Food and Fiction
Someone else had to point it out—I didn’t even notice that my short stories were taking on a food theme. But there they were: a bagel-maker defending his turf, warring food trucks, gourmands duped into thinking they were dining on human charcuterie.
When a friend reached out and asked how long until I released a collection of food noir, I was putting a polish on a story about a bakery bouncer and working on my second book, which is set in a vegan strip club in Portland.
City of Rose lands this week, and while I was putting the book together, I didn’t really intend to dive into the Portland food scene. But I couldn’t help myself. Here’s the thing about Portland: Any place that serves alcohol has to serve food, by law. And in Portland, they take their food pretty seriously. I’ve been out there a few times, and I’ve always eaten well.
There are some fun storytelling possibilities there. Setting the book in a vegan strip club felt turned out to be a natural extension of the story. The chef is trying to crack the code on vegan cheesy nachos and vegan cupcakes. They never come out right, because they’re tough to replicate without staples like butter, eggs, and milk.
Kind of like the protagonist, Ash McKenna, who is trying very hard to be something he’s not. And he pays for it in the end.
There are a few reasons my work is informed so much by food. The biggest is that I like to eat. I once drove two hours for a sandwich (White House in Atlantic City—worth it). I will defend to my dying breath New York’s status as the top of the pizza food chain (Connecticut? Chicago? C’mon). The first thing I do when I visit a new town is scope out the best restaurants.
I like to cook too. I’ve adopted items like a sous vide cooker and a meat smoker into my kitchen routine. I like going from scratch whenever possible. I will grill in any weather you can throw at me.
But there’s another reason I like writing about food: because of what it means to us, as people.
In every corner of the world, the one thing we all share in common, the one thing that’s the same wherever you go, is food culture. Everyone is proud of his or her local cuisine. Everyone has a specialty, a favorite restaurant, a hidden gem. Sitting down at a table and breaking bread is the most basic tenant of hospitality. It’s something everyone values and honors, no matter where they come from.
Crime fiction is about exploring the human psyche, because you don’t get the true measure of a person until they’re at their worst. Food and food culture is also about exploring the human psyche—about how we relate to our own culture, and the world around us.
Did you know that when Jewish immigrants bought the bagel to New York at the turn of the 20th century, they established a union? The Bagel Bakers Local 338. Meetings were held in Yiddish to protect the recipes, and non-members didn’t dare start their own bagel businesses for fear of violent retaliation.
How do you read that and not get inspired?
Or, you’re at Big Gay Ice Cream and there’s a guy outside working a rope, letting people in a few at a time, controlling the crowd like it’s a club on Saturday night.
Bakery bouncer. There’s a story there.
The third Ash McKenna novel, South Village—which I’m working on now—finds Ash working as a chef at a hippie commune. More food stuff. I can’t help myself. Again, it’s an extension of him and his place in the world. There’s a reason he takes that job. But I won’t spoil it.
And I’m happy to say that, with my first New York pizza story done and out on submission, I’m getting closer and closer to that collection of food noir…