Putting Food into Fiction

I’d like to look at putting food into literary scenes. Why put food into scenes, and  if you’re going to put food in, then how do you do it.

Food for Transformation: This is the well-known scene from Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ from Remembrance of Things Past. In the scene the narrator is taken back to his early childhood from the taste of tea and Madeleine cakes. Notice how the author uses the cake to signal transformation, and as the transformation intensifies we are taken into the soul of the narrator by the use of poetic imagery. 

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters  innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?


Food as a temporary reprieve from the intensity of the plot.
This is a lighthearted scene from Moby Dick by Herman Mellville. The scene rounds out the characters of Ishmael and Queequeg, and reveals that Melville had a humorous layer within him that crops up now and again Moby Dick. Especially here, look at how the descriptions function as sense impressions. 

“Clam or Cod?” she [Mrs. Hussey] repeated.

“A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word “clam,” Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out “clam for two,” disappeared.

“Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?”

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us.  But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained.  Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me.  It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.  Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition:  when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment.  Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat.  In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.
We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head?  What’s that stultifying saying about chowder-headed people?  “But look, Queequeg, ain’t that a live eel in your bowl?  Where’s your harpoon?”

I once illustrated an essay for the New York Times about how so many male writers tend to gloss over details about food in their stories. The Author felt that as food preparation had traditionally been women’s work, then ignoring the almost mystical power of food was a kind of sexism––in those days, male-chauvinism. Look at how some these authors revel in the details of food in their novels and stories, and how these revelations sharpen the senses of the reader. These excerpts are supposed to make you feel hungry. This might be considered ‘food-porn.’ 

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath 

Arrayed on the Ladies’ Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar. I hadn’t had time to eat any breakfast at the hotel cafeteria that morning, except for a cup of overstewed coffee so bitter it made my nose curl, and I was starving.

This is almost pure poetry. Look at the sensitive imagery, and alliteration––and there’s more.

I had a vision of the celestially white kitchens of Ladies’ Day stretching into infinity. I saw avocado pear after avocado pear being stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise under brilliant lights. I saw the delicate, pink-mottled claw meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise and the bland yellow pear cup with its rim of alligator-green cradling the whole mess.


In this snippet from Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” notice how the theme of cheese flows from literal cheese on a table, to becoming a simile for Levin’s biceps. 

The men went into the dining-room and went up to a table, laid with six sorts of vodka and as many kinds of cheese, some with little silver spades and some without, caviar, herrings, preserves of various kinds, and plates with slices of French bread.

“This cheese is not bad. Shall I give you some?” said the master of the house. “Why, have you been going in for gymnastics again?” he asked Levin, pinching his muscle with his left hand. Levin smiled, bent his arm, and under Stepan Arkadyevitch’s fingers the muscles swelled up like a round of dutch cheese, hard as a knob of iron, through the fine cloth of the coat.
“What biceps! A perfect Samson!”

While we’re talking of cheese we can’t forget the Swiss children’s book, Heidi written by Johanna Spyri in 1880, which is something of a tribute to dairy foods, but especially raclette cheese. This was long before anyone worried about cholesterol levels. If you’ve never experienced raclette, then you might want to do so after reading ‘Heide.’

When the kettle was boiling, the old man put a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork, and held it over the fire, turning it to and fro, till it was golden-brown on all sides. Heidi had watched him eagerly. Suddenly she ran to the cupboard. When her grandfather brought a pot and the toasted cheese to the table, he found it already nicely set with two plates and two knives and the bread in the middle. Heidi had seen the things in the cupboard and knew that they would be needed for the meal.

