How Food Can Fortify Your Fantasy

By Posted in - Guest Post on July 27th, 2011 8 Comments

Guest post by JoAnn Early Macken:

JoAnne Early Macken

I took part in a memorable Vermont College of Fine Arts workshop led by Marion Dane Bauer and Norma Fox Mazer. A tip I heard during a manuscript critique has stayed with me since then. My notes say, “Ground in reality before you can take off into fantasy—Madeleine L’Engle: start with food.”

I studied L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to see what that quote meant. The book begins with Meg Murry in her attic bedroom during a storm, remembering a fight she’d had at school and worrying about rumors of a thief in the neighborhood. She goes downstairs to make cocoa and finds her brother Charles Wallace in the kitchen.

“I knew you’d be down,” he says. “I put some milk on the stove for you. It ought to be hot by now.

Charles Wallace, Meg, and their mother make sandwiches while talking about being different from others and feeling left out. When the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit appears at their door, Mrs. Murry invites her in and offers her a sandwich.

“I’ve had liverwurst and cream cheese; Charles has had bread and jam; and Meg, lettuce and tomato,” Mrs. Murry says. Food comforts people who can’t sleep for worrying and welcomes a strange guest.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien also begins with unexpected company. Gandalf and 13 dwarves visit Bilbo Baggins and put in their orders for raspberry jam and apple tart, mince-pies and cheese, pork-pie and salad, cakes, ale, coffee, eggs, cold chicken, and pickles. Food fortifies the travelers as they plan their long journey with the reluctant Bilbo.

In The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, Folk Keeper Corinna draws off the anger of the fierce, ravenous, underground-dwelling Folk. She lists what they eat in her Folk Record.

“April 17—Levy Day

The Folk have eaten:

  • Two roast ribs
  • Five rounds of cheese
  • A barrel of smoked haddock.”

Food keeps the Folk, “mostly mouth . . . wet mouth and teeth,” at bay.

In all three books, food helps make a fantastic situation believable by giving readers something familiar to latch onto. Like music and clothing, food can help establish setting, not only in fantasy but also in contemporary or historical fiction or nonfiction. Food can be used to celebrate a victory, to mourn a loss, or to show love or appreciation. The way a character eats can show his or her personality and emotions: he or she can savor each bite or shovel food in without thinking. A character might gulp, slurp, pick at her food, wipe his mouth on his sleeve, or eat while driving. Look for references to food as you read, think about the functions they serve, and explore the ways you can show time, place, and your characters’ emotions by describing how and what they eat.

JoAnn Early Macken’s recent picture books are Baby Says “Moo!” (Disney-Hyperion, 2011), Waiting Out the Storm (Candlewick, 2010), and Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move (Holiday House, 2008). JoAnn graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2000. She writes and teaches in Wisconsin, and she blogs at If you have any questions or comments about her post or Vermont College of Fine Arts, you can contact JoAnn at [email protected]

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(8) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Robert Sloan - Reply

    July 28, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Not to mention Redwall! My son in law introduced me to the Redwall series. It's the first thing I ever read that made a vegetarian-fish feast sound yummy rather than horrible. I hate fish and I'm suspicious of vegetarian fare, being a confirmed carnivore… but the series actually hangs on its food descriptions.

    Food in Redwall is a Dickensian theme of generosity, joy in living and egalitarian cooperation versus poverty and deprivation caused by bullying, sadistic, powerful baddies who mostly get their kicks hurting others and walking over them to get what they want. It's clear that the baddies often don't even enjoy their plunder so much as they enjoy terrorizing and slowly starving their victims. They're murderous, but they really get into bullying the survivors.

    Redwall's heroes always have to face deprivation far more often than violence and are always tested by how well their generosity and cooperation stands up to short rations, short sleep and short tempers.

    The food is irresistible because of the Redwall community – the type of close-knit supportive community that humans need and rarely find in the modern world. The food may be delicious but it's always also a symbol – everyone helps with the feasts and everyone is thanked for their labor. Generosity of spirit is the reason for Redwall's physical prosperity, what the readers starve for in most workplaces is that sense of their work being useful and the results honestly appreciated.

    That's contrasted by baddies who are most of all sadistic and exploitative. Whether pirates, would-be conquerors, cult leaders or bandits, the bad guys take what they want by force and don't really enjoy it much. What they enjoy most is degrading others and pushing them to the brink of starvation with forced labor to control them.

    It's a talking animals fable with a lot of modern ethics. Every time I reread it, the series is deeper than it seems – and the food is f what glues it together. The food connects with readers' lives and experiences – an entire website is devoted to Redwall recipes when those irresistible feast scenes leave you too hungry. But the food also functions as a powerful symbol of healthy prosperity and wealth that's always shared and appreciated versus the Scrooge mentality.

    Dickens played off the food scenes in his novels the same way to highlight the class differences in his time and the devastating results of industrial greed.

    Thanks for writing this wonderful essay. You've helped me understand why I love the food scenes in Dickens and Redwall so much and how to take something in a novel that functions on one level, then use it like poetry and make it carry many layers of meaning.

    I don't always use food in my novels. After reading this, maybe I need to pay a little more attention to what some of my characters are eating – and why it matters.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      July 28, 2011 at 7:41 am

      Exactly – it's not the arbitrary inclusion of food that has this effect, it's the author's conscious use of it to support a theme. Food is a powerful symbol to us.

  • debutauthors - Reply

    July 28, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Hmm, that just solved a problem of how to get to my next scene. Thanks.

  • Nanette Purcigliotti - Reply

    July 28, 2011 at 9:13 am

    So glad I read your post, Lia. I’ve got English Muffins and Raspberry Jam in my first pages. In–one of my favorite author’s–Jack Kerouac–his first pages reads in Hector’s Cafeteria –“spent money on beautiful big glazed cake and creampuffs.”
    Of course I’ve got a chocolate cake in my book. Pushing myself to the finish line. NOT EASY.
    You’re an inspiration. Think I’m working harder now.

  • JoAnn Early Macken - Reply

    July 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks for posting, Lia! Robert, I thought about the Redwall series when I wrote the original post–our sons both loved the books, & food plays a huge role in the stories. Nanette & debutauthors, good luck!

  • Bobbi - Reply

    July 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    JoAnn, what a wonderful discussion. And Robert Sloan's response just added to discussion tremendously. Wonderful!

  • Laura - Reply

    July 28, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Nice post! My grandmother was an Early. Go Early girls!

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