Food for Plot - Umberto Tosi
|The author researching|
at Riva's Crabhouse
on Chicago's Navy Pier
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|
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.
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 Name, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His 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.