It’s that time of year when food becomes a central part of almost every conversation. Although, to be fair, it’s a year round hobby for me to talk about food. Now, everyone seems to be planning their holiday meals and baking. And maybe, for the first time since the pandemic began, go to actual holiday parties in person.
Food and meals can also be effective scene setting in writing. In historical fiction, in particular, food can play an important world building role as well. Things happen around a table, feelings are felt. Whether it’s the food or the conversation over a shared meal, food can play a starring role.
My food journey
In my family, food is always a topic of conversation—we often talk about our next meal while eating the current one. From a young age, I remember being interested in food from other places. It is the ultimate expression of culture—both what goes in the food and how the meal is shared. My perspective deepened when I lived for a year in Bologna, Italy, arguably one of the finest food regions in the world. The region is home to ragu, lasagna, tortelloni, parmesan, prosciutto, balsamico… ok, I need to stop. This is making me hungry and homesick.
Down a side street near my apartment in Bologna, a tiny trattoria served sublime pappardelle con ragu and fileto di balsamico. It was owned and run by a family, every member taking some part in the restaurant. The tiny restaurant was warm and comforting and inspired us to make our own versions of the meals in our apartment, sharing them around our kitchen table.
While I lived in Bologna, a good friend of mine died after a battle with cancer. I couldn’t be there to mourn with our mutual friends, but my flatmates sat at that kitchen table while I made risotto, the repetitive motion of stirring soothing. The warm bowl of creamy risotto shared with friends was a balm in my grief.
Italians eat seasonally. A meal is to be savored and shared with friends. Take your time. I was not the same person when I returned to the States.
Then many years later, when my daughter was three, I challenged myself to cook food from fifty countries. My only rule was that it couldn’t be from a country whose food I usually cooked—so nothing from Italy, France, Mexico, or the UK. Everything else was fair game… and there was definitely some game. I learned to navigate the aisles of Asian markets, which had intimidated me beforehand. One time I stood next to a Chinese grandmother as we contemplated the dozens of soy sauces and decided which one to take (she helped me, but I felt better that she had to think about it too!) I also became more comfortable with different cooking techniques and combinations of flavors. Some of our favorite foods came from Afghanistan, Fiji, Iceland, South Africa, and Peru.
The importance of food in telling a story
All of my past food experiences have given me an appreciation for the food on the table, but also the ritual associated with the meal. Those are important building blocks for historical fiction if you want to include food scenes (and all of my stories do).
First, historical food research is fun. There are professional historians who specialize in the history of food, but there are also historical food bloggers who detail recreating meals and dishes. Depending on your time period, there’s always some gem to find and describe. And emotions often run high at meals. Allowing character exposition or plot development to happen over a shared meal can be a powerful storytelling device. For example, in one of my Tudor stories, the way the characters stab the roast meat at the shared table tells a lot of their emotional state. But references to what’s on the table is also an effective way to world build, especially if you can mix the familiar with the anachronistic.
It’s important to get the food details right. In the past, things were more often eaten locally and seasonally unless you were ridiculously wealthy. I wanted to use eels in my Tudor story, so I tweeted the Surprised Eel Historian—an expert on the use of eels in medieval and renaissance Britain—about whether they’d be in season when my story took place. His quick response was that I was good. So then I got to research different eel preparations—and landed on a recipe for eel with cider sauce. It was a few words in the middle of a scene, but dropped in for a little historical world building.
Just like we spend our time thinking about what we’re going to eat over the holidays, we can also think about what our characters would eat and how—what feelings does a meal elicit? What is going on at the meal that might propel the story forward? Think of possibly the best food scene in cinematic history: Anton Ego, the food critic in Ratatouille, taking that bite and being instantly transported to a comforting scene in his childhood.
Food can tell a story if we let it. And think of all that “research” you get to do while you write.
Do you have a favorite food scene in a book or a movie? Drop a comment below.
Title image: Market Scene by Joachim Beuckelaer (1563), Wikicommons