Monday, March 27, 2017

How Much is Too Much?

By Vicki Delany

No, not sex. See Donis and Barbara above.

But food.

It sometimes seems that in cozy mysteries there is no such thing as too much food description.  Many of them even come with recipes to match those delicious, enticing meals or treats consumed in the course of the book.

My own cozies don’t have recipes, but they do have a reasonable amount of eating.  My characters like to eat; I like to eat; and food provides an opportunity for atmosphere and description.  
In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, it’s no coincidence that the business next door is Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room. Some of the action takes place in the tea room kitchen as scones, sandwiches, and fruit tarts are prepared, or in the dining room over same.  With a ‘steaming’ cup of tea as well.

Which, btw, I have sworn off. I am so tired of books in which every hot drink is described as ‘steaming’  (every time the character lifts the mug) that I swore I would never use it.

Come to think of it even my non-cozies books at least describe the meals people might be sitting down to. Food can be a clue to a character’s character.  In the Constable Moly Smith series Sgt. John Winters takes his coffee black, no sugar.  Molly Smith doesn’t drink coffee. She likes a hot chocolate with plenty of whipped cream in the winter, and a cup of hot tea in the summer.

Not a steaming cup, mind you.

But, like everything in life, it’s possible to use food too much. There are certainly books in which the details of every single meal threatens to drown out the action or character development.  I am thinking of one very popular non-cozy series in which I finally said, out loud, just get on with it.
If you can have too much, can you have not enough?

And this is what promoted me to write about this today.  I have been reading My Brilliant Friend by Ellena Ferrante for my book club (I had to really, really struggle to get though it). The book is set in Naples in the 1950s and is about the lives of two young girls.

There is not one description of food. Not one. Once in a while the girls will go for a pizza with their friends. And that’s it.  At one point, they go to a restaurant for the first time in their lives. This is a very big deal, and they are nervous because they are worried about how much it’s going to cost.  

What did everyone order?  I haven’t a clue, because it wasn’t even mentioned.  Did what they had taste good?  I don’t know because we weren’t told.

What about back at home? Not a peep.  Lots of lines like, “I made breakfast,” to which I was screaming, “And what did you make for breakfast!”

I would have loved to have known what a lower class family in Napes had to eat.  

The final scene is at a wedding.  A big reception with the entire neighbourhood in their best clothes, fancy tables, dancing. Did they have food at the wedding?

I don’t know. She didn’t tell us if they ate, much less what they ate.

Out of all my criticism of that book, that's the point that stands out for me. In not describing food, Ferrante didn't fully describe the lives and times of her characters. 

There, I fixed it for her. 

Image result for pasta images


Sybil Johnson said...

I have to admit I'm getting tired of too much food description in some books. But, you're right, sometimes it would be nice to know what they eat. BTW, I attended an Italian wedding outside of Rome in the 1980s. 14 courses of yummy, yummy food. I remember several pasta courses, followed by various meat courses. What seemed like never ending food. And you didn't know how many courses there were going to be until you were finished. What an experience!

Aline Templeton said...

I too have heard too much about what characters are eating. It's like those strange people who take a photo of their plate of food in a restaurant - does anyone want to see them? I have to say I love Elena Ferrante and 'pizza' is enough to give me a mental picture. But I also love Andrea Camilleri's books where the greedy Captain Montalbano's meals are almost another character!