Friday, December 08, 2006

Food, Glorious Food

I had a revelation a few months ago: I love food. That doesn't sound too astonishing; I mean, who doesn't? But it was interesting considering I have been making a conscious effort the past couple years to eat less, and eat healthier. Maybe when I was just eating whatever I wanted, I appreciated food less, but I don't think so. I think it's just that food is so plentiful that we don't normally think much about it. I really associate my home here in California with terrific food, and part of that is through the unceasing efforts of my partner to keep us eating high quality stuff at home and in restaurants. It's easy to take for granted when so much of it is so good, and so fresh, that it's only when you go elsewhere and are unpleasantly surprised that you appreciate it.

(And I don't mean to be all arrogant about California, though I have heard friends who moved away complain wistfully about missing the quality and/or breadth of dining choices here. I think any urban area now has pretty good food choices, in general. But still, we are an agricultural and coastal state, so our fruit and fish are going to be a little fresher here than, say, in Kansas City--though our barbecue won't be as good.)

For that reason, I think, it is an often overlooked detail in stories. If you're just trying to get your hero from his hotel in St. Petersburg to the top of Big Ben where he has to meet and dispatch his nemesis, who cares what he ate along the way? You can write a quick note about how he stopped for dinner and then went to bed and not have to make up a whole three-course meal that isn't relevant to the plot.

Well, think of it this way: what would you think if James Bond stopped at a McDonald's for a sandwich on his way to the Atlantis Casino? Just that quick phrase, "stopped at a McDonald's," tells you about the type of food he ate and about the type of character he is. Doesn't it say something if a character goes to a steakhouse and orders a salad? Or if he selects the cheapest wine? Food also brings the reader closer to the narrative--just describing "a succulent steak, cooked just right" is all you need to give the smell, taste, and look of the meal, and if you don't want your readers drooling, you can turn it around and tell them about "the mushy tomatoes and wilted lettuce leaves in the uninspiring salad." Good food and bad food all form a part of the overall atmosphere, and are a nice rounding touch to your scenes. Recall the Narnia series: Turkish delight, the meal the Witch creates out of snow in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"; the apples the children eat when they return in "Prince Caspian" (and the description of bear meat); the toffees in "Magician's Nephew".

So as you're writing your story, don't forget the food. One story to close: For the longest time, after reading early fairy tales and their descriptions of "cunning marzipan sculptures," I thought marzipan must be this amazing sweet treat, because it was always associated with high class, royalty, and elegance. Of course, it was mostly prized for its ability to take color and keep a molded shape; in reality, it's rather almondy and not terribly sweet. I was disappointed, but because of those early stories, there will always be a part of me that reaches out to try it, and for the moment before the taste kicks in, will imagine that I am at a banquet in a castle, among princes and fairy godmothers and magic.

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