Friday, September 16, 2016

Feeding the Crowds

When Shelley Workinger wrote to ask if I’d be interested in riffing about food in my novels, I thought it was a great idea. Food is a crucial part of life—culture, history, family—so it plays an important role in my books, as it does in most fiction. How better to illustrate alienation and homesickness than by having a character yearn for spices in a dining room filled with the odor of overcooked cabbage? How better to show cultural difference than introducing a bowl of lemons that some characters take for granted while others stare in awe or confusion? I was warming up my typing fingers within minutes, ready to show those lemons lighting up the room with their bright yellow zest and perfuming the air.

Then Shelley told me she wanted to feature Kingdom of the Shades. Now I love all my novels, like any proud “mother,” and Kingdom has a special resonance for me. Still, it does star a ballerina—and ballerinas aren’t exactly known for their devotion to food. At first crack, I couldn’t think of a single food-related scene, other than a moment when Choli, the young girl whose curiosity kicks off the series, finds herself wrestling with a machine’s idea of hot peppers (homesickness, again). “Don’t you want me to write about the Russian novels instead?” I pleaded. “Lots of food there.”

No. Kingdom was a better fit for the blog as a whole. I could use the issue of food as a springboard, she said, to discuss the characters and the series. Okay. I love a challenge, but I had to scratch my head about this one for a while. I could start with not eating, I supposed, or fudge a bit and dip into Desert Flower, the first Tarkei Chronicle, for live spaghetti and dinner-plate-sized donuts.

Then I opened the book—Kingdom of the Shades, that is—and the first thing that caught my eye was chapter 3. It begins: 

The soup glowed virulently orange in the murky light that crept through the restaurant windows. Danion, [hero] regarding the dish with controlled distaste, vacillated between a scientist’s curiosity and simple disgust. Where was his Pannthu friend, Thuja, when he needed her? He had watched her eat even more revolting concoctions than this.

In his efforts to avoid eating this abominable dish (which his protegé eagerly devours, proclaiming it “just like Mama used to make”), Danion triggers a series of events that pitchfork him onto what he first believes to be Memory Lane. In fact—because this is a novel—he is facing a call to action that will drag him off on an emotional journey and drop him into a moral quandary that requires 300+ pages to sort out.

As I explored further, I found food popping up in the most unexpected places. As I stumbled over each new scene, I recalled writing it, of course. But what had stuck with me (and this is my book!) were the characters, the plot, the theme. The food blends into the backdrop, where it nestles among costumes and settings. Yet in its own way, it plays a crucial part in creating my story world, just as it does in my other, more obviously food-laden novels.

And in fact, my ballerina—Alessandra Sinclair, better known as Sasha—is not an anorexic cliché. She is slender but strong, and she has enough sense to know that even exercise can’t build powerful muscles in the absence of nutritious meals. The body will cannibalize itself for nutrients if you don’t supply the right ones on the right schedule. That’s why twenty-something dancers sometimes die of heart attacks. Sasha doesn’t indulge (most of the time), but she doesn’t count every calorie either. And that attitude reveals something about her essential self.

For the full post, see Shelley Workinger’s blog, “But What Are They Eating?” For more fun posts on food and its historical/cultural contexts, see “Medieval Blancmange and the Modern Classroom” and “Eat Your Primary Sources! Or, Teaching the Taste of History” the latest posts at the Recipes Project blog. (Who can resist titles like those?) And if you enjoy my Legends series, don’t miss the contributions on Russian Recipes, published by the Recipes Project in July 2014—especially “What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russia,” which examines the Domostroi—where, in fact, many of the dishes in my series originate.

And for an interview not related to food by one of my fellow-authors at Five Directions Press, check out what Gabrielle Mathieu, author of The Falcon Flies Alone, has to say to Eleanor Parker Sapia on The Writing Life blog. I’ll be featured there, too, next month.

And last but—as they say—not least, don’t miss our monthly “Books We Loved” post over at Five Directions Press. As fall closes in and the evenings get longer and colder, a cup of hot cocoa and a good book look better and better!

Images from Clipart: dancers at the barre no. 32254285; soup (enhanced in Photoshop) no. 30717342.

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