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!