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Using food to set a scene

17 March, 2011 | By Goldie Alexander

Recently I came across an article dividing authors into two camps; those that include descriptions of food in their novels and those that don’t. Children’s authors have always used food as a way of illustrating and augmenting character, plot and setting. Children’s authors know food is children’s sex.

Lewis Carrol knew this. If the ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea-party’ was a sly dig at middle-class sensibilities, he also knew that some food feels safe: Alice helped herself to some tea and bread and butter, and that others do not as Alice shrinks and grows depending on which side of the mushroom she eats.

Poverty and deprivation equate to hunger. Tom, the chimney sweep in ‘The Water Babies’, cried… when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week… But when he leaves his discarded shell of a body behind, he eats water- cresses, perhaps; or perhaps water-gruel and water milk.
Enid Blyton used food in her ‘Famous Five’ series to show happiness: The picnic was lovely. They had it on the top of a hill, in a sloping field that looked down into a sunny valley…The children ate enormously, and Mother said that instead of having a tea-picnic at half-past four they would have to go to a tea-house somewhere, because they had eaten all the tea sandwiches as well as the lunch ones!

When I was young, one of my favourite humorous characters was Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School. Placed on a diet, Bunter’s eyes grew moist as the implications sank in. He looked down at his ample stomach. “Goodbye, old chum,” he whispered sadly. Then his face brightened. “Still, there’s always the tuck shop! In case, I mean, a chap was a bit peckish . . . starving, actually. And I’ve got my hamper from home every term . . . and some of the chaps are getting emergency deliveries of chips through the school railings.”
More contemporaneously, in the much loved ‘The Very Hungry caterpillar’, we’re shown a caterpillar eating his way through pears, plums, cherry pie, and then ending up with a stomach-ache. Yet he still emerges as a beautiful butterfly. Is there a moral here?

My problem was how to write about food without offending anyone’s sensibilities. What with so many children refusing to eat meat on ethical grounds, or restricted by religious belief, it was difficult to strike a right note. Was it wisest to only describe afternoon and morning teas which hopefully offend no one? Not possible when ‘writing history’ where I’m forced to ignore the ‘no meat’ rule and stick to facts. In ‘The Youngest Cameleer’, a novel set in 1873, and illustrating two very different cultures, Ahmed reports: ‘Please tell Mr Gosse that there is plenty of ashak and pilaf for him.’ asks Alannah. I do. Mr Gosse looks sad. ‘Please thank Alannah for me,’ he says. ‘But tonight I am to dine with Governor Ayer. I’m sure your food is far tastier than Windsor soup, boiled mutton and soggy potatoes.’ That Alannah can prepare such delicious ashak and pilaf when we must ration our spices and herbs is a miracle. We finish our meal with sweet tea flavoured with cardamom and cinnamon…”

In the lead story to my latest collection, “Space Footy and Other Stories”, I had fun inventing an alien menu: The Igs brought sarton pies; coolibo chops; runfun hamburgers; dootot fizz and humberg pantas. In the contemporary fantasy ‘Eside”, I used food to reflect the difficulties Sam and Melody experience when they land inside wicked Hecate’s computer. Living with the seal-people the girls are only fed raw fish, when they meet the dog-people, only meat, and in a tyrannical future, only computer generated food which looks and tastes odd. But the girls’ safety is illustrated when they’re served, chocolate and strawberry milkshakes, toast covered in grilled tomato and cheese, delicious three tiered sandwiches and fruit pies. And the very best chocolate cake, cheese-cake, shortbread topped with strawberry jam and doughnuts sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar…

So my advice to anyone who writes for children is to remember that food isn’t there just to keep your characters energised. You can use it to symbolise whatever your characters are experiencing. It’s an important part of the plot, sets a scene, and can be used to illustrate misery, gluttony, hospitality, tradition, celebration and happiness. Eating is certainly one of life’s great pleasures. In my opinion a big part of the reason that children’s books are so much fun to read is that they feature food in so many creative ways.

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