Even without invoking that most famous literary food of memory, I think we can all agree that food has the capability of being a direct conduit to our past. The smell of onions frying on the stove brings me back to brunch at my grandparents’ house, where my grandfather sautéed onions to add–with hardboiled eggs–to the chopped liver I adored. No one makes spaghetti sauce like my mother, and when she cooks it for me now on visits home, it’s as if I’m sitting on the wire-backed chairs of our South Florida home, the air conditioner blowing on my neck, my legs sticking to seat with the sweat of an afternoon of playing. I can’t see a copy of THE MOOSEWOOD COOKBOOK without feeling like I’m back in the 1970s (though the recipes hold up amazingly well). My own kids expect to walk into the house on Friday afternoon and smell the hallah baking, a scent that, when they encounter it as adults, I’m sure will conjure memories of Shabbat at home.
When I’m researching family history, I love knowing what people ate. My father reminisces—not in a pleasant way—about the goose his grandmother always cooked. “Too fatty,” he says. My mother recalls her grandmother coming to the house and immediately starting to cook: “The first thing, when she got off the train, is we went to the fish market to buy her fish for the trip. Then the minute she got home, the fish went in to the refrigerator and out came the yeast because the yeast got prepared for the baking. She made her own hallah and she also made something called kichel that we loved. The kichel was basically a sweet roll; it was twisted up with cinnamon and nuts … The kichel was absolutely fabulous and we loved it and we were all very excited. The yeast had to sit for about twenty-four hours so it was always the second day she would do the baking.” These are the details that bring the family alive, make me picture my great-grandmother carefully rolling out dough or my father picking at meat he really didn’t want to eat.
As such, food is one of the most powerful tools in literature. Food can indicate time and place, define character, set tone. It can also conjure memories in the reader if the food is familiar or create an entirely new world if it’s not. In one of my favorite novels, THE RADETZKY MARCH by Joseph Roth, a Sunday dinner demonstrates the fastidiousness of a strict father and the wealth of the family in pre-WWI Austria; food gives us a glimpse of the essence of the baron:
After the soup the Tafelspitz was served, boiled fillet of beef with all the trimmings, the old man’s Sunday entree for countless years. The delighted contemplation he devoted to this dish took more time than half the meal. The district captain’s eyes caressed first the delicate bacon that silhouetted the colossal chunk of meat, then each small individual plate on which the vegetables were bedded: the glowing violet beets, the lush-green earnest spinach, the bright cheery lettuce, the acrid white of the horseradish, the perfect oval of new potatoes swimming in melting butter and recalling delicate baubles. The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food—its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay.
This is what I’m trying to achieve when I write about food: I’m trying to construe a world, to create a specific moment in time, to create memories for my characters and for the readers. The bread Rose bakes, the meals she serves, the snacks the young women eat—all are specific to their immigrant Jewish lifestyle in 1930s New York.
When I’m researching for my novels, one of the first things I try to understand is how people eat. For MODERN GIRLS, I paged through old cookbooks to understand how Rose would make a chicken kosher, I read novels to see what foods Dottie would bring to her office for lunch, and I found old menus online to determine what might be ordered at the Stork Club.
Food is more than just what people eat in the novel. Food brings people together: The family gathers around the Shabbat table, arguing over chicken legs and bonding over political arguments. Food solidifies bonds: A mother tries to soothe her daughter with a cup of tea and toast. Food divides people: A young woman is kept separate from her coworkers because she won’t eat the nonkosher food at the luncheonettes near her office.
Food is the one commonality we all have: Everyone needs to eat. But the hows and the whys and the wheres of food tell a story all its own. A meal can simply be a delicious place to fill the belly and to grouse with family about the day. But sometimes a meal can be so much more. And that’s what writing fiction is all about.