There’s a trick to grinding spices in the mortar with a pestle. You don’t actually want to use much pressure, at least not with marble, which is what I am using. Just let the weight of the pestle do the work, and rub downward into the bowl. Every so often I tip the mortar a bit to get the spices back down from the walls, and keep going. It’s slow, contemplative work, but rewarding as it smells amazing and that’s worth the extra fuss and bother. That, and a fresh grind before baking a spice cake makes such a difference it’s like night and day to the stale mix-in-a-box.
I’ve been binge reading Alma Boykin’s Familiar series, trying to catch up on it. I wasn’t reading a lot, at least not fiction, while I was doing a lot of studying for new career path starting about two years ago, now. One of the things that comes up in her books, in a very real way, is food. It resonates with me, that take on cooking, gardening, and even some of the ranch stuff, although at most we’ve had small farms with market gardens in my life. It’s not easy work. It’s worth it, though. There are times I almost miss it. Especially the eggs, since they are running $5 a dozen in stores right now. I have to remind myself that it takes 6-8 months to get a laying flock up to speed, and I have neither the facilities, nor the time, nor really the inclination, to keep chickens again.
I’m spending my day with a very large piece of meat, smoking it until I think all the flavor has been infused it will take, and then bringing it to the appropriate temperature, low and slow. It’s a patient art, smoking. One that I’m rarely inclined to indulge in these days. Not that I don’t want to. I really do love the way these things come out. It’s more that I currently lack the equipment to do it right, and what I am doing is tedious and tricky since I’m working with the wrong tools. You can do it the way I am – a small grill with offset smoker box, in December with the temps at time of start below freezing – it’s just not easy. Sometimes, doing it the hard way is necessary. Me, this was a choice. Characters in a story? Are likely to be working with what the constraints of the story hand them.
The other thing about this? I’m working deliberately and slowly towards a big family meal. Sure, it’s the North Texas Troublemakers supper, but it’s a family gathering in style and feeling. I only do this once a month. If I had to cook like this every day I’d do nothing else but cook and clean. The farmwife in me remembers. I don’t have the time to indulge in this often, even if it is in my blood and bone to do so. I don’t miss it, truly. I just have happy memories alongside the ones that involve cold, mud or worse, and things I’ll not mention before I’d had my breakfast.
In writing, you can talk about food, and the preparation for it. Working together in the kitchen is a bonding experience, done well. It could be boring – and I have had a reviewer remark on how food makes it into my stories too often in his opinion – but it can also show the character’s background. What you make, and how you make it, reveals a lot about your upbringing and past. In my case, my education, oddly enough. I’ve chosen to learn how to make cuisines, and understand the flavors and how they are created, that I was never exposed to when I was a girl. I also find myself chuckling at the meme about cooking versus baking. You can actually bake by feel. I do it. Yes, precise measurement is important. There are recipes where I weigh everything. But even there, I have some wiggle room, because I understand what’s going on, and if I want to change something, to push a flavor or a texture… I can. I’ve done it enough. If you write a character doing that, though, there had better be a reason for it. You can’t have someone raised on microwave meals baking at that level without some serious learning.
Some stories, you can focus lovingly on the food. In fact, you should, in ones that involve familial closeness and family growth. Others, you want to bring it up little, if at all. One thing about food is that it’s a great shortcut to revealing a lot about a character.
What’s your comfort food? Why? What do you write into your stories about food, and why?
Oatmeal cookies with walnuts (NO raisins!). Mom used to make these gigantic cookies. I’d regularly grab one or two for breakfast, along with a glass of milk
And soup! I don’t have to make homemade, except for potato soup. Otherwise, canned is good enough.
Food is an important part of our lives, and it can reveal a lot about the world and the characters to the reader in a subtle way. As it happens, I am going over a group of my stories for a new collection, and the worlds involved are very different, so let me give some examples.
Erik Rugar is a bachelor cop and neither cooks for himself nor has time to eat at dine in restaurants most of the time, so he’s always grabbing sandwiches from street vendors. This gives me the chance to stress the tech level, which is mid-1960s–no plastic, no microwaves, no drive through windows.
In another story, my characters are convicts living on a farming asteroid. They have lots of food, but it’s very dull. In fact, a major plot point is that they are seeking to raise production to the point where Earth sends them spices and coffee and chocolate, which they are unable to grow.
For one of the stories I spent a long time down an internet rabbit hole trying to figure out how someone would make pasta in zero gravity and with a low pressure atmosphere. (It is doable, but explaining the process clearly enough to make it believable without bogging down the scene in a thermodynamics lesson took some doing).
