Ever since I can remember, my favorite food has been ravioli. It was a staple of my Italian American upbringing and evolved over the years from cheese to lobster to pear and walnut, an ever-changing affair with a beloved dish. I have eaten ravioli all over the world, including Venice and Florence, but one particular evening of ravioli stands out above the rest.
It is Christmas Day and we are in New Mexico. It snowed last night and my dad expertly maneuvers the rented SUV up the winding mountains through the sparkling, winter wonderland, to a tiny Italian restaurant tucked against the top of the hill. We are the only people inside, and the proprietor, who still speaks with a thick Italian accent, serves us directly, offering suggestions and drink recommendations. He humors my poor Italian attempts and brings my parents limoncello, but subtly hints for them to share it with me, not yet sixteen, and my thirteen-year-old brother.
Against this scene, in the sparkling snowy New Mexico mountains, my grandparents, parents, and brother beside me, an aura of magic in the air, I ate the best ravioli I have ever had.
I honestly don’t remember exactly what kind of ravioli they were, or what exactly made them the best I have ever eaten, still to this day, a decade later. But that’s how memories work sometimes, calling to mind certain details and leaving the rest to history.
We all have stories based around food. Perhaps it is the dinner in a candlelit alleyway in Florence. Perhaps it is the first Valentine’s dinner with the person you love long after. Perhaps it is a cache of junk food shared among your best girlfriends on movie night. Food is an intrinsic part of human life and it feeds – in more ways than one – into who we are as people, physically and emotionally. It dictates our social lives, the way we feel about ourselves and so much more.
When it comes to writing fully developed characters in our books, we do a disservice to leave out their food memories and experiences. Like all things in the writing process, it may not make it into the book, but the author will have a far greater understanding of the character, as well as pre-established memories and jumping-off points for the character to talk or think about.
Food may seem like a petty or shallow element of a character’s life – the I love chocolate heroine, for example, is a favorite among romance novelists.
But the truth is that foods, the ones we like, the ones we dislike and the ones we crave at three am, are deep investigations into who we are as people, physically, socially and emotionally. After all, everyone has a ravioli in a fairytale mountain restaurant story. What’s your character’s? ♦