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Monday, March 21, 2016

Include Food In Your Writing



While going through some files yesterday, I noticed that I've written a lot of memoir pieces or personal essays that deal with food. Why not? Food is definitely a part of our everyday life and special foods and the people who prepared them linger in our memory bank for many years. 

Even novelists can use food to liven up a scene, or to move a plot along. A lot of dialogue can be enhanced by letting one of the people talking prepare food or be eating it. Then again, they can gag on it, throw it across a room, squash it. Whatever the author wants to do with it. 

One of the best parts of using food in your writing is that sensory details are a natural addition. Think of your favorite food; then consider how it looks, smells, tastes, what it feels like on your tongue and maybe even a sound (popcorn!) 

It's a natural for memoir writers to write about the foods of their childhood or perhaps what they ate in a college dorm or at their wedding reception. Maybe their own early attempts at preparing food that looked so easy when Mom did it. 

When I think back to the foods of my childhood, I can almost smell them. Of course, I am one of those people who live to eat, not like those who eat to live. 

Try writing a descriptive paragraph about each of the foods in this list:
  • fresh baked bread
  • an apple
  • chicken noodle soup
  • chocolate chip cookie
  • fried chicken
  • potato salad 
Here's a sample of a personal essay that deals with food. Just one food--my grandmother's special muffins. You could write an entire book of personal essays that deal with food.

Love On A Plate
By Nancy Julien Kopp

My grandmother moved away from Chicago about the time I started grade school, but, once in awhile, she would come back to visit us for a few weeks. At least once during her visit we had a “muffin day”--unannounced, and a happy surprise.

I walked the eight city blocks home from school every noon with my classmates. It was the late forties, and grade school lunchrooms were never a consideration. Each day was much the same. My classmates and I laughed, chattered, and played games like Stinkfish on our way home for lunch. The group diminished, as, one by one, kids disappeared into their various houses. Mothers waited inside with lunch on the table, soup or a sandwich in most cases.

I lived farthest from school so traveled alone on the final block. The sight of our large red-brick apartment building usually made my stomach growl with hunger. I'd walk a little faster, adding a hop, skip, and a jump now and then. Cars rumbled by on the brick street, and trains that ran parallel to the road often rolled and clattered by. Our vestibule doorway, one of seven entryways, was reached from the formal courtyard in the center of the large U-shaped building. Every day I ran around the bushes and grassy area that led to our entrance, my degree of hunger setting the pace.

I could count on there being one special day during my grandmother's visit. The day announced itself with the aroma of hot muffins the moment I opened the vestibule door. At the first sniff, my heart skipped a beat, and I felt a flutter of excitement deep inside. My nose twitched with genuine pleasure at the scent of the hot muffins, for the aroma floated down all three flights. My feet slid quickly across the cold, tiled floor to the softer, carpeted stairs. My fingers touched the smooth stairway railing only once or twice as I flew up the steps following that ever-stronger fragrance.

I burst through the unlocked door, heading straight to the kitchen in the back of the apartment. Grandma waited there, face flushed with heat from the oven, a plate of her special muffins in her wrinkled hands. Mother smiled at me, her delight nearly as great as mine.

Finally, seated at the table with a tall glass of cold milk and a steaming muffin on my plate, I sniffed the delectable treat to my heart’s content. The anticipation part was over. It was time to break the golden muffin in half and heap a generous pat of real butter on each piece. The first bite tasted of the salty butter and the sweet dates, all mingled together. Heavenly!

On these special days, that was all we ate for lunch--as many of these treats as a stomach could hold. They were so much better than a bologna sandwich. This was love on a plate. It’s a wonder that little red hearts didn’t escape into the air as I broke each muffin in two. My grandmother knew only one way to show her love, and that was through the food she prepared for those close to her heart. No amount of effort, time, or cost was too big when she cooked and baked for her family.

What has kept those date muffins in my memory bank for over half a century? Was it that they were especially delicious or that they were made with love? Perhaps a little of both. Which brings to mind my grandmother’s bakery…but that’s another story.

"Grandmother Studham’s Date Muffins"

Grandma mixed her muffins in a big blue crockery bowl, and she always wore an over the shoulder Mother Hubbard apron.

1/3 c. butter, softened 

2 c. cake flour

¼ c. sugar 

3 level tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt 
1 egg

¾ c. milk 

scant 1 c. dates, cut up

½ c. chopped pecans (optional)

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and mix well. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together. Add alternately with the milk. Fold in the dates. Bake in greased muffin tins or use paper liners in the tins. Fill each ½ to ¾ full. Bake at 400 degrees for 15-18 minutes or until done. Makes about one dozen muffins.

Note: I substitute margarine and 1% milk to make a healthier version, and they’re still wonderful. You don’t even need that generous pat of butter we used ‘way back when.’


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