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  • cplesley

Food and Character

I haven’t done a writing post for a while, not least because over the years, I’ve covered most of the basics, both on my own blog and in the Five Directions Press newsletter. But after devouring (pun intended) two marvelous novels by the food critic Ruth Reichl, I started to think more about my own use of food as an indication of character.

A brown-haired woman in a red coat, arms wide, walks along a street flanked by New York brownstones and trees; an airmail envelope has the words Delicious! and Ruth Reichl

Just to be clear, I can’t begin to match either the exuberance or the sheer creativity that Reichl brings to her discussions of food. Her first novel, published in 2014, is called Delicious!, and although the title—exclamation point and all—actually refers to a magazine rather than a taste sensation, it accurately captures both the delicious read that is the book itself and the heroine’s no-holds-barred approach to the edible delights she encounters in New York.

The heroine, Billie Breslin, has the taste equivalent of perfect pitch. She has trained herself—although part of her gift is clearly innate—to identify every ingredient in every dish that she samples. And in the food community of Manhattan, that’s a lot of distinctly different foods from every part of New York and, by extension, the world. Each one is so lovingly described that you will spend every minute hungry as you tear your way through the book’s almost five hundred pages. The subplot, a long-hidden correspondence between a young girl and the legendary chef James Beard, also revolves around food, but it takes place during the second half of World War II, so the food is much less tasty.

A drawing of a woman in an off-shoulder dress, her face only partly visible and a circle holding a glass of yellow liquid, three oysters, and a wedge of lemon. Across the woman's dress are the words The Paris Novel, and below the food the words Ruth Reichl

Billie is far from perfect, and in fact we soon discover that she has powerful reasons for her careless dress and avoidance of social contact, but her joyous surrender to food assures us that she will overcome her complexes and find her way in the end. In Reichl’s second journey into fiction, The Paris Novel (due out in April 2024), food serves a different purpose. Here the heroine, Stella St. Vincent, has, for good reasons that are revealed only gradually, long imposed a rigid schedule on her life. A bequest from her mother sends Stella to Paris, and there food becomes, in a sense, her means of escaping her past.

That was the part that got me thinking. I have long used food in my novels as a status marker, as an indicator of ethnicity and diversity, and as a way to mark the passage of time and even to advance the narrative. I have tried to vary my characters’ diets—unless they belong to social groups where such variation was impractical, which in itself says much about their place in life. I have even used food to soothe or upset the people in my stories. But I never thought of highlighting a person’s sensory response to food as an indicator of character—a means of revealing what someone really wants, what that person is capable of, and what is missing in other areas of his or her life.

A dozen or so small, brown blini topped with sour cream, caviar, and dill

I can’t wait to see how this new realization plays out in novels yet to come.

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