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Writing About Food — You Are What You Eat

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Writing About Food — You Are What You Eat

I am not one of those girls who has been planning her dream wedding for years, and now that I’m going to have one, I find myself a bit overwhelmed. I want to look pretty, and I want everyone to have fun, and I’m stoked about getting married in a train station, but as for the colors and flowers and hors d’oeuvres and all that… it’s not where my interests lie.

“To be honest, I don’t really care about the food,” I told a caterer on the phone last week. “I mean, I know there needs to be some…”

“Okay.” The woman seemed surprised. I guess a lot of couples use the food portion of their wedding to showcase their unique personalities (or their pocketbooks). What people eat says a lot about who they are.

I use this concept all the time in my writing. What my characters eat, cook, and serve their guests shows (instead of tells) important information about class, culture, and character. Besides, food can be a very sensual thing to describe. The way you write about it can set the tone.

For example, I love the way Janet Fitch writes about food in her novel White Oleander. After Ingrid’s mother goes to prison for the murder of her boyfriend, Barry, Ingrid drifts through a series of foster homes. Each home is its own world, with its own menus.  Here are a few passages:

Sunday, we went together to the Hollywood farmer’s market, where she and Barry bought spinach and green beans, tomatoes and grapes no bigger than the head of a thumbtack, papery braids of garlic, while I trailed behind them, mute with amazement at the sight of my mother examining displays of produce like it was a trip to the bookstore. My mother, for whom a meal was a carton of yogurt or a can of sardines and soda crackers. She could eat peanut butter for weeks on end without even noticing…

At home, the trailer smelled of ham. Starr served up lunch, creamed corn, canned pineapple rings, brown-and-serve rolls… I studied the little bowl of pink peppermint ice cream with jelly beans sprinkled over, and the Easter lily in the middle of the table in its foil-wrapped pot…

I walked up to the garbage can and looked inside. I could see her brown paper bag on top of the trash. It stank, they never washed out the cans, but I could do this. I pretended I had dropped something in the garbage, and grabbed the lunch sack. It held a tuna sandwich with pickle relish on buttered white bread. The crusts were cut off. There were carrot sticks and even can of apple juice fortified with vitamin C…

For a week, we ate out of paper cartons and jars with foreign writing on the labels from the Chalet Gourmet. Soft runny wedges of cheese, crusty baguettes, wrinkly Greek olives. Dark red prosciutto and honeydew melon, rose-scented diamonds of baklava. She didn’t eat much, but urged me to to finish the roast beef, the grapefruit sweet as an orange…

She got up and fished another beer out of the battered refrigerator, covered with stickers from rock bands. A glimpse of the interior didn’t look promising. Beer, takeout cartons, some lunch meat…


This might say a lot about me...

This might say a lot about me…

There’s a writing exercise I always read about in which you make a list of all the things your character(s) would buy at the grocery store. I’ve never done it myself (it always sounds a bit too much like a chore), but I do think what your characters eat and the way they eat it is an important thing to consider. Incorporating food into scenes of your novel or story gives you a lot to play with and can help reveal character, mood, and conflict.

Maybe you don’t have to do the grocery list exercise, but if you’re ever trying to explore your characters more thoroughly, try describing what she ate for lunch, or what he cooked for his date, or maybe even what they served at their wedding reception.

And if you have any great ideas about that last one, let me know…


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

2 responses »

  1. You know I’ll help you plan the food 🙂 Also, for more great writing about food you should check out Ruth Reichl, who is both a food critic and an author. Her book Garlic and Sapphires (a title I adore actually) is a well known mouth watering tome.

  2. Food is my everything! (Except my family & friends, of course). However, you are likely to be having too much fun or too fluttery to eat much anyway so go for something simple, classic, easy to do well for a large number of people, and not too much on your budget. Reading this also made me think of Ruth Reichl – I read tender at the bone … very good food descriptions! 🙂


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