Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Literature and Food

A couple of months ago, I was reading an article that discussed bestsellers and the commonalities between them. One of the commonalities that the article discussed was food.

The article didn’t talk about the whys of that, it just noted that many bookclub type books had themes of food. So I began to think about it.

I think it’s more than just our desire to eat that makes food such a common theme in novels. I think in many ways it’s because food grounds us culturally.

Even in the United States there are regional foods. Here in the South, grits is a given. When we moved here, people were shocked that we’d never eaten grits before. When we lived in New England (where there’s a huge Italian population), I served chili to a family that was at our house for dinner. The kids had never heard of chili before. The mom explained that it’s like pasta and sauce, only without the pasta. I’ve also lived in Hawaii, Chicago, Southern California, and Northern California, and each has its own regional foods.

But even more than regions, ethnic heritage comes into play. For me, autumn hasn’t started until we have uien hache for dinner. My husband’s family has been in the US for generations, and though they don’t really have any German cultural sensibilities, every Christmas they have pfeffernusse.

I suspect that the reason food works its way into so many books is because it grounds the reader in the culture. For example, in Screwing Up Time, I made Henry’s mom an organic, tofu-loving, proto-vegetarian because I wanted something very modern to set apart Henry’s experiences in the present from the cultural experiences of the past. That way when Henry visited the Middle Ages, the contrast would be huge. And food was a way of reflecting that. In other words, Henry goes not only from jeans and t-shirts to tunics and wool stockings, but also from tofurkey to a cockentrice.

What about you, readers and writers, do you notice food in books? When my kids were little, they were so fascinated with the foods in the Chronicles of Narnia that I found a Chronicles of Narnia Cookbook and we had a Narnian dinner. Have you ever tried making the foods mentioned in books?
BTW, if you’re interested here’s a recipe for uien hache (onion stew).

Uien Hache

1 lb. stewing beef
3-6 bouillon cubes
4 large onions
Cornstarch for thickening

Simmer beef in 4” of water that has been salted and peppered. Cook thoroughly. Cut onions in rings and fry with butter in a pot. Cut meat in small pieces and add onions. Add bouillon cubes. Simmer for 1 ½ hours. If beef liquid is thin, add some cornstarch mixed with a little bit of cold water. Serve with boiled potatoes. (Mash them with a fork on your plate and then ladle uien hache on top.

I realize that the recipe is a bit vague in terms of the amount of water and bouillon. This is my grandmother’s recipe and her instructions tend to be “add water until it looks right” and “add enough bouillon until it tastes right.” In the end, there should be enough broth to nearly cover the onions and beef. And the broth should be very rich and a bit salty—when you serve it over potatoes it cuts the salt. (3 bouillon cubes aren’t enough.)

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Hands down, the most food-centered books I've ever read are the Redwall books. I can't read them without snacking. SO many feasts, its a wonder all those mice and squirrels aren't so round they simply roll everywhere.

    1. Louise, I KNOW! Seriously, it was like, "Here friends, let's have another banquet!"

  2. I totally see food coming into play with major themes for one solid reason: appetite. It's a metaphor for what we crave--a universal metaphor.

    Okay, enough for my poetic take on writing psychology.

  3. When I read about food in a book, I get hungry! Even when it's my own wips!

    I love how you're consciously using food in your book, so cool!