necessity, to be ignored as long as possible?
- What do meals reveal about the culture, family dynamics, and status of characters? What is eaten and drunk is different around the world and even in smaller regional distinctions such as Northern and Southern Italian cooking or in differences between regions in the United States. Is food a struggle or a joy for a family? How does a family eat and cook: are meals intended to fill bellies, impress guests, or enforce family rank when the highest earner gets the prime cut of meat?
I once read an autobiography by a woman whose mother did not allow chipped plates or glasses in their home even though they were desperately poor. Do characters battle over the dinner table, ignore one another over breakfast? Is what a person eats evaluated and criticized (hounded to drink milk–or left to make a sandwich for themselves at six years old and chug soda)–and how do they react?
- What food or drink is in the protagonist’s home? Is the refrigerator stocked with healthy vegetables and fruits or stacked with beer? How about the pantry? What’s on the counter? Are foods fresh and current or out of date and stale? Are the pots and dishes immaculate because she is compulsive about keeping them clean? Is he an accomplished cook because his mother insisted he know how to take good care of himself?
What does a visitor see when they open the freezer: credit cards frozen in blocks of ice to prevent impulsive shopping; ice cream although he’s on a strict doctor-ordered regimen; frozen dinners because she hates cooking; cufflinks because he’s absent-minded about where he puts his valuables?
- What relationship does the protagonist have with food? Where does the character eat? When? How? Does the character eat over the sink? Do the break room at work, a coffee shop, or the diner in the hometown play a critical role in the story such as the diner run by Miles Roby in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls?
- Can important back story be shared through how the characters regard food, cooking, and eating? Consider how the past might impact the present day story and on into the future: does a character save the dinner service from her beloved grandmother for the time she gets married and makes her own home? Does a fed-up wife and mother cook lima beans for herself when she knows everyone in her family hates the smell and she no longer cares? Does a family eat peanut butter in the kitchen every time the extremely allergic parent is away for work?
How might food and cooking reveal the inner world of a character? Possibly a character cooks to relax from a pressured job as a pediatric surgeon; what does she make? Another character cooks because there was no cooking in his house when he was growing up and he desperately wants to create a warm, nourishing home for himself, so he cooks along with food tutorials and plays loud music so he doesn’t feel alone. A newly married couple cooks together, has a relationship-threatening fight, and ends up making love on the kitchen floor while the tomato sauce burns.
Food and drink are as essential to your characters and their world as it is to your own. Consider what nourishment contributes to the story and ways that you can amplify themes, reveal personality quirks, and highlight back story and central personal tenets.
For me, that piece of lemon-iced pound cake was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Some time later, I saw those women again at the same time of day, watching my meander to a table to enjoy cake while they sipped nonfat, high caf turbo-charged hot drinks. When I needed a highly charged scene between ambitious women vying for the same job, I introduced a hugely delicious, enormously entertaining cake encounter.