HOW THIS BLOG ENDED UP IN THE BAHAMAS

Sometimes a writer (and I’m not alone here) starts out to write one thing and something entirely different emerges.  My metaphor for this is heading for Maine and ending up in the Bahamas.  That’s what happened to this blog.  I started out to write TELLING TIME, about using food to set or reveal the time in which the story takes place.  What I had in mind was a timeline for foods and cooking equipment.

For Example, by 1900

As many of you know, I collect cookbooks, and have done so for decades. As I pulled relevant references off my shelves, I discovered over a dozen books specifically on the history of food and cooking. 

No more than an hour or so into this effort, I realized three things:

  1. Readers might not be as enamored of lists as I am.
  2. The list would go on forever!
  3. Such a blog wouldn’t be helpful in the general scheme of things.

And that’s when I headed for the Bahamas, and turned this blog into a Better Know Your Character effort.

Assuming you don’t want to draw entirely from your own life and experience, there’s a book for that. 

You can get food and cooking information for any time period you need, in as much detail as you need, and for virtually any place you need.  If you write across time periods and/or locations, one of the books covering a broader range would be a good choice. 

Cookbooks for Specific Geographic Needs
  • By region, for example New England, Northern India, the Balkans
  • Any state in the US
  • Virtually any country or territory
  • Virtually any city
    • I say virtually here because I don’t have every one. But given that I have books for Paris; Tbilisi; Detroit; Pittsburgh; Los Angeles; Denver; Rochester, NY; and Westminster, MD (to name a few), I’m confident you could find what you need.
  • Plantation cooking
  • Australian Outback cooking
  • Wilderness cooking
  • Pacific Island cooking
  • Appalachian cooking
Cookbooks by Time Period
  • The American colonial kitchen
  • By decade since at least 1900
  • Food and cooking during war.
    • For example, The Doughboy’s Cookbook (common foods and cooking in the trenches of World War I) or M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (cooking during WWII rationing).
    • Cooking during wars or other conflicts often focus on deprivation.
      • The recently published CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine has recipes Russian cooks developed or adapted to deal with food shortages throughout the Cold War.
      • During the Civil War, there was a time when there were no pigeons left in the city of Richmond because all had been killed for the table.
Cookbooks by Ethnic Heritage
  • African American
  • Native American
  • Results of mixed heritages
    • West African and French influences in Cajun cooking
    • Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences all along the Silk Road
  • Any cuisine by country of origin

Everyone has to eat sometime (except alien cyborgs).

What is your character’s attitude toward food? 

Cover all three aspects of attitudes: think, feel, do.

What does home cooking mean to your character? 

The answer to this question can tell all sorts of things about your character besides ethnicity:

  • Approximate age
  • Social class
  • Family of origin
What is involved in meal preparation?

If your modern character is making a meal, does s/he start with raw ingredients or put a prepared meal in the microwave? Does the answer change if company is coming? Is it a family meal? Do other family members share your character’s attitudes toward food and cooking?

What does your character eat? 

Strictly a meat and potatoes person? Omnivore? PescatarianVegetarian? Vegan And why?

  • Religious prohibitions
  • Animal rights
  • Health considerations
  • Cultural habits
  • Availability
What health concerns does a character address with food?

Many medical conditions are caused by unhealthy eating habits or require dietary adjustments to treat fully. Depending on the diet, this character may have cookbooks addressing the concern, request substitutions when eating out, or be unwilling to eat or cook around others.

  • Lack of a nutrient, such as calcium, Vitamin D, sodium
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose intolerance

Consider also the possibility of mental health concerns when eating or preparing food. A character with alcoholism, compulsive overeating, bulimia nervosa, etc. would likely display signs of those disorders that might be noticed by others. On the other hand, a character with severe depression, body dysmorphia, or OCD related to food might avoid social situations involving food altogether.

Food is for everyone

Whether your character lives to eat or eats to live—or is somewhere between the extremes—it’s difficult to write realistically without food coming into play somewhere, sometimes, at least occasionally. Making those mentions specific to your story/character is a big plus.

Bottom line advice to writers: Bring food and/or cooking into your story to add realism, specificity, and richness.

LOVING OLD BOOKS

This glass-fronted secretary is full of old books—cookbooks and books on household management and helpful hints. When I open the doors, the smell of old books—so different from the smell of a library—always makes me smile.

