Some of my favorite books include scenes where people are eating. The description of food adds such richness to the storytelling and often reveals something about the characters doing the eating. I love the food descriptions in John Grisham’s A Painted House. Not only does Grisham describe the prepared food itself in a way that makes cold biscuits sound delicious, but because his characters are poor cotton farmers he reveals the energy required just to put food on the table. He describes the whole family rising before dawn to tend to the farm animals, collecting eggs and feeding the livestock. He describes the women working in the garden behind the house and baking biscuits and pie and frying chicken all morning to have lunch ready for the crew working in the fields. In the first chapter, Grisham’s protagonist, a 7-year-old boy, is seen savoring a Tootsie Roll by taking a small bite and wrapping the rest of the penny candy in its wrapper for later. That attention to detail left me hungry after every chapter.
Stephen King uses food in a different way in his book Song of Susannah. The title character Susannah suffers from a fractured personality and her alter ego Mia is pregnant with demon spawn. King sets up scenes in which Mia, in control of Susannah’s mind and having midnight cravings, envisions banquet tables filled with aromatic roasted meat and pastries. In reality, Susannah is grabbing pond toads from out of the muck and crunching them live. In this way, King creates a world out of control and stirs the reader’s imagination with repulsion and sometimes even stimulates the gag reflex. He brilliantly uses these scenes to help the reader form an unfavorable opinion about Mia and sympathize with Susannah who is sometimes captive in her own body.
Lack of food is another technique writers use to emotionally connect the reader to characters. Anne Rice tends to tease her vampire characters by putting them smack in the middle of scenes where humans are enjoying Creole cuisine and French wine but the vampires are only tempted by the scent of the humans. Another example is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in which a 16-year old boy is stranded on a lifeboat at sea with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Not only does Pi have to solve the problem of his own starvation but he has to find a way to keep the belly of the tiger full so as not to become a meal himself. Martel captures the surrender required to survive 227 days at sea on a diet consisting mainly of raw fish.
Writers, if you find yourself stuck in a scene, why not go back and serve your characters a meal. It might reveal something new and take the scene in a whole new direction. Readers, go pick up a good book and really appreciate those food scenes. I’ve got to go make a snack.