Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Food in Fiction: Quirks and Customs

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. For most of us, that means celebrating with a big turkey dinner. However, in my Italian-immigrant family, every holiday calls for a multi-course dinner that typically consists of antipasto, soup, bread, pasta, meatballs, salad, cooked vegetables, roasted meat, potatoes, fresh fruit, and dessert. For Thanksgiving, we simply accommodate the turkey tradition by featuring the bird as our roasted meat.

I am so used to our family’s customs that I neglected to prepare my husband (then boyfriend) before he attended his first Thanksgiving dinner with my family. When my mother served homemade fettuccine and meatballs (following the requisite antipasto and soup), he assumed there would be no turkey. Being an easy-going guy, he didn’t say anything and simply ate his fill of pasta and meatballs.

(I couldn't find clip art of fettuccine with tomato sauce and meatballs, but you get the idea.)

Well, imagine his surprise when we whisked the pasta plates away and my mother brought out the bird, vegetables, and potatoes. Afterward, he told me he'd been too full to have more than a bite of turkey, and as a result, it hadn’t felt much like Thanksgiving to him. (Now he knows to pace himself, which I’m sure he’ll do tomorrow when we celebrate at my aunt’s.) Ironically, for me it wouldn’t have felt like Thanksgiving without pasta.

In this series of posts, we’ve been talking about the role of food in fiction. As JoAnn discussed, food can “ground fantasy in reality.” I agree. I also believe food plays an especially important role in historical and multicultural fiction. Everyone has to eat. Seeing what a character does and doesn’t eat can give readers insight into that character’s world, whether it’s a world of Scrapple and food rationing, as Mary Ann described in her post, or one where Christmas Eve dinner revolves around seafood, as in my novel Rosa, Sola. Because food-related customs and rituals can serve to bind people together or to set them apart, food can affect a character’s relationships, too. I still recall feeling like an outsider at lunch in elementary school. While other kids were eating peanut butter and jelly on squishy white bread, I had to deal with mortadella on crumbly, homemade Italian bread. No one ever swapped sandwiches with me!

Of course, food can be a characterization tool in all types of fiction. Like real people, characters may have quirky food preferences, preferences that can even affect a story’s plot. We see this in picture books like I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child and I'd Really Like To Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio, illustrated by Dorothee de Monfreid. But food preferences can also play a role in middle-grade and young-adult stories. After all, where would the plot of Twilight and other vampire books be if vampires craved macaroni and cheese instead of human blood?

For everyone celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, I wish you a happy and safe holiday. As you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, I encourage you to take note of any unique food customs and rituals. And even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope the following Writing Workout will help you think about incorporating food quirks and customs into your fiction.

Writing Workout: Food Quirks and Customs 
Do you have any food quirks? Perhaps, like me, you only eat cold cereal without milk. (I just can't stomach soggy cereal!) Or maybe it's a friend or family member who has a food quirk. For example, one of my brothers-in-law will eat peanut butter on bread, or jelly on bread, but never peanut butter and jelly together on one sandwich. Try writing a scene where one of your fictional characters has a food-related quirk. How is that quirk a reflection of the character's overall personality?

Are there any food-related customs in your family, or special family recipes?
In the her last Writing Workout, Esther suggested you record a family recipe along with a memoir about the recipe's creator. Now write a scene where family members try to recreate a custom or recipe without the originator present. What happens? 

Happy writing!


Justice Publishing Inc said...
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Vonna said...

When I was a child, I was diagnosed as being allergic to essentially all liquids except water, tea and coffee. I was the only five-year-old I have ever heard of who poured hot coffee on her Cheerios every morning.

Carmela Martino said...

Vonna, your comment made me laugh out loud, though it probably wasn't funny to you at age 5. Gee, maybe I wouldn't mind soggy cereal so much if it was covered with coffee. :-)