Instructions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches, By Miss Leslie is dated 1843. This is the 17th edition (!) “with improvements and supplementary receipts.” As far as I know, it is my oldest book. I say, “As far as I know” because not all old books are dated. For example, this 64-page relic was printed in Edinburgh, sometime before 1890.

Books of this sort are my first collection, and still the most numerous. In the beginning I bought books like High-Class Cookery Made Easy by Mrs. Hart for what was on the printed page: how things used to be done. I found the recipes fascinating: instructions to  “assemble the [cake] ingredients in the usual way”; lists of ingredients with no measurements. (Fanny Farmer [see below]first introduced standard measurements in 1896.)

When I open a book of great (by my amateur standards) age, I like to ponder what sorts of women might have owned and used it over the decades. This copy of Mrs. Crowen’s American Ladies’ System of Cookery cookbook is inscribed Mrs. Dr. S.  S. Fitch, May 18th, 1860. It reminds me of the German practice of addressing someone as Herr Doctor Professor So-and-so. Might she be of German background?

The books printed in the 1880s and more recently are much more likely to be in good condition. Then, as now, once one made a name for oneself, more book deals followed.  Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion and Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook and Marketing Guide are early examples of this.

Perhaps the best example is Fanny Merritt Farmer. She paid Little, Brown, and Company to publish her Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896.  My earliest copy is from 1904. By then, it had been copyrighted 1896, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. The flyleaf of my copy says it is revised with an appendix of three hundred recipes, and an addenda of sixty recipes. (Note the modern spelling of recipe.) She is listed as the author of Chaffing-Dish Possibilities and Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.

I have a copy of the latter, as well as What to Have for Dinner, copyrighted 1904, 1905, 1907,  and 1905, respectively.  The Fanny Farmer Cookbook is still popular today.

Sir Terry Pratchett

But It’s More Than Just Old Cookbooks For Me

Over the years, I’ve replaced numerous paperbacks with older hard-copy editions of favorite books. I like the worn covers and brittle, yellowed pages.

They remind me of reading books of fairy tales and the Ruth Fielding series from the early 20th Century at my grandmother’s house.  It turns out that I’m not alone. Scent carries powerful psychological meaning for people—and triggers memories that otherwise are not readily available.

Many people, perhaps most, like the smell of old books. Science tells us that as books decompose over time, they emit a smell from decaying volatile organic compounds, very similar to chocolate and coffee! This is one time I really don’t need to know why I like something, just that I do.

My most recently acquired old book, 1904, came along with my most recent obsession: Bird Neighbors!

Bottom line for writers: smell an old book and feel uplifted!

Food and Drink Can Poison Your Prose!

flavor sicily anna tasca lanza
I love food. For me, eating and drinking across cultures is one of the main reasons to go somewhere new! The last time I was in Italy, I bought this book. Indeed, wherever I go, I try to buy a cookbook (written in English!).

 

For me, the danger of writing about food and drink is going overboard. Describing every dish at Thanksgiving dinner, listing all the ingredients in Bacardi Minced Fruit Pie…

 

food italy waverley root
Unless you are Waverley Root, or your book is actually about food, remember that a little goes a long way. It’s like transportation in that way. 

 

cuisine hungary george lang
So, when people come together over food, keep the focus on advancing the plot: Who says what while passing the goulash? What is the significance of Mama making veal paprikas? What are people thinking and feeling as they dig into the smashed potatoes?

 

austrian cooking helga setz
Meals can be extremely important to your plot. They can be a platform for bringing people together to show alliances, competitions, insecurities, grudges, etc. But while the dinner table is the platform, keep the focus on the action.

 

heritage spanish cooking
Another function food and drink can serve is to illustrate ethnic roots—either for the first time, or as a reinforcement. Sangria is clearly associated with Spain and Portugal in ways that beer just isn’t.
aztec way healthy living peruvian kitchen
Additionally, food and drink preferences can define your character. Does s/he drink beer or martinis? Craft beer? Single-malt scotch? Drink (and food) choices can say much about your character’s roots, socio-economic status, and self-concept.
 
classical turkish cooking ayla algar
 
So, one way food and drink can poison your prose is by focusing on the food and drink to the detriment of the plot, action, and character. But cliché food and drink is just as hazardous.
food singapore
You need to bring two people together to talk. You have them sit down with cups of coffee and cookies/pie/cake/donuts. Ho-hum. First of all, try to bring in food only when it’s relevant. So your first defense against this poison it to get them together over something less stereotyped. Oiling the teak on a boat, Setting up a museum exhibit… even gardening together!
peruvian cuisine
Your second line of defense is to add a few vivid sensory images. Consider the coffee and cookie option. Even if eating and drinking is background to the conversation, make your reader smell the coffee, feel the chew of the oatmeal, savor the sweetness, etc.