You might think that a man’s man of a writer like Jack Kerouac would have more macho things to do than write about food, but throughout ON THE ROAD he makes frequent references to ice cream and apple pie, and sometimes reveals more about his culinary tastes…

“Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I’d eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. There were places where they specialized in thick red roast beef au jus, or roast chicken basted in wine. There were places where hamburgs sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman’s Wharf—nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and french-fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausalito across the bay, and that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco.” (On the Road, 1957)

This is perhaps one of the most famous of all literary teas. There’s a well-established guideline when writing fiction: have your characters do something while they talk.
A meal is an excellent opportunity for you as writers to find out about your characters. What food do they prefer? How do they eat their food? What finicky food habits do they have? Do they have good manners, or do they pour tea on the other guests? This excerpt is of course from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. ‘Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; ‘only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’
The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: ‘No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. ‘There’s plenty of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.
‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
‘Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.’It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

While we’re on classic British children’s books, this snippet s from Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Food reveals the relationship between the characters. notice how food reveals the insecurities of Ratty. The old adage: avoid going into too much background detail in children’s books might apply to weather, architecture, and landscape, but never, ever applies to food.

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leant back blissfully into the soft cushions. “What a day I’m having!” he said. “Let us start at once!”
“Hold hard a minute, then!” said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat wicker luncheon-basket.
“Shove that under your feet,” he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
“What’s inside it?” asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
“There’s cold chicken inside it,” replied the Rat briefly: “cold tongue, cold ham, cold beef, pickled gherkins, salad, French rolls, cress sandwiches, potted meat ginger beer lemonade soda water—”
“O stop, stop!” cried the Mole in ecstasies. “This is too much!”
“Do you really think so?” enquired the Rat seriously. “It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it very fine!”

Charles Dickens used food to great effect in his stories. See, in these two excerpts from Great Expectations, how Dickens uses food to reveal character––never once resorting to ‘explanation.’

“My sister had a trenchant way of cutting our bread and butter for us, that never varied. First, with her left hand she jammed the loaf hard and fast against her bib,—where it sometimes got a pin into it, and sometimes a needle, which we afterwards got into our mouths. Then she took some butter (not too much) on a knife and spread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way, as if she were making a plaster,—using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity, and trimming and moulding the butter off round the crust. Then, she gave the knife a final smart wipe on the edge of the plaster, and then sawed a very thick round off the loaf: which she finally, before separating from the loaf, hewed into two halves, of which Joe got one, and I the other.”

Excerpt From: Charles Dickens. “Great Expectations.”

I was soon at the Battery after that, and there was the right Man,—hugging himself and limping to and fro, as if he had never all night left off hugging and limping,—waiting for me. He was awfully cold, to be sure. I half expected to see him drop down before my face and die of deadly cold. His eyes looked so awfully hungry too, that when I handed him the file and he laid it down on the grass, it occurred to me he would have tried to eat it, if he had not seen my bundle. He did not turn me upside down this time to get at what I had, but left me right side upwards while I opened the bundle and emptied my pockets.
“What’s in the bottle, boy?” said he.
“Brandy,” said I.
He was already handing mincemeat down his throat in the most curious manner,—more like a man who was putting it away somewhere in a violent hurry, than a man who was eating it,—but he left off to take some of the liquor. He shivered all the while so violently, that it was quite as much as he could do to keep the neck of the bottle between his teeth, without biting it off.
“I think you have got the ague,” said I.
“I’m much of your opinion, boy,” said he.
“It’s bad about here,” I told him. “You’ve been lying out on the meshes, and they’re dreadful aguish. Rheumatic too.”
“I’ll eat my breakfast afore they’re the death of me,” said he. “I’d do that, if I was going to be strung up to that there gallows as there is over there, directly afterwards. I’ll beat the shivers so far, I’ll bet you.
He was gobbling mincemeat, meatbone, bread, cheese, and pork pie, all at once: staring distrustfully while he did so at the mist all round us, and often stopping—even stopping his jaws—to listen. Some real or fancied sound, some clink upon the river or breathing of beast upon the marsh, now gave him a start, and he said, suddenly,—
“You’re not a deceiving imp? You brought no one with you?”
“No, sir! No!”
“Nor giv’ no one the office to follow you?”
“Well,” said he, “I believe you. You’d be but a fierce young hound indeed, if at your time of life you could help to hunt a wretched warmint hunted as near death and dunghill as this poor wretched warmint is!”
Something clicked in his throat as if he had works in him like a clock, and was going to strike. And he smeared his ragged rough sleeve over his eyes.
Pitying his desolation, and watching him as he gradually settled down upon the pie, I made bold to say, “I am glad you enjoy it.”
“Did you speak?”
“I said I was glad you enjoyed it.”
“Thankee, my boy. I do.”
I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog’s way of eating, and the man’s. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody’s coming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in his mind over it, to appreciate it comfortably I thought, or to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.
“I am afraid you won’t leave any of it for him,” said I, timidly; after a silence during which I had hesitated as to the politeness of making the remark. “There’s no more to be got where that came from.” It was the certainty of this fact that impelled me to offer the hint.
“Leave any for him? Who’s him?” said my friend, stopping in his crunching of pie-crust.

