The Importance of Food, by Elizabeth Kay

…And not just to keep body and soul together! In 1952, C.S.Lewis delivered a talk at the Library Association titled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” which was eventually adapted into an essay and published in Lewis’s Of Other worlds: Essays and Stories. What he says is this:
In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, ‘Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.” 
How right he was. When my children were small and it was snowing I used to follow Mr Tumnus’s menu to the letter, and it became a very popular event. But only when it was snowing!

            …A nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake…

            Of course, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, when rationing after the Second World War was still in place and a sugar-topped cake was a rare luxury rather than a precursor to diabetes. An overweight child was a rare phenomenon. But Lewis could make even soil sound utterly delicious. The meal produced for the talking trees at the end of Prince Caspian is a tour de force.

…They began with a rich brown loam that looked exactly like chocolate; so like chocolate, in fact, that Edmund tried a piece of it, but he didn’t find it at all nice. When the rich loam had taken the edge off their hunger the trees turned to an earth of the kind you see in Somerset, which is almost pink. They said it was lighter and sweeter. At the cheese stage they had a chalky soil, and then went on to delicate confections of the finest gravels powdered with choice silver sand…

Note the remark about Edmund trying some, to discourage his readers from heading into the garden for a snack.
Adults do occasionally get served fiction with food at its core – Chocolat, by Joanna Harris, The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams. However, for children it’s an absolute must. And then you can use magic… I had great fun with that in Back to the Divide.

 …“Have you two finished your dinner?”
            “Certainly not,” said Betony, pushing her plate away and picking up the pudding menu. “Oh yes,” she enthused. “Got to have a slice of sparkle-meringue. Why don’t you have the glitter-bomb, Felix, then we can fizz together.”
            This sounded like fun. When the puddings arrived, they looked delicious – frothy and creamy with a crust of caramelised sugar on the top. Betony grinned. “You first,” she said.
            Felix took a spoonful, and tasted it. The flavour was a bit like vanilla, but as he removed the spoon from his mouth a shower of silver speckles exploded around him, and he yelped with surprise.
            Betony had hysterics. Then she started on the sparkle-meringue, and a glittery starburst of pink enveloped her head. “It’s lickit cooking,” she said. “Magical recipes. I haven’t had one of these since I was little.”
            They shovelled the puddings into their mouths as fast as possible, giggling as the silver and the pink collided, producing flecks of other colours which shot off at angles and then disappeared like sparks burning out…

I think that encouraging children to try something new is really important in these days of burgers, chips and fizzy drinks. Reading about children enjoying strange and unusual foods is surely a way of promoting a bit of experimentation? I still haven’t tried witchcetty grubs, which I read about as a child, but I would do given half a chance!
            Non-fiction is a different matter entirely, of course. The biggest sellers are cookbooks and diet books. When I was a kid my mother had only one cookery book – The Radiation Cookbook! This came free with her gas stove, and was the only one she ever used.
When I write about food in adult books, it’s to make another point, either about the setting if it’s abroad, or the characters – or preferably, both. These are two extracts from Beware of Men with Moustaches.

…They found a self-service restaurant for lunch, where they could point to what they wanted. What they got wasn’t always what they expected, but the cost of everything was so low that they just stopped worrying about it, and ordered anything that took their fancy.
The cakes were divine. There was a strong similarity between shoe design and cake decoration; it was easy to believe that people switched from one profession to another, taking their themes with them as they went. The barnacle and seaweed motif was equally at home in either leather or marzipan.

...The restaurant, like many of the shops, proved to be underground.
“Does it double as a nuclear bunker, then?” queried Sybil.
Maxim laughed. “Who would want to window-shop above ground in the winter, when it is snowing so heavily you can’t see your own private parts?”
They went down some steps. The moment the proprietor saw Maxim, he beckoned to a waitress and issued orders as rapid as gunfire. The girl showed them into a little side-room, and they seated themselves round a table. The menu even had an English translation, although they were all in hysterics by the bottom of the first page. It was debatable whether this was the menu alone, or the effect of the cocktails.
“Fish in water?” mused Steve. “Doesn’t sound frightfully appetising.”
“Crap,” said Sybil.
“Carp,” corrected Steve.
“Tea for sad people?” queried Julie.
“Presumably someone’s translated the cup that cheers into Karetsefian, and then back into English again,” said Ferris. He turned to the next page. “Ah. The poultry list.” After a moment he added, “Good grief.”
“Duck,” Julie read aloud. “Goose. Pigeon. Snip. Snip?”
“Snipe, I’d imagine.”
“Quail casserole, roast partridge, bruised peasant… braised pheasant, presumably…”
“I think the first one was probably right,” said Sybil.

Food is awfully useful in books, because it plays on all the senses. Its appearance, its texture, its smell, its taste – even what it sounds like. Crunchy? Squishy? Slurpy? If your narrative has got stuck somewhere, send your characters out to eat!


Bob Newman said…
I remember Ruth Rendell once doing a brilliant piece of characterisation by favourite recipe. Instantly you knew exactly what the woman was like, and had a pretty good idea about her family too. (Sorry, I can't give chapter and verse on this. I read it a long time ago.)
Alex Marchant said…
How true! Delicious food in fiction does linger in the memory. A taste of madeleine perhaps? Two of my own favourites are the children's book by Clare Compton called 'Harriet and the Cherry Pie', which featured sweet and cake recipes (it became a favourite of my daughter too, who now adores cooking), and the wonderful 'Like Water for Chocolate'. I think your memory jog means I'll have to dig at least one of them out to re-read. Thank you for the reminder!

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