Some of the charm of reading a favourite book is sharing a meal with the characters. But the reader is not alone – for over the shoulders of the character is the author, perhaps also yearning to have a meal and a gossip with their characters.
A meal in a book can often reflect the life and times of the author. In this way, Jane Austen can show us the benefits of being rich and having access to hothouse grapes and fruits early in the season. We catch a glimpse of a team of gardeners working away in the background, being learned in the magical properties of dung, training trees into fruit bearing shapes, and the probable close relationship between gardener and cook. In Emma, food is used to show the overbearing control that the illness obsessed Mr Woodhouse would inflict on his family and guests. Guests are urged to eat only gruel (a thin porridge designed to be easy for invalids to digest) and twice cooked baked apples. Innocent foods of the nursery take on a more sinister aspect when he is in control.
Tolkien wrote much of his work while he suffered under the privations of both war rationing and soldiers’ rations while he served in the trenches at the Somme. Is it any wonder that he created lembas? A light, airy, honey biscuit of the elves, which could sustain one on any journey. A far cry from weevilly hard tack. Many of the meals and feasts feel like he imagined them when hungry – second hobbit breakfasts, a hearty dish of mushrooms, and the vanishing elven feast that nearly spelled doom for Bilbo and the dwarves. CS Lewis was of the same generation, and the Narnia books are filled with glorious meals, but also privations and danger. Teatime with Tumnus is crumpets and tea, laced with the faun’s fear of the witch. The meal with the badgers – fresh caught fried fish, buttery potatoes and hot marmalade pudding– is welcome yet eaten while listening for the sound of wolves. The desirable Turkish delight becomes sickly sweet as Edward finds out he has betrayed his family. Meals are eaten with danger looking over your shoulder and provide energy and courage for what lies ahead.
Enid Blyton also lived through the wartime rationing in Britain, which extended well into the 1950’s. An interesting take on this is food writer Elizabeth David. She writes of the glory of seeing the first tomatoes and lemons to add flavour after so many dull years of plain rations. For JK Rowling, a single mum trying to write on very little money, the feeling was the same. Both Blyton and Rowling’s books are filled with delicious food, all provided without work by house elves or Cook, who seemingly led a similar life to a house elf.
So it’s interesting that today – in a time of too easy availability of food – that many books don’t even mention food. Action and thriller novel characters never seem to eat. The fun of getting food prepared for you has gone. Nuking a meal in the microwave is so dull and commonplace that it doesn’t rate a mention in a modern novel. The one genre that does still focus on food are post apocalypse novels, and much of that is the dehydrated prepper packs, or roast rat if you didn’t plan ahead and stock your bunker.
So the way food is talked about in a book can tell you a lot about what the author intended for the characters, but it can also show a glimpse of the author, peeking between the pages, holding a cup of tea.
Cindy Tomamichel is a multi genre author, with her SMP series Druid’s Portal a time travel action adventure romance set in Roman Britain. Short stories of fantasy, scifi and romance can be found on her website, where she blogs on aspects of world building. Her latest release -The Organized Author – provides much needed help for authors trying to navigate social media and build an author platform. Doing NaNo this year? Check out her free book NaNoWriMo Ready. Sign up to my newsletter for a free short story set.
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