This from Gatsby:

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.


But things are always better in the morning. Atticus rose at his usual ungodly hour
and was in the livingroom behind the M​obile Register​when we stumbled in. Jem’s morning face posed the question his sleepy lips struggled to ask.
“It’s not time to worry yet,” Atticus reassured him, as we went to the diningroom. “We’re not through yet. There’ll be an appeal, you can count on that. Gracious alive, Cal, what’s all this?” He was staring at his breakfast plate.
Calpurnia said, “Tom Robinson’s daddy sent you along this chicken this morning. I fixed it.”
“You tell him I’m proud to get it—bet they don’t have chicken for breakfast at the White House. What are these?”
“Rolls,” said Calpurnia. “Estelle down at the hotel sent ‘em.”
Atticus looked up at her, puzzled, and she said, “You better step out here and see what’s in the kitchen, Mr. Finch.”
We followed him. The kitchen table was loaded with enough food to bury the family: hunks of salt pork, tomatoes, beans, even scuppernongs. Atticus grinned when he found a jar of pickled pigs’ knuckles. “Reckon Aunty’ll let me eat these in the diningroom?”
Calpurnia said, “This was all ‘round the back steps when I got here this morning. They—they ’preciate what you did, Mr. Finch. They—they aren’t oversteppin‘ themselves, are they?”
Atticus’s eyes filled with tears. He did not speak for a moment. “Tell them I’m very grateful,” he said. “Tell them—tell them they must never do this again. Times are too hard…”

This is from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

“Put it down there,” she said, helping the Swiss girl to place gently before her the huge brown pot in which was the BOEUF EN DAUBE—for her own part, she liked her boobies. Paul must sit by her. She had kept a place for him. Really, she sometimes thought she liked the boobies best. They did not bother one with their dissertations. How much they missed, after all, these very clever men! How dried up they did become, to be sure. There was something, she thought as he sat down, very charming about Paul. His manners were delightful to her, and his sharp cut nose and his bright blue eyes. He was so considerate. Would he tell her—now that they were all talking again—what had happened?
“We went back to look for Minta’s brooch,” he said, sitting down by her. “We”—that was enough. She knew from the effort, the rise in his voice to surmount a difficult word that it was the first time he had said “we.” “We did this, we did that.” They’ll say that all their lives, she thought, and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion—a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound—for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.
“It is a triumph,” said Mr. Bankes, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked. How did she manage these things in the depths of the country? he asked her. She was a wonderful woman. All his love, all his reverence, had returned; and she knew it.
“It is a French recipe of my grandmother’s,” said Mrs. Ramsay, speaking with a ring of great pleasure in her voice. Of course it was French. What passes for cookery in England is an abomination (they agreed). It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables. “In which,” said Mr. Bankes, “all the virtue of the vegetable is contained.” And the waste,” said Mrs. Ramsay. A whole French family could live on what an English cook throws away. Spurred on by her sense that William’s affection had come back to her, and that everything was all right again, and that her suspense was over, and that now she was free both to triumph and to mock, she laughed, she gesticulated, till Lily thought, How childlike, how absurd she was, sitting up there with all her beauty opened again in her, talking about the skins of vegetables. There was something frightening about her. She was irresistible. Always she got her own way in the end, Lily thought. Now she had brought this off—Paul and Minta, one might suppose, were engaged. Mr. Bankes was dining here. She put a spell on them all, by wishing, so simply, so directly, and Lily contrasted that abundance with her own poverty of spirit, and supposed that it was partly that belief …”

