Food As Characterization #amwriting

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?



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Food As Characterization #amwriting

  1. Dan Antion

    July 31, 2017 at 1:45pm

    The closest I come to these decisions are when those two clowns at the bar start ordering food, but you make some very good points.

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  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    July 31, 2017 at 3:45pm

    Food is present in my work – because it has so much to do with mood, and reasons for a group of people to get together.

    It also shows attitudes toward a lot of things. Some people are thin by nature; when life gets hard, they are uninterested in food – sometimes have to force themselves to eat. Others have to diet continuously, because their bodies would like to be heavier than they want. Others burn calories off without noticing – and can drink what they want, because they need those calories due to an active lifestyle.

    It affects your whole life, how you deal with food – and what your childhood with food was like.

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  3. joey

    July 31, 2017 at 9:45pm

    Very true. Much like dialect, food culture is fascinating to me.
    I like all the chilis. Never met a chili I didn’t like. However, when I make chili, it’s very regional, heavy on beans, tomato based, not particularly picante, and yes ma’am, with spaghetti or elbows. *nods*

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      August 1, 2017 at 8:00am

      YES, MA’AM! and Poutain — or, as we call it ’round here, chili cheese fries. GIMMEE!

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