Eating Between the Pages

IMAGE BY NINA MONTENEGRODuring a radio interview, a reporter asked author Donna Leon about her crime series’ protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, a Venetian police inspector. “Did you give him a love of food so you could write about it?”

Leon sounded offended. “The description of the meals is not what I call food porn,” she said. “There are not long, loving descriptions of how a meal is prepared and the savory taste of this and that. There are merely descriptions that are little more than the names of the things that are eaten.”

I remember tossing my dish towel aside, thinking, “Why the big huff?” I’ve written seven mystery novels and have two more scheduled for publication. Each one of them includes food descriptions.

I can only speculate on Leon’s disdain. Maybe food descriptions are below her. In my experience, authors of crime fiction can be touchy about the literary vs. popular fiction divide. Getting graphic about dinner might feel too commercial.

Or, maybe Leon simply isn’t interested in food. I have a friend, a terrific author, who laments that her characters need to eat at all. Describing food doesn’t interest her as much as, say, recreating a winter landscape on the page. In real life, you’re more likely to find her hiking than planning a multicourse dinner.

It could be that Leon sees food descriptions as a lazy trick to frame a scene. I get it. Think of the gallons of coffee and tea consumed in novels just to give the characters something to do while they advance the plot. I know a French translator of women’s fiction who says she’d be happy to never translate “she sipped” again.

However, to me, a story without at least one lovingly described meal reads thin. I could defend myself by listing famous examples: Virginia Woolf’s boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse; Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way madeleine; Haruki Murakami’s spaghetti.

I could point out how effectively a dinner scene illuminates family dynamics, culture, and class; how a character’s choice of heritage groats over a well-done steak nails his personality; and how taste adds a sensual dimension to reading. I could rattle on about the universal experience of a meal, and how it cements a reader’s bond to a character.

But the fact is, my primary reason for writing food in fiction isn’t so lofty. I do it because it just plain feels good. When I describe beaten biscuits straight from the oven, I taste them. When a character bites into a heavy Caspian Pink tomato, still warm from the vine, my mouth waters. If I can give that experience to a reader, I’m happy. For me, that’s reason enough.

And Donna Leon? Apparently, her readership likes reading about Guido Brunetti’s dinner more than she likes writing about it. Brunetti’s Cookbook has been selling well for seven years now.

Angela Sanders writes about food, people, and history, from Portland, Oregon, and is also the author of mystery novels under her name and the pen name Clover Tate.

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