Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Your Soup Staring at You?

A young Brazilian friend, filling up on
rice and beans at lunch.
There was a chicken head in my soup.   Between the grains of rice and bits of tomato and parsley floating in the yellow broth, his unblinking eye looked up at me. While a chicken staring from the soup was no doubt perfectly normal to the Brazilian family at the next table, it was somewhat disconcerting to me, an American missionary. (My husband across the table pushed aside the clawed foot that reached for the sky from his own bowl.)

What do your characters eat? People in different places enjoy different foods. A hard boiled egg, aged to a mottled purple, brought back delightful childhood memories to my Chinese friend while I made it a point to breathe through my mouth. My friend assured me that what gets called “century eggs” these days weren’t really that old.  “Probably no more than forty.”

Century eggs
Foods are always an important part of culture.  If you are writing about another country, researching local foods is important. Within a country as large as the US, regional differences may give your writing authenticity or make it obvious to the reader that this writer doesn’t really know and thus invalidate your whole story.

For those of you living outside the US, making us smell and taste your foods in your writing (and creating the same emotional response you would have to it), is a good way to draw an American audience into your character’s world.  There is nothing like a Christmas cookout/braai/barbie at the beach to let your readers know they are not in Kansas.

Food preparation plays an important role in women’s socialization in many cultures. I once watched a Mozambican woman glide gracefully across our churchyard with a five-gallon kerosene can of water balanced on her head. Her arms swung easily at her sides, and she never spilled a drop. A little girl of about eight followed with a restaurant-size butter tin of water on her head, held with one hand. Behind the little girl came a toddler, clutching a soup can to her head with both hands. Water sloshed out at every step.

Me, trying my hand stamping grain in tandem
with the ladies at a church conference
Mozambican women spend hours stamping, winnowing and grinding grain to prepare the staple mealie porridge (hard corn meal mush to my Southern US friends). It is a daily activity for traditional Africans. Clusters of women gather in back yards to chat while they work. And if it is a conference, there will be a dozen women or more sharing tasks around several wood fires that give the food that smoky flavor I can’t replicate on the kitchen stove. An urban African woman with a fulltime job outside the home may well grab a bag of dry mealie flour at the supermarket, but she will undoubtedly lament that although it is quick, it doesn’t taste as good. And she will miss the socializing around the huge log mortars that she remembers from her childhood.

Food preparation can provide a background activity while your characters carry on a conversation that reveals character or moves your plot forward.  The preparation itself will give readers insights into the setting. The way a character wields a knife, pounds a chicken breast, or responds to a spilled glass of milk can demonstrate aspects of your characterization. (I once heard a lecture that defined spiritual gifts based on response to spilled milk. The giver says, “Don’t worry; there’s plenty more,” and jumps up to refill the glass. The helper grabs a cloth and mops up the spill. The encourager says, “That’s all right; I know you didn’t mean to spill it.” A teacher like me irritates her kids by saying, “Next time set your glass further back from the edge so you don’t bump it with your elbow.”)

Brazilian "salgadinhos" ready for a party
My teen novel Between Two Worlds includes a scene of food preparation for Brazilian-born Cristina’s longed-for fifteenth birthday party. In that scene I show the different reactions of characters to such a non-American event.  I was also able to bring out differences and similarities (pizza!) to a typical American teen party in a natural way.

So how have you used food in your writing?

If I were to write about your region, what are some foods or food-related activities I should mention to make my story sound authentic?


LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books for young people come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will impact lives. You can find out more about her books and travel adventures on her website and blog.


  1. I write contemporary fiction so would call the food my characters eat quite 'normal' but this makes me reflect that it may not seem at all normal to readers from other cultures.
    I don't think I could bring myself to bite into one of those century eggs, let alone dodge the chicken head.

  2. Normal for you, Paul, is not necessarily normal for your readers. You don't want to bog readers down in obvious detail, but even in contemporary fiction there is probably something associated with the location even if it is the favorite greasy hamburger with half a dozen toppings at the neighborhood bar and grill. Or the chocolate malt my husband and I stop for on a hot afternoon on the road. Not a shake. Not a soda. A chocolate malt.

  3. It's so true, LeAnne. The first place we take my Russian (adopted) grandson when he comes to visit is to the Little Russian grocery store. Food is always what immigrants miss most. And they so enrich a culture by starting ethnic restaurants and stores. There are days when I could kill for a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea--and I'm not even a native.

  4. I keep myself well-supplied with rooibos tea from South Africa, Arisco seasoning and packaged cheese bread from Brazil although I could make the latter from scratch if I had to. It's a good thing my husband travels so much!

  5. Oh LeAnne, This brings back memories of a different kind. Rob and I took our two teenaged sons on a luxury liner around the coast. The first evening, I ordered a "Seafood Cocktail" from the menu, anticipating some crayfish mayonnaise or shrimp cocktail. Instead I received a large bowl of indescribable fish "delicacies". What bothered me most was the host of eyes looking at me from all over the plate. I desperately tried to swallow a couple of mouthfuls, if only to stifle the hysterical laughter coming from my two boys. But I had to surrender. I like my food dead!