What Are We Writing About When We Write About Food?

Teddybear hamThe Devil really is in the details for many creative writers. On one hand, we know we need to use details in order to give the reader a vivid image of our scenes and characters. On the other hand, spending too much time describing insignificant details can easily leave our readers just as bored with our writing as if we’d shown them a blank page.

Writers seem to be particularly prone to trotting out the trivial when it comes to mealtimes. Between descriptions of a meal’s courses, praises of a domestic character’s simple home cooking, mentions of exotic foods a character might not have seen before, and brief asides to tell the reader a little about a fictional variety of bread or cheese, authors have ample opportunities to start chewing on the scenery whenever their characters sit down for a meal.

However, the temptation to talk about our characters’ meals is far from irrational. Food is a part of culture. When we have our characters ordering hash browns in a dimly-lit diner or eating sweetmeats at the Christmas feast or digging in their traveling packs for hard bread and wrinkly apples, we are communicating a wealth of information about the world they are navigating. The items our characters take from the table are often indicative of their role in the book’s culture – James Bond’s martini comes to mind as a classic example of an important, telling culinary detail that helps define the character.

If you want to improve your use of detail when it comes to food in your writing, go over a scene where your characters are eating and make a list of the delectable details you’ve included. For each detail, write down a note about what it tells the reader. If it’s important – say, if the supposedly wealthy heiress is rail-thin and eats meat in slow, tiny bites – then by all means keep it. If it’s not important – like the saltiness of a particular cheese I described randomly in one of my own projects – then it’s contributing to stale writing, and you ought to throw it out. By choosing to use meaningful details and eliminating the less important ones, you can help ensure that your audience never loses its taste for your writing.