By Nancy J. Cohen
Culinary themes are popular in genre fiction. Witness the many mystery or romance novels where the protagonist is a baker, chef, or caterer. Scenes often take place in coffee shops, restaurants, or kitchens because people socialize around meals. Your romantic couple gets to know each other over dinner, or your sleuth subtly questions a suspect over a slice of pie at the diner. Apparently, readers never tire of these tropes. So how can you work food into your story without it being the central theme or main character’s occupation?
1. Set scenes between family members or friends in the kitchen. Have them chat while preparing a meal, gathering items for a holiday feast, or setting out a cup of coffee and a piece of Aunt Marie’s famous peach cobbler.
2. Weave memories into your protagonist’s mind that center around food and provide backstory at the same time. For example, passing by a food market brings the scent of cinnamon to the air. The heroine reminisces about how her sister loved to buy those cinnamon-scented brooms for Christmas. Her house smelled like cinnamon, too, when she baked her apple crumb cake. Sadly, the last time they were together… well, you get the idea.
3. For a fun variation, switch up our gender expectations. Make the man the gourmet cook and the woman a klutz in the kitchen. Perhaps to win his heart, she attempts to make his favorite dish even though she knows she’ll probably fail. But love is worth the risk, yes? Or maybe your serial killer in a thriller enjoys making pumpkin pancakes. Challenge us with the unexpected.
4. Make your reader’s mouth water with your food descriptions. If you describe the heroine melting a square of semisweet chocolate in a small pot, I’ll bet many of us can almost taste that chocolate on our tongues. Or maybe she’s assembling dinner and frying onions. Familiar actions involving food will elicit a desired response. Appeal to the five senses and remember that smell plays a large role in taste.
5. Give your characters food quirks. Maybe when nervous, the best friend chews on a stick of red licorice. Or your heroine fumbles for a mint in her purse when she’s unsure of herself. The hero loves beef jerky, which makes his non-meat eating girlfriend wrinkle her nose. Also, how do certain foods showcase your character’s heritage? Perhaps your heroine likes a cool bowl of borscht on a hot summer day because her grandmother from Russia used to serve it. Or she grew up in an Italian family, and pasta is her go-to dish of choice.
6. Regional foods can enhance your setting. What special foods are popular in the community where you’ve set the story? In the deep South, for example, grits are a common staple on the breakfast menu. Or gator bites might be offered as a dinner appetizer. Use food to flavor your story with items distinctive to the locale.
7. Add recipes of dishes you’ve mentioned in the story as bonus material in the back of your book. Readers love recipes, and they’ll keep your book in mind when they make one of yours.
Social occasions very often revolve around food. By paying attention to this aspect of our lives, you can spice up your novel with memorable sensory experiences.
Nancy J. Cohen writes The Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. Titles in this series have been named Best Cozy Mystery by Suspense Magazine, won a Readers' Favorite gold medal, placed first in the Chanticleer International Book Awards and third in the Arizona Literary Awards. Nancy’s instructional guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery, was nominated for an Agatha Award, earned first place in the Royal Palm Literary Awards and won a gold medal at the President’s Book Awards. When not busy writing, Nancy enjoys cooking, fine dining, cruising, visiting Disney World, and shopping. Social Media links: Website: https://nancyjcohen.com Blog: https://nancyjcohen.com/blog Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyJCohenAuthor