I’m a fairly serious foodie. I think about food a great deal. Far more often, to be honest, than a healthy person probably should. For instance, just now, when I should have been focusing on this piece, my mind drifted to what I was making for dinner. For the longest time, this didn’t have much of an impact on my writing career. I wrote nonfiction books, they weren’t cookbooks, and therefore food rarely entered into the equation. However, when I sat down to write my first novel, When You Went Away, the food references exploded on the page. I edited out several of these (it is not, after all, a food novel; I’ll get to one of those eventually), but those I left all have symbolic value. An early cooking scene shows my protagonist Gerry trying to do this normal thing in the face of hardship and even though he is only cooking for himself. A later one allows Gerry’s sister-in-law to care for him in a way that sends echoes of a now-lost home. Still another hints at renewal. Even the very first present-day scene in the novel involves food, though it’s a baby bottle (Gerry is a widow with an infant son).
Obviously, I write about food so often in my fiction because I care about it. But I think I do it for another reason as well. I think I do it because it is essential. Food represents sustenance at one level and sensual pleasure at another – both things that we all need. In any piece of character-driven fiction (the only kind I write; I don’t have the plotting chops to attempt a plot-driven novel), the “things of life” are central. Therefore food serves as a fundamental metaphor for living and being alive. Interestingly, in my next novel, Crossing the Bridge, food plays a much smaller role, but for precisely the same reason. My protagonist there, Hugh, is untethered. A tragedy ten years earlier has left him feeling lost. I make very few references to food in the first act of this novel, and when I do, it is purely as fuel. Then, in the second act, Hugh makes an effort to reach out to the woman who has been haunting him, and he discovers a roadside diner that brings his taste buds alive. When he cooks for this woman, even though he’s a stranger to kitchens, it’s an announcement that he’s moving forward with purpose.
In my next novel, cooking has a central place in the story of one of the main characters. He will make several dishes right on the page. This, of course, has driven me to take the food-as-life metaphor even further. I’m trying to determine the specific symbolic qualities that different ingredients have. What message does a tomato send? What about pork? Does the shoulder have a different emblematic function from the loin? These mysteries still lay in front of me. But I will make it my mission to uncover them. And I’ll get started on it as soon as I decide on a side dish for tonight’s meal.
Michael Baron is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we are offering sensational deals on all of his books. You can learn more at our website.