A dash of specificity yields a serving of magic.
One of the first things I did when I left home and moved out on my own was buy cookbooks. Lots of them. I’m not really sure why — I don’t think I’ve bought a cookbook in the past ten years. But for a brief period, the bargain shelves at Barnes & Noble became my hunting ground, and the prettier the photographs or the more exotic the international cuisine, the more likely it was that I’d lug another heavy hardcover home. Sadly, I don’t often prepare recipes out of these cookbooks anymore. When life gets busy, cooking tends to feel like something I must do, rather than something fun that I want to do. Nine times out of ten, I just Google whatever I’m in the mood to make, mash a few online recipes together, and give it a go (or throw it all in the crockpot). Yet every once in a while, when I’m in the right mood and have the energy, I find myself wanting to make something special — something that takes time and preparation and thought. In other words, something meaningful.
In this way, food and stories have a lot in common. Humans need both on a regular basis and in a variety of formats. Some days, all my husband and I really want to do after a day of work is collapse on the couch, order a $5 pizza from Domino’s (the thin crust with bacon and jalapenos is a winning combination), and watch a few suspenseful episodes of the latest mediocre drama on Amazon Prime. Other days, most likely on the weekends, I’m in a better place to soak up a literary master like Willa Cather or T.S. Eliot, and I’m also more enthusiastic about preparing food that takes time.
And in these moments, I often find myself returning to the dishes of Spain.
When I wrote Beneath Wandering Stars, I didn’t plan on incorporating Spanish food into the story. It just happened. Yet I believe this unconscious sprinkling points to a paradoxical truth about writing: universality is found in specificity. Or, to put it more simply—the more specific a story’s characters, setting, and themes, the more likely that story is to touch on universal human truths that resonate across the boundaries of culture, geography, and history.
In a similar way, Spain’s cuisine is super specific — there are certain dishes you’re only likely to find on menus in certain parts of the country — and there’s something about this specificity that gives Spanish food a certain power over the imagination (or my imagination, at least). Unlike the United States where you can order a burger no matter what stretch of highway you happen to be on, when Gabi and Seth (my novel’s main characters) walk the Camino de Santiago, it becomes apparent that there are certain dishes they just have to order. Café con leche in the morning is common enough across Spain, but Caldo Gallego — this delicious, rustic soup made of chorizo sausage, white beans, and leafy greens — wouldn’t leave my mind once Gabi and Seth reached Spain’s northwest, Irish-like region of Galicia. Likewise, when Gabi and Seth are walking the city streets and get hungry for a late-night snack, churros con chocolate at 3 a.m. was the only dish that made any sense. (Want to know more about these and other Spanish recipes? Check out Gabi & Seth’s Guide to Camino Cuisine).
The specificity of food in fiction can be an effective approach to “world-building” when writing a story, and it’s no wonder that this appeal to multiple senses has resulted in certain fictional dishes living on in the minds (and bellies!) of readers. Here are a few magical recipes from some beloved works of fiction — ones that provide so much “scope for the imagination,” I might just be inspired enough to spend more than thirty minutes in the kitchen . . . even on a weeknight.
ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (YOU HAD TO HAVE SEEN THIS ONE COMING)
“I just grow cold when I think of MY LAYER CAKE. Oh, Diana, what if it shouldn’t be good! I dreamed last night that I was chased all around by A FEARFUL GOBLIN with a big layer cake for a head.” – L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
“No. The sitting-room will do for you and your company. But there’s a bottle half full of RASPBERRY CORDIAL that was left over from the church social the other night. It’s on the second shelf of the sitting room closet and you and Diana can have it if you like, and a cookie to eat with it along in the afternoon, for I daresay Matthew’ll be late coming in to tea since he’s hauling potatoes to the vessel.” – L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
“Why don’t we go and have a butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks, it’s a bit cold, isn’t it?” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
“Often in their hearts they thanked the Lady of Lórien for the gift of LEMBAS, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
“The effect of the DRAUGHT began at the toes, and rose steadily through every limb, bringing refreshment and vigour…” -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
“At last the TURKISH DELIGHT was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted TURKISH DELIGHT and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” – C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
THE HUNGER GAMES
“From the bag I pull two FRESH BUNS with a layer of cheese baked into the top. We always seem to have a supply of these since Peeta found out they were my favorite.” —Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of SMOKING BISHOP, Bob!” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
“But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the PUDDING up, and bring it in.” –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
This article was originally published at The Wandering Writer.
Ashlee Cowles is the author of the Young Adult novel “Beneath Wandering Stars” (Merit Press, August 2016), the story of a teen girl who walks an ancient pilgrimage route on behalf of her wounded brother. She blogs at The Wandering Writer. (Photo credit: Lancia E. Smith.)