Monday, January 31, 2011

You Are What You Eat?

ROBERTA: At the beginning of January, I was lucky enough to attend the Key West Literary Seminar, this year focused on food writing and called The Hungry Muse. Such fun to hear the likes of Ruth Reichl, Frank Bruni, Calvin Trillin, Billy Collins, and Judith Jones talk about writing and food. Judith Jones, if you don't know, "discovered" Julia Child and served as her editor for many years. Fascinating to hear her talk about the old days and how cooking and food writing have exploded since Julia wrote her first cookbook.

Besides being great fun, all this was in the service of researching background material for my new character, food critic Hayley Snow. Hayley is, naturally, a good cook and an enthusiastic eater. So there will be many meals enjoyed in the new series. But I also realized that all of my characters have been food-centric. Cassie Burdette, the aspiring pro golfer, had no kitchen skills and a horrible diet but she still enjoyed eating. (I was once asked to contribute a recipe from her collection. She offered her company special, Hot Dog Casserole.) Psychologist Rebecca Butterman was an excellent cook--she liked nurturing herself and her friends with delicious meals and even interrogating suspects after luring them to dinner.

So the question for this Monday, Jungle Red Eaters--I mean writers: What are your characters' relationships to food? Is food a big factor in your books?

HANK: Oh, what a great question. IN fact, in FACE TIME, there was a time in the early part of the book where I needed some conflict--not big big conflict, but beginning of the book conflict. SO--I made Charlotte McNally hungry. And then have low blood sugar. And you know how that feels-everything becomes incredibly difficult and all you can think of is FOOD. Then as it turned out, being hungry became the complete key to the whole mystery. (More I cannot say.) But just that one random moment of choosing "food" as the conflict--made the entire book.

ROSEMARY: I think there's a lot of food in my books. In Pushing Up Daisies, Paula has just moved from the city to the suburbs. As a city girl she was mindful about every morsel of food that went into her body. She was a little bit of a pill about it! Hanging out at the diner, she's eased up a bit. It was actually a conscious effort on my part as a way of showing one of the ways that she's changed. Yes, she still works out but bring on those pancakes! In the last book there's almost a Tom Jones-like scene with a piece of olive oil almond cake (which is a real Giada recipe.) If I like to eat it, it just may wind up in a book.

HALLIE: Oh, Roberta, one of my favorite things about you is that you love-love-love good food. So jealous about the Key West seminar! I so would have loved to be there, even though in my new book (COME AND FIND ME) Diana Highsmith is a depressed shut-in who she eats because she has to. Food for her is oatmeal, apples, American cheese. I'm such a foodie, I had to give her something good, so she also likes rum raisin ice cream, my favorite, and which lasts more than a night in our freezer because no one else in the house can stand it.

But a short story ("Death in the Family") I wrote recently for a Spanish anthology has a character who remembers her mother's death by lighting a candle, drinking a toast of chilled Prosecco, and eating a Dungeness crab. Forget the eulogies, that's exactly how I want to go out!

JAN: Rosemary, I love Giada's recipes I even have one of her books - which is terrific. In A Confidential Source, Hallie is under such stress that I couldn't imagine her eating anything. A good friend of mine read it and noted that she seemed anorexic, so I went back and gave her a few meals. And in subsequent books, she hangs around Wayland Square diner and likes to breakfast on BLTs and rye toast. But despite the fact that cooking is one of my favorite hobbies -- food does not play a major role in my books. At least not so far.

HALLIE: Jan, didn't "Hallie" keep warming up canned tomato soups? That's what I remember.

RHYS: I love reading about food. Books like Under a Tuscan Sun and the description of Italian meals eaten in a shady courtyard can create such a powerful yearning in me that I have to be restrained from hopping on the next plane. I do try to bring some of this into my books. Food has beoome an important factor in the Royal Spyness books as Georgie is penniless and reduced to eating baked beans on toast, and then attends 12 course banquets which are overwhelming to her. I hope to focus on life in a kitchen in a future book--maybe have Georgie disguised as a maid, so we can see what goes on there.

DEB: I LOVE food. Eating food, writing about food, reading about food. I think my favorite book last year was Julia Child's A Life in France. It was all I could do to keep from hopping on a plane to Paris . . .

Food is such an important part of the sensory complex that makes stories seem real. That said, I've never centered a book around food, although I had great
fun with Scotch in Now May You Weep. In the meantime, my characters seem to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking tea or coffee, because it gives them something to do when they're interviewing suspects or witnesses or discussing the case. And Gemma has an ongoing battle with the AGA!

Rhys, I would love a peek at the kitchen in a grand house! (Oh, and Hallie, rum raisin is my fave, too.)

ROBERTA: Deb, that was one of my favorite books of the past year too--what an adventure she made of her life! How about you, JR readers, do you like reading about food? And if you write, how does it figure in your books?

