What do our characters eat? When I read, I see very little mention of meals. Perhaps that’s because writers are taught to avoid table talk scenes as being boring. Donald Maas expresses it in a section of his book called, “Low Tension: The Problem with Tea,” insisting that authors should “cut scenes set in kitchens…or that involve drinking tea or coffee.” Certain food descriptions in literature, though, have become as famous as the books themselves. Few people have read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but most know of the reference to madeleines: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin (long memory omitted)...The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, he describes a snack imbibed on a cold Paris day that made me travel there after I read it (I was nineteen): “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
There are also fine moments of cooking in literature, such as when Pippi Longstocking makes pancakes for her friends. She “got out three eggs and tossed them high in the air. One of the eggs landed on her head and cracked open, making the yolk run into her eyes. But the other two she easily caught with a saucepan…’I’ve always heard that egg yolks are good for your hair,’ said Pippi…’Just wait and see, my hair is going to start growing like mad.’”
Going back through my books, I found plenty of meals, although not a single cup of tea. More prominently though, I discovered a motif of hunger. Liberty Aimes’ mother consumes “thirty-two pieces of fried French toast, seven pounds of fried clams, sixteen fried hot dogs, two fried chickens, twenty fried hamburgers, six platters of French fries, three platters of fried noodles, a pie (not fried), six ice cream sundaes…” every day, but Libby is half starved. She takes a few bits while cooking. Adam in Aftershock is traveling across the country without money. He is so hungry that he tries to eat a pizza frozen. Walking on Air begins with a rare diner meal, since it is the depression and June and her family are often hungry. She even scores a piece of pie from a kindly waitress: “If I could I would live on pie. It’s as if all of the excess of feeling in these towns-the forlorn brides, the drunks, the lonely old ladies and hungry children-have landed soul-flown in the crust, the weeping apples, the peaches liked babies curved in their ma’s bellies.”
Some of my favorite characters are hungry. Think Dickens and they’ll line up, most notably Pip and Oliver Twist. Then there’s Stanley Yelnats and Zero in Holes being so famished and thirsty that they eat raw onions, which saves their life since it keeps the lethal yellow-spotted lizards away.
As always, there’s some past trauma lurking. My mom was a terrible cook. She baked steak and put large chunks of yellow onion in tuna fish. She boiled vegetables until they were soggy and gray. She even burnt canned soup, then scraped the stuck bit at the bottom into the bowl. I remember a meal she made where the only edible item were frozen peas in cream sauce, one package for six people. One day, my hippy brother moved back home from his naked commune in Santa Barbara, and took over the cooking. He made black bean burritos with grated carrots, caramelized onions, sour cream and avocado; fruit salad aptly called “ambrosia”; gazpacho; and carob brownies. He brewed coffee instead of making instant.
Food is a packed symbol: an apple, a cup of coffee, meat loaf, a bottle of wine. Physical hunger is a metaphor for other kinds of hunger (soul hunger, heart hunger). Our characters are driven by desire, or they may not have a story. What is your character dying for want of? Sometimes, it’s a good meal.