This is no. 115 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I am unapologetic about my love of food—eating it, of course, but also enjoying depictions of it in art, cinema, music, and literature. I still think fondly of that pizza from A Goofy Movie with cheese so gooey it hangs in a bouncy ribbon from the slice. An absolutely ungodly image, that aspirational-yet-unattainable pizza. I love my art filled with this kind of spotlight on food, bringing it out of the background.
Though I guess this should have been an obvious area of interest to me in my own writing, it wasn’t until a friend in my writers group had remarked, “Chris loves a dinner scene,” that I realized, huh, I suppose I do. I love the opportunity to write about food itself, but not without the context surrounding its consumption. It’s fun to think about what might happen when characters are constrained by the space and timing of breakfast at a diner, say, or around a holiday table when families are at their absolute worst, or smashing McDonald’s fries in a parked car at a rest stop in the middle of a road trip.
I love thinking about food as a prop in my own writing, ensuring each crumb or rope of melted cheese is given its own narrative arc so that its appearance on the page becomes something more than just set dressing. What is said between each bite? What sounds will the silverware make? What can a character express through a well-timed sip? How will the presence of a member of the waitstaff disrupt the flow of conversation? Can a punch be successfully thrown without disturbing the place settings?
We bring our entire days to the table: stress, anxiety, exhaustion, anger, desperation, nerves, heartache, loneliness, joy. In the world of a story, a meal can become an oasis, or possibly a battleground for the characters. Maybe neither. Maybe, at times, both—a shifting landscape, a seesaw of power.
A meal scene can establish its characters’ deeper, visceral hunger. Take the opening scene from Justin Torres’s We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011): Three brothers bang their cutlery on the table, crying out for more food; they’re animalistic, they’re ravenous. There is also the matter of the food items themselves, how the characters wield them. Later in the novel, the brothers smear tomato guts and ketchup all over their mother at her request to make her look as they did when they were newborns, coated in slimy vernix caseosa. The scene combines youthful play with grotesque descriptions and an air of violence. They continue until she slips on the floor and the red condiment leaves her with what looks like a gunshot wound. As the boys stand over her, jumping and banging pots and pans, there’s been a power shift between mother and children.
I will always encourage lavish, delectable descriptions of food in fiction. It’s a source of fun, personally, to conjure food good enough to eat with words alone. Or to imagine disgusting, revolting food to cause the stomach to squirm. We should all play more with our food.
Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.Thumbnail: Pablo Pacheco