Now, I am not a great cook. I am not a chef. I cannot tell you how to fully integrate the text of cooking into your fiction writing — although I can recommend to you a few enjoyable reads that can:
What I am writing to you about here is the idea of how important it is to remember the basics of food in your writing:
The kitchen as a space. Food as fuel. The experience of eating.
The Kitchen as a Space.
Things happen in the kitchen. Kitchens are a valuable space — physical, mental, emotional, social, and cultural space — in a home, and always have been. It bugs me to read a scene where characters simply stand around in the kitchen. It’s not just “a room” — it’s probably the most valuable room to show your characters’ true selves.
What are they doing in the kitchen? How can what they do show who they are? They should open cabinets, put away dishes, wash off plates and bowls, gather ingredients to make a smoothie, make noise but try to be quiet, get out the bread and butter for toast, complain about spilled water on the floor or ants on the counter. Rearrange the items on the shelves unnecessarily. Find the remote in the freezer and the crab legs freezerburned. Again.
Fiction Characters Should Live in Their Kitchen
Remember to make your characters move in the kitchen space, interacting normally as you or someone else might in the kitchen. Have someone absentmindedly wiping the counter, polishing an invisible spot as they daydream. Have someone forget to put away the leftovers and have to throw them out the next day. If kitchens are the hearts of homes, remember to show your characters’ lives by the way they interact with others through the shared space of the kitchen.
Kitchens are also places of memory. People spend time in kitchens with people they love, people they may miss, and this makes kitchens prime settings for flashbacks. Memories of food are intricately intertwined with memories of people, as are dramatic events that may have happened in the kitchen in the past. Remember: kitchens are not only in homes. Consider how working in a restaurant kitchen for years may have affected a character, if that’s his or her backstory.
Food as Fuel
Don’t forget that your characters need to eat. Unless you’re writing superhero stories — and even then, really — your characters must break the action of their narratives to have meals. I appreciate this about film — Quentin Tarantino’s films often include characters stopping the events of their crazy lives to eat, like “normal” people, and the joke about Brad Pitt eating in every film is part of what makes him a likeable character actor. Relatable people munch, eat, shove food in their mouths when they get a chance. TV shows about cops are good at this, too. Your characters should be.
In real life, meals often include other people. Not always, I understand, but frequently. The meal doesn’t have to be an event; write what you know. If it’s a situation you don’t know, start where you do and expand. Meal times are perfect small moments with the potential to move the plot; a comment during conversation sparks an idea that pushes the protagonist toward a solution to their problem, or a piece of information learned during the meal clues in the protagonist to a new path in their story.
The Experience of Eating
Food is the ideal opportunity to indulge all your senses. You know that you should describe food thoroughly — Hemingway is a prime example of how to do this. Everything he eats in Moveable Feast, he delights in, relishes, enjoys with pure gusto.
Remember that for your characters, the experience of food is unique to each. Every person has preferences; everyone has their own food quirks. And those small customizations change the food experience. For example, your character might add cinnamon to her coffee, which not only changes the taste but the experience of drinking it. When she inhales it, her memories won’t be the same; that first breath on her tongue will have its own history and future.
Another character might flavor his water with lemon. Another character may cook his broccoli in fish oil. Another character may dip her fries in mayonnaise. These small personalizations show character, give your reader a richer, more realistic connection with your character’s experience in your novel’s world.
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