“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”
– Psalm 104: 14-15
Writing Lesson: Food
Food is one of my favorite elements in fantasy writing. I love long-winded descriptions of feasts and holidays. I love celebrations around the table, snacks, the stopping of the story to eat. I love the names of food used to set the stage for betrayal or friendship. I love that food eaten for enjoyment is a Biblical concept. Food isn’t there just to fuel our bodies and keep us healthy, though it does do that, but for our souls. Look at the richness of God! It makes our hearts glad, our faces shine, and gives us strength. Bring on the comfort foods!
“Where there is cake, there is hope. And there is always cake.”
― Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy
There are a few books that stand out in my mind as having excellent food moments. Life Expectancy is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It focuses on a cook/baker in love with a girl and hunted by a clown. Not a Steven King clown like It, but a real life circus clown. Many of the intense scenes are broken up by great culinary descriptions of the family gathered around a meal. You will salivate while you read. Since the book is all about family, these delicious dinners bind you in with them as if you sat at their table and shared their supper.
“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.”
―Brian Jacques, Taggerung
(You would not believe how hard it is to find one of his food quotes! But trust me, they’re amazing.)
Discovering Brian Jacques when I was in my early teens was like an oasis in the desert of teen drama passed off as literature. His stories of brave forest creatures, heroes, battles, and feast triggered my imagination and brought hours of joy to my heart. And yes, his feasts. They are amazing. He focuses in on things forest animals would eat and fills the menu with fantastical dishes that pull you into his world. I even got together with a friend and tried to cook some of them. They never turned out quiet like we hoped, but proved that a good story invades your life.
“Ah! Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans! I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them — but I think I’ll be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?”
He smiled and popped the golden-brown bean into his mouth.
“Alas! Ear wax!”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Food should play an important role in your story. It can be used to unite characters, heal characters, snag readers, and flesh out the setting. Especially in fantasy, where so much of the world is unique and different, food can function as an ambassador. Food in Harry Potter has a distinctly British feel to it, mixed with just a hint of magic. I love how you can imagine what a Butterbeer taste like, along with Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans and all the other magical food. Do you see how a completely made up candy keeps the world consistent? Harry Potter would lose much of its child-like glee if Harry bought regular Jelly Belly’s instead of ear-wax flavored beans. Rowling used the food to flesh out the setting of her stories. She also used it to tie us to Harry early on by describing the difference between how Dudley eats and the leftovers tossed to Harry. We instantly pity him. When he’s able to eat as much as he wants, we rejoice with him.
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Tolkien, on the other hand, used familiar foods to root his story in the nostalgic and familiar. Beer, bread, sausages, and potatoes are all comfort foods reminding us of home as we travel far into the unknown with the fellowship. Dinner with Farmer Maggot and his family is a place of rest after the fear of black riders. This use of food ties the everyday reader to the Hobbits giving us a warm spot to cling to. We can all sympathize with being the small person caught up in events much large than us. Tolkien uses food to further instill this feeling creating a race of quiet people that make us all want to go back home. No matter the danger, Hobbits always think about food first. For this reason, we all love them.
To switch from books, the TV show Firefly helps explain its Space Western setting when it has Shepherd Book pay for passage on Serenity with food. This helps the viewer understand that fresh fruits and vegetables are so rare on the outer planets that they can be used as currency. We now have a subconscious grasp on the situation. We can see that life is hard, dangerous, and dirty by looking at the setting, but Kaylee’s face when she eats the strawberry drives these points home in a far more personal way. The times that the crew gather together to eat are used by Whedon to deepen the sense of family: the true magic of Firefly.
Should your characters eat? Should you worry about food in your story? I hope you’ve seen the important roll food and eating can play. It can confirm a familiar setting or round out an unfamiliar one. It can bring unrelated people together as a family. It can serve as a moments rest, a time to heal, or a celebration. However you use it, food should play a role in your work. Settings can take on the roles of secondary characters. Think about Hogwarts, Hobbiton, the Enterprise, Serenity, and Red Wall. These places aren’t just where things happen, but characters in their own right. They are familiar and beloved. Food can do the same thing a ship can. It can give you a nest to put your characters in and push them, challenge them, create conflict, or beauty. Food can be another tool in your tool-kit just like a building, car, road, or city. Don’t discount it. We all love food. We all need to eat. Food is meant to be enjoyed. Use it in your story!
Life Expectancy: R
Red Wall: PG
Harry Potter: PG
Fellowship of the Ring: PG