The best authors of fiction draw us into another realm by breaking down the boundaries between us, the reader, and the characters. It's a challenge, certainly, and yet skilled writers can somehow make us feel an intimate connection to people who exist only in our collective imaginations. I believe that food is one means authors can use to help make the characters feel more real. We all relate with food on a daily basis, and food helps us define who we are at any given moment. Why wouldn't the same hold true for fictional characters? It bring us further in to their emotional world and we begin to see them more as real people.
Consider, for example, a scene that always strikes deep for me in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. This scene occurs at the end of the novel when Gatsby is waiting outside Daisy and Tom's house to make sure everything is okay after Daisy's hit-and-run. Nick joins Gatsby and goes to the window to see what's happening inside:
Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table with a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.Nick tells Gatsby everything's fine and that he should go home and get some sleep, but Gatsby wants to stay and wait for Daisy to go to bed.
They weren't happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale--and yet they weren't unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.
He put his hands in his coat pockets and turned back eagerly to his scrutiny of the house, as though my presence marred the sacredness of the vigil. So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight--watching over nothing.
This scene always impacted me emotionally, not so much because of Fitzgerald’s prose or description of Daisy and Tom, but because of the image of cold fried chicken and unsipped ale. This uneaten meal is a hardened and real vision of Daisy and her choice to stay with Tom. Nick sees a reality around that kitchen table that Gatsby chooses to resist—a reality where Daisy is careless and selfish, not the idealized beautiful being Gatsby envisioned. Gatsby chooses instead to look at the light coming from her window—to stand and wait for a sign that his dream has not ended. To Gatsby, he watches over the possibility of Daisy. And yet Nick knows it all comes down to some uneaten chicken. It is the food in this scene that brings us more deeply into the characters' world and leaves us feeling just as unsettled as Nick.
Dinah Fried's book doesn't include this particular meal, but it has many others from classic works such as The Secret Garden, To Kill a Mockingbird, and On the Road. From the few photographs featured in Popova's article, these stand out to me the most:
The Catcher in the Rye
Check out Dinah Fried's website or Marla Popova's article for more information and images from Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature's Most Memorable Meals.