Excerpt From: Virginia Woolf. “To the Lighthouse.” 




Cecile guarded the kitchen’s swinging door and pointed us to the living room, where she had laid out a waxy tablecloth on the floor. We spread out around the cloth. Cecile took over everything, dumping shrimp lo mein and an egg roll on each plate, tossing everyone a fork and a napkin.

To me she said, “Pour the drinks,” which I did. This was the most mothering we got, if you don’t count her coming to claim us. Not that I wanted or needed any mothering. I was just thinking about Vonetta and Fern. They were expecting a mother. At least a hug. A “Look at how y’all have grown.” A look of sorrow and a plea for forgiveness. I knew better.

At least that was one thing Cecile and Big Ma had in common. Big Ma had no forgiveness for Cecile, and Cecile had no need for it.

Mean Lady Ming had thrown in a pair of chopsticks. Vonetta and Fern eyed the wooden sticks and formulated ideas about turning them into hairpins, play-fight swords, and pickup sticks. Cecile ended all of that when she broke the sticks joined at the top, rubbed them against each other like she was kindling twigs for a campfire, then wrapped noodles around them and shoved the noodles, shrimp, and sticks into her mouth.

We were all staring. We’d never seen anyone eating with chopsticks other than on TV. We’d never seen colored people eating with them, and here was our mother eating with chopsticks like the Chinese men that I had read about who worked on the railroads. She ate hungrily, setting no type of table-manner examples for us, her daughters.

Cecile knew our eyes were on her. With a mouthful of food she said, “Thought y’all were hungry.”

We picked up our forks and ate.

When we were done, Cecile grabbed everything that hadn’t been used—soy sauce, spicy mustard, her fork, an extra cup that Mean Lady Ming had thrown in. She told us to stay right there while she brought everything into the kitchen. So we stayed put.

I thought she might want to talk to us. Find out how we were doing in school. What we liked and didn’t like. If we ever had chicken pox or our tonsils taken out. While I thought about what I’d tell her, we heard a knock …


I found supper already laid out. My host, who stood on one side of the great fireplace, leaning against the stonework, made a graceful wave of his hand to the table, and said,

“I pray you, be seated and sup how you please. You will I trust, excuse me that I do not join you, but I have dined already, and I do not sup.”

I handed to him the sealed letter which Mr. Hawkins had entrusted to me. He opened it and read it gravely. Then, with a charming smile, he handed it to me to read. One passage of it, at least, gave me a thrill of pleasure.

“I must regret that an attack of gout, from which malady I am a constant sufferer, forbids absolutely any travelling on my part for some time to come. But I am happy to say I can send a sufficient substitute, one in whom I have every possible confidence. He is a young man, full of energy and talent in his own way, and of a very faithful disposition. He is discreet and silent, and has grown into manhood in my service. He shall be ready to attend on you when you will during his stay, and shall take your instructions in all matters.”

The count himself came forward and took off the cover of a dish, and I fell to at once on an excellent roast chicken. This, with some cheese and a salad and a bottle of old tokay, of which I had two glasses, was my supper. During the time I was eating it the Count asked me many questions as to my journey, and I told him by degrees all I had experienced.

By this time I had finished my supper, and by my host’s desire had drawn up a chair by the fire and begun to smoke a cigar which he offered me, at the same time excusing himself that he did not smoke. I had now an opportunity of observing him, and found him of a very marked physiognomy.

His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.