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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Bottom line: Food and drink can be great or deadly—your choice!