Fictional feasts -why do we love them? It’s kind of funny, when one thinks about it. We can’t eat the food we read about, but it’s still an important part of the lives of the heroes and heroines in our favorite romance novels. Sometimes, the food is a character in itself, with hero or heroine who are cooks, chefs, bakers, home cooks, or foodies, the culinary arts part of their hearts and souls. Now that all who observe Thanksgiving are still dining on leftovers, it’s time to make room on our plates for those fictional feasts that bring our favorite romance novels to life. Who’s hungry?
The first question that comes to mind when discussing fictional feasts is why we find them compelling in the first place. Most of us have yet to see a scratch and sniff romance novel, and books certainly don’t come with snacks included (though that might not be a bad idea: just putting that out there) although some authors have been known to include a few sweet treats on their tables at book signings. So, what is it that draws us to food in fiction, and especially in romance?
It’s not that outrageous a question. Food is inherently sensual. When we eat, we take in multiple senses; the food is, ideally, visually appealing, it has temperature and texture, and, of course, taste. What else is inherently sensual, and features prominently in romance novels? Mmmhmm. Romantic dinners can bring both of these experiences together, whether it’s at the start of a relationship (first dates, anybody?) or an intimate moment between established, committed lovers, in kitchen, bedroom, or the great outdoors.
Food is also inherently emotional. Think of favorite comfort foods, which grace holiday tables in abundance. Creamy mashed potatoes with savory gravy, fresh-baked bread, the golden crust on macaroni and cheese, or a nourishing stew or morning bowl of oatmeal can soothe a broken heart, or show a parent’s love for their child (or the other way around; that works, too) or even provide a tender moment between lovers when one needs some extra tender loving care.
There’s also discomfort food; nervous snacking, food aversions, the awkwardness when offered food comes up against allergies or dietary restrictions, whether ethical or religious. We should also mention the characters who are not natural or talented cooks, and the discomfort this can bring to the characters who have to eat the fruits of their labors. Much better for the readers, though, because we get all of the benefits with none of the drawbacks.
Speaking of which, there’s one more asset to fictional food; fictional food has no calories. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Romance writers excel at description, and a well-written fictional meal can give us enough to remember or imagine the taste of every item on that table, without having to consider how this will affect our own fitness goals.
Fictional food can also take us on a journey. While most of us are not historical re-enactors or interpreters (but for those who are, that is extremely interesting, and very, very cool) nor have we traveled to every country on the globe, and certainly not to worlds that exist only the imagination of our favorite authors, but, again, when it’s done right, we can get, pardon the pun, a taste of dishes we would otherwise never experience.
Historical romance authors can save us a seat at the table of Queen Elizabeth I’s famous Twelfth Night revels, hand us a glass of the infamous watery lemonade at Almack’s, or give us the challenge of feeding dozens of hungry cowhands on whatever meager supplies happen to be on hand. Contemporary romance authors bring us into Michelin star kitchens, charming pastry shops, hometown diners, and family homes, with professionals and amateur cooks alike. Sometimes, we get a peek into the glamour and the grit of the restaurant industry, and, sometimes, we get to taste the decades of love that go into traditional family recipes, handed down through generations.
In books, as in life, the table is a place to gather, to form and further relationships, to nourish body, heart, and spirit. If the kitchen is the heart of the home, and romance is all about heart, well, the combination is as natural as bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, gingerbread and syllabub. Okay, we may need to do a little more research to find out if gingerbread really does go with syllabub, but that’s part of the fun of fictional foods. Once we know our favorite characters’ preferred dishes, if they aren’t already on our own menus, we can unleash the power of the internet, research librarians, or food-savvy friends and family, to bring at least that part of the books we love into our everyday lives. If we find we’ve found a new treat of our own, that’s yet another bond with the characters and their world, one more relationship formed, thanks to romance.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you like the inclusion of food in your romance novels? If so, why or why not? Do you like characters who cook, out of necessity, pleasure, or professionally? Do you have a favorite fictional meal, or know an author who describes food exceptionally well? Ever tried out a dish you’ve read about in a romance novel? If so, how did you like it? Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell use all about it. If you’d rather keep your romance and cuisine separate, we want to hear about that, too. there’s room for everybody at this table.