I’m proofing a book right now that actually makes food awkward.
The book is set in a swank vacation spot, think resort Jamaica. The food is so poorly imagined that I find it to be distracting. Here’s an example: a three-course dinner at a 4-star restaurant is described as sausage soup, meat with Jamaica Style sauce over rice, then ice cream with syrup. Hm.
Here’s the thing: that’d be a terrific three-course dinner at a diner, or a family style restaurant, Friendly’s, Eat ‘n’ Park, but it’s not even fancy enough for Ruby Tuesday. At a resort? Please, at least make the dessert Peach Melba. More likely some fussy custard with a pear reduction glaze that is scented with cloves (yes, scented). The rice would probably at least be saffron rice, and the sauce would probably have some wordy title far less vague than Jamaica Style (which would be called jerk. Further, Jamaican Jerk is more often a spice rub or a marinade, and if it is a sauce, it is wrong).
I spent all of my 20s and half of my teens working at least part time in food or food-releated endeavors. I am a respectable cook. I love to eat. I read about food, and have tried all kinds of wacky recipes.
So I’m sure you can imagine the pure, soul-wounded helplessness I’m experiencing when a book milimeters from publication has such an uninspired relationship with food, even though so far at least five scenes have included it, either cooking, dining out, or ordering in.
So here are my Dos & Don’ts for Food in Fiction.
Do make the food appetizing. You awake your reader’s senses when you describe food. It’s like you’re feeding her, so if you must do it, do it well.
Do research. If you want to know what a typical gourmet meal looks like, google gourmet restaurant menus. It’s the future. The world is in your computer. Take advantage of it.
Do enjoy the pursuit. Writing about food can be exciting, you’ll probably learn things, maybe find recipes you can try.
Do consider your characters. For example, if your heroine is an athlete, she will eat differently than if she is a neurotic depressive. Many folks eat with their principles, and fictional folks can do better than those of us situated staidly in the real world.
Do familiarize yourself with some cooking terms before you write people cooking. Here are a few basic terms: saute, bake, blanch, boil, broil.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew: If you don’t know anything about food, don’t try to write a scene in which someone makes a souffle beautifully. Those of us who have done so will know you’re faking it. You lose credibility and possibly a reader.
Don’t feed your characters eggs. There are loads of other breakfast options: cereal, toast, bacon, sausage, diners, room service, Dunkin Donuts. Feed your characters how you’d like to eat. If it’s important that a character cook for someone and you don’t cook, ask for help. Friends, neighbors, relatives, the internet–I don’t care.
Don’t have a vegetarian eating egg drop soup. If you’re writing a vegan, know she will never eat cheese. If one of your characters is on paleo, do enough research to find out that she won’t be eating white potatoes or green peppers.
Don’t give your characters 5-star room service at the Motel 6. Don’t give them the option to order Japanese at 2 a.m. unless they’re in a major metro area.