Friday, November 20, 2009

Food and its Functions in Fantasy

I once heard a tip about using food to ground fantasy in reality. I searched my notes from Vermont College and found this from a January 1999 workshop led by Marion Dane Bauer and Norma Fox Mazer: "Ground in reality before you can take off into fantasy—Madeleine L'Engle: start with food."

I don’t know who passed on the tip—Marion? Norma? Another student? I wish I had taken better notes, but the concept has stayed with me all these years anyway. I assume it originated with Madeleine L'Engle, so I browsed through A Wrinkle in Time to see how she handled food.

The book begins with Meg in her dark attic bedroom during a wild storm, remembering the fight she’d had at school defending her little brother, Charles Wallace, and worrying about rumors of a thief in the neighborhood. She decides to go downstairs to make cocoa. In the kitchen, she finds Charles Wallace waiting for her, drinking milk and eating bread and jam.

"I knew you’d be down," he says. "I put some milk on the stove for you. It ought to be hot by now."

When she checks the milk, she finds enough for two people. Somehow, Charles Wallace knew their mother would appear, too. Mrs. Murry, Charles Wallace, and Meg make sandwiches in the cozy kitchen while talking about being different from others and feeling left out. When the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit appears at their door, Mrs. Murry invites her in, acting as if the late night visit is nothing peculiar.

"Would you like a sandwich, Mrs. Whatsit? I’ve had liverwurst and cream cheese; Charles has had bread and jam; and Meg, lettuce and tomato."

In this opening chapter, food comforts people who can’t sleep for worrying and welcomes a strange guest.

Mmmm . . . apple pie!

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien also begins with a visit from unexpected strangers. What does Bilbo Baggins do with thirteen uninvited guests? He feeds them, of course.

"Quite a merry gathering!" Gandalf exclaims. "'I hope there is something left for the latecomers to eat and drink! What’s that? Tea? No thank you! A little red wine, I think, for me.'

'And for me,' said Thorin.

'And raspberry jam and apple tart,' said Bifur.

'And mince-pies and cheese,' said Bofur.

'And pork-pie and salad,' said Bombur.

'And more cakes—and ale—and coffee,' called the other dwarves through the door.

'Put on a few eggs, there’s a good fellow!' Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. 'And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!'"

In this scene, food fortifies the travelers as they plan their long journey with the reluctant Bilbo Baggins.

My husband Gene's New Year's Day cinnamon rolls

In The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, food keeps the fierce, ravenous, underground-dwelling Folk, who are "mostly mouth . . . wet mouth and teeth," at bay. Corinna, the Folk Keeper, draws off their anger and lists what they eat in her Folk Record.

"February 19—Fastern’s E’en
The Folk have been quiet. Today they ate:
Two small lambs
One tub of butter
One vat of kidney stew."

"March 15—Tirls of March
I have been pinched, nothing worse. The Folk have eaten:
Five dozen salted kippers
Two crates of dried beef."

"April 17—Levy Day
The Folk have eaten:
Two roast ribs
Five rounds of cheese
A barrel of smoked haddock."

Gene's homemade pizza

In all three books, food helps make a fantastic situation believable because it gives readers something familiar to latch onto. I could go on and on, but I’m getting hungry! Look for references to food as you read, think about the functions they serve, and explore the possibilities in the exercise that follows.

Writing Workout

Food can be used to celebrate a victory, to mourn a loss, or to show love or appreciation. Like music or clothing, what and how people eat can also help show time and place, not only in fantasy but also in contemporary or historical fiction or nonfiction. Descriptions of meals and their settings can help set the pace and tone of a story. Characters can eat slowly, savoring each bite, or shovel food in without thinking. Not only the choice of food but also the way a character eats can show his or her personality and emotions. Does a character gulp, slurp, pick at her food, wipe his mouth on his sleeve, eat while driving?

Write a paragraph that shows the time and place and a character’s state of mind by describing how and what he or she eats.


Toni De Palma said...

Food figures into my writing a lot. In my first novel, a runaway finds a job at a motel. The welcoming motel owner invites her in to the kitchen to get my character's impressions of some of the homemade jam she is making. It is a rite of passage of sorts, a job interview and a bonding moment all wrapped into one. The thing is I never thought of it until I read your blog. You're right. Food is useful and symbolic and of course, tasty :)

Anne M. said...

In my early days of serious writing, I often described my characters biting into fruit and having the juice dribble down their chins. I think I had read it somewhere, and the image stuck with me because it was something I had experienced. I had never given it much thought until now, but I used that image to ground my readers.

Thanks for the food for thought. ;-)

Michelle Sussman said...

Great post! I sent it on to my fantasy critique group.

Caroline McAlister said...

I am interested in the way food works in folklore and folk tales. My picture book, Holy Mole!, tells the traditional story of the invention of mole, the savory chocolate sauce from Pueblo in Mexico. The cook trips and his ingredients for several different dishes end up in one pot. Since writing this book, I have discovered that the accidental combination of ingredients in a dish is a common motif of folktales about food. I have been intrigued by the story of the invention of the tarte tatin and the croissant. I would love to hear from other folks about folktales or legends about special recipes or regional dishes. (I love the Teaching Authors blog!!!)
Caroline McAlister