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What does the food your characters eat reveal about their personality?
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Food and drink are a telling part of every culture. There are historians who dedicate their entire careers to researching what people ate: when, how, where, and the so forth. And, if you give this avenue of gastronomy a chance, you’ll see how deeply interesting a topic it is. As the question above insinuates, there are deeper meanings to the aspect of culinary culture and the choices people make in how they nourish their bodies.
The same is true for fictional people. There are certain people that we don’t see eating a sirloin, or foie gras. Others wouldn’t hoarf down a salad. What would you say that says about them? Certain attitudes express in the meals eaten by a character. Let’s take a look through my works…
OP-DEC: Operation Deceit
Much like my character Claire Healey expresses a part of herself in the sacredness of her lipstick, so too, she reveals something about herself in the foods she eats. Claire’s favorite food is none other than the Boston Cream Pie. This delicious dessert was made famous by the Parker House, a hotel in her home town. Yes. That Parker House–the same one that made its rolls famous. She loves this place, obviously, and the cake is a great comfort to her.
Why would Claire attach to this? One may insinuate that during her childhood, she went there and had quite an impression. A dinner out was definitely an adventure for her, although her family has a lot of money. Her father, after all, was a busy engineering mogul. They had cooks to supply whatever whim they wished. Then, Claire was an only child. If you think of the trauma she experiences at the age of twelve, and look back, you can see the story open up. It may go like: Claire’s mother took her to dinner to smooth over a particularly rough day or night caused by her father. The cake she got for dessert, meant to console her, became symbolic of safety.
Throughout the narrative, you see Claire lean into food to lend a sense of safety or normalcy as war and its dangers fall out all around her. A lot of us can relate to stress eating, even if we cannot relate to the feelings had during wartime. May more of us never have to know those feelings.
Other characters and their gastronomical forays in my books don’t speak as greatly to character as this book did. However, you can find Emily eating some pretty common fare on the farm. This was a luxury that many of the people at the time who were not on the field of battle were capable of maintaining, unlike the lean times of World War II. Production and the war effort took precedence in the 1940s, to out-build the enemy and better supply the troops. Everyone was happy to comply. That said, Victorian Americans were not tested in such a manner. They often took baskets of food to sit and watch the battles nearby.
Common farm fare feeds the setting in which Emily finds herself. Everything is common. It is routine. Expectations are consistently met and nothing veers. Her mother runs a tight ship, but a dry as dust boring one, too. Emily is drowning in routine. However, if she went through what Claire did, she might feel different about her eggs in the morning.
Emily’s privilege is obvious in her sentiments. But, don’t think badly of her. She is bored because she is hemmed in by a life chosen and fashioned for her by others. This is a life they want for her. She’s a prisoner of convention. I don’t thing any of us would be pleased either.
The Trailokya Trilogy
There’s not a lot of focus on food in The Trailokya Series. A couple of things come to mind about this. First, no one in Zion requires food as we know it to survive. This universe’s beings directly feed on the energy all around them, sharing and exchanging as necessary. They can make a meal if the mood strikes. For instance, souls (humans and other animals) would make meals to remember what is was like to be alive on Earth.
Holly orders Chinese food at one point and in another makes a spaghetti dinner from her homemade sauce. These are just asides that reflect the situations in which she exists in the moments of time. The take out is college. The other is an impoverished office worker in New York City. She makes or buys what she can afford and tastes good to her. The food that shows up later in the series is much richer, has more nutrients, and still only fills a niche in her life as fuel.
The only time that food says something more about those consuming it is in the first book. Well, actually, its a drink. Beer, to be specific. Primus Gediel and Dux Sephr imbibe flagons of the Walhall brew while they talk about a troubling matter. Being creatures of their odd plane, clearly they’re not metabolizing the stuff. Yet, it does appear to be used to loosen the tongue of the younger soldier, so he feels more free to speak. Like Claire, the beer provides a sense of comfort that puts Gediel at ease.
This scene displays the comradery between the soldiers, but also shows the reader that these are not the angels you were introduced to on Sunday mornings. Then again, I doubt many would recognize a real angel, even if it landed on their doorstep–especially here in the States. Additionally, it leans on the idea that real men drink beer and that alcohol serves to bring men together when they are otherwise emotionally unavailable to one another.
Sephr offering Gediel beer is a sign (intertext/semiotics). The sign is to let the latter know that this is a casual moment that will rely on the sacredness of their friendship to keep one another secure, and that Sephr understands the gravity of what is happening. The Walhall beer, additionally, is considered sacred by the duta culture. Not everyone has access outside the armory walls. The drink is rare and special. It makes me think of elven wine in Tolkien’s books. I’m such a nerd! (That’s one of those Easter eggs you’ll keep hearing me talk about.)
Writers can have a lot of fun with food in their work. When you can make a dish a sign, you’ll deepen the scene. Readers might not think they are being told things, but the indirect facts of these signs and symbols do inform narrative and characters. Without them, they won’t have as rich of an experience. The great part is, the dish will do the work. No need to hammer the point.
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P.J. MacLayne says
I learned a new word today – hoarf!
Captain Maiel says
LOL Apparently I made it up. I thought I had heard it somewhere, but I cannot find anything on it…
Samantha J Bryant says
It’s interesting, the size of the role that food plays in different stories. @samanthabwriter from
Richard Dee says
The connection between food and society is so fascinating, and such a great way to describe a time or a place in terms that everyone can understand..