What’s Cooking: The Importance of Food in Life and in Writing

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Editor's Note:

Stacey Ballis is the author of ten foodie novels and is a contributing author to three nonfiction anthologies: Girls Who Like Boys Who Like BoysEverything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, and Living Jewishly. Her latest book, How to Change a Life, will be released August 15th. Stacey joins Signature to discuss how food inspires all aspects of her writing, from start to finish.

As a writer of culinary fiction, novels with strong food themes, I’m often asked, “Why food?” What is it about food that is so important to me that it becomes a driving force in the narrative arc of my work? Why does food and cooking become effectively another character in my books?

The answers are at once simple and complex. On the surface, the simplicity. I am passionate about food, about cooking and eating, and it is always much more fun to write about things that inspire you in your real life and let them inspire your fictional characters.

The other layers are where it gets complicated.

First off, as people we make a minimum of 200 independent decisions about food every day. Am I hungry? What should I eat? How will I access the food I am eating? How will the pleasure principle play a role or not? What does the food make me feel? Every time you walk into the break room at work, you are making food decisions. Am I going to have coffee or tea or a cold beverage? Are there donuts on the table and am I going to eat one/eat four/eat none? Think about how many food decisions you make at one meal at a restaurant while perusing the menu! Every item you read, you are making choices, yes/no/maybe/perhaps with a bit of personalization or alteration for my taste. A basic cheeseburger can involve up to twenty or more independent decisions! (I like mine medium rare on a toasted bun with American cheese and bacon and grilled onions with dill pickles, lettuce and ketchup and extra crispy tater tots on the side.)

Our relationship with food is one of the most important of our lives and I have always believed that the way we cook and eat, the way we feed ourselves and the people around us is one way to show who someone is at their core. The old phrase is You are what you eat, and I amend this to say that you are what and how you eat and cook. When I’m developing a character, one of the first things I have to think about is, How does this person eat, what is their relationship with food? If I tell you that someone eats the identical meals every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you will start to get an image in your head of who that person is versus someone who never eats the same meal twice in a month. Someone who hears of a friend in crisis and immediately starts cooking for them is a different person than the friend who books a spa treatment. I have no judgment around food, everyone has their own eating journey, but I do find it a very useful tool in helping my readers get to know my characters in intimate ways. And if one of my heroines has a weird snack they love, like using potato chips to scoop up cottage cheese, I can guarantee that someone will reach out to me to confess that is their favorite snack too! Those connections between reader and fictional character are the difference between an okay read and a little bit of magic.

Sometimes the way my characters cook and eat can also be a driving force in the plot. Whether it is watching a woman who has lost half her body weight come to terms with her new healthy eating program, as in Good Enough to Eat, or watching a woman who has lost everything and can’t boil water teach herself how to cook as part of putting her life back together, as in Recipe for Disaster, or even watching a guy who only eats eleven things force himself to open up and try some new dishes to support his friend, as in Out to Lunch, food becomes part of the storyline in a fundamental way.

Which I suppose is why, when I want to know what is going on in a friend’s life, I always ask them, “What’s cooking?” Because for me, that tells me everything I need to know.