Cinnamon Rolls and Dandelion Cordial: Writing Food in Your Story

As an amateur, but enthusiastic baker, I have many success stories, along with a few disasters.  Here are a few of the tidbits of wisdom that experience has imparted:

  • When baking a decadent three layer chocolate cake, it is essential to make sure that A) the layers are level, even if it means cutting the tops off and B) that the frosting is very stiff.  Cakes are not supposed to look like muddy, melting snowmen. You learned this the hard way last time.  Really, you’d probably just better stick with cupcakes.  Cupcakes, you can handle because they are small.
  • Always have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookie dough in the house.  You will need a fix at some point or another, Melissa.  You are an addict.  The first step is acceptance.
  • Allrecipes.com is the fount of baking wisdom. Learn from other wiser bakers than yourself because they know things.
  • Cream puffs are not nearly as difficult as you think they are.  The French only make them look hard by giving them a fancy name.  “Juste try making zee choux a la crème, you Americaine, you! It is zo verrrry difficile, n’est-ce pas?” *creepy French laugh*
  • Desserts can be cute.  You love cute!  Yay!

When I told Bella that fantasy heroes do not, in fact, consider flowers to be fine dining, she washed her paws of the matter entirely

Baking, like writing, is my escape from the world.  When life gets difficult, I stress-bake, and things get better. Thinking about baking got me thinking about food in stories.  I touched on it briefly in one of my Touring Fantasyland posts.  Food in stories tends to generally stick to the simple: waybread, stew, roasting rabbits over fires (please don’t kill me, Bella!), and maybe something fancy at a ball.  Here are a few ways to regard the food problem in a novel, fantasy or otherwise:

Food?  What is this strange substance that you speak of?

In these stories, food is, quite frankly, not important to your plot.  Like other necessities of life, such as going to the bathroom or brushing one’s teeth (oh wait, most fantasy heroes don’t do that… gross…), eating is a mundane activity that can easily be brushed over (brushed… like your teeth should be…).  In the interest of the plot, the reader does not need to know about food in detail, just that it was consumed on occasion.

I made the stew AND the bread bowl! Yes, I know the bread bowl is triangular. Totally on purpose... really...

While these stories have their place, they are, for me, a little more dull.  Characters who eat nothing but bread and stew are, in my opinion, people to feel sorry for.  However, in some cases, the facts of hunger and thirst are more important than the actual food, and so the descriptions are set aside in the interest of overturning villainous plots for world domination or defeating undead armies or other such trivial matters.

Ooh, someone left a cupcake on my desk!  This is really goo- Ack!  Ugh!  *death*

In some rare cases, food can be plot-related.  Integrating the food with your story adds an interesting twist to the tale and makes the reader think twice about that cup of hot cocoa.  I think of books like Poison Study by Maria Snyder in which the main character is a food taster.   Food figures largely in her world and so it is constantly being described.  Yelena learns to identify poisons by their tastes and smells. Food literally becomes a matter of life and death.

Not as big as your head, but definitely a great cinnamon roll. Muahaha! I have defeated Cinnabon!

Another book that has some interesting food-related plot details is Sunshine by Robin McKinley.  The main character is a baker who is famed for cinnamon rolls as big as your head.  The book is about vampires, but every time I read it, I think about those cinnamon buns first and vampires second.  I mean, really, who cares about vampires when there’s a gigantic cinnamon bun?  Sunshine’s life revolves around the family bakery and it plays an integral role in her world and, therefore, in the story. 

This can be a tricky one, though.  Centering a story around food can feel forced.  But when done well, it is a fun story to read.  Just… don’t eat the cupcake.

All hail the glorious FOOD!  Why?  Because it’s YUMMY!

Some stories just have fun with the food for no better reason than that food is fun and we love it.  The best example of this is definitely Brian Jacques’ Redwall series.  These books revel in food, glory in feasting, delight in the culinary arts.  When the characters of Redwall Abbey go on journeys, their packs are filled with scones and jam and sandwiches.  Every book has at least one, if not more feasts.  I salivate every time I read one of these delightful books.

The best part about the Redwall books is that the characters are all animals and much of the food should sound absolutely disgusting.  Who really wants to drink dandelion cordial after all?  But somehow, Jacques makes everything sound like the most delicious treat imaginable.  His descriptions draw you in and make you want to be that traveler who stumbles upon the abbey on a snowy winter’s night.  The books come to life because the characters’ stories are told around a roaring fire with mugs of something spicy and hot and plates of something decadently sweet.

Even the villains want Redwall’s food.

To nom or not to nom… is there really a question?

Most of the time, we put references to food in our stories as a minor detail.  People have to eat and we want our stories to be realistic.  Sometimes the food plays a pivotal role.  Sometimes, it’s there because we just want to celebrate the existence of food.

I don’t have the gift of describing food in the amazing detail of someone like Jacques, but I have had the enjoyment of using food in my latest book (temporarily titled Danni) in which the main character’s crazy British uncle  has a strange palate and loves to cook.  Food appears around the house simply because he enjoys making it, and the odd ingredients that get thrown in just emphasize his quirky nature.  As Danni puts it, adding toppings to pizza is like going to a theme park for Uncle Liam.  Inventing new food choices for Uncle Liam has been a fun twist on my story and adds an element that might not be essential, but I think does help define him as a character.

Another lie perpetrated by the French: Truffles are difficult to make!

They make fabulous gifts too!

It’s your turn now.  What food references do you think of in books that worked well?  Do you prefer that stories keep things simple and avoid the issue or do you like seeing food make its way into the plot and play a more significant role?

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on April 12, 2011, in Books, Diana Wynne Jones, Fantasy, Humor, Melissa Rogers, Robin McKinley, Story, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I saw “cinnamon roll.” Now, what was the question? 🙂

  2. When I started reading this post, I was so hoping you would mention the food in the Redwall series. Imagine my delight when you did. 😛
    One could also make mention of Narnia; food plays all kinds of roles there. There’s the Turkish Delight in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the banquet on Ramandu’s Island in VDT, the apples in Prince Caspian, the toffee tree in the Magician’s Nephew, the fruit in the Last Battle, Lucy’s cordial…

    • Oh, yes, Narnia does a wonderful job of incorporating food into subtle, but necessary roles. Lewis, like Tolkien, loved a good meal and he knew how to make it part of the story in a multitude of ways!

  3. You should have mentioned Farmer Boy and the Frances series (children’s books about an otter who is always eating mouth-watering lunches). I do like stories that mention food—that’s my vote!

  4. Hmmm. Will you be baking anything around, oh, say, the first of May?

    Strange nobody has mentioned LOTR. When hobbits are in a story, food is going to take center stage–six times a day if they can manage it!

    • Oh, I really wanted to! I’m rereading the trilogy and that was definitely part of my inspiration for this post. Tolkien was always aware of the little comforts of life. The hobbit hole is where we all most want to be, right?

  5. I love this! Fantastic – thanks! 🙂

  6. Wayne the Shrink

    My wife reads mysterys and had one series of several books where the author not only wrote about food, he included recipies! Now that’s writing about real food.

  7. osmiumantidote

    I love food. So, it seems very natural to have food descriptions in stories. One story I wrote revolves entirely around specific foods evoking memories in the characters.

    Home baked cinnamon rolls sound fabulous!

  1. Pingback: Thanksgiving and the Redwall Feast: A Fellowship of Food | Lantern Hollow Press

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