I have to admit, I love food. I come from a long line of food lovers. Some of my best memories of family come from events that centered on food:
Sunday dinners at Grandma’s
Christmas dinners with all my cousins (28 of them on my Dad’s side!)
Birthday parties with watermelon and fancy cakes
Picnics in the winter, with steaming bowls of chili and hot cocoa
Is it any wonder that food comes into play in so much of my writing then? In KATERINA’S WISH, Trina’s family gathers around meals, but food plays a bigger part in the story as well. Because the family is poor, many of Trina’s efforts to improve their life center on ways to get food without paying the high prices at the store. I also use food in this story to create a sense of the family’s Czech ethnicity.
Early in the book, Trina’s little sister Aneshka expresses her love for Plum Dumplings, a traditional Czech food. If reading about Plum Dumplings makes you curious about them, here’s a recipe you can try:
Fruit Dumplings (Svestkove Knedliky)
2 cups flour
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
Fruit: pitted plums or prunes (fresh plums are the best!)
Mix egg with butter and milk. Add salt. Sift flour on a board and add first mixture, kneading until smooth. Cut dough into small pieces and wrap evenly around the fruit (make sure to pre-pit your fruit!). Seal well all around.
Drop dumplings in a large pan of boiling salted water and cook for about 8 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove from water immediately, sprinkle with melted butter and keep in a colander over hot water until ready to serve.
Arrange on a platter, sprinkle with some more melted butter and sugar. Crumbled pot cheese, ground poppy seed or bread crumbs fried in butter can be used for topping.
For my ONLINE RELEASE PARTY, we experimented with these dumplings, starting with picking the plums! Read all about it here!
In another part of KATERINA’S WISH, the family sets out to make pickles. I decided they should be making my great-grandmother’s recipe. My great-grandmother was German, and immigrated to this country around the time that Trina’s family would have. Her recipe has been passed down in my family with the title Liberty Sweet Pickles. I do not know where this name came from, but I suspect they might have been “German Sweet Pickles” before World War I. At that time foods like sauerkraut came to be called “Liberty Cabbage,” and my great-grandmother’s pickles might have likewise been made more patriotic.
If you have an abundance of cucumbers and time and an adventurous spirit, you might try these sweet, spicy, ultra crisp pickles. If not, the recipe might give you a better sense of how much work women went to around the turn of the 20th century.
Liberty Sweet Pickles
Wash 3 dozen medium cucumbers
Pour over them: 2 quarts hot water mixed with a large handful salt
Let stand 5 days
Drain and cover with boiling water. Let stand overnight.
Cut crosswise into 1 inch pieces and cover with boiling water.
Add 1 lump of alum, the size of a walnut.
Cover with horseradish leaves and small pieces of the root.
Let stand overnight.
Drain, cover with boiling water. Let stand 'til cold
Drain. Cover with boiling brine:
5 cups sugar
3 cups vinegar
1 box pickling spices (in a cheesecloth bag)
2 sticks cinnamon
Let stand overnight.
Each morning of four mornings, reheat brine and pour over pickles.
Seal in jars.
Thoughts on Food and Writing
Food evokes a sense of comfort, family, warmth, and joy. A lack of food, can evoke a sense of fear and anxiety.
Food also gives writers the chance to engage many senses in their writing. Sight, taste, texture, and smell are all part of the eating experience. Sound may come in, too, if the food is crunchy or sticky.
Food, therefore, is a wonderful topic to explore sensory writing.
Here are a few exercises you can do with food:
Pick a favorite food and take a moment to explore how it evokes your senses. Now try to capture it on the page. Now try it again with your least favorite food.
Dig into your memory and come up with a special event that had food as a part of it. Now tell that story on paper, remembering to place the food in its social context. Remember the sensory pieces: was the event noisy or quiet? Active? Was the food critical to the event?
If you want an extra challenge, write a story that centers on the food, in which the food is symbolic or in some way parallels the events of the story. (An excellent book that does this really well is Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel)