My new novel, The Secret of Everything, hits the shelves this week. At the heart of the book is a restaurant called The 100 Breakfasts Café (which I really wanted to be the title for a long stretch). One of my favorite review quotes so far is from PW, who said the book shows “a talent for persuasively portraying men, women and children and a definite reverence for cooking”.

“A definite reverence for cooking.” It thrilled me, because this business of food and fiction, stories risen from the table, is something I take pretty seriously.

This subject has been on my mind because not long ago, I heard a writer comment that recipes are de rigueur these days in women’s fiction. Her attitude was that one might as well include them—it’s what one does. The offhandedness, that slightly dismissive tone, the idea that food in fiction is a trend that will pass, pained me.

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive. It’s true that food in fiction is a trend at the moment. Food in our culture is a trend. Over the past decade or so, Americans have awakened to the pleasures the plate, to the seduction of the vine, and have fallen in love with the idea—if not the actual act—of cooking. Chefs have become celebrities, and there is an entire television network devoted to food.

Naturally, commercial fiction follows the curve of cultural passions. There is certainly nothing wrong with capitalizing on that by adding some recipes to a book, and if you have a yen to use recipes as dividers or a way to amuse your readers, go for it.

But let’s be clear: there is a huge difference between tossing in a few recipes and writing what one columnist called “foodition,” novels with food at the heart of them, fiction born from the kitchen, from the passion for the journey of food from field to tongue, from the mad pleasure to be found in the witchery of ingredients.

Thanks to the blog Julie/Julia and the book of the same title, Julia Child is in all of our imaginations right now (thank you, Julie Powell—if you have not read her original blog, I highly recommend starting at the beginning here). Child, or Julia, as she is in my heart (and maybe yours, too), was in love with food. Insanely. Insatiably. She was in love enough with the process of good cooking to spend decades on her iconic cookbook. It’s impossible to read anything she wrote about food or watch her on her old television show without realizing her lusty, cheery passion for food (and life).

We see the same thing in chef/author turned television host Anthony Bourdain, and in such novels as Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (and may I say that this website opener is the kind of cover I lobbied to get for The Lost Recipe for Happiness), Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, and the ultimate foodie magic realism, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. There are innumerable blogs by gorgeous writers and photographers, like Orangette and Ms. Glaze, to show us what a passion for food looks like.

Not all of us are Child or Esquivel, of course. Many writers are in love with food. There is something healing and immediate about cooking that brings a sense of concrete accomplishment to the life of a novelist. It’s no surprise some of us would bring our passion for food into the world of our writing. I know a book is really in motion when I find myself every afternoon in the kitchen, dissecting some process or trying some new recipe or testing something for the WIP (Work in Progress). The act of cooking feeds the act of writing, and vice versa. Lately, I’ve noticed that the study of food for my novels is increasing my skills in the kitchen.

It’s a joyous circle, and one that I earnestly hope to share with readers, some of whom may love cooking and some who “only” love eating or the idea of cooking. I’m not a brilliant chef like Julia Child, but food has been part of my books for a long time, and cooking is one of my earnest passions. I’m especially passionate about restaurants, and spent fifteen years serving and preparing food in just about every kind of restaurant you can think of, in almost every capacity, from server to cook to bartender to dishwasher.

Food is celebratory and healing and sensual. It is also social history, and especially social history from the perspective of women. As a writer of women’s fiction, that aspect is very appealing to me. How do we use food? What does the way we procure and prepare it say about us? How do we celebrate? What does that say?

In the Lost Recipe for Happiness, Elena Alvarez uses cooking to connect herself to life, even to celebrate it, after her life is shattered. In The Secret of Everything, breakfast is a symbol of family, for love, and a celebration of the healing power of simple, shared meals. I hope you’ll look for it, then maybe cook some French toast or maybe Huevos Rancheros for somebody you love—especially if that person is you.

How do you feel about the emerging passion for food in fiction? What are some of your favorite food-centered novels?


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.