I lie for a living, and I work pretty darn hard to do it believably. As a poet and novelist, I often invoke food — both its preparation and its consumption — to make my work convincing and compelling.
If you’ve ever participated in a writing workshop, you’ve probably heard the mantra “Show, don’t tell.” Rather than declaring that a character “is” a certain way, we writers are charged with describing a detail or, better yet, an action that reveals something about a character — the more visceral, the better. Showing allows a reader to experience something along with the characters, to recognize some aspect of character for themselves.
Maybe because my best writerly procrastination involves snacking, when I’m looking to show rather than tell, I create scenes that involve cooking and eating. Passages that appeal to the sense of taste, and to smell and touch as well, draw readers in. Done well, such passages show more about characters than merely what they’re having for dinner.
One of the most erotically charged pieces I’ve ever written doesn’t mention sex at all. It’s a poem that in just 24 lines reveals a great deal about the speaker, the speaker’s lover, and their burgeoning relationship — all through descriptions of food:
When I began
When I began to bake this pie
I didn’t know how quickly
my finger creases would fill
with fat and sugar kneaded, kneaded.
Didn’t know how full it would feel
to cup my hands around whole spheres
of dough. Didn’t sense how precise
the delicate violence of running
peeler under apple skin. Didn’t
guess how plenitudinous to pile
thick fruit slices inside the
rolled round. Didn’t suspect
how solemnly top crust
would settle, covering
my morning’s work. And I
certainly didn’t know how brazenly
would season the kitchen,
spice the house.
When I began to bake this pie, I never
could have anticipated how slowly,
shyly, you would rise and come
to me, eager for your
I especially like to read a poem like that — whether my own or someone else’s — aloud, which makes the act of reading even more akin to eating. I feel my tongue moving over soft and hard syllables, a linguistic analog to savoring a well-spiced dish.
Literary descriptions of the preparation and consumption of food prove particularly powerful because food is simultaneously universal and specific. Universal because we all eat, and we all know what it’s like to delight in a delicious dish, or to want to spit an unpalatable one out. And specific because what we eat is determined by where we live, the cultures we come from or are somehow exposed to, even the era in which we live.
What I like to call the mouthfeel of a literary work is the use of the culinary as a literary device that allows a reader to identify with a character, or to feel the distance between the “there and then” in which the story is set and the here and now in which one reads it.
By far my most challenging act of lying — i.e., creative writing — has been crafting my novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which is based on the true story of a slave who was freed, educated, and became a spy for the Union during the Civil War. As a 21st-century pescatarian who tries to eat locally grown organic food, I’m culinarily quite distant from my eponymous narrator, who lived in Richmond and Philadelphia in the 1840s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. My work as a novelist was to see (and smell, hear, touch, and taste) the world through Mary’s eyes (and her other sensory organs) and to describe those experiences convincingly in her voice. Researching what Mary might serve or eat was one pivotal way I connected with her.
When I write, I surround myself with maps of the places my characters live, portraits of what I think the characters look like, all manner of specific references to take me out of the space in which I’m writing and into the world I’m writing about. Consulting 19th-century cookbooks allowed me to imagine Mary Bowser’s world more vividly. By incorporating recipes into scenes, I uncovered ways to show the subtleties of that world to readers.
I’ve never struggled to roast woodcocks over an open fire, spent a day sampling lemon chiffon cakes at every bakery in a segregated section of Philadelphia, or known I was back home because I smelled “the sharp-sweet odor of rabbit soup and marrow pudding” emanating from the cookhouse outside a Richmond mansion. But writing in the voice of Mary Bowser, I describe experiencing each of those things. My readers can understand what these things mean for Mary because of how similar or dissimilar they are to their own experiences.
This kind of showing allows an author to convey backstory and to foreshadow building conflicts. Early in the novel, while Mary is young and enslaved, she regularly waits table at her owners’ dinner parties (an experience that anticipates the espionage she’ll undertake later when she poses as a slave in the Confederate White House, monitoring Jefferson Davis’ conversations and correspondence). What better opportunity for a first-person narrator to observe the behavior of other characters, sharing those observations with the reader in ways that reveal the petty tensions between them?
When Mary describes which guest always drinks whiskey instead of wine, what remark causes her mistress to call for another glass of claret, and how one of the diners directs a slave “to ladle gravy onto his plate until it covered the rabbit and pooled around the cabbage pudding,” the reader discovers who is intemperate and what conversation is considered shocking. Somewhere in that gravy-laden dinner, we can perceive how a particular character’s gluttony might overwhelm what’s on his metaphorical as well as his literal plate.
The mouthfeel of fiction shows even more when the narrator feels, smells, and tastes things for herself. When Bet Van Lew, an eccentric member of the family that owns Mary and her mother, insists the Van Lew slaves join their owners at Christmas dinner, Mary describes which physical details of the meal most distinguish the lives of the enslaved from those of their owners. She discovers that “the heavy silver I’d spent my childhood washing and polishing felt suddenly cumbersome compared to the wooden spoons and forks with which I normally ate,” and she marvels over the difference in how a meal tastes “served hot in the dining room instead of snatched down cold afterward in the kitchen.”
The transition from a slave’s experience of eating to a free person’s experience of eating anticipates the announcement Bet makes during this memorable dinner: she is freeing Mary and her mother. But when Mary realizes that freedom will mean separation from her enslaved father, who belongs to another owner, she sums up her visceral response by describing how “the mouthful of Christmas goose I’d been savoring stuck in my throat.”
I will never experience what Mary did at that moment. Neither will my readers. But when she tells how the finest meal she’d ever eaten was suddenly spoiled by the recognition that she’ll have to choose between her father and her freedom, it’s like the Christmas goose is stuck in all our throats — never mind if (like me!) you’ve never tasted goose.
That’s the mouthfeel of fiction.
We celebrate great literature through associations with food. I have a friend who celebrated the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth with a party featuring Dickensian dishes and drinks. Throughout the world, you can visit Shakespeare gardens that grow the herbs, fruits, and other plants mentioned by the Bard.
But as a committed eater and compulsive liar, I prefer to imagine where my characters’ next meal is coming from. I’m already at work on a new novel, set centuries ago in a city I’ve never been, on a continent far away. And I’ve already lined the shelf in my study with the cookbooks I’ll need to carry my readers there.
A regular contributor to Disunion, the New York Times coverage of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Lois Leveen has taught at UCLA and Reed College, and her poetry and essays have appeared in numerous books, literary journals, and on NPR. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is her first novel.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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