Food-centered fiction vs adding recipes for local color

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.


  1. says

    I’ve loved the few foodie novels I’ve read, including your Lost Recipe and Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells. And I expect to love The Secret of Everything, too, which just arrived yesterday. Hmm, the recipe for moist and tender whole-wheat carrot and pineapple muffins (p 124) may be calling to me…

    Congrats on the new release, Barbara.

    Readers, come back next Tuesday to learn more about Barbara’s new book in a Take Five interview.

  2. says

    I agree: there’s a big difference between throwing in a few recipes vs. using and celebrating food in a book. As a writer, I would never *dream* of “just throwing in a few recipes” because I’m sure I’d be outed as a fraud! I mean, I had to be taught how to make ramen noodles. o_O

    So yeah, I’m totally with you. A few recipes won’t make me enjoy a book more; but a food-centered book that embraces a true passion for cooking will sing out as being authentic.
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..The lull =-.

  3. says

    What a timely post for me. I’m finishing up my WIP and getting ready to query agents in January. In my novel the main character bakes cookies. It’s just part of who she is and her kids and friends are always digging through Tupperware containers for their favorites, eating them frozen, looking for more, etc. It’s not a centerpiece of the novel, but the mc does tend to her family and friend via her cookies — she always want them to be full — and seeks to fill them. I wondered if it would be appropriate to add recipes to the back of the book — not that I bake at all unless slicing refrigerated dough counts. I wondered where I might get appropriate recipes, if they’d be copyrighted, etc. And even if it’s something I should include before querying.

    Any thoughts?

  4. thea says

    amy, my basic tollhouse choc chip cookie recipe has always been a hit, esp when i substitute differnt types of chocolate chunks. but i still use the recipe from the chocolate morsel package. its a very basic formula. i’m sure if you use a published recipe you’d have to get permission and attribute it. but i’m sure barb knows all that? anyway, back to this essay, I personally do not think food books will ever really go out of style. they don’t lose their appeal (like vampire books, for instance!) can’t wait to read your new book!

  5. says

    Amy, that’s a question I can answer: there is no copyright on recipes. Took this from the US Copyright Office years ago:

    “Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection.”

    So, the rule of thumb is to find recipes by scouring cookbooks and internet. I try to find at least three recipes for each thing, then I mess with them until I make them my own. (Which is something we all do, anyway, improving a recipe, putting our mark on it.)

    A lot of recipes, especially for cookies, are so similiar that you will have trouble making them VERY different (the ratio of sugar/eggs/fat/flour are a formula), but you wouldn’t want to use the classics anyway. The fun for the reader is in the discovery of something new to try.

    So, long answer to say: go for it. Your book sounds ripe for recipes, and readers do seem to like it.
    .-= Barbara Samuel O’Neal´s last blog ..Pancake kisses, bacon hugs =-.

  6. says

    Oh, I forgot Jael’s blog and book, which has a very intriguing premise. (Are you around, Jael? Can you give us some hints?)

    Cynthia, I know–what IS that about eating breakfast at dinner? That was our favorite as children, too.

    One of my favorite recipes in the The Secret of Everything is El Sopa de la Manana, essentially a cold fruit soup served with granola.
    .-= Barbara Samuel O’Neal´s last blog ..Pancake kisses, bacon hugs =-.

  7. says

    Barbara –

    Thanks for clarifying about the recipe copyrights! I’ve been stressing over changing up recipes for things my characters make (that I make out of cookbooks) for my website…I will stress no more :-)

    Totally in love with foodie fiction. Another favorite of mine is Nicole Mones’ “The Last Chinese Chef,” as well as Julia Stuart’s “The Matchmaker of Perigord.” Oh, and Siri Mitchell’s “Chateau of Echoes” is not to be read on an empty stomach :-)

    A part of me wonders about the popularity of foodie fiction. I think people are learning that “gourmet cooking” doesn’t have to be difficult, inapproachable, and complicated, and relearning the romance of ingredients that’s come with the organic produce movement…

    Interesting thoughts :-)

  8. says

    I’m so looking forward to reading The Secret of Everything. I love foodie fiction. One that I recently read was Last Bite: A Novel of Culinary Romance by Nancy Verde Barr. One of the secondary characters reminded me so much of Julia Child. Finally I looked on the inside back flap and saw that Barr was Child’s executive chef and culinary producer for 20-plus years.

