Writing Thumbprints

You know what I mean when I say this. Artists or creators tend to have themes, ideas, or aesthetics that they return to in every one of their works. This could be anything from an eight-bar phrase that appears in a number of songs to an illustrator just really liking aliens and incorporating them into as many projects as possible. I’ll probably dedicate a longer and more detailed blog post to deeper themes and ideas that come up in my projects: for this one, though, I’ll admit to the goofy one that I noticed in college.

I always have at least one very detailed scene where characters eat or prepare food. It’s usually, but not always, some kind of pasta.

This struck me as bizarre when I first noticed it. It’s not like I have a particularly good or bad relationship with food. I like cooking way more than I did when I was a college student whose only criteria was “edible,” “probably won’t upset my stomach,” and “can be prepared in under 30 minutes,” and while it can be fun it’s not something I’d describe myself as passionate about. I’m lucky in that while my family always had food and always ate good meals, the meals aren’t what stick out in my memory when it comes to my childhood. Pasta’s great and everything, but to my knowledge I don’t have an Italian heritage that gives me a preternatural attraction to the stuff. I’m not a food writer, personally know exactly one baker, and none of my characters at the moment are professionals in the industry. Basically, food and cooking are not things that I feel like I should focus on that intensely in my writing.

This was something that I started to hope people in my workshops wouldn’t notice: I most frequently worked with a mother whose protagonists always had children and a guy who was a fan of Lovecraft and strove to emulate his atmosphere minus that whole xenophobia thing. Compared to those two in particular, it felt like there was no literary place or even a good reason for my apparent food fixation. It’s a stupid thing to get embarrassed about, but I didn’t have a good explanation for it then and felt a little weird about owning up to it. It’s probably still weird, but at least I can justify it now.

I tend to use food-related scenes to either establish character or mood. This goes beyond a character’s favorite food, although I’ve used it that way a number of times. Because food is a cultural, social, and even artistic experience as well as nourishment, there’s a lot that can be shown with it:

  • Preparation: Is the character a professional chef, a serious hobbyist, or someone who’s never touched a pancake turner before? Are they following a recipe to the letter or improvising? What’s available to them and how are they using it? Is this relaxing for them or are they panicking? If something burns, is it because they were distracted by something else or because this is just how everything goes with them? If they’re chopping something, are they being violent or careful about it, and why? If they make a mistake, how do they correct it?
  • Relationships: Are they alone, with someone else, or with a group? How do they feel about the other people? Is this a meal they’re preparing for a date? Are they in charge of Thanksgiving this year? Are there in-laws to impress? Did they order takeout and they’re trying to pass it off as their own culinary wizardry? Is there food there at all or is it mostly alcohol? Is this their first time eating or preparing a beloved relative’s recipe since they died?
  • Preferences: Of course, there’s the favorite food. Are they vegetarian or vegan? Any allergies? An aversion due to a really bad food poisoning incident? Do they need to keep the food groups separate on the plate? Are there any cultural or ethnic foods that they enjoy, and is it because of a tie to family or because they ate it when they studied abroad and feel nostalgic? Just plain old don’t like something?
  • Means: Can they splurge or are they on a rice-and-beans budget? Was it on sale this week? Is it expired but they’re taking the chance with it anyway? Did they save up to give someone a treat, and how much of a treat is it? Is this something that’s only eaten on holidays or other special occasions? Are they wolfing it down like it’s the only thing they’ve eaten today? Is it a microwave meal because they can’t afford the time in between classes/jobs/etc.?

I’ll use an example from the novel I’m querying (the description of which could be potentially triggering, as the relationship I’m describing is an abusive one): One of the protagonists is a college senior in her early twenties in a controlling and abusive relationship that’s lasted for several years. They’re in a calm/honeymoon/remorse stage at the time of this scene. He’s being kind—he bought her flowers, has the table set up nicely, and makes a meal that he only prepares when he’s in a particularly good mood—and she’s relieved that he’s apparently better.

Even as they seem to have reached an understanding, though, he doesn’t let her serve herself—he controls the food and how much of it ends up on her plate. She won’t touch anything until he picks up his fork first. He determines the flow of the conversation, and she thinks that she’s happy to just relish how everything tastes and not spoil his good mood. Their dinner gets interrupted when he goes to answer the door for plot-related reasons (which means that she can’t eat until he returns), and even though he tries to hide how he’s acting she begins to be doubtful of their relationship. When he gets violently frustrated that the meal’s gone cold, she takes the opportunity to recognize (but not tell him—yet) that how she’s feeling and what she’s doing at the moment isn’t normal and shouldn’t be.

The scene is one chapter long, and it’s the “quietest” one between the two of them. It doesn’t directly contribute to the main plot other than as a transitional scene, but it’s very much the turning point in her character arc. The implication here is that the meal is how things normally go when their relationship is good, but the interruption to their version of domestic bliss triggers a change in how she views it. While we know both characters by this point in the novel, we’ve never seen how things are when they’re “good,” and we’ve never seen her question her relationship until that moment. It’s all about and has nothing to do with that pasta bake.

The long short of it: Food is more than just calories and descriptive filler, at least when it comes to me.

Anyone else have an artistic quirk that sounds weird to others but makes total sense to you? Leave a comment and tell us all about it!