The human relationship with food is powerful. In fact, there exists a specialized subfield in cultural anthropology which examines food for social and cultural implications. This may surprise some people until you consider how food and feasting marks the differences and boundaries within our own cultural traditions. Imagine how different our celebrations would be without the sharing of food.
By looking at the behaviors related to the acquisition, processing, and sharing of food, we can see how social relations are encoded and regulated. The degree of effort that is undertaken to prepare a sumptuous spread can communicate solidarity, deliver public humiliation, or designate political ranking – all without uttering a single word.
Rules surround food. What can and should be eaten, how the food should be prepared, how the meal is served, and who should be involved in the process. Even the failure to offer food or drink can be seen as a compliment or a dire insult.
How your characters interact with food can enact gender distinctions, social hierarchies, and even power relations. Sustenance is a primary need, have one character deny another and you’ve created instant tension. Force meat on a vegan and you’ve created conflict.
Foods have the ability to convey multiple layers of meaning. Think about your own food preferences. The yes-that’s-edible v. no-that’s-not-food preferences are constructed on cultural foundations. We may learn to cross over and try unfamiliar items, but many of us have clear boundaries. Make your characters face a food challenge and watch the fallout.
The line separating what you will-or-will-not-eat varies depending on what is familiar and comfortable, how you were raised, and your personal experience. I’ve been coerced into eating things I first rejected and discovered that once I got past the “ick” factor, they all tasted just fine. Personally, I draw the ingestion line at (1) other people, (2) other primates, and (3) insects.
Figure out what you would absolutely not eat and then feed it to a character and imagine their response.
Investigate cultural connections to food. Some foods have very significant special behaviors in particular traditions, but it doesn’t have to be a huge important celebratory event. Sometimes the little things like favorite snacks, a childhood memory of a special dish made by a loved one, a flavor associated with another time and place can distill an important quality about your character.
Symbolism is encoded in food.
For example, yams may be found in kitchens around the world but if you happen to be writing about a family in the Trobriand Islands and someone has made a gift of sweet potatoes to your fictional family, this is an event invested with prestige and power, not just the sharing of a sack of root tubers.
You may have an instantaneous association for products like champagne, caviar, and lobster because meaning is created in context. Give your characters the opportunity to layer in a bit of personality with their tastebuds.
Food is meaningful.
This is especially true when we gather together to share meals, feasts, categories of foods, or groups of foods. Culture influences all aspects of food-related activity. We can’t help but develop associations, usually in conjunction with social events, tied to shared celebrations.
What sort of food do you associate with Independence Day, a day at the beach, your birthday, a trip to the stadium, a sit-down dinner with family, a romantic interlude….you’ve got the idea, so exploit the fact that food has social, cultural and psychological values.
There are endless possibilities to add meaning to our writing. Food can provide a lot of action, setting, and context. Think about manipulating the reader’s expectations by offering up a bad guy who also bakes specialty desserts. Maybe your heroine is a total badass but can’t boil water to save her life. How about a leading man who can make a wicked meal but won’t commit to anything outside of the kitchen?
The history of the world is written in recipes that celebrate what most matters to people in their time and place. Tea ceremonies are shared food rituals, whose preparation and performance are reflections of core elements in cultures around the globe. There’s a reason myth surrounds the use of corn in Mexico, the gathering of baobab fruit in Africa, and the making of mooncakes in China.
Nobody wants to read a blow-by-blow description of a character eating and drinking. Make the food matter. Otherwise it’s like toothbrushing and bathroom etiquette – you can mention it in passing so we know they’ve got good enough hygeine to jump into the passenger seat for the big chase scene. When it comes to eating, maybe there’s more to it than nourishing the body.