  9. says

    I can’t wait to read this book. I loved Lost Recipe for Happiness and expect to love this new one just as much, if not more. I consider food a love language — Food and love are at the heart of what we do, and I think it’s so natural to weave the culinary delights in with all the other sensual aspects of a book. Food is the center of most celebrations and has a way of bringing people together, and I am so glad that foodie fiction has become so popular!
    .-= Becca´s last blog ..It’s the Hard =-.

  10. says

    Hi Barbara, Therese, et al! Yes, the title of SIMMER is still in flux, but the book fits very well into this discussion.

    The main character, Ginny, is shy and sheltered and has trouble connecting with people on any level — but she loves to cook, and part of her journey in the novel is to take that inward-focused gift and focus it outward.

    (Then, of course, there are also the ghosts who appear when she cooks from their recipes… which is a whole ‘nother thread.)

    The chapter titles are dishes that Ginny cooks (Bread Soup, Aji de Gallina, Man-Catcher Brownies, etc) but in previous drafts I haven’t included the recipes themselves. I think I want to for the finished novel, though — so readers can cook along.
    .-= Jael´s last blog bites of 2009: other notables =-.

  11. says

    Hillary, thanks for those recommendations. I am adding them to my list. You wrote:

    “A part of me wonders about the popularity of foodie fiction. I think people are learning that “gourmet cooking” doesn’t have to be difficult, inapproachable, and complicated, and relearning the romance of ingredients that’s come with the organic produce movement”

    I agree. There is magic in food, and it’s very empowering to cook (and eat) beautiful dishes. Knowing where the ingredients come from, how they were treated as they lived, is a big part of that. (There is an organic farm at the center of Secret of Everything. A special love of mine.)

    Becca, I love that: that food is a love language!

    Amy, since you don’t like to bake, what you might do is ask around among your friends and relatives for some recipes and/or volunteers to try to create some new cookie recipes for your book. You can give them credit in the acknowledgments.

    Jael, the book sounds luscious, and from your blog, it’s plain that you’re a devoted food person.
    .-= Barbara Samuel O’Neal´s last blog ..Pancake kisses, bacon hugs =-.

  12. says

    Great post, Barb, and I so agree with every word. I grew up with agricultural people, “from field to tongue,” as you said it. I remember picking strawberries with my grandmother in Wisconsin in their vast garden and sitting under the oak trees, with her, a big metal bowl in my lap, snapping beans, the smell of earth bursting out with every snap. There is such a satisfaction in the work of one’s one hands, isn’t there? A quiet kitchen, the smack-smack of the chopping knife, wooshy steam coming off a pot, love it. I really enjoyed this post. I am a Sarah Addison Allen fan too but haven’t read Elle Newmark’s book. I’ll have to look it up. Thanks, Barb.

  13. says

    I’m currently writing my WIP which is a quasi political ghost story. Over a year ago, when I was submitting the first draft for critique at the Internet Writer’s Workshop one person commented that my character seem to be having arguments and discussions while eating. It sort of made me a little self-conscious about it and then I realized that my characters were based on my activities which includes eating, dining out and cooking. Some scenes I rewrote, but others I kept because I felt that it suited the character’s personalities.

    At one point I was tempted to add a recipe and I still might since the mc and narrator has penchant for madelaines and pound cake and bakes them when she gets flustered.
    .-= Rebeca Schiller´s last blog ..Rebeca’s Top 50 Writing Blogs, Part 2 =-.