Food as Shorthand Descriptions

I don’t write culinary mysteries. And I only cook when I can’t get out of it. Nice people at Whole Foods feed us.

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And we eat out a lot with friends. And love doggie bags. My current protagonists eat out or have a cook. Yet, I have the nerve to talk to you today about food in books. In my first books, CURRENT AFFAIRS AND DOMESTIC AFFAIRS, my protagonist cooked, and at the time I did, too. Writing about food is easier than cooking it.

In several books in the Kinsey Milhone Alphabet Mysteries, Sue Grafton did something I’ll never forget. She used food for character description and setting description. I think that’s genius. Or as my nieces would say, “bangin’” That’s what I want to talk about. Food is a subtle but exquisite way to portray your characters and settings.

In one instance Kinsey visited a home where she was served a snack of strawberries with mascarpone. In another book, someone made dates stuffed with an almond. Pretty sophisticated, right? Doesn’t that say a lot about the person she was there to interview? About their economic and social status. I think it’s more interesting than saying the person was rich or upper class.

I’m embarrassed to call these recipes since they are so easy, but here goes:

Strawberries with Mascarpone: I don’t know where you stand on the stems on or off question, but when I use the large variety I cut it off and spread the cheese on the top. For normal size strawberries, I half it lengthwise, leaving the stem on, and add the mascarpone on each side.

Almond stuffed Dates: This one is real tricky. : ) Remove the pit from the date. Put the almond in. Squeeze shut. That’s it.

For real recipes of dishes used in other real books, I highly recommend a fun blog, Cooking The Books.

In addition to describing characters, food is great for setting a scene because it asks the reader to use several senses. Consider the Aperol Spritz – what else would Stefanie Adams in M. A. Monnin’s Death on the Grand Canal drink while in Venice?

In Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, Demon Copperhead you can practically smell the ham and blackeyed peas cooking on New Year’s Day.

I hope you’ll consider using food or cooking in your settings and character descriptions.

Keep in touch,

Strawberry Food” by Suzy Hazelwood/ CC0 1.0


  1. Having been a professional cook and Pastry Chef in the whole second half (so far!) of my life, I have always found the kind of food a person likes to eat as a real bell weather to their personality. I use it specifically for that in my first cozy (enduring the final edit!). The kind of tea Malone drinks, the kind of “meal” she pulls together after an unfortunate incident, the restaurant she takes someone to as a peace offering…all indicators of character and the way she see’s the world. I love using it–such a great tool!

      1. Half way through final edit after beta readers and a punctuation/grammar edit by a British friend. Query letter is started , then off to publishers. Will let you know, thanks! The Malone McGrath Mysteries–keep your eyes peeled! LOL! Happy New Year!

  2. Food is an important part of life–and books (IMHO). What, where, and when people eat says a lot about them. I’m like you–I cook as little as I can get away with. I might just be able to master the stuffed dates.

  3. Lane, agree totally. You can say a lot about character by showing someone pouring their heart into a home cooked meal for a lover.
    I’m allergic to almonds but have stuffed dates with a bit of cheddar cheese spread and a half a pecan. Super easy and delicious!

  4. I ended up being the family cook by default since everyone else showed no interest and we all gotta eat. I’m looking forward to getting to a part of my life where I can stop cooking and nobody will fall apart or starve to death. But since my books star women with children, my characters cook, sometimes middlingly, sometimes elaborately, depending on personality. I end up making them buy the foods I really want to eat, and cook the things I wish someone would cook for me!

  5. I love all things food. Growing it. Shopping for it (especially when traveling.) Cooking it. Eating it. And i love including details about food in my writing. Definitely to describe a character, but also to enhance setting. The comfort food menu a character cooks for Olivia after her mother’s death in Gone But Not Forgotten is the perfect juxtaposition for the discomforting dinner party it is served at. Such fun writing that scene.

  6. Definitely. The protagonist in my first series leaned heavily on pizza and diet microwave dinners. She was single and obsessed with work.

    Liam in The Sorrowful Girl eats traditional Irish foods available to immigrants in the late 19th century prepared by his sister.

    Maureen in my current series doesn’t cook anything but pancakes that she burns. But the family eats together every night and takes turns making or picking up dinner. Her husband Jake is the cook of the family.

  7. I love eating food, but I’m a disaster at cooking it. I follow directions, and nothing turns out right. I just had a dinner party and my dear friend said, you know what. I’ll bring the food, Oh well. I also love the way Kinsey Milhone describes her clothes. I will never forget that little black dress.

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