Saturday, January 22, 2011

Food Glorious Food

Eating is essential to survival, so characters in any novel, including historical ones, will spend a good deal of their time thinking about, preparing, and consuming food. Furthermore, dining has been a social occasion in most societies since the age of the Iliad, and in consequence many key interactions between characters are likely to occur during a meal, whether it is a seductive dinner for two or a medieval feast for a thousand guests.

Obviously, over time eating customs have varied significantly. Fastfood and junkfood don’t fit in the Middle Ages, gourmet feasts are anachronistic in wartime Britain, and a dinner featuring Asian food shatters the authenticity of a novel set in Nazi Germany. Thus knowing what people ate in the period and setting of a novel is essential to creating a realistic atmosphere in an historical novel.

Furthermore, even within a fixed period, differences in diet tell us a great deal about the status and financial condition of an individual. While the lord of the manor feasts on game in heavily spiced sauces with fine white bread and flakey pastry, the peasant would have no meat and eat bread in which sand is mixed with the course-ground flour. Thus providing details about what is being eaten and how can be very useful in helping the reader understand and visualize a specific society.

On the other hand, some historical novelists take it to the other extreme. Cookbooks being some of the most successful best-sellers, they think they too have to provide recipes and lengthy cooking instructions every time one of their characters sits down for a meal. Yet unless the meal itself plays a significant role (e.g. Babbette’s Feast), too much talk about how a meal is prepared interrupts the flow of the narrative and probably doesn’t interest the reader at that particular moment. If he/she is looking for a recipe, they will find a cookbook!

I try to use descriptions of food as a means of saying something about the characters or society. Here’s an example from The Lady in the Spitfire in which food is a device for describing a character’s background and state of mind.

     His grandfather clapped him heartily on the back in approval, while his mother just shook her head and turned away, retreating into the kitchen. Then, in a gesture of reconciliation, she called, “I’ve got some fresh-baked cookies in here, Jay.”
The Lady in the Spitfire    J.B. followed her into the kitchen. “Where are the girls?” J.B. asked, referring to his sisters, as he settled himself at the kitchen table.
    “Sally’s got a job now, you know,” his mother answered, setting a pottery cookie-jar in front of him on the kitchen table. “Can I get you some milk?”
     “Sure,” J.B. agreed, thinking how bizarre it was that he was falling back into the patterns of childhood. He’d spent the last three months learning how to fly bombing runs to blow Hitler off the map, and here he was eating cookies with milk at the kitchen table as if he’d just come home from grade school.

In the following excerpt from Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge the objective is simply making a distant, very different society seem less strange by reminding the reader of common experiences like a stand-up snack.

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the AgogeSoon the smells of the street-side kitchens and stands overpowered them. Many cookhouses opened their windows on to the street and sold to passers-by. The smell of warm bread, grilled goat and lamb, fried onions, coriander, rosemary and cumin made their mouths water, and they could not resist stopping to eat. They had been given coins by Lysandridas, and they eagerly bought chunks of grilled lamb, onions and cooked carrots all folded into a thin pocket of fresh bread.

In the final two examples below, food is a means of telling the reader about life in Nazi Germany. Both are from An Obsolete Honor.

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerTrude dried her hands on her apron and pulled a folded slip of paper torn from a woman’s magazine out of her skirt pocket. Beside the recipe was an appetizing picture of the finished dish, and the text admonished: “German Housewives! Remember! Although your only weapon is the kitchen spoon, by preparing wholesome and economical meals to nourish your families, you too contribute to VICTORY! Prepare this casserole to delight your menfolk and give the money you save to the Winter Help!”

Also from An Obsolete Honor:

Their coffee and cake arrived, heavily laden with whipped cream. Marianne exclaimed in surprise: you needed extra ration cards for cream of any kind. Kessler looked a little embarrassed, but admitted, “We could never have it as children; I just can’t get enough now that I can afford it.”

In this short paragraph, the reader learns that ration cards were needed even at restaurants for certain items, that whipped cream was considered a luxury in pre-war Germany, and that the character, Herr Kessler, comes from a family that could not afford such luxuries. A very effective use of less than 50 words!

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