I read novels to get immersed into awesome worlds.
Okay, so if I really broke it down I would tell you that characters are awesome, plot is essential, love stories are annoying (I’M SORRY GUYS, I WANT MONSTERS NOT KISSING), and can magic please exist? But the escapism element? Yeah, that’s why I read in a single element. Books are way cooler than real life.
For people like me who would rather fly on hippogriffs than sweep the kitchen, having a strong setting that leaves room for the imagination is essential. In my reading experience, this is best with food.
It is possible that I just really like food and these are all lies.
Food in Relationships
I’m currently working my way through Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, and Rick Riordan has the food-as-setting element NAILED. There’s a lot of food in this book, and every time it helps set the scene. For example, in the early chapters, Percy’s mother brings him blue candy. This represents two things: that she is the only sweet thing in his life (aw) and the blueness is an inside connection between the two of them. This comes into play later when Percy orders a blue cherry coke.
Food as Plot Devices
Food and the aromas of food continue to play a large part in Percy’s experience, shaping his view of the world:
- The nectar and ambrosia, with their unique, individual flavors, restore the heroes’ health.
- Dinners at Camp Half-Blood and the offerings to the gods.
- Medusa lures them with cheeseburgers and shakes.
- Ares lures them with cheeseburgers and shakes.
Even Grover, a Satyr, eats tin cans all the time… reminding us that he is half-goat. From all the food the characters are eating, we already learn a few things about the story:
- Chocolaty smells and flavors are home, happiness, and family.
- Blue food is Mom.
- Cheeseburgers and shakes end in swordplay and adventures.
Honestly, at this point, if I were Percy I would take out my sword every time I entered a diner.
Food as Setting
Aside from using food to show character relationships and plot progression, from a reader’s standpoint, food is an awesome way of building the scene. Every time I read about the cheeseburgers and shakes EVEN THOUGH I KNOW TROUBLE’S COMING all I can do is imagine the charred, salty smell of a proper greasy diner burger and honestly, I am starving right now! Every single reader will imagine a different picture, smell, and touch sensation for food depending on personal preference. With a couple of easy words, the whole atmosphere has changed.
As a writer, one of my favorite ever scenes was written when my nerdy, innocent, unsocialized protagonist discovered a diner in her hometown and tried a grilled cheese sandwich. It changed her perspective on life and she was so happy at the diner, it was a blast to write. As a culture, we gather around meal times and have emotional connections to foods (grandma’s cookies, anyone?). Good food makes happy people. It astounds me how many writers seem to forget their characters need to eat!
Other books where food comes into play
- Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas – Celaena is obsessed with food, and it’s adorable.
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling – The entire series is peppered with food… enough that someone wrote an unofficial cookbook.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Food and the lack thereof in this series plays a huge role in describing the social classes. It creates allies and kills enemies.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – From potatoes to lembas bread, the hobbits love food.
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – The entire creation of the circus occurred over the course of several lavish dinners hosted by Chandresh. Plus – “fantastic cinnamon things” cracks me up.
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Who could forget Minnie’s Chocolate pie?
I could keep going, but I think I’ve proven my point. Food increases the illusion of the story, moves the plot forward, and makes people happy.