Writing food in fiction – Laura Madeleine

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By Laura Madeleine

In my own writing, food works hard, often fulfilling double, triple purposes. Yes, food can enliven a scene and appeal to the senses, but it can also tell us about the world where a story is set; it can reflect society, economics, topography, and traditions. Food can serve as a catalyst to bring characters together, or be used symbolically to highlight essential differences.♥

In my first novel, The Confectioner’s Tale, Guillaume – a young man from the slums of Bordeaux – is intoxicated by the art of patisserie and simultaneously repelled by its decadence and wastefulness. His reaction reflects the social hierarchy of the time, where the extravagant lives of the rich were often built upon the exploitation of the labouring classes.

In another of my novels, Where the Wild Cherries Grow, food is so much a part of the story, it is almost another character. A lot of the action takes place in French Catalonia: in a town called Cerbere, the last before the border with Spain. Catalan food is wonderfully distinctive, encompassing the whole history of the region. Almonds, aubergines and spices tell us of Arabic influence from the period of Moorish rule. Tomatoes and peppers come later, speaking of the New World, as does Cremat: a powerful concoction of rum, sugar, spices and coffee which is the direct result of Spain’s prosperous seatrading relationship with Cuba in the eighteenth century.

This knowledge of Catalonia’s food history helped me to create a vivid sense of place, and bring the town to life. It also allowed me to develop contrasts between other settings, notably rural Norfolk and suburban London. Emeline and Bill – the lead characters of the 1919 and 1969 sections respectively – are both searching for something throughout the course of the novel, something that will make their hearts sing. For Emeline, whose life has been stifled and controlled, the first taste of raw, heady, Catalan food represents a moment of waking: the possibility of a new life.

The more I write about food in fiction, the more I find myself digging into fundamentals, not only the immediacy of sensation, but the profound effect taste can have on memory and emotion: like Proust’s immortal madeleine, dipped in tea.

In my latest novel, The Secrets Between Us, the lead character of the 1943 storyline is a baker, and much of the action takes place in and around the family’s village bakery. Writing about food in wartime represented a challenge. I couldn’t focus on luxury, or abundance; I had to think carefully about what food there was, and see it through the eyes of those who were subject to rationing. That meant writing about memories of food; the joy a single mouthful could bring, the shock of a strong taste after months of bland sustenance.

Focusing on bread – as everyday as that seems – allowed me to explore the dynamics of a village in wartime. Bread was an equalizer, a necessity to everyone, whether soldier or landowner or refugee. It was, and is, a signifier of hospitality and shared allegiances. To break bread with someone implies a bond of mutual acceptance and respect; which in turn, is another theme of the book.

Writing food into fiction is great fun, as well as a constant learning process. I always try to find traditional dishes, home cooking and the oldest recipe books I can: they provide a great jumping off point, and give an understanding of the food of a region at a fundamental level, which can then be contrasted with more contemporary recipes or practices.

Of course, something as ephemeral and emotionally far-reaching as the experience of taste isn’t always easy to describe. My first drafts are always way too metaphor-heavy, and usually result in a few “eh??” moments from my editors, who are great at helping me pinpoint which descriptions are actually working well, and which are just weird. Sometimes, I’ll message friends to ask can you describe the texture of prosciutto? or watch videos on YouTube to get an idea of food preparation I’ve never done myself, from how to skin an ox-tail to how to de-bone a cuttlefish.

Food is one of the defining characteristics of my writing, and for me, it can’t be overlooked. Especially not when there’s bread to eat, wine to drink and new dishes to sample. It’s research after all…

Laura Madeleine is the author of The Confectioner’s Tale, Where the Wild Cherries Grow (published by Thomas Dunne in the US and Transworld in the UK) and The Secrets Between Us (published by Transworld in the UK, with the paperback released on April 19th). After a childhood spent acting professionally and training at a theatre school, Laura went to study English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge. She now writes fiction, as well as recipes, and was formerly the resident cake baker for Domestic Sluttery. She lives in Bristol, but can often be found visiting her family in Devon and getting up to mischief with her sister, fantasy author Lucy Hounsom.



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