Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Food! Glorious Food! by Goldie Alexander

Recently, I came across an article dividing authors into two camps; those that include descriptions of food and those that don’t. Children’s authors tend to fall into the first camp, often using food as a way of illustrating character, plot and setting in their stories.

Lewis Carrol knew this. If the ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea-party’ in Alice in Wonderland was a sly dig at the middle-class, he also knew that some foods make us feel safe, as when Alice helped herself to some tea and bread and butter. Others do not, as Alice shrinks and grows, depending on which side of the mushroom she eats.

Poverty can mean 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 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 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 the much loved, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a caterpillar chomps his way through pears, plums, cherry pie, and then ends up with a stomach-ache. Yet he still emerges as a beautiful butterfly. Is there a moral here?

The Youngest Cameleer, a novel I set in 1873, illustrated two very different cultures through food. Ahmed is instructed to:
‘…tell Mr Gosse that there is plenty of ashak and pilaf for him.’
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.’
My problem was how to write about food without giving offence. What with so many people refusing to eat meat on ethical grounds, or restricted by religious belief, it was hard to strike a right note. Was it wise to only describe afternoon and morning teas which, hopefully, will offend no one? Not possible when writing historical fiction where I’m forced to ignore the ‘no meat’ rule and stick to facts.
In the lead story to my short story 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 story, Eside: A Journey Through Cyberspace, 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…

In my latest fantasy novel, Neptunia, food is used to show an old fashioned Australian meal served by an elderly woman, her "usual supper of a grilled chop, mashed potatoes and peas."

Traditional Jewish food is served in my latest Young Adult novel, That Stranger Next Door:
Our Saturday night meal usually included chicken soup with noodles, or cold roast leftovers. Sometimes a prune, carrot and honey bake called ‘tzimmes’, or a cold beetroot soup, borscht, served with hot boiled potatoes and dollops of sour cream. We usually had cake, sometimes a sultana and apple strudel, a honey cake, or even poppy-seed rolls. Instead of beer, we drank soda water. Papa called it ‘Jewish Champagne’.
So, my advice is to remember that food isn’t there just to keep the characters energised. It is used to symbolise whatever they 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.

Food is one of life’s great pleasures. 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.

About the Author

Goldie Alexander’s short stories articles and books for adults, young adults and children are published both here and overseas. For children she is best known for My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove, now in its 10th edition. Recent work for middle grade readers includes The Youngest Cameleer (about the finding of Uluru), eSide: A Journey into Cyberspace, the sci fi ‘Cybertrix 2043, and Neptunia.

Coming shortly for YA is That Stranger Next Door and In Hades. Her latest junior novel is Gallipoli Medals. Goldie facilitates creative writing workshops in schools, mentors emerging authors and runs classes in Writing Memoir. 

"When I was very young there wasn’t much around for kids to read. When I was very small I loved all Enid Blyton’s novels, the poetry of A.A. Milne, and the Anne of Green Gables series. As I grew a little older, most of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Very soon, I was reading adult fiction.

Recent titles I recommend for young readers include Margo Lanagan’s Seahearts, The Hunger Games and The Three Loves of Persimmon."

Her website is www.goldiealexander.com.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Goldie. A really interesting topic.

    I wrote this comment in my Friday recap but am copying it here for convenience:

    Maybe it is just that I'm greedy but I've always loved books with descriptions of food. Or maybe it's because I grew up on a diet (!) of Enid Blyton books and she was the inventor of wonderful sounding foods; from the cake boxes in the Mallory Towers series to toffee shocks in The Magic Farway Tree, to the sometimes stale but always delicious cake that Peter and Janet's mother gave them for Secret Seven meetings.

    Enid Blyton's descriptions of food never failed to make me want to live in her stories. Even the "lashings of ginger beer" used to celebrate victories in the Famous Five series sounded delicious - and I didn't like even ginger beer as a child.

    I had to think hard to find authors who don't include descriptions of food in their books. Then I remembered Patrick Ness (and felt a little relieved that not every book I've ever liked concerned food). Can you think of other authors who don't use food to develop plots, characters and settings in their stories?