Comfort food? Country Captain (a hybrid curry from British India), mac-n-cheese (elbow) and tapioca pudding. There are some foods that I feel nostalgia for, but I suspect that my childhood memory is rather different from the real thing. They are poverty foods, things like tuna-peas-n-rice casserole, beans-n-bacon on toast (back when bacon was cheap, as were bricks of cheddar cheese), stuff my parents seem to have banished from the kitchen when I was about ten or eleven.
The current WIP involves food triggering memories. Which meant hunting up recipes, because of COURSE the cookbook I need has disappeared again. I’m starting to think that volume was typeset by a printer’s devil . . .
Meals are such a convenient setting for writers that they’re hard to avoid, and kitchen scenes are just as good.
What surprises me, however, is how little is made of smells. Maybe I just go through life nose-first, but I’m always noticing scents, and my fictional characters do, too. Scent is such an important (sometimes subliminal) driver of human behavior. You may seek out a sexual partner with your eyes, but it takes your nose to really seal the deal.
It really is important. The spice grind earlier, the pervasive smoked meat smell in the house (and yard!) currently, the cake cooling on the table. My poor son wandering around lamenting loudly that he’s working until 8 this evening and won’t get to enjoy this meal hot and fresh…
“What about that poblano cream sauce you keep mentioning . . .” My husband expects me to make everything I mention in my books . . . even if it’s something I had in a restaurant!
And meals are so handy for a writer. Social signaling, family fights . . .
Well, there is a Nero Wolf cookbook (I snagged a copy). Maybe your husband wants a Pam Uphoff cookbook, and he gets to be the tester?
No, I don’t usually use smell at all. Should consider that more. Sorry if I double posted above. Not getting feedback that it posted.
No, I don’t usually use smell at all. Should consider that more. Sorry if I double posted above. Not getting feedback that it posted.
Tried to post excerpt from WIP about Romans and bread. Did it get stuck somewhere?
I don’t see it, sorry.
Cookie recipes are very flexible and forgiving.
In January of 2020 (the post Christmas 75% off sale) when I expected to do lots more baking, I bought about 15 of those 4 oz tubs of candied lemon peel, candied orange peel, and candied citron. Yes, I know how to do it but I didn’t have time.
So here I was, two years later and had to deal with them. The Rich Roll cookie on page 711 of the Joy of Cooking (1975) is easy to modify.
Quadruple the recipe, add many more eggs (8 or 9 in all), appropriate flavorings and cardamom, some milk to make it possible to stir, some baking powder for a bit of a rise, and all the candied citrus peel.
Make teaspoon-sized balls (the kind you eat with, not measuring spoons), roll in sugar, and bake.
The Lemon Drop cookies came out excellent and I had plenty to give away.
I used to bake dozens of varieties of cookies with my best friend, but we’re both older, fatter, and I flirt with the evil genie, Diabetes.
So no more cookies or fruitcake (heavenly when you make them yourself) as I have no self-control.
When I was still in “everyone’s place to visit for holidays” mode, I used to take the Scandinavian Coffee Cake recipe from The Joy of Cooking and use up all the non-citrus leftover jams for the year. Add enough brown sugar, and that recipe could handle anything.
From WIP. Roman soldiers on the march had to grind the grain for, and make their own bread.
The most senior squad member squatted down and watched Illos with the mortar and pestle. He would have let him alone, but the last batch of travel bread the kid had made had been hard to eat.
“Okay,” said Nones. “Hold the pestle like this… Yes, that’s good… Now see how I use it to gather the grain… and then, like this….”
He watched Illos, repositioned his hand once, and made comments. “Yes, like that. You got it. When you’ve got it all ground, add the milk and salt, and then I’ll go over the kneading with you.”
Illos looked up at Nones. The oldest of them, this was his sixth campaign. It was odd to see him, terse and battle hardened, doing such women’s work so easily and matter-of-factly. To see the hand that thrust the short sword grinding grain.
In one piece I wrote, the heroine wasn’t much of a cook, so her fallback was tuna. Fortunately, her husband liked tuna… but his favorite food was pizza. This was a fanfic and I really liked his fondness for pizza (not an original aspect of the character), because it was kind of endearing. He was such a stoic and I felt that this humanized him.
The location of meals is also helpful to set the stage. This couple moved from the big city to a small-town area, and in one chapter they go to dinner at an old-fashioned supper club. I had fun throwing in the details of that setting, like flocked wallpaper!
As for my favorite food… all of them, but I really like my mom’s deviled eggs. Most of my favorite foods are family traditions and they remind me of her.
Speaking of Twitch, he was approaching with a table marker and five drinks. “Coffee for me, Coffee for AJ, peppermint tea for you, love, with a touch of honey, and going by that cloud of silk and sparkles, you’d either like a mocha, or some lemonade.” He placed both in front of Jenna with raised eyebrows and a direct stare daring her to prove him wrong.