 

splendid table lynne rossetto kasper
Bottom line: Food and drink can be great or deadly—your choice!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Feel Differently About After Time Has Passed

Top Ten Tuesday, Broke and the Bookish
Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, they provide a prompt for bloggers. Today’s prompt is Ten Books I Feel Differently About After Time Has Passed.

BOOKS I LOVE—OR NOT SO MUCH!

 

Some books seem to get better every day—or at least year by year. I find that many books I first read for entertainment have grown over time—or maybe I have! Into this category I put anything by Jane Austen.

 

Jane Austen

Her observations of human behaviors, foibles, and motivations are timeless. And I smile at the humor, even when re-reading.

Books by Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Top Ten Tuesday picks
Books by Jane Austen

Mary Renault

Then there are Mary Renault’s books. She brings history to life and dealt with delicate issues of sexuality long before most mainstream authors.

Mary Renault books, book shelf, Top Ten Tuesday picks
Books by Mary Renault

Lewis Carroll

I first approached Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as children’s books. Indeed, my elementary-school granddaughter read them recently. But reading them with an adult eye and understanding, I find the plot line and magical realism rich and the writing superb.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, book, Top Ten Tuesday pick
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Waverley Root & Richard de Rochemont

I’ve had Eating in America: A History by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont on my shelf of unread books for years. But recently, The Food of Italy by Waverley Root turned up on a list of recommended reads for people planning a trip to Italy, and having started that book, I turned to Eating in America. It starts with seafarers and Native Americans and continues through refrigeration and the modern American sweet tooth. Why did I let it languish so long?

Eating in America: A History, Waverley Root, Richard de Rochemont, book, history, Top Ten Tuesday pick
Eating in America: A History

Cookbooks

And that segues into cookbooks. Of all my book loves, cookbook loves are the most fickle. I’ve had my low-calorie, low-fat, low-glycemic-index, low-carb, pressure-cooking, microwaving, slow-cooking, blending, cooking-for-one-or-two infatuations. But two cookbooks have held steady in my heart: The Doubleday Cookbook—the best encyclopedic cookbook out there—and Culinary Classics and Improvisations—the best leftovers cookbook in the world!

Memoir & biography

As a category, I’m coming to a greater appreciation of memoir and biography. For example, The Glass Castle by Jannette Walls, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, and at the recent Gaithersburg Book Festival, I bought “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” by Annette Gordon Reed and Peter S. Onuf, a recent and atypical biography of Thomas Jefferson—which is still untested but very promising.

The Bible

When it comes to books about which my feelings have undergone a sea-change, the Bible is in a category by itself. Once upon a time, I believed it was literally the word of God. Now I don’t. Enough said.

Ryrie study Bible, The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, books, Top Ten Tuesday picks
Ryrie Study Bible and The New English Bible

Mysteries

As I’ve become a writer, my interest in the mystery genre has waned. I lost interest in Patricia Cornwell early on because her protagonist, Kate Scarpetta, didn’t grow or develop. But former favorites from Sue Grafton to Rex Stout just don’t grab me anymore.

Depraved Heart, Patricia Cornwell, book, mysteries, Top Ten Tuesday pick
Depraved Heart

Strange Maps

One of the books I bought on a whim, Strange Maps, turned out not to be as interesting as I expected it to be.

Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities, Frank Jacobs, book, Top Ten Tuesday pick
Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities

The Dictionary of American Regional English 

And last but not least, I’m no longer in love with the six volumes of The Dictionary of American Regional English. I really regret it. But being able to look up a word and find out where it’s used isn’t nearly as useful as it would be if I could look up a region and get typical word usage!

The Dictionary of American Regional English, dictionary set, Top Ten Tuesday pick
The Dictionary of American Regional English

What books are waxing, waning, or shifting ground in you heart?

The French Chef Lives On!

On February 11, 1963, WGBH-TV in Boston, Massachusetts launched “The French Chef,” featuring Julia Child. By the time The French Chef Cookbook was published in 1968, she was an international icon.

The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child
The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child

 

As far as I know, she is the only chef whose entire kitchen has been reassembled as a display at the Smithsonian.

