There’s a scene I love in an old book I love, Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Hillary, the humble, clumsy old priest, has returned, on a cold, gray day, to his cold, gray home. And there he finds a cold, gray dinner, left for him by his housekeeper, who has the night off.
Hilary’s spirits plummet even further when he sees the plate with its gray, sodden potatoes. There are greasy chunks of sausage, much the same color. The meat and potatoes are held together by thick, damp pie crust. Hillary, whose arthritis aches in the cold, takes the unappealing meal into his study, where he lights a fire and waits to warm up and prays for the spirit to eat the food and be thankful for it.
And then Jim Maloney pounds at the door. Jim is the very man Hillary’s been out looking for–a gallant little Irishman whose talent extends from acting to engineering to being a dab hand with food. Hillary ushers Jim into his study, where the visitor takes in the situation at a glance. He asks the priest’s permission to take that plate into the kitchen. Hillary, of course, says yes.
And Jim searches cupboards and chops and heats and improvises, and then he comes out with a meal transformed. He has minced and fried and made the ugly meal into a kind of farmer’s breakfast, an omelet deluxe, with a steaming mug of tea and buttered toast on the side. It smells wonderful, and Hillary’s pains are, now, not so bad. As he tucks into the appetizing dinner, Hillary feels that there IS hope, that things CAN change, and then he is able to help Jim, who is badly in need of spiritual mending.
Goudge could have just told us Hillary was discouraged, deeply and heartily discouraged, and that he suddenly began to recover his native optimism and joy. Instead she revealed the plunge into the depths and the breaking through into the light by writing about Hillary’s meal.
One of my favorite professors once told our British lit class that United States writers don’t write food very well. And writing food well was important, he maintained. A passage with food written well takes the reader there in ways that description of other sorts just can’t do. I began, after that, to notice food in my reading.
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith shows us how Francie and Neeley Nolan’s mother makes dinner special at the end of the week:
Saturday supper was a red-letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot catsup. These meatballs had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.
Such a humble meal to be so anticipated! Smith wraps a whole world of revelation into that little passage. She shows us that the Nolans are poor, and that the little pleasures are terribly important. She shows us that the mama is tough and resourceful. Taking the things on hand and morphing them into something special. Giving that Saturday night treat a funny, outlandish name to make the eating even more pleasing. Smith reveals that Francie and Neeley are loyal and grateful, hungry children thoroughly satisfied with their treat.
Madeleine L’Engle is a master at writing food. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mother simmers stews on the Bunsen burner and brings her family together around the old, scarred table, warmed by steaming portions, steeped in the smells of rich gravy and tender vegetables, safe in their homely kitchen–unaware of the dangers outside. When she ventures into those dangers–travels through time and space to rescue her father,–the enemy feeds Meg food that, while it offers a brief illusion of lovely smells and nutritious goodness, is as flat and tasteless as sand.
We know the falseness of Meg’s enemy through the food that he feeds her; we know the love of her family through the meals that they share.
In one of Anne Tyler’s books, she writes about a cautious widower who makes a pot of chili on Sunday, and measures and freezes six tupper-wared portions–dinners to last him through each night of the week. Think of what we know about that careful man from what his meticulous, repetitive meal planning.
(I think my professor, yea, those many years ago, may have been right…then. But since then, the United States has gone from being a nation that embraces Spam to being a nation that embraces flavor and freshness and diversity. That growth, I think, shows in the writing of modern US writers.)
Writing food can help us, as wordsmiths, to show our readers what we need them to see.
Think: the passing of a juicy peach between lovers.
Think: the gluttony of a lonely woman healing her hurts with Twinkies and Hohos.
Think: the unsated hungers of a lonely child denied enough food, and savory food, to eat.
Humble, everyday meals tell one story. Lavish banquets tell another. A breakfast shared by newlyweds lets us see an intimate, budding tale.
Traditional family foods tell a lot about the family that eats them. What a person eats by herself with no one to share the meal tells us a lot about that person.
And the food itself gives writers abundant opportunities to set the scene. The scents of food–oh, a good writer makes those scents lift off the page and tickle our nostrils. There are textures and tastes to explore and explain, and there’s the way the food looks on the plate. There’s the plate itself. There’s the place the food is eaten, and the company it’s eaten in–huddled together over the fire, digging potatoes out of hot coals with a stick, passing them back and forth and then eating them–who could resist?–steaming, tongue-burning, hot. Or sitting stiffly on uncomfortable chairs at a long banquet table where thin people, who complain of sporting an extra pound or two, place tiny spoonsful of food on their plates, then push it, listlessly, around with their forks.
Show, don’t tell, the wise ones warn us. And weaving food into our writing–letting the meal or the snack or the sip of wine open the curtain and reveal the truth–is one great way to do that.Can the food you write show your world to hungry readers?
Happy blogging, friends!