I have been thinking recently about food. In fact, I think about it far too much, as the shrinking clothes in my wardrobe will tell you, but that’s not what I meant. I have been thinking about humanity and food, and the way we really, really enjoy making a meal of things. Sitting down with friends and family, and eating good food. This is not just about providing the fuel for living, but something much more fundamental.
I was reading the first proper novel in Western culture - The Odyssey - and I realised that the Greek heroes kept stopping the action to have barbecues. That’s right. Whenever they landed on a strange beach, the first item on the agenda was a barbecue. A funeral for an unfortunate colleague? Let’s have a barbecue. A ceremony to honour a God? Let’s sacrifice a sheep (and have a barbecue, of course). I’m afraid women did not feature at the feasts. They stayed in the tents and kept the bearskins warm for later.
All through history, the way kings and emperors celebrated their power and glory was by giving banquets. The bigger the Big Man, the bigger the feast, with tables groaning under weight of food and drink.
How does your man court you? He takes you out to dinner. How do you keep your family together? You all sit at the same table and eat.
Eating together is hard-wired into the human psyche. It’s what we do, it’s what we are. Humans eat together to be human.
Thinking about my writing, my stories always seem to have food in them. I don’t plan it that way, the food just happens. If I am writing romantically, it is natural to drift off into the erotic and it’s equally natural to bring in good food and drink.
Perhaps there is more to it than that. If you are telling a story, it is handy to have a setting in which the characters can just sit and talk. People don’t say much when they are being erotic (perhaps because it’s rude to talk with your mouth full), but they can say all sorts of things over a good meal. The writer can advance a story, fill in the characters or paint a beautiful background in a way that does not noticeably commit the sin of ‘telling, not showing’.
Would you like an example? Here is a short piece from The Prince and the Nun. Not one of the erotic bits because I don’t want to distract you, but just a step in the story. When you have finished, try and imagine the same scene without the soup; it wouldn’t be the same at all.
Therese has been taken to the front line one winter evening. As she arrives, she finds a poor soldier has wandered into a minefield, and she says the last words over him as he dies. The experience leaves her cold and shaken...
Shivering now, she picked her way step by step back to the road. The soldiers helped her back over the bank of snow beside the road and steered her back to Strelnikov.
“Follow the Sergeant, Therese. He’ll get you something warm to drink. Wait for me; I’ve got to have a word with Captain Stumpfl when he gets here.”
The sergeant led her along one of the paths into the trees. He was taking the death of his comrade calmly. He had probably seen many more on his journey to Tergov. After a few minutes, he turned abruptly aside and stepped quickly down into a hole in the ground. When he pulled aside the curtain at the bottom, candlelight fell out from the bunker beyond. She bent to enter and stepped down into a low room roofed with pine trunks.
To one side a crude table was squeezed between benches built against the walls, and the sergeant laid a greatcoat for her to sit on. A small pot stove kept the cold away, and on top of it a saucepan steamed. In the darkness beyond, Therese could make out bunks against the walls and clothes hanging to dry. The atmosphere was close and smelly.
“You’re in luck, Your Honour. We got some beetroot sent up today. No pierogi to go with it and make it proper-like, but it’ll warm you up anyway.”
He ladled the blood-red borscht into a large enamelled mug and gave it to her with a hunk of bread. It was hot and rich, and flattened drops of fat floated on its surface. She sipped at it eagerly. The sergeant sat opposite her in silence. She presumed he would be eating later, after the General had left.
“Where are you from, Sergeant?”
“Me? A long way from here, Your Honour. I come from a small place near Yegorlykskaya, on the other side of Rostov. It’s a different world, Your Honour. None of these mountains there.”
She sat and pondered his answer. It seemed strange to her that a young man from so far away should find himself sitting in a bunker in the forests of Krasna Dolina. Strange that another young man should have just died in the snow for no sensible reason. Strange that she should be here, her world turned upside down. There was a noise outside and Strelnikov pushed his way in. The sergeant writhed out from his bench and let Strelnikov sit down.
“Are they taking care of you?”
“Oh, yes. This borscht is good–try it.” She pushed the mug across to him.
The sergeant started to fetch another mug, but Strelnikov stopped him. “No, Sergeant. Save it for the men. I know they love it, and there’s never enough on a cold night. We’ll share this one.” They finished the soup turn and turn about, sitting in a bunker on a frontline that had never been fought over but was still lethal for the unwary.
As she followed Strelnikov out of the bunker, the sergeant stopped her. “The boys would like to say thank you, Your Honour. For what you did for poor Piotr. There’s none of us would have done it, not when you could see there was no hope for him. At least he died shriven, poor bastard, begging your pardon. We can tell his mum, and it’ll be some comfort.”
Jacqueline lives in Far North Queensland, on the shore of the Coral Sea. She keeps herself busy with her cats and garden, and by writing books - some of which are far too naughty for her own good. You can find out more about Jacqueline and her books at www.jacquelinegeorgewriter.com