When you think of some of your favorite memories or best experiences, what do you think of? What makes up your recollection of that dreamy trip to France, that exciting cross-country road trip, or that amazing study abroad in China? What did you enjoy most at your last birthday party, Christmas, that family trip to wherever?
There are lots of things that come to mind I bet. The sights and sounds – the Eiffel Tower at night, singing 90s pop songs with nothing but road stretching ahead, laughing at your baby cousin playing the drum set in Rock Band even though she can't reach the foot pedal and barely knows what's going on.
Okay, but seriously, did you think of food?
No doubt you are thinking up some memorable Food Moments right about now. Some of my best memories are food-pervasive, and indeed, there are lots of holiday/family/socio-cultural traditions and behaviors that are at the very least held down by the kind of food served. What's Thanksgiving without turkey? In my family, that's the only time of year we EVER by a turkey and a huge slab of honey-baked ham. It just wouldn't be the same without those things present. For Lunar New Year (which started on January 26 this year), there are a number of "lucky" foods you're supposed to eat for good fortune and health in the coming year. One of the dishes should be a whole fish, and you aren't supposed to eat all of it so that you have leftovers, signifying an abundance of wisdom/wealth/fortune/etc. for the new year. My memory of this most recent Lunar New Year? PIZZA. 3 delicious creations I made at home with my sister and friend.
And when you leave a foreign country or different state/province/city after you've stayed, played, and eaten there, what do you miss? Honestly, I miss the food (if it's good, needless to say). I spent the past four years of my life at Berkeley, and yes, I miss my friends, the campus, bits of college life, but I also really miss the food – chicken tikki masala at Curry House, Lion King rolls at Sushi House, pizza from Cheeseboard, Chai Lattes and fluffy foccia-bread sandwiches from Sufficient Grounds, freaking love-of-my-college-life Bianca Mochas from Café Strada. They were part of what defined my experience at Cal, and I capped off my graduation with dinner at ritzy Chez Panisse with my roommate of four years.
Two months in Taiwan this past summer and among the many amazing things I experienced, I miss the abundance of cheap and delicious foods, especially snack foods. But especially, especially, snowflake shaved ice. There are so many Taiwanese people around where I live, but why is there no snowflake shaved ice?!
So the point here wasn't to make you drool (and if you are, watch your keyboards!). It's to show that food is an integral part of our experience, sometimes a definitive part. It's obviously necessary to our survival but it's also in our psychology, our societies, our cultures, and thus in our literature. It comes as something of a surprise to me then that I find very little time spared on food in my earlier writings and even now in my "serious" projects (there's tons of food in silly things I write). When food is mentioned, it's mentioned in passing as an environmental detail or note on perhaps the direness of a situation where characters find food scarce. On a somewhat higher level, it might be used as a personality quirk/indicator for a character. Basically though, where there is food, its use is very functional.
But as we discussed, food can be and actually is so much more. It's evocative, romantic, metaphoric, sentimental, and culturally significant: tea and tea traditions in various parts of the world (e.g. UK, Japan), everything about chocolate, the pomegranate that sealed Persephone's fate, the famed Apple of Eve's eye. So, I wonder why I'm having a hard time thinking of creative uses in fiction for food, especially in speculative fiction where all sorts of crazy magical things happen, but what? No food? In SciFi/Fantasy, off the top of my head, I can only think of the drink klah from the Dragons of Pern series, and lambas bread from LotR but honestly, I haven't read all of the LoTR trilogy and only remember that from rather hilarious outtakes/fandom crack from the movie franchise.
Of course, this ignorance may be due to my own limited reading and imperfect memory, but food and food traditions seems to be an underused part of world/character-building.
In other genres of fiction, I can think of more interesting or at least more prominent roles for food. There's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where the setting and candy are practically characters themselves, and there's Chocolat, which I'm going to admit now, I've never read but I loved the movie. The chocolate in that story was used both in the literal sense and as a metaphor for passion and the richness of life. Jhumpa Lahiri uses the specific ingredients and process of making Indian food to help characterize her protagonist in a short story (the title of which escapes me) from Interpreter of Maladies; the smells of the spices is a key part of how the young boy in the story remembers her. The food not only speaks of the woman's past and culture, but it draws parallels to the scope of her life and is indicative of gender roles.
This under-use of food seems at least kind of related to how taste is less used than sight or sound in descriptive writing. Taste is just kind of hard to describe, but food isn't and I think all our worlds would be richer if there was just a little bit more of it. After all, our memories and experiences certainly benefit from the presence of food.
What are your best memories of food? What are other examples of great food/taste usage in fiction? When have you creatively written about food or used it to enrich a character/world? I'd love to hear about it because I'm a big fan, and I'm sure you are too.