Writers Abroad Blog
Words Good Enough to Eat
Posted by Vanessa Couchman

 

“Food, like sex, is a writer’s great opportunity. It offers material that is both universal and intensely personal.” ( Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky, about the history of food writing).

Eating is an essential function, but food is also one of life’s pleasures. Equally, if you were a Roman emperor or an enemy of the Borgias, eating could be a hazardous enterprise. Food, or lack of it, has been the cause of wars, social change (the Irish famine) and political upheaval (the Russian Revolution). Plenty of scope here for writers.

The early food writers associated food with a wider philosophy. The Chinese wrote about its uses in medicine and healthy lifestyle. The Greek philosopher Epicurus linked it with his theory that good comes from pleasure and evil from pain. Later on, the French savant Brillat-Savarin devised a social theory around diet: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.”

The best writers about food, whether fiction or non-fiction, have the ability to stir up not only tastes, textures and scents, but also a sense of time, place and setting (not just place-setting). Like all writing, it’s about showing rather than telling; making the reader experience what is around the plate as well as on it.

I plan to use food more in my historical fiction, since it can say so much about a character’s background and the prevailing social and cultural situation.

One of my favourite non-fiction food books is Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, first published in 1960. My well-thumbed copy is shown at the top. Britain had emerged from the throes of post-war rationing only a few years before, and food was plain and unadventurous.

David’s book burst onto the culinary scene, with its wonderful descriptions of meals in off-the-beaten-track French auberges , composed of colourful and exotic (then) ingredients. French Provincial Cooking is much more than a recipe book: it’s packed full of erudite musings on food and literary anecdotes. 

Nineteenth-century novels are particularly rich in food description. Emile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris ( The Belly of Paris ) takes place in and around les Halles in Paris, the sprawling food market, which, sadly, has moved to the suburbs. His extensive descriptions of the food stalls are a metaphor for the contrast between plenty and the poverty of many of Paris’ inhabitants.

Some fiction writers have used food as an integral part of the story. Joanne Harris’ Chocolat is an obvious one. Her description of a birthday meal near the end of the novel has me salivating each time I read it. In Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate , the food that the main character, Tita, cooks is imbued with whatever emotion she feels while preparing it. Her dishes can move people to tears or ecstasy.

Here is a list of novels that focus on food. 

And if you want to try your fictional food writing skills, the annual Mogford Food & Drink Short Story Prize opens for entries on 5 th November 2018 and offers a very tasty prize of £10,000.  

Which writers do you think cook up evocative descriptions of food?

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