Margaret Mizushima is the author of the Timber Creek K-9 series of police procedurals. You can visit her website here, find out more about her here, read her last post here, and see her books here.
I’ve attended writing conferences and workshops since before the turn of the century. Until about ten years ago, writing teachers would advise us to never bore our readers with descriptions of food and drink. “Don’t show your characters eating,” they said. “No one wants to read about that.”
Enter the age of cozy mysteries! An intrepid group of mystery writers gave birth to a genre that in part focuses on food, drink, recipes, and cooking; and the cozy genre proliferation and popularity proves how much readers really do want to know what their favorite characters are eating and drinking. Lattes, hot chocolate, wine, cocktails? Nowadays even the characters in gritty thrillers are sharing their favorite foods and beverages with readers.
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Walker via Zoom for Old Firehouse Books in Ft. Collins, Colorado. (See Old Firehouse Books Facebook page for the video dated March 17, https://www.facebook.com/oldfirehousebooks.) Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police mysteries are set in the Perigord region of France where pre-historical artifacts abound and French cuisine reigns. He weaves French food, wines, gardening, and cooking into his mysteries for such an enjoyable read.
I love the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries and delight each time protagonist Kinsey Millhone makes her signature peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. She serves them on a napkin for efficient clean up. It’s so much fun when Kinsey ventures to her friend Rosie’s neighborhood café for dinner where Rosie serves the evening special, a variety of dishes from her homeland in Poland, my most memorable being a savory combination of pigs feet and cabbage.
In my Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries, protagonist Deputy Mattie Cobb finds her comfort food in the kitchen of Mama T, her foster mother who stirs love into every pot of her green chili with pork. They share homemade flour tortillas and huevos rancheros on Sunday mornings and occasionally make tamales at Mama T’s kitchen table. And when Mattie eats at the local Main Street Diner, she orders a hamburger, fries, and a milkshake.
I love the trend for authors to include different foods, types of drink, and cooking in their books. Authors, what do your characters eat and drink? And readers, what do your favorite characters partake?
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I always love those “rules” about writing. Don’t ever do this, then somebody does it and it works. As for what my characters eat, I have one who will eat just about anything and usually in quantity. She’s paired against a guy who not only has to watch his weight, but has a tetchy stomach and insists on eating healthy all the time. I go more into the food in that series (Operation Quickline) because it’s easier to describe. In my historicals, it can be a bit tough to figure out what folks were eating at home.
Such a great idea to pair a foodie with a non-foodie and let them work their issues out together, Anne! I see your point about historicals, especially when you want to go beyond venison stew. 🙂
Margaret — What a fun post!
As both a reader and a writer, I love it when authors include different foods and drinks in their books.
In my books, the Sean McPherson suspense/thriller novels, the writers in residence at Pines & Quill writing retreat get to enjoy meals that Niall MacCullough, the owner, serves up alongside a paired wine.
And I loved reading the descriptions of all of those wonderful meals. I think I enjoyed it as much as the characters in Indelible did! I only wish I could go stay at Pines & Quill for a week.
Great post! I find it’s a balance and depends on the sub-genre. For my action-packed thrillers, it’s fun to include a few tidbits, like my main protagonist, Maddy Marshall, enjoys chocolate, but as a reader I find too much focus on food slows down the story.
Yes, as a thriller writer I imagine you enjoy the action and like a fast pace in the stories you like to read. I do too, but when I find myself reading a cozy, I do like the descriptions of the food. And I’m with Maddy! I like chocolate too!
In the Fudge Shop Mystery Series my characters live in an area replete with a lot of Scandinavians and Belgians (Door County, Wisconsin). That means food has to be in my books, including a lot of fish dishes, hearty soups and stews (booyah), cheeses, pies, plenty of chocolate and of course beer. Recently I read a fabulous literary and first novel called BLACK CAKE, in which the recipe for a black cake holds together the entire plot and emotional growth or makeup of all the characters. The book uses both male and female POVs, and moves back and forth in time seamlessly. The book is by Charmaine Wilkerson. I recommend it highly, especially for new writers who want to see how a single recipe can bind a plot together.
Christine — Ohhhhh, I’m checking BLACK CAKE out! Thank you for the tip!
Oh wow! BLACK CAKE sounds fascinating! Thanks for mentioning it. I love the food included in the Fudge Shop Mysteries!
