Something that is often underestimated in fiction is the importance of food and beverages. They are as much part of a nation’s culture and heritage as architecture and art, music and dialects, local costume and customs. Leave out the flavour of food and drink locals like to consume and you’re only telling half the story, robbing yourself of a valuable tool that will draw readers into your narrative by subtle means.
Go beyond mentioning ale, wine, cheese, meat, onions and bread. It is the more intricate detail that helps writers to conjure up an authentic setting, allowing readers to not only see, hear, and feel but TASTE the flavour of a point in time and a real or fictional place.
Food and drink also help writers to characterise protagonists in culinary terms. Think Ian Fleming’s James Bond without his customary shaken but not stirred, super-cool martini or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot without his beloved tisane. Not quite the same, is it?
Perhaps your detective protagonist is a gourmand, astonishing villains with amazing feats of culinary prowess that hint at equally accomplished execution of public duties? Or your hapless Latin protagonist cannot prepare a chorizo Mexicano with tostadas to save her life and is as hopeless at cooking as she is at recognising a good man in your romance novel?
Be literary foodie detective
A foreign character becomes that much more genuine in flavour and scent when your “I-must-be-trendy-or-die” heroine teeters into a Berlin bar on her stilettos, orders a Berliner Weisse mit Schuss, climbs onto the bar stool and smiles broadly at the barman, only to display remnants of Bockwurst between her teeth.
The words fish ‘n chips alone conjure up a picture of Britain’s seedy and run-down seaside resorts, of screaming kids in prams pushed around by indifferent mothers in white leggings and baggy tops, of wheeling seagulls, drizzling rain and fierce gusts blowing litter everywhere. Add a steak and kidney pudding accompanied by mushy peas, followed by a sticky bun and plastic cup of tea and you have a setting that is unmistakably British and noir.
Permit the scent of crispy bacon and a heap of baked beans on toast in the early hours of the morning to lure your crime-fighting hero’s growing paunch off-track, and your reader can digest the fact that even the toughest detective needs comfort food once in a while and shouldn’t be asked to forego his full English for an early arrest of the villain.
A culinary starting point
A great advantage of researching historic food and drink is that often writers come across stuff like “this brewery has been producing Hefeweizen (wheat lager) and dark lager since 1827”. It provides us with a genuine reference point in history, allowing us to concentrate on a small area within a village, town or city from which we can expand into the wider (historical) world of our chosen period setting.
Why not use the street in which the brewery stands as a setting for a scene? Let the brewery’s day-to-day operations become a realistic background to your main action. Without going into a huge amount of detail, your writing will allow readers to hear the clip-clop of dray horses pulling a heavy wagon full of kegs; readers will unconsciously wrinkle their noses at the manure dotted around in this cobbled street and sense the air is filled with the stink of fermented hops, malt and wheat. The fictional employees of such a business could even become walk-on characters in your story’s secondary plot.
By the way, the brewery mentioned here is located on the Northern German Island of Rügen. The Stralsunder Brauerei has been supplying Baltic resorts with beer since 1827, when the brewery was founded.
Let your protagonist drink a dark lager called Störtebecker Hanse Porter, named in honour of 13th century pirate Nicolas (Klaas) Störtebeker, and readers will imagine your manly hero’s rugged good looks and steely gaze. And if your protagonists munch their way through a platter of hearty Braunschweiger, Kohlwurst and Bregenwurst sausages, served with boiled potatoes and steaming kale, readers know the setting is as northern German, Protestant and rural as it gets.
This simple peasant meal will act as a reminder that your story is set in empty, bleak and entirely flat landscapes, lined by deserted white sandy beaches where icy winds rush through dunes even in summer. In this desolate landscape the air is filled with the scent of smoked fish and ham, and the screech of gulls riding the steely grey Baltic waves drown out conversations between windswept protagonists. This is a landscape made for epic, smouldering love stories that don’t end well, leaving a smoky aftertaste on readers’ palates, when they reach the final page.
Equally, no literary excursion to Prague in the Czech Republic is complete without an ice-cold serving of a glass of light golden Krušovice, a lager with a dry straw aroma served to the office of Václav Havel, when he was the republic’s president back in 2003. The beer has been brewed in Czech Republic since 1517 and the brewery once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II, who purchased it in 1581 for the Czech Crown. Now there’s already a historic novel contained in that one sentence! Why did Rudolf buy a brewery? Whom could a writer murder to make this a whodunit with beer?
And while your hero and heroine are gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes over the din of Strasbourg Cathedral’s bells and the merciless fall of the guillotine, why not let them have a fruity glass of Alsace wine, while they’re nibbling slices of grilled Saucisse de Canard? It’s a sausage made from duck, for which Strasbourg’s surroundings and Brittany are famous. Oh go on, it’s the aristocrats’ final meal together, before the doomed lovers’ heads get chopped off!
The importance of food and drink production
From fluffy white ducks and geese that waddle through meadows and farmyards in the Alsace and Périgord regions in France to the sturdy peasants working steep vineyards of the Rhine and Mosel valleys in Germany, food and drink production has shaped the way our landscapes look and the way people have traded and dealt with each other over time.
Even when writing a science fiction novel set on another planet, food and drink production that nourishes the beings living on that planet should therefore be uppermost in a writer’s mind. Agriculture will have influenced that planet’s landscapes. Food and drink will be an integral part of the culture our story is based on. Who eats first in a hierarchical society? Who gets the biggest cut and who gets only the scraps?
Is drinking alcoholic beverages a sin, a feat of prowess for manly men or a confounded nuisance for those who have to enforce the law?
If this article has provided you with a morsel of culinary inspiration for your next novel, be sure to pass it on. Spice up your romance with mulled wine; remove greasy burger taste from your Belgium detective’s palate. Serve him cuisine à la bière with a steaming bowl of mussels with frieten instead, adding a glass of Liefmans, brewed in Flanders since 1679, for a refreshing aftertaste. Squirt a little wine into your heroine’s barley water to mellow the minx.
Bon appetite, writers!
(picture credits: all animation sourced via heathersanimations.com,
Picture 1: Nuremberg sausages, By Gerbis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13280953
Picture 2: Stralsunder Brewery, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9768916
Picture 3: promotional Sailing Glass/Segelglass identity for Klaas Stoertebeker lager, Bild Segelglas als Identitätsmerkmal der Biermarke Störtebecker, von Günter Haase – Eigenes Werk, CC-BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40978499)