Food for Plot - Umberto Tosi

The author researching
at Riva's Crabhouse
on Chicago's Navy Pier 
When I get stuck writing, I pace and usually end up in the kitchen. I'm not really hungry. I'm looking for something to satisfy my creative appetite. I poke about cupboards and fridge, playing solitaire amateur Iron Chef until something mouthwatering comes to mind. I need my improvised dish to be sufficiently challenging and tasty but within my abilities to concoct in an hour or two (I mean, I can't digress all day) -  a steamy aromatic Eggplant Parmigiana or a stir-fried apricot ginger chicken with snow peas will do. I like to vary the menu.

I'm no master chef, but I love to cook, mostly, every dish a story that, unlike a novel, you can eat. Dishes go down well in novels too. Anthologist Diana Secker Tesdell highlights the historic theme of feasts and food in her yummy, 2015 compilation of edible literary passages, Stories from the Kitchen.  She includes culinary passages from several of my beloved - for example, from Isak Dinesen's, Babette's Feast, Marcel Proust's magical-and-macabre child-eye-view of his family cook preparing asparagus and slaughtering chickens from Remembrance of Things Past, sensuous oysters from a Dickens tale, along with tempting culinary references - many of which I had never read - from Chekhov, Emile Zola, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Virginia Woolf, Amy Tan, TC Boyle and more.

Ms. Tesdell does her best, but she can't possibly finish so bountiful a banquet. So many foodies, so few forks. You readers can no doubt expand her menu considerably. She leaves out two of my all-time food novel faves, both of them magic realism masterpieces: Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate (which even includes recipes) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's  The Mistress of Spices.  And off menu, how about Titus Andronicus' banquet for Queen Tamora with today's special: meat pie made from her murderous sons' flesh?

Elizabethan feast - oil on canvas, anon
Shakespeare never pushed far from the table. He mentioned food more than 2,000 times in his plays. Considering this, I couldn't help but indulge my inner gourmand in creating my Bard-inspired, Ophelia Rising. In one subplot, Horatio, who has become a notable touring biographer of his late friend Prince Hamlet, for example, attends a lavish feast at the Doria palace in the then-powerful, Spanish-allied city-state of Genoa. There must match wits with Enzo Palmieri, an iron-fisted Machiavellian chief minister to the doge.

The banquet marks the feast of San Lorenzo - a typical happening at the time - as the patron saint Genoa and, as it happens, of cooks (because he was martyred by roasting.) I had expected to learn much about 16th-century theater and history in researching the novel. Along the way, I got extra helpings medieval and Renaissance food lore. For example, 16th-century cordon blue cooks much-preferred onions to garlic, which was considered peasants' condiments. Most fascinating - and unexpected - were the fantastic, days-long, even weeks-long feasts given regularly by princes and other potentates that included townspeople and peasants as well as royals, in order to display a ruler's power and largesse. Cooking for these feasts became an art in 15th and 16th-century Italian city-states and then in France, England, and the rest of Europe. Florentine, Venetian, and Genoese food artists even built gigantic, walk-in fantasy towers, palaces, bridges and other structures out of pastry and meats, as well as all manner of decadent-sounding Romanesque dishes served at groaning tables.

I tried to capture a taste of late European Renaissance indulgence throughout the novel. One chapter, for example, notes Horatio observing how "the courses progressed from soups to game to fish - sweet pastry tarts stuffed with spleens of bass, mullet, and pike simmered in orange juice, raisins, and cinnamon. Trout sauteed in lemon. Lobster tails in sweet cream sauce, eels baked in marzipan - every gold platter arranged and garnished with the utmost artfulness. ..." These were real dishes I found noted in culinary histories of the times. Not everyone, however, gets to eat so bountifully throughout Ophelia's picaresque adventures. Sometimes a staple of salted North-Sea herring and hardtack had to do.

Back in my own kitchen these days, I'm compelled enjoy the cooking - and describing of food - more than its consumption at my age of enforced moderation.

At my desk, I find all things culinary as essential elements of characterizations, settings, and narratives as much any other aspects of my characters' realities. Sometimes food is a central theme. In From Cradle to Gravy - a short story included in Another Flash in the Pen - a three-star California Cuisine chef (in the Alice Waters, Chez Panisse mode) tries her best not to meddle in a Thanksgiving dinner at her daughter's house.

More often, I've found myself incorporating food as a clue, as when Arlo and Iolanda - the star-crossed main characters in The Flying Dutchman of the Internet - order characteristically contrasting dishes when they first meet at a San Francisco eatery overlooking the Golden Gate. He goes for an organic vegan radicchio salad with white beans, walnuts, and figs, which he doesn't like, but thinks will seem cool. Iolanda, a cellist decidedly more elemental, goes for crepes covered in whipped cream, syrup and berries.

My writer's romance with cuisine goes beyond being a foodie - to which I confess. Food helps bring stories to life and beyond. Like cooking, however, it has to be done without a heavy hand. Well, there goes the timer on those coconut flour and cranberry muffins in my oven. See you all next month.


Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago.


Another lovely, evocative post! Thanks Umberto. I have to confess to binge eating while writing (keeps me awake and energized, but also heavier by a novel's end).
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Dipika. Your writing provides a rich exotic banquet of imagination, ideas, and experiences.
Sandra Horn said…
What a delight to read this on a cold November morning! Thank you, Umberto she said, trying not to drool. Eels in marzipan...mind-boggling!
Anonymous said…
I agree, food in novels is extremely important! Especially in children's books. Characters have to be fed or they'll run out of all the energy they need to trek through deserts, scale caste walls, slay dragons etc. Enid Blyton (not, er, the greatest literary stylist) is famous for her midnight feasts and summer picnics, usually including 'lashings of ginger beer'. C S Lewis feeds his child heroes in the Narnia books, evoking such delicious aromas of fresh fruit and hot, sweet drinks, it gives the reader the wonderful combination of feeling hungry and satisfied at the same time.
Sending Ante and her companions on an arduous, dark journey through Hell in Ante's Inferno, I got them to stock up first with a feast in Elysium (actually a cricket tea at Half Time in a match between the Greek and Trojan heroes). Not much to eat in the circles below but I made sure they had water at least, thoughtfully supplied in skins by Odysseus (well, someone has to think of these things).
Umberto, I loved your description of a 17th century banquet - all those delectable, extraordinary, exotic fragrances and tastes. Sweet pastry tarts sound yummy though I'm not sure about the spleens of mullet and pike. Cinnamon and orange would have helped though. Now I'm REALLY hungry.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Sandra and Griselda - food for thought indeed!
Alicia Sammons said…
What a marvelous way to think about literature. After reading your blog I began thinking about all the ways food and eating are interwoven into many novels and plays. From now on, I will be on the lookout for these culinary connections!

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