If I were exactly what I eat, I might have coffee running through my veins, but fortunately I also drink wine and eat enough chocolate, fish, vegetables, fruit, eggs, yogurt, nuts, cheese, grains, etc. to qualify for the generally ‘healthy diet’ category of eater. When food comes up in fiction—and it does so often—the menu reveals answers to questions about wealth/poverty, sophistication/naivety, indulgence/discipline, and much, much more without requiring the storyteller to spell everything out.
Over the holidays I read a short story by the late, great P.D. James entitled ‘The Mistletoe Murder.’ It was set during WWII in England and the protagonist is a young widow. She accepts an invitation from her estranged family that includes the promise of good food and wine at a time when both were in short supply. The specificity of the Christmas menu and the black market alcohol drew me in as a reader. It made the story feel real. The young woman is thrust into an awkward social event that ends in murder, but a holiday dinner is well worth the risk.
Some food choices have become clichéd shorthand for character types. The tough, working class, young woman who manages with brain & brawn to rise to detective status (for instance the protagonist in ‘The Trespasser’ by Tana French) doesn’t cook. She tosses things in the microwave or picks up fast food. While erudite, intellectual, puzzle-solving detectives indulge in lavish meals. (Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti is a great example.)
Food can bring ethnicity, geography, and an era in time into sharp focus. Picture a contemporary grandma taking her 20-something grandchild out for lunch. “Let’s have an egg cream,” grandma says with a smile that is met with stunned confusion. An egg cream is a soda fountain drink that is usually associated with New York and was already old-fashioned when I was a kid. It goes back to the early 1900s and was very popular when there were more ice cream parlors and Jewish delicatessen restaurants. It’s fizzy. It’s fun. And I haven’t had one in years. The irony of it containing neither eggs nor cream, only adds to its allure.
Recipe for an Egg Cream:
That stunned, silent confusion seems like a great way to start a story!