Souping it up

I’m a bit of a soup addict. Whenever I’m stressed, inching toward depressed, or feeling blue about something, I make soup. Chopping and grating, bringing to a boil, simmering. . . tasting. The steamy aromas of mingled garlic, onion, occasionally ginger . . . Mmm.

There’s something Zen about cooking in general, and making soup from scratch especially. And like my aunt says, even if you can’t cook, it’s hard not to make great soup, so long as you use quality ingredients. It will sound corny, but I think she’s right only to a point. Something of yourself has to go into the pot too—your love, your affection, your hope, your well wishes . . .

Yesterday I made salmon chowder (from a Spring my son caught last summer) and while I consider myself a decent cook, I impressed even myself. I was wowed by the scrumptious creamy, savoury results. I used a recipe from Allrecipes.com, then modified it (as is my style) ‘til the concoction in my pot could never be recreated using the recipe card sitting on my counter.

As I cooked (and tasted!), my mind wandered all over the place, but especially back to the novel that I’m working on. In the last scene, written just shortly before I started dinner, my MC was making soup. And there were soup references in my last novel too. The books aren’t the type that will be marketed at gourmands, with recipes in the back (though I do love those). In fact, the scenes are very brief—I don’t know if a reader would even consciously remember them, but they are, I realized, symbolic.

Soup is the epitome of comfort food, belonging and home. Every culture has its own variations of the dish, and while soup can be whimsical, there’s nothing trendy or passé about throwing things in a pot to simmer and blend all together into something, always a bit different, always good. Soup, regardless of its name, is as old as the human race.

And what does my character want and crave, but not have? Family. A sense of belonging. A home.

Food and eating of all kinds (not just soup!) has weighty (no pun intended) positive and negative connotations for the character as an individual and within his/her relationships. What your character eats or doesn’t eat, and the way they eat—standing over the kitchen sink, or with wine and candles even when alone—says a lot about their personality, their desires, their family background, their financial situation and so much more.

The way characters prepare food (or don’t) also shows who they are, how they perceive themselves, and how they want to be perceived by others. I don’t know what this says about me, but when I make soup, I feel like a good mom. What does your character feel like? A house elf? A slave? A fortunate soul to be able to cook when so many people in the world can’t put food on the table?

We shouldn’t make every scene about drinking tea or buttering fresh baguette, but we should remember that all humans everywhere eat—or need to eat—and have strong feelings about food. Sneaking in small sensory details about this primal need can be a great way to reveal information about your character.

So how about it? Have you ever considered what the food references in your story might be saying about your characters? Would adding some details about eating somehow enhance your characterization?

11 thoughts on “Souping it up

  1. I do judge a character by their comportment in the kitchen and at the table. I can still recall food scenes from stories I have otherwise forgotten.

    Food – and preparing it – is so primal. And it encompasses so much. It takes in all the senses. yes, there’s taste and smell, but also the textures and colours, the cruchiness. And doesn’t it feel good to really get your hands into it? Is kneading dough not therapeutic?

    There’s physical action: chopping, grating, shaking and rattling pots and pans, banging wooden spoons.

    I also find that cooking dances me through emotions: stress, depression, anger, frustration, accomplishment, love, affection. It also cuts through time and space and brings back memories.

    Everyone relates to food on some level. How a character deals with it tells me something about that person – but not necessarily the same thing it tells the next reader.

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  2. Ah, Vello! Thank you for your lovely, evocative post–the physical action in cooking _is_ wonderful, you’re right. And the colours. And the texture. And, well, as you and I obviously agree, all of it. 🙂

    I thought your last paragraph was really interesting too–readers definitely bring themselves to the eating/food scenes in a book and what they take away/appreciate/infer from a scene will depend a lot on their own tastes, aversions, and associations . . .

    Great food for thought. Heh.

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  3. Soup is def one of my comfort foods as well! (but my husband doesn’t really care for it…he’s learning as me and kids can eat it 5 days/week)

    Your post had me thinking about the eating habits of my characters – and interetingly food does play a role. It sets the era, the social class, etc, and is something one of my pregnant characters enjoys greatly!

    Good post, Ev, thanks – and great new theme!

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  4. Dear Jennifer,

    I think I had to convince my husband soup was good, but now he’s a fervent convert!

    R:”and is something one of my pregnant characters enjoys greatly!”

    LOL–when Art imitates life. I love food at the worst of times and the best of times, and I still remember how absolutely amazing some things tasted when I was pregnant. Special passions: cherry tomatoes, green grapes, chicken fingers (but only the ones from the restaurant where I worked), and cajun chicken–it was the banana peppers/onion mix. SO hot. SO delicious–drool. Great . . . now I’m not even pregnant and I’m having a craving. 😀

    Thanks for the kind words about my post and my new theme.

    ~Ev

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  5. Hi Ev,
    Now that you’ve made me think about it, I realise that I never put in references to food in my fiction. Really, never. Cocktails, sure, chocolate occasionaly, but the characters never prepare a meal or sit down together to eat. Your post has convinced me that I cannot go on neglecting this important detail any longer. Also, that I must set aside some time this week to make soup. It sounds like a taking-care-of-yourself ritual and I need more of those.
    Helen

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  6. Dear Helen,

    Re: “but the characters never prepare a meal or sit down together to eat. Your post has convinced me that I cannot go on neglecting this important detail any longer.”

    I think you’ll find it very interesting what comes up between characters at meal times.

    And yes, you definitely should set time aside this week to make soup.:) It is a lovely taking-care-of-yourself ritual–nicely put.

    Have a good week. Happy writing,
    Ev

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  7. If you think about it, preparing, eating, and cleaning up after meals takes up a good part of every day — or at least of my days. Breakfast, lunch, the afternoon pot of tea, supper, snacks, mmm. And this doesn’t even count thinking about food, reading recipe books, shopping for food, growing and picking food, preserving food…. I love food.

    Then there’s all that happens around the table — conversations, interpersonal dynamics, emotions, family business, the business lunch. Your post has set my mind racing. It would be fun to write a novel that was all about food (Like Stanley Park, or Julie and Julia, or Chocolate). Yes, lots of scope there for different characters and their interactions.

    Thanks!

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  8. Dear Gideon,

    Glad you appreciated my food for thought! And you’re so right re: books that centre around food. I hadn’t even thought of them. I did, however, just finish a short story that revolves around gourmet fare and recipes–and it was very fun to write, you’re right. 🙂

    ~Ev

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  9. I hunger for your salmon chowder! Can you send me the recipe, even though it’s not the same as what you actually did? I loved your descriptions of cooking and savouring and appreciating food, Ev. I too need to put more of that in my writing. I’m starting during my writing session tomorrow morning. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  10. Food was mentioned in my novel several times now that I think about it. With it I was able to help establish time and place, as they were dishes that would have been common to the area in rural Nova Scotia during the 40’s. I really didn’t do it on purpose, it just seemed like the right thing to do, sort of natural when I think of it. We have to admit, food is pretty important.

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  11. Dear Laura,

    Yeah, food is absolutely a natural way to establish place and time, especially in historical novels. I still haven’t ordered a copy of your book. I am remedying that this month!

    Happy writing, reading and eating. 🙂

    ~Ev

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