Those of you who keep up with me, might have noticed I occasionally blog about food and eating, especially if it’s weird, or has futuristic nuances. If you’re interested in past articles, I pasted the links below.
A recent National Geographic article, The Joy of Food, piqued my interest with the opening quote:
“What is it about eating that brings us closer together?”
I’d like modify it to reflect a writer’s view of it.
What is it about eating that enhances a story?
The article’s author, Victoria Pope, offered the following commentary.
“The sharing of food has always been part of the human story … ‘To break bread together’, a phrase as old as the Bible, captures the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, and provoke laughter.”
In creating contemporary fictional scenes, epic fantasy moments, or science fiction settings, food and the act of eating, humanizes a story. Our mouth waters with tantalizing narrative of baked goods and braised stew. Romance tickles when someone gently hand-feeds a morsel of food to a love interest. Intrigue is piqued while supping with the Crawley family in “Downton Abby”. Warmth ebbs in our bones when fantasy characters share spit-roasted game around a campfire in the dead of winter. We sigh when a dysfunctional family banters happily, setting aside for a moment, that which keeps them apart.
Forging relationships or provoking laughter, unfortunately, is not always a writer’s intent. Food is a defining ambience with apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. Driven back to our hunter-gatherer forbearers, societies are demoralized with heart-wrenching memories of how abundant food once was. Haves and have-nots when food is scarce, polarize villages, communities, entire nations. Today’s colloquialism of the “1 %” bracket is oppressive as ever. Food as common currency is reborn, services available to fill the belly. Suzanne Collin’s “Hunger Games” trilogy is an excellent example of this. S.M. Stirling’s “Dies the Fire” serialized life when the power goes out … forever. The taste and smell of canned foods defined the setting for Susan Pfeffer’s “Life As We Knew It”. Humanity on the brink of extinction, Christopher Nolen’s “Interstellar”, painted somberness from food-blighted, agrarian collapse.
In fantasy tales, food weighs heavily when portraying communal tables, customs, folklore, and regional diversity. George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” series is rich with culinary indulgence and subsistence living. Tolkien’s Hobbits are quiet, yet passionate diners. Elves are vegans, and dwarves … well … they’ll eat anything that isn’t green. Robert Jordan’s 14 book “Wheel of Time” series has more eating scenes than grains of sand in the Wicked Witch of the West’s hourglass. Vampire feeding is a genre unto itself. Opinions vary on what Zombies find nutritious.
Science fiction poses a stronger challenge. When building alien worlds, writers have to define characteristics of sentient alien life. I still shake my head at campy representations in early movie and TV shows (like both versions of “The Visitors”). Babylon 5 was a jewel of multiple alien interactions, all with unique culinary customs. Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow”, did a masterful job of characterizing alien beings by what they shared with pioneering visitors from earth. Hard-core Star Trek fans can cite Klingon fare as if reading from a menu. One of my favorite movies is Matrix, where human “copper-tops” dream of real food, but real people subsist on something resembling watery eggs. Has all the body needs, amino acids, proteins ….” The very sight of it made me gag.
Eating is the ultimate show versus tell enhancer.
A shy man with a sexy, blind first date at a local watering hole. He felt a need to cross his legs when she sucked on a rib bone with the flourish of a week-old calf, working for every drop of udder milk.
An old man in a poverty-stricken village of a fantasy tale. “He shooed white-bodied flies from his half-eaten meal of boiled lake-weed and dried goat. The meager supper would soon be swarming with wiggling maggots. Still, he covered the bowl, the sparse fare being too valuable to throw away.”
A girl in trapped on an alien platform. The protein offering resembled a rat carcass she once dissected in biology. Spinach-like green glop floating in a gelatinous broth nearly made her puke. She spit it out when no one was looking.
Hunger is the best sauce in my dystopian project, Lasty. Ten minutes she droned on about the blessings of having a roof, health, food, fellowship, pick a subject. My gullet gurgled from the scents of simmered meat stew. Mom shot me an annoyed glance. Stomachs had a mind of their own. Mine rattled the prison bars with its empty tin cup.
A story lacking a good eating scene falls short in illustrating a fundamental anthropological trait, not to mention, missing out on a lot of fun writing.
What’s my favorite eating scene. Have to turn the clock back to the 1963 movie adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic novel set in the British eighteenth-century, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, where the handsome Tom and his dining partner wordlessly consume an enormous meal while gazing lustfully at each other.
That’s what I call eating.
If you have a favorite eating scene from a book or movie, let us know about it in the comments.
Past articles about food.