 

“Writer” probably isn’t the first word you associate with Julia Child, although she authored or coauthored eighteen books. The success of “The French Chef” launched a whole genre of TV shows about cooking. If you visit the PBS website, you can find an alphabetical listing of cooking shows on Public Television. I counted 50 from letters P through Z!

 

Overstating the breadth and depth of Julia Child’s influence—both culinary and cultural—would be difficult as sprinting up Mt Everest! Her kitchen identity is French, complete with butter, cream, cheese, and eggs, and yet vegan chef and restauranteur Miyoko Schinner acknowledges her debt to Julia Child and Mastering The Art of French Cooking.
 

The Vegan Pantry by Miyoko Schinner
The Homemade Vegan Pantry by Miyoko Schinner

 

Heads up, writers!

Julia Child’s reach would have been much more limited if not for her personality. She was witty, appealing, with distinctive voice and body language. Your assignment: go on-line to view clips of her slapping the poultry around and rattling off one-liners, and then capture her in written words! And when you create characters for your stories, try to make them as compelling and vivid as Julia Child.

Food and Fiction

I was sitting in my recliner, much as I am now, sipping iced decaff coffee and leafing through catalogues from discount booksellers. (My favorites among these are Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller and Daedalus Books.)

three catalogs from booksellers, bargain books and deadalus books
Catalogs from discount booksellers

After ordering more books than I have shelf-space for—about half cookbooks for a vegan kitchen and half books I think will be useful writing references, such as Funerals to Die For—my thoughts drifted, as they are wont to do. I’ve been collecting cookbooks since long before I started writing fiction. Over the years, I’ve donated and gifted hundreds of cookbooks and mysteries. Even bookcases in every room of the house except the bathroom weren’t enough!

As best I can remember, my first connection between fiction and food was the Rex Stout mystery series featuring Nero Wolf. I’ve had the The Nero Wolf Cook Book so long I can’t remember.

Cook books for Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Nero Wolf
Cookbooks for Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Nero Wolf

I became enamored with Sherlock Holmes in college. But Dorothy L. Sayers is probably my all-time favorite mystery writer. She didn’t make a big deal about food in her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books. Still, I had to have The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook.

Perhaps mystery writers are especially attracted to food. Think poison? These two books are especially appealing to me.

two books for mystery writers , A Taste of Murder and Cook With Malice Domestic
Mystery writers’ cookbooks

More than one mystery has taken up a food theme. Perhaps the best known is Diane Mott Davidson. She’s written 17 novels featuring Goldy Schulz, a small town caterer who solves mysteries on the sides. Goldy Schulz also has a cookbook, although I haven’t seen it.

Of course, food isn’t solely the purview of mystery writers. See for yourself.

books and food connection from Margaret Atwood and Deal Wells
Non-mystery writers and food

Book covers for "The Romance of Food" and "The Zane Grey Cookbook"

And as in all fan activities, Jane Austen leads the pack. I don’t have them, but look for The Jane Austen Cookbook, Cooking With Jane Austen, Jane Austen and Food, Tea with Jane Austen, Tea With the Bennets, Dinner With Mr. Darcy, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.

And the options are never-ending. Consider A Feast of Words, for Lovers of Food & Fiction by Anna Shapiro. It includes excerpts from 25 novels, from Jane Austen to Alice Munro. Shapiro comments on the food scenes and includes her own menus and recipes inspired by each work. Eat Memory: Great Writers at the Table, edited by Amanda Hesser comes from her work as the New York Times Magazine‘s food editor. In this book she presents 26 food memories from leading writers, and the recipes they involve.

If you are more into the words than the food, consider this slim volume: Food Tales: A Literary Menu of Mouthwatering Masterpieces. It presents 8 stories, including “A Vicomte’s Breakfast” by Alexandre Dumas, “The Luncheon” by W. Somerset Maugham, and “Tortillas and Beans” by John Steinbeck.

Once you start on writing and food, it’s a short step to food writers. One of my favorites is M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf. She wrote it in 1942, the point being to cooking during the WWII food rationing.

book spine of "How to Cook a Wolf" by M.F.K. Fisher
How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

inscription from M.F.K Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf," "There's a whining at the threshold, There's a scratching at the floor..."
From M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf

But enough! There must be an end somewhere!

Your Links Between Food and Fiction

What are your favorite cookbooks?

Don’t collect cookbooks? Do you have a collection that’s taking up your house?