The Pleasure and Pain in Writing Foodie Novels

PhotobucketTonight, I have just opened the first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau of the year. It’s not a fancy wine, and hardly expensive, but every year it’s such a rush to see the sign in the shop windows—Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!—and the brightly colored labels on the bottles. They make me think of butterflies.

And like butterflies, the wine is a fleeting thing, only drinkable for a couple of months. There is much relish in opening the bottle, that first first bottle of the year, and pouring a juicy dollop into a glass, and then taking that first, bright sip. Ah! Light and fresh and fleeting. Tasting it, I think of the people who planted the grapes, and the sunlight that made the vines grow, and the hands that harvested them. I think of rain and winds and moonlight, and someone whistling a melancholy tune as he walks home over cobblestone streets in the late evening. I think of men sending the trucks off with their boxes of wine and think of their hands—probably deeply tan, with oval nails—tearing a baguette for lunch.

Therein lies the pleasure of writing about food. No food is a single, isolated thing, suddenly arriving on our plates or our glasses as if born in a replicator. It comes from the earth and from the bodies of animals that lived on the planet with us. It passes through the hands of harvester or hunter, though the market, to the cook and then to our mouths and bellies.

Nothing, except perhaps sex, is as elemental, with so much potential for both joy and disaster. (At least bad sex doesn’t usually kill you, while bad food certainly can.) Nothing else has so many endless variations and possibilities for a writer. Or at least for this writer.

I came by my passion honestly. I spent fifteen years in restaurants, all kinds of restaurants, in all kinds of jobs, from short order cook to chocolatier to bartender and server. It’s the only career outside of writing that I’d ever consider.

It is inherited, this fixation on food. My mother owns hundreds of cookbooks. They’re stacked in every corner of her house, and she has a prodigious memory for which recipe is located in which book. Her father ran a restaurant—Ed’s Kitchen, long ago in rural California. My uncle Jimmy cooked when he was drinking, or when he was sober (I can’t remember, because I only knew him when he was sober, and he was such a tidy, quiet man it was hard to imagine him hitting the sauce and cooking with a crooked hat). I married a man who cooked so prodigiously that people came for miles around to eat his Sunday breakfast and barbeques. (Many of his recipes ended up in No Place Like Home, including the Ass-Kickin’ Apple Pie.)

Writing a novel with recipes means testing them, and retesting them—both a pleasure and a pain. For The Lost Recipe for Happiness, it meant making ten zillion tamales, an extraordinarily time-intensive process…but the joy arrived in discovering that my partner will do nearly anything for duck tamales.

Writing Lost Recipe also meant mangos, which I adore, and tons of avocados, which are only second to mangos on my list. (Avocados and mangos are also fruits that must absolutely be ripe. They are either delicious or terrible, no inbetween.) There is also a wicked, wicked dessert in the book, pomegranate baklava, which I can make only if there absolute assurance that I can give it all away immediately after it is finished.

That’s the pain of it. All that thinking of food makes a person hungry. All the cooking and testing requires a person to exercise. A lot. (Luckily I like it.)

The most fun of all is when book clubs make the recipes and have a big party and then write me a letter to tell me about their evening or long, lazy Sunday afternoon. It feels like I’m adding joy to the world in a big way, and what could be better than that?

If you do that, please send me an email about it, won’t you? Maybe I can collect photos and post them on my blog. That would be fun, too.

photo courtesy gari.baldi


About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    Ah, foodie novels. And oh, tamales! This Cali girl has made zillions and lemme tell ya, the work is so worth it. It’s tamale season, and I’m going to try those duck tamles, Barbara. Heaven on a platter, with a side of pico de gallo and a Modelo Gold chaser.

    Yikes, now I’m hungry. :-)

  2. says

    Kathleen, it is tamale season! I’m looking forward to it, though I might have to get somebody to help me tie the husks. It’s been a fiercely busy year and my hands are tired!

  3. says

    You know, generally I’m not a big fan of the research part of writing — it’s more a means to an end for me — but I think research for a food story is the ONE thing I could really get behind. ;)

  4. says

    Luscious post, and what a perfect photo! There’s a real magic in the process of preparing food and sharing it with loved ones.