A Matter of Taste by Nevada McPherson
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist Nevada McPherson as she shares with us “A Matter of Taste.” Enjoy!
What do you love most about summertime?
Is it the annual vacation to a familiar place or a place brand new? Is it the food –- cookouts, crab boils, grilling up a storm? Is it the taste of watermelon, ice cream and popsicles? Maybe it’s having some time to rest, rejuvenate and perhaps even write a little, or (if you’re lucky) a lot.
If the last item is your favorite, that likely involves the senses of taste and smell in some way.
What tastes and smells inspire you and help you to fully capture a mood or a memory? In story-telling, the five senses are key for engaging your readers and, as my favorite creative writing teacher used to say, “taking them fully through an experience,” so that they can get to know your characters on a deeper level, in addition to the actions the character takes.
A deep dive into the senses can reveal much about a character’s situation and circumstances and make your writing more vivid and visceral.
The taste of a madeleine cake dipped in tea enticed Proust’s narrator into opulent memories of Belle Époque France in the novel In Search of Lost Time.
The sounds, scents and flavors of the barbecue at Twelve Oaks in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind contrasts sharply with the later scene where a starving Scarlett bites a bitter turnip and vows that from then on she’ll “never be hungry again!”
The earthy, salty scents of the Low Country marshes figure prominently in the books of Pat Conroy.
There are sexy descriptions of eating crusty French bread at the beach, drinking strong coffee in the bustling cafes of late-nineteenth century New Orleans, and rich Creole banquets in the work of Kate Chopin.
I’m sure you can think of many other tastes and smells you love to return to in your favorite books. Movies, books and TV shows even inspire cookbooks.
I have a cookbook based on food in the works of Tennessee Williams and I’ve made the pot roast from the True Blood cookbook and am thinking about baking the birthday cake featured prominently in Season Four (the “witch” episodes) for my birthday this year.
It’s quite a striking cake and since the cookbook for that Louisiana-based show was written by a prominent New Orleans food writer, the recipes have a certain Louisiana authenticity, as did the show.
What is it about cooking and eating that awakens us on so many levels, teaches us what flavors we favor and how to intensify those so that we enjoy life more fully? Is it because food is a cross-section of commonality, culture, and for us writers, character?
What are your characters’ favorite foods?
Taking the time to fully consider what your characters eat can provide insight to much about them: where they’re from, their socio-economic status and family heritage.
Are they willing to try some things and not others? Where do they draw the line as to what they will and won’t eat? Are they vegetarian?
Oddly enough, their food choices (like our own) can get into the political realm as well as the ecological, revealing something about their core beliefs.
In my screenplay about environmental activists, the food the people in the group eat and where they get it is often a point of contention about how committed they are to their mission.
Areas such as the food your characters eat may never make it into your story. However, this is one of those seemingly unimportant details that, if you the writer consciously knows it, can provide a window into a characters motivations, passions and maybe even outlook on life. (Like Water for Chocolate, anyone?)
And what about you?
What is it about the scent of vanilla that can send you back to your grandmother’s kitchen for a vibrant and detailed childhood memory? What is it about the scents of summer, fall, the holidays, that revive long-ago joys and bittersweet thoughts?
Perhaps I’m becoming more mindful of these things now as my creative writing class does exercises on capturing memories about places long gone, as I rewrite my own work to make it richer in sensory details, and as I learn to love cooking using fresh, aromatic ingredients that I don’t know how I lived without before.
Now that I know what it takes to make truly flavorful dishes, I can’t go back to my old ways, and now that I know how much these sensory details count in the things I read, I’ll heighten the flavor any way I can! Bon Appetit!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nevada McPherson lives with her husband Bill and rescue Chihuahua, Mitzi in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is an associate professor of Humanities at Georgia Military College. Nevada received a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge. She has written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, plays, short stories and the graphic novels, Uptowners and Piano Lessons. Queensgate, the sequel to Uptowners, is her third graphic novel. For more information, visit www.nevada-mcpherson.com.