As promised, the first installment of Foodie Fridays. The first post is by children's book author Alison Hart. Please leave a response about Alison, her books, or anything on this blog and you will be entered to win a signed copy of "Emma's River."
Food in Fiction
Food scenes in fiction are a terrific way to highlight time and place. Emma’s River (Peachtree Publishers), my historical suspense for young readers, is set on a steamboat in 1852. At that time, steamboats were a means of travel, but they were also described as elegant “floating hotels.” (They also had a nasty habit of exploding, sinking, and catching on fire, all fodder for a great plot!) Cabin passengers were waited on by stewards, maids and cabin boys. And meals were sumptuous. To ensure a lively and descriptive steamboat setting, I read history texts, diaries and journals. Always I was struck by the dining descriptions on the cabin deck:
The table was covered with dainties such as jellies and creams, ices, French sauces and sweets, tarts, pies and almonds. Dinner included pigeon fricassee, baked duck and turkey, and squirrel. When the supper bell rang, it was one grand race. (Steamboats on the Western River by Louis C. Hunter)
In contrast, the deck passengers (immigrants and laborers) brought their own food. Since there was no refrigeration and one stove to serve hundreds, choices were limited and might include bologna, sausages, dried herring, crackers, bread, cheese and whiskey. If the steamboat was stranded or delayed, deck passengers often went hungry or starved.
My research spotlighted many fascinating food details; however, good suspense writing means a scene can not just be about food, it must move the story forward as well.
“Emma, look lively.” Doctor Burton thrust a tureen at her. Impatiently, setting it down, he grabbed a platter and spooned a mound of spiced pigshead onto his plate. Emma stared at the contents of the bowl beside her. Fish heads and tails floated in a murky sea of broth.
“You, waiter! More bread!” Doctor Burton called. Cries for more soup, more pastries, more meat rose in the air. The room echoed with the clattering of forks and clinking of spoons, and the diners chomped and slurped as if their manners had been left ashore.
When Doctor Burton’s attention was on a tray of cakes, Emma slipped from the table.
This scene was fun to write, but mainly I used it as a plot device. Emma’s guardian’s preoccupation with his meal gives her a chance to sneak below to the forbidden main deck “where proper young ladies do not go” to see her beloved pony.
Food is used in many other ways in Emma’s River. Emma uses sardines and crackers to bribe Patrick, a hungry stowaway, who in return demands, “Porkpie topped off with a mash” if he is to care for Licorice Twist, her pony. Food also helps to describe the differences between life on the cabin deck and the main deck:
Emma passed a family huddled in a cave they’d made of some crates. The father was breaking a hunk of cheese into pieces. Four grubby children stuffed the bits into their mouths. As they chewed, they stared at Emma with hollow eyes. She had just finished a meal of roast turkey, rabbit stew and apple pie. She ducked away, her insides twisting at the thought of the family’s hunger.
All my novels use food to set time and place, move the plot and enhance characters. Next time you read a novel, whether it’s a contemporary mystery or historical suspense, think how food is used to create an exciting story, not just to whet your appetite!