“Depends on what food is coming. They’re both lovely.” She took the lemonade, and sipped. “Gah! Did they forget they’re supposed to cut the sugar syrup with water?” It was so sweet it made her teeth ache.
“Ooh, let me try!” Lizzes reached for the drink and tried it, and smiled. “That’s wonderful!”
“It’s all yours.” Jenna held up her hands, palms out and warding off any attempt to return the drink. She picked up the mocha which was almost bitter by comparison, sucking it down to clear her mouth of the sickly sweet acid.
AJ reached over and snagged the drink, taking a sip, and returned it. Jenna watched him, wondering if he had a sweet tooth. But he frowned slightly, then said, “They cut it 50-50. It needs at least 80 percent filtered water for textbook dilution. We ran it 95-5, unless we needed emergency glucose.”
“Everything here is sugar-saturated except the sandwiches. I will be extremely disappointed if they sweetened the soup.” Twitch rattled his fingers on the table, looking out at the crowd. “It’s not that hard to get food right.”
Lizzes was frowning, but before she could interject, AJ let out a small laugh. It was barely audible above the crowd noise, but startlingly loud, for him. He turned to Jenna, and indicated Twitch with a small jerk of his head. “He says that, after a full career of eating army rations.”
The teasing got a predatorial grin in response. “Or whatever I could catch and cook, when I couldn’t even get those! And I do a mean chili with foraged pequin and snake.” Twitch tapped his nose, and pointed at AJ with a teasing grin. “At least I had that option. You couldn’t get out of the ship and hunt things down.”
AJ inclined his head, letting him win that one.
I was attempting to use this to show the different personalities and how they mesh, via reactions to lemonade. Because food isn’t just food; it’s how people perceive the food.
Ah, the joys of Fourth World cuisine……
I have a recurring character in the ‘Republic of Texas Navy’ novels, Chief Steward Abraham Jackson, who is a major foodie and always on the lookout for new recipes. He also likes showing off Texas cuisine to foreign guests.
In A Princess Seeks Her Fortune, Princess Alissandra turns into Alissandra Baker when she runs away from home.
Something about the enormous batches tones down her personal reactions, but she has some.
Comfort food: Curry, pot roast, shepherd’s pie, that pub pie James May made on his goofy cooking show (meat-and-potatoes meals are always welcome on my plate!)
I still love reading superhero comics. I guess it’s a bit of a childish way to spend my time, but I just love the feel of the paper in my hands, the smell of it, the art (I have several favorites), the over-the-top-dramatic stories where the whole world/the universe/time itself is in jeopardy. What does this have to do with food? Well, there’s a guy I used to watch who reviewed comics who pointed out that in a superhero adventure story, one of the last things you want your characters doing is sitting around eating food. And in so many superhero adventure comics over the past decade, they have their muscle-bound, action-oriented characters sitting around eating food. After watching his reviews I’ve tried to avoid having my characters sitting around eating. No one wants to watch Spider-Man sit down with J Jonah Jameson to talk about their feelings over quiche and wine, so I’ve had my characters doing their navel gazing while shopping, practicing batting with a pitching machine, dancing at a club, etc. Anything to avoid a meal scene. But I haven’t been able to completely, and now…
Now I come here and read this beautifully written piece about food and I realize I’ve been neglecting something that could really add some meat to the potatoes of my story. I’ve read that we take our sense of smell completely for granted, and that it ties your brain to memories better than almost any of our other senses. Like, every time I smell cut grass I remember my early teen years spending my summer with my friends cutting grass for money to spend on (of course) comic books. Cut grass and lawnmower exhaust. Curry reminds me of when my wife and I first started dating in college. It was the first thing she made for us to eat together (in Japan a girl is supposed to make nikujaga, a winner of a meat-and-potatoes dish that, when done right, is delicious in a very Japanese way, for her boyfriend as a first home-cooked meal together, but when she tried making it for me (some time after introducing me to curry) it was a terrifying failure because she used the wrong ingredients), and smelling it even now reminds of me of our wonderful, poverty-stricken college days in our tiny one-window apartment watching DVDs (Brian dePalma’s Femme Fatale in particular for reasons I can’t fathom). So there’s gold to mine with meals, so long as I can figure out how to do it right. I’ve been treating them as an afterthought for too long…
Chicken and dumplings.
I like food scenes because they are (usually) “normal”. In a book bursting with action, there needs to be something that grounds it. One of the Davinci Code books takes place in about 24 hours. Not one of the characters eats, sleeps, finds a bathroom, drinks a glass of water; none of that. It’s just go, go, go. People don’t do that.