Food and books. They’re kinda my thing. So much so that my blog has changed the way I read. Now when I’m reading a book strictly for pleasure that won’t appear on the blog, I still reach for my pencil to make a note when the author mentions food. It’s made me notice a few things, most especially that authors can get really creative in how they use food to forward the story.
To many of the best authors, a meal is more than just a way to keep the characters alive. It’s a way to teach the reader about what makes these characters tick: what they’re like, how they’re changing, and what life is like in their world. Food can be a metaphor, a plot device, or a way to illustrate a theme. This is my list of top ten books to reach for when you want to see literary food at its best:
Ten Books that Use Food to Tell a Story
- A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The descriptions in A Little Princess are lush and inviting, and the food is no exception. Readers get to hear about hot, fresh buns with steam rising from the whiteness within, fluffy sponge cake with delicate pink icing, and spicy Indian soups to warm you right down to your toes. The thing is, fancy foods in the beginning of the story get less attention than plain foods later on. When the main character, Sara, is poor and starving, a mouthwatering description of a simple baker’s bun makes us feel the pain of her hunger. Of course, this is done on purpose to help us relate to the character, but it serves a second purpose too. When Sara is rich and has lots to eat, she’s eager to share what she has with others, yet when she’s poor, this doesn’t change. When she’s lucky enough to come across some extra food, she shares it with someone whose need is greater than her own. This reinforces the main theme of the story: that a girl is a princess because of how she acts, not what she has.
- Pretty Much Any Redwall Book. Brian Jacques is the king of food description. I know I’m not the only person who would have visited Redwall Abbey just for the pies…and the dibbuns (nothing on God’s green earth is cuter than a dibbun). But all Redwall food has one thing in common: it’s comfort food. We hear about long tables piled high with berry tarts, hearty soup, thick brown bread, honeyed cream, pitchers of strawberry cordial, and so much more—all of it rich and delicious, but not finicky or fancy. Redwall is more than an abbey, it’s a home, an inviting place where any peaceful beast is welcome at the table, and the food illustrates that.
- White Fang by Jack London. The food in White Fang isn’t described in luxurious detail. Instead, food is used in the story to emphasize the harsh, stark nature of the Alaskan wilderness, making you truly feel the characters’ gnawing hunger pains and rejoice with them over even the simplest fare. It’s also no coincidence that White Fang’s first loving master uses food to win his trust.
- The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Borrower food is awesome because it’s a miniature interpretation of foods we eat everyday. Instead of toast, they eat roasted chestnuts sliced wafer thin, and they even eat potted shrimp (with each having one whole shrimp to themselves)! It’s this similarity to “big food” that makes Borrower food distinctive. Despite being small themselves, the Borrowers are complex and relatable, with all the idiosyncrasies, vices, and virtues of big people. Their food is the same. It has all the same nuances of flavor, texture, and preparation—just on a smaller scale. And they derive the same comfort from a good meal as we do. The author really wanted to reinforce the personhood of the Borrowers, and food was a great way to do that.
- Any Hercule Poirot book. Meals can be a great chance to do a mini character study, and Hercule Poirot is a great example of this. Agatha Christie’s famous detective is precise in all things, even his breakfast. He eats the exact same thing for breakfast every day: two hard-boiled eggs of identical size and toast cut into perfect squares. In the TV show, the toast squares are even topped with perfect circles of jam. Even if you’d never seen the man before in your life, all you’d have to do is watch him eat breakfast to know the kind of person he is. That’s great writing!
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Ok, this one’s a little obvious, but it’s still awesome. In The Hunger Games, food carries some pretty heavy significance, especially bread. The name of the country in which the book takes place (Panem) is derived from the Latin phrase “panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses.” The phrase is a reference to how the Roman people traded their rights for food and entertainment, and in Panem, people in the Capitol have done the same thing. But in the Districts, where life is hard, bread has a way of bringing people together. Peeta uses bread to save Katniss’s life when they’re young (earning him the nickname “the Boy with the Bread”), and Katniss uses his family’s cheese bun recipe as a memory device to help him later. Each district has its own kind of bread, and District 11 sends their own to Katniss in appreciation. In this way, bread becomes a subtle reference to the universal human bond, the life we all share.
- Divergent by Veronica Roth. In Divergent, the five factions—Candor, Erudite, Amity, Abnegation, and Dauntless—are defined by their values, and you can see it in the foods they serve. The main character, Tris, grows up in the Abnegation faction, where selflessness is considered the highest virtue. There, the food is simple and unseasoned, eaten only as necessary nourishment. When Tris transfers to Dauntless, which values bravery, she eats her first hamburger and decadent chocolate cake. Yet, when Tris feels conflicted and homesick, she finds herself choosing simple “Abnegation food” for lunch. It’s important to note that “faction food” isn’t a rule imposed by the higher ups. If anything, it’s evidence that your Faction is meant to be more than an outward sign of what values you find most useful or appealing. It’s supposed to identify what is most important to you at the core of your being, right down to the food you eat.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. To put it simply, for the March family, food is love. The cook Hannah makes turnovers every winter morning so the girls will have something warm to hold on their way to school. One year, the Marches donate their entire Christmas breakfast to the Hummel family. And when Jo is homesick, a package of Hannah’s gingerbread arrives in the mail, bringing her family straight to her heart. The March family lives on the principle that blessings should be shared, and nothing illustrates this more than their approach to food.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I like to think of The Hobbit as an example of how the author uses the absence of food to tell a story. Hobbits are creatures of comfort, as evidenced by Bilbo’s persistent moaning after he forgets to bring handkerchiefs on his first big adventure. When Bilbo realizes that adventures are decidedly uncomfortable things, he spends his travel time moping over his tired feet and empty tummy. I can’t help but think of fasting when I picture Bilbo on the road. In many religions and cultures, fasting is used to help a person get perspective (either for the purpose of penitence, mental sharpness, or bodily awareness). Though it wasn’t his intention, this is what happens to Bilbo. As he sheds all the little luxuries he’s surrounded himself with all his life and comes down to brass tacks, he experiences a realigning of priorities. He complains less, contributes more, and begins to discover a deep inner bravery.
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Another Hodgson Burnett book! She sure knew how to make food play it’s part in telling a story. Unlike A Little Princess, which uses food to emphasize Sara’s strength of character, The Secret Garden uses food to illustrate personal growth. When Mary Lennox first arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, she’s a sour-faced child with a grouchy disposition, and her primary fare is plain porridge. The porridge strengthens her body as the garden strengthens her spirit, and soon she’s eating hot currant buns and roasted chicken!