Be sure and stay tuned right here all week. Tomorrow for True Crime Tuesday, Allison Leota will be with us to answer questions about the law from readers. And on Wednesday, meet Diana Abu-Jaber, a fabulous writer here to talk about her culinary memoir, THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA. And more fun later in the week too...


  1. I love reading about food, eating, cooking, particularly when it blends seamlessly into the story. In my book, the protagonist doesn't cook, but she loves to eat, so I made her boyfriend and her sister into great cooks. They're happy to provide her with a decent meal now and then. And I get to describe the meal!


  2. I am so jealous! My heroines don't seem to cook much, but they do enjoy restaurants (based on real ones), which I describe in loving detail (I think I'm hoping for some comped meals). And I even created an entire restaurant in one book.

  3. Food, cooking and eating make characters more real, as long as the story doesn't serve the description, instead of the other way around.

    One of the characters in Kate Collins' flower shop mysteries makes scrambled eggs for the other two who work there, every Monday morning. I love that detail. And one of the other characters has perfected the art of making excellent teas and coffees, which always make me want to jump up and brew a cuppa or something.

    Hank, Charley's low blood sugar was very believable. Been there!

  4. I realize that people in my short stories never eat. There's no time.

    Now I'm working on a novel set in the South, and there's a memorial service coming up. I've been reading up on funeral foods. Oh, my. Aspic, anyone?

  5. Edith, that's a very clever way to bring food into your story.

    Sheila, just be careful not to poison anyone in a real restaurant:).

    Karen--you are completely right. Writing about food is like writing about any other telling detail--it has to serve the story!

    And Ramona, funeral food--you will be in heaven! Julia Reed is a southern writer who was at the literary seminar. She had some hysterical and wonderful descriptions of food at southern funerals...

  6. Ramona, is this a Southern funeral? I have heard of the practice of making an embroidered satin casket blanket to place over the corpse for viewings. Is this still done?

    It's good to remember to add details like meals, etc. I'm adding this to my list!

  7. My WIP takes place in WW2 where food rationing is an issue.

  8. When my characters eat, for the most part they visit some of Portland's wonderful restaurants...from Nicholas (for Big Bread and hummus) to Jake's for Crawfish, and even Kenny & Zuke's for Reuben Salad. I discover new places every time I'm there, including the myriad of food carts! Phil can scramble some tasty eggs, but Sam opens cans. He hasn't really cooked since his wife died. As a reader, I am a pushover for any good story with recipes in it :o) Julie Hyzy's Ollie Paras series is wonderful.

  9. I like characters who eat while they go about the business of solving mysteries, especially when the food reflects the context of the story (i.e., occupationally and regionally accurate.)

    My protagonist is a newspaper reporter who drinks gallons of coffee (as I did, back in the day). References to Portland's foodie culture run through the story because it wouldn't be realistic to set a book here and not acknowledge the extraordinary focus on all things culinary.

    Brenda B.

  10. My Portland is in Maine, of course.

    Both Portland's are great places to eat, as Maryann points out.

    Brenda B. in Maine

  11. OH, yes, of the reporters basic food groups.

    I keep a chart of scenes and time-of-day was I'm writing--that I way I don't forget to have people "grab a sandwich" or at least be hungry..

    I wonder, though, if we really notice non-important, non-story-connected eating in books. have you ever thought--hey, that main character has never eaten a morsel of food in the whole book?

  12. Hank, yes, I do! It strains credulity, along with laptops and cell phones that never die.

    Diane Mott Davidson's books all center around food, since her MC is a caterer. And two of her characters are obsessed with espresso, but in a way that is seamless with the story.

  13. Hank asks: have you ever thought--hey, that main character has never eaten a morsel of food in the whole book?

    I always wonder: has anyone noticed that my character hasn't had to go to the john? TMI??

  14. Hallie, you wouldn't be expected to remember this, but in the third golf mystery, Cassie had to step into the reeds on the ninth tee and well, pee. It led to the discovery of the body so big moment.

    But in most cases, if not all, would much rather hear (or write) about the characters eating...:)

  15. Great topic!

    My characters tend to have Italian names, thus they eat...a lot. I'm not even Italian, I just married one but I seem to obsess about the names and the food. I have male characters who cook, I write about characters who work in pizzarias, and they all live for restrurants. I guess becaue I like food, they should also. LOL

  16. Yes Hallie,
    I opened Yesterday's Fatal, with my own Hallie Ahern's need to pee -- she drives off the highway in search of rest room and stumbles upon a fatal car accident.

    But otherwise, I think most of our stories should be highlight, right? The greatest hits of the day and not the tedium in between?


  17. Love to cook and eat, love to read cookbooks -- also read Julia Child's My Life in France last year, after our trip to France, and adored it. Reading about cooking and eating in novels can be mouthwatering -- although yes, it must fits the character and context, and not be overdone, even though the cook in me might want more details! I still remember a long weekend home alone in a Biblical rainstorm, when I read several Jerrilyn Farmer Mad Bean books and took breaks from reading only to cook! (The well was out, so I didn't have to wash the dishes.)