What does food say about your characters?

I’m a creature of habit, when I’m writing and when I’m not. Every day I have the same breakfast, the same snacks, and morning coffee at the same time. No thinking is required, it’s fuel.

Fiona Stocker's morning coffee on her writer's desk

My new snack of choice is Vegan Bliss Balls. They’re nutty and sugar free, as required by my doctor. Sometimes there are seeds thrown in for good measure. There’s a recipe at the end of this post.

My newfound Bliss Ball habit made me wonder what substances other writers line up for the day to power their fingers on the keyboard.

This morphed into thinking about what characters eat. So I picked up the Kate Atkinson novel I’ve just finished, When Will There Be Good News? and had a culinary delve.

Very quickly it was clear that Atkinson uses food as an indicator of the character’s state of mind, or outlook on life. Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!!

“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 child of a mother who had a very tragic childhood. When you know what happened to her, the top quality fare she feeds her baby makes perfect sense.

Three family members share a morning tea: “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 an odd Christian sect. She has “a recipe that made real spaghetti from a packet taste exactly like tinned.” That’s the devout for you. Not always making good of the Lord’s provisions, sometimes busy thinking about sinning.

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 lets him.

Louise, meanwhile, is pursuing a lead that’s become an obsession, fuelled by “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?)” Atkinson is brilliant at evoking a character’s state of mind 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, it’s 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. 

Oh, Jackson. Forget the others and come live with me. (Sometimes I forget he’s fictional.)

If you’re a writer, how and what do your characters eat, and what does that say about them? 

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.

About the Author

Fiona Stocker is the author of rural memoir Apple Island Wife – Slow Living in Tasmania, a laugh-out-loud account of what really happens when you leave the city and move to a place in the country with an alpaca-whispering husband and a feral cockerel for company, and raise your children there. Apple Island Wife is published by Unbound.


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