Just like food and life, for me, food and writing are inextricable. I cannot imagine writing without eating featuring in some way! It is a constant thread throughout my debut novel Pieces of Me. The inclusion of food helped me to situate characters, demonstrate their personality and mood and was also a way for me to access my own memories and emotions.
Some of my favourite books have wonderful scenes with food. Joanne Harris is, of course, a master in the magic and sensuality food can bring, but it can exist more subtly too. An escapade with a jar of pickled eggs provides a salve to a beautiful broken friendship in Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs. The early morning drinking of grainy cowboy coffee in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses tells you all you need to know about the unforgiving landscape, the men and the task that lies before them.
Pieces of Me is set in both the US and Iraq, the protagonist Emma is British, and one of the main locations in the book – the International Zone – is a melting pot of people from different parts of the world. This range of settings and nationalities gave me a global menu to play with and made the book richer in all sorts of ways, but today I am going to focus on three. Food as an identity. Food as love. Food as memory.
Food is a huge part of people’s identity. It is wrapped up in culture, nationality, and values. On military bases, food is a key way to link people with their home nations. The canteen in Camp Victory in Baghdad made sure that people got Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner and even provided a (very unappealing) green soda fountain for St Patrick’s Day. The canteen in Baghdad was my own first insight into US culture – it was where my American colleagues introduced me to pecan pie, sweet tea, and grits (although I later discovered that grits in Baghdad are much less tasty than the authentic thing). Food was a way for us to share who we were and where we came from with the people around us. In Pieces of Me, Emma’s preparation of British food shows a certain kind of homesickness, while her attempt to prepare American food reflects her attempts to integrate into this foreign culture.
Food is love. The preparing and sharing of food reflect love, bonds, and relationships. For many people, this originates in family life. The sharing of meals in Pieces of Me, or the sharing of a glass of wine with a friend on Skype on the other side of the world, for example, was an important way of showing the maintenance, building, and breakdown of relationships. In conflict zones, the sharing of food can be an important part of building relationships too, which is why you may see images on television of military personnel sharing tea or food with local officials or groups in whatever region they are in.
Food is a way to access memory. Has a certain taste or smell ever transported you back to a different time or place in your life? Food can be a vessel for memory and that is the case not just for the characters within Pieces of Me, but also for how I went about writing the book myself. As a British person who has spent time in both the US and Iraq, I spent a lot of time trying to access my own memories of being in these places, to recall the details of life there, the small things I noticed, the different ways the places made me think and feel. I travelled a lot while I wrote the novel, so food helped situate myself back in the writing. Iraqi dolma always triggered Baghdad memories, while drinking coffee with vanilla creamer or hot apple cider instantly transported me to memories of Colorado in the autumn (or ‘fall’).
I’m now in the process of writing my second book, and the role of food is very similar. This novel will be set in Barcelona, so tapas and ice cream have featured a lot in my writing. If I need to eat more of them to help the writing process, I won’t be complaining!
Natalie Hart is a writer, strategic communications consultant, and qualitative researcher. Her first novel Pieces of Me is being published by Legend Press on October 1, 2019. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. Natalie specializes in conflict and post-conflict environments. She has worked extensively across the Middle East and North Africa, including three years in Iraq. Natalie has a BA in Combined Middle Eastern Studies (Arabic and Spanish) from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University.
What food do you associate with particular memories? And do you have any favourite food scenes from the books you read?