Food in fiction! It’s fun, it’s relatable, and it can tell readers something about the novels’ characters and settings.
I previously discussed food in fiction in 2012, when writing about books for The Huffington Post. Yes, that piece was published more than eight years ago — a span of time during which a person can build quite an appetite…for writing about food in fiction again. This post will mention some of the novels I talked about back then, along with various books I’ve read since.
On Friday, I finished The Hundred-Foot Journey, a compelling novel whose India-born protagonist Hassan Haji (seen above in the 2014 movie version) eventually becomes a top chef in Paris. Author Richard C. Morais’ word pictures of Indian cuisine (which Hassan first cooks) and French cuisine (which Hassan shifts to and becomes even more expert at) are intensely vivid, reflect all kinds of cross-cultural currents, and depict the conviviality of sharing excellent restaurant meals. Heck, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more food-focused novel. One caveat: As someone who doesn’t eat meat, I found the descriptions of killing animals, and preparing carnivorous dishes, off-putting.
Another recent novel with a food element is Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, set at a health resort where things take a disturbing turn. But the resort’s food is quite good, making for an interesting juxtaposition.
The title character in Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is admirable in various ways, with one of them being her expertise as a cook and cooking teacher.
Tita de la Garza in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is stymied in love by her mother, and is only able to truly express herself when she cooks.
Food also lends itself to humorous scenarios, as when large/buffoonish protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces operates a hot dog cart in New Orleans and ends up eating much of the product himself.
Some novels with restaurant settings don’t focus a huge amount on the food but more on the eateries as hubs where people gather and certain dramas might play out. That’s the case in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, where hungry hobos are always welcome; and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, whose protagonist Miles Roby runs a far-from-chic grill in Maine. Diner-type eateries also pop up in various Jack Reacher thrillers, illustrating Jack’s “everyman” preference for basic food. (I’m currently absorbed in 2020’s The Sentinel, the first Reacher novel Lee Child co-wrote with his brother Andrew.)
Lack of food can be a riveting aspect of some novels for an obvious reason: People can’t survive without eating. One powerful aspect of Andy Weir’s The Martian is Mark Watney’s struggle to create enough food to stay alive when stranded on Mars.
Going way back to 1749, Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones accentuated the potentially sensuous aspects of a meal by conflating food with sex.
In the short-story realm, Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast” is a culinary extravaganza better known for its movie version.
Books with strong food elements I mentioned in my 2012 post? Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, among others. Plus Darryl Brock’s baseball novel If I Never Get Back, which has one of my favorite food scenes: Born-in-the-20th-century time traveler Sam Fowler gets so bored with mediocre 19th-century American “cuisine” that he goes to a home in a Chinese neighborhood and pays a total stranger to cook him a delicious meal.
Your favorite novels with food content?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a major rent-control victory in my town — is here.