Every time I read a Donna Leon mystery I get hungry. In her Commissario Brunetti books, the clever detective is always grabbing a quick snack of little sandwiches washed down with prosecco or heading home to the lavish multi-course midday meals prepared by his loving wife. How she manages this while teaching at a university is a secondary mystery. Why I love reading the food descriptions is not mysterious at all —the menus are just short of food porn. I was bemused when I read a book by Donna Leon that did not feature Brunetti and had a principal character inclined to snack on a protein bar. She was “uncivilized” by Brunetti’s high dining standards.
Showing what a character eats —or doesn’t eat— is an interesting way to explore a personality, lifestyle, economic situation, social life and family dynamics without spelling these things out in expository text. Dialog about food on the table can reveal generosity, extravagance, affection, disapproval, miserly inclinations and much more.
We’ve all dined with rigid, picky eaters who quiz waiters without mercy and ask for deconstructed dishes with everything “on the side.” In some cultures asking to have string beans instead of peas or a baked potato instead of fries is tantamount to second guessing the chef —a criminal offense. In most restaurants in the U.S. substitutions, as long as they are drawn from the existing menu, rarely cause big problems. Still, in very high-end restaurants it’s best to trust the chef and go with the flow. (Don’t try substitutions in Japan.)
In real life, I always notice how my dining companions treat the wait staff. There have been a few first/final dates where I slipped waiters additional tips after my never-again date was rude or abusive to the servers. Nothing says “this guy is an asshole” faster than verbally abusing someone who lives on tips.
Getting back to the actual food choices, I was working on a scene where the college student on a budget is asked to pick up an extravagant platter of pastries. She experiences a taste of entitlement when the bakery offers her a sample. Someone accustomed to spending large amounts of money wouldn’t be surprised by this gesture, but she is.
I’ve been pondering what various good choices mean. Sushi Or Sashimi…Pizza OR Pasta…Martini OR Beer…Chicken OR Fish…Apple OR Banana…Romaine OR Iceberg… Stilton OR Maytag…Raisins OR Prunes…2% Milk OR Cream…Salmon OR Trout…Almonds OR Walnuts…Korean BBQ OR Indonesian Rijsttafel…Miso Soup Or Chicken Matzo Ball…So many choices for so many characters!