Delicious post, Margaret! I know kids love to read about food. So, in my Botanic Hill Detectives Mysteries, two of the four detectives are food focused: Moki Kalani, who is a foodie, loves to cook, but mainly loves to eat–anything! His signature dish Coconut-Pineapple Upside-Down Cake appears in three of their four cases to date; and, Rani Kumar, who is a synesthete, tastes words, so food discussions are meshed into her character and the plot. Moki, in particular, thinks Rani’s synesthesia could help her solve mysteries. In my Book 3, I put the characters’ recipes in the back matter as a bonus for my kid and adult readers. Thanks for your post!
And thanks for your comment, Sherrill. The way you’ve woven such an interesting characteristic into one of your characters is terrific! I’m sure the recipes in your books are a big hit!
I love Mama T’s cooking. It adds–well, flavor, to your chapters, and is never overdone. As for Detective Parrott in my series, he likes food, but often goes hungry (and sleep-deprived) when he is on a tough case.
Thank you, Saralyn. Like Detective Parrott, Mattie sometimes goes without food and has to keep running on coffee and energy bars. But I thought that wasn’t nearly as interesting as Mama T’s cooking 🙂
Detective Gabriel McRay cooks gourmet food as a hobby, although he’s been known to chow down on Tommy’s burgers and from food trucks. Fun post!
Thanks, Laurie. It’s fun to hear about what the various detectives, both professional and amateur, eat in our Blackbirds’ books. Food trucks are fun!
I love the scenes when Mama T cooks! I can smell the aromas of her cooking and feel the warmth of her love coming out of the pages.
My character’s foods shift with her mood. When she is happy and content in England, she always orders tea. When she misses her home in America, she wants coffee. And when she’s really sad, a caramel macchiato with her mom.
Thanks for your comment, Sharon! I like that your character’s drink preference shifts with her emotions, and her drink choices make perfect sense to me!
Love this blog. It’s true. Beloved characters become friends. We miss them when apart. Most authors publish one book every year or so. When the new book comes out, I want to “catch up’ with my old friends and that happens with a meal. Food choices give us insight to characters. Why do they choice the foods they eat? Do they eat meat or are they vegan?? Choices of ‘comfort’ foods also tell part of them. I use food to help place readers in the country my two main characters are in. “Live and eat like locals” was the best travel advice I was given.
That’s what I enjoyed about your Novice Mystery set in Ireland. Loved the way you wove the meals into the story and even set up a little competition between two of the pubs. Very fun and gives you a taste of the Irish food.
Sometimes I’ll try to pair a food or drink to a character as another clue to their personality or mood. In the historical passages, I try to use a food that’s regional or from the period. In my McKinney stories, he, like me, enjoys a gin and tonic or a class of red wine. I’m glad you brought this up. It’s one of those topics that can add a lot to the writing but no one ever discusses.
It’s good when our characters like the same foods and drinks that we do. Then we can add variety and details that come from our lives as well. Thanks for your comment, Tim!
For me, in a scene where food and drink are mentioned in more detail than just in passing, I want there to be a good reason for it, not just to describe the menu. One author who comes to mind has a female attorney character character who constantly seems to talk about what she eats and drinks (always alcohol), and also what she is wearing for good measure. It’s done so often, it became annoying. Happily, in this author’s other series, she doesn’t do the same. When done well and in context, it can add to the scene.
Great comment, Sheila! It’s a good reminder for me not to get repetitive in this area of my writing as well as within the action scenes and the plots. I do like the way food and drink add to the scene and think that it needs to be woven in well and organic to the story.
Love the addition of food as a reader. As a writer, I find it intimidating. I guess as long as I don’t have to come up with a recipe. 🙂
As a non-cook, I know exactly what you mean. I had to come up with a recipe for an interview once. Luckily my husband is a great cook and he could come up with one. Another example of how we as writers gain support from our village.
Delicious post! As Sherrill said. Mama T’s dishes make my mouth water! I love to see what characters are eating as long as it doesn’t interfere with the plot. I’m curious about Black Cake-the book mentioned by Christine. Wilhelmina Green, the character in my romantic suspense is a terrible cook because she’s spent the last ten years becoming the hottest defense lawyer in Chicago. So when her lover Jonathon Heun takes her out to some of the top five-star restaurants in the city, she eats it up! (literally!) I love looking at their menus and choosing for her. I’m arm-chair-eating what my characters eat!
That’s so awesome, Tracey! And I’m sure looking at those menus also makes your mouth water. Hard to do without getting hungry. Wouldn’t it be great fun to go to Chicago and actually order the same meal Wilhelmina does? I’d like to do that someday.