Food, of course, is part of our lives from the time of conception. It’s part of our characters’ lives, too.
In a cozy, recipes are often included, a precedent set by (I think) Virginia Rich. Rex Stout used food to characterize detective Nero Wolfe, a gourmet who drinks beer, and his sidekick, a tough talker whose preferred tipple is milk.
Think of Frasier, with its juxtaposition of the boys, with their French restaurants and wine club, against their father, with his pork rinds and beer.
This came to mind the other day, when I went to a restaurant that featured “down home” cooking, which, to me, meant foods I grew up with. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put spaghetti in their chili, which is the only way to serve chili around here. I mean, if you want to set characters apart, let ’em start talking about chili!
Food and characterization also came to mind when I was reading about food animals. In America, we aren’t, on the whole, much for eating goats, and lamb is only marginally mainstream. Horses and dogs are right out. In other cultures, though — and I’m talking European cultures — goats, horses, and lambs are not uncommon meats. You have to go farther from Indiana to find cultures comfortable with eating dogs, cats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and other companion animals. Then you get into your reptiles, amphibians, and bugs/insects.
In the past, we ate a wider range of food, animal and vegetable, because food availability was insecure and anything edible needed to be taken advantage of for survival. As food became cultivated/pastured, we specialized in what we ate. We selected for efficiency, and other plants and animals became weeds/pests or decorative/pets. Then what — or who — we ate stopped being a matter of availability and became a matter of culture.
If we’re lucky enough to have a wide range of available foods, it’s become a matter of upbringing and/or personal preference.
We authors should at least bear in mind the potential of food availability, food culture, and food choices as elements of characterization.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: What are three foods you particularly associate with your family? What are three foods your main character associates with their family?