What does food say about your characters?

Do you have food breaks, treats or desk snacks to keep you going when you’re writing?

I’ve become a stickler for regularity. I have the same things all the time so I don’t have to think about what to eat, I can just grab and go from the fridge.

My new snack of choice with morning coffee is Vegan Bliss Balls. I had one at Earthy Eats in Launceston, and was an instant convert.

Bliss Balls cleverly combine a nut, an oil such as coconut, a sweetener such as rice syrup, honey or maple syrup, and a dried fruit which acts as a glue and holds everything together once you’ve macerated it all in the blender. Sometimes there’s a seed for good measure, and often shredded coconut is involved.

While they’re high in fat, they are also high in protein and are zero carb. And they keep you going. A couple of these with my flat white and I can power through until lunch time.

My newfound Bliss Ball habit made me wonder what substances other writers are lining up beside them for the energy intake to power their fingers on the keyboard.

Then this morphed into thinking about what characters eat, and scrutinising the Kate Atkinson novel I’ve just finished, When Will There Be Good News? for signs of what they imbibe.

Very quickly it became clear that she uses food in this novel as an indicator of the character’s state of mind and approach to life.

“Reggie fed the baby a yoghurt, not regular yoghurt but a special organic baby yoghurt, no additives, no sugar, nothing artificial.” That baby is the treasured offspring of a mother with a very tragic childhood. You can tell, can’t you?

Three family members share a last morning tea of “little cartons of orange juice and a box of chocolate finger biscuits,” just before they are randomly and brutally murdered. The poignancy is in the detail.

Mrs MacDonald is a retired teacher who has gone slightly potty and joined a rather odd Christian sect. She “had a recipe that made real spaghetti from a packet taste exactly like tinned.” That’s the devout for you. Not always together enough to make good of the Lord’s provisions, too busy thinking about sinning in other divisions.

Nut hard police detective Louise is married to a good man, a surgeon, who lost his first wife in a car accident. “Patrick made French toast, served it with creme fraiche, out-of-season raspberries, the Wedgwood plates snowy with icing sugar as if they were in a restaurant. The raspberries had been flown all the way from Mexico.” Patrick is a man making the best of life. Let’s hope Louise comes to her senses and joins him.

She, meanwhile, is grimly pursuing a lead that’s become an obsession, drinking “tan coloured tea that was strong enough to clean drains” in a cafe in Yorkshire. “A slice of fruitcake arrives with a large slab of Wensleydale on it (cheese and cake, what was wrong with these people?)” Kate Atkinson is brilliant at telling you what’s going on with a character through their inner dialogue.

And what of Jackson Brodie, central character, hard bitten ex-forces, “I used to be a policeman”, whose first wife left him for the urbane David Lastingham, whose lover Julia had his child but told him it was another man’s, and whose second wife is actually a con artist who’s about to clear out his bank accounts and disappear? Well Jackson barely eats in this novel. Too busy dealing with existential angst, his own and other people’s. If he does eat, its serviceable fuel, nothing pleasurable. “Jackson buys an Ordnance Survey map, a newspaper, a cheese and pickle roll.” 

Later, when he and Reggie come to an impasse in their pursuit of the truth: “Now what?” Jackson said when they finally made their escape. “Fish and chips?” Reggie said hopefully. “I’m starving.” “No one eats in my car,” said Jackson. 

So what do Vegan Bliss Balls at ten in the morning say about me? That I like food, am bored after 90 minutes at my computer, that I’m middle aged and can therefore no longer eat shortbread biscuits, and that I want something to eat even though I’m trying to lose weight, that’s what.

Here’s the recipe I made today. There are endless different variations. They’re all pretty scrumptious.

Peanut Butter Balls

Peanut Butter Balls 

12 pitted dates, 1 tbsp cacao powder, 2 tbsps natural peanut butter, 3/4 cup raw almonds, 1-2 tbsp honey or rice malt syrup.

(Tip: if you’re using dried dates, soak them for an hour first or it sounds like you’re flinging gravel around in your blender. Medjool ones are much swankier and good to go.)

  1. Place the dates, cacao powder and peanut butter in a blender and process until a thick paste forms.
  2. Add the almonds and pulse until the desired consistency is achieved – chunky or smooth, you choose.
  3. Add honey or syrup in small quantities to form a rollable consistency.
  4. Using damp hands, roll into balls and put on baking paper or into a freezer container.
  5. (I added an extra step today, rolling them in shredded coconut.)
  6. Store in the fridge or freezer and eat straight from either.

They reckon they’re good for a week. Mine don’t last that long.

Got a favourite Bliss Ball recipe of your own? Send it on over!


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