There’s frequently a point in a book where it’s nice to have characters grouped round a dinner table discussing the latest plot developments. This can be helpful for giving the reader an update on where the story’s got to – not to mention doing the same for the author, who is probably utterly confused by that time anyway, and may well have lost the synopsis, flow chart, and chapter precis all so optimistically started around Chapter One. Not that I ever do lose such things, of course. Well, not often. Hardly ever, really.
It’s remarkable how much it matters to get food right in books. The meals that characters eat or cook can be an insight into their personalities. An invitingly-laid dinner table can set a scene, although the wrong kind of meal can ruin it altogether. You can’t really have the hero and heroine dining on fish fingers or frozen chicken nuggets as a prelude to the grand bedroom scene. On the other hand, neither of them will want to spend half the evening in the kitchen peeling grapes for sole veronique, or diligently tweezering bones out of a trout. Ordering pizza or dashing out to collect a take-away, however tasty and convenient (not to say avoiding the necessity to wash up afterwards) doesn’t seem to quite fit the scenario.
For Ghost Song, I managed to churn out a song about food, for the Edwardian music-hall performer, Toby Chance, to sing. I called it All Because of Too Much Tipsy Cake – by which I mean Toby called it that. Tipsy Cake, as a dish, hails from the mid-eighteenth century, and it was a beautiful and dangerously rich version of the trifle we eat today – layers of fresh sponge cakes, soaked in sherry and brandy. When Toby Chance sang the song on the stage of his (fictional) theatre – The Tarleton – it was an instant success, and next day the barrow boys and the street sellers were whistling it in Covent Garden – in those days, the equivalent of reaching No 1 in the charts, and trending or going viral on Twitter.
In The Sin Eater, one of my favourite minor characters, Nina Doyle who runs her own catering business, lurches from one culinary disaster to another, frenziedly pitting half a kilo of cherries for duck á la Montmerency while menacing echoes from a macabre Victorian murder swirl around her – and later causes mayhem when a pair of live lobsters, intended for a waiting Thermidor pot at a Soho supper party, try to escape their fate, resulting in a traffic jam in Old Compton Street.
Sending characters out to restaurants can bring a whole new set of problems. Any genuine restaurant you use will undoubtedly have changed hands by the time the book is published, and the new regime will most likely be so disastrous that the 2-star Michelin rating will have been summarily removed. Alternatively, the place will have been taken over by a tattoo parlour or a chain store selling cut-price DVDs.
There’s also the problem of fashions changing in food, which can date a book beyond redemption. It’s not so long since it was the height of sophistication to dine on prawn cocktail, steak Diane, and Black Forest Gateau. Now, it’s more likely to be chorizo, squid-ink pasta, quinoa, and a variety of dishes with complicated and usually unpronounceable names. (By the time this article is posted, it will probably be something else again). It is, though, rather heartening to note that many menus now include bread and butter pudding, and also fish cakes, and that even The Ivy currently offers its own version of a hamburger – admittedly with pommes allumettes and dill relish, but still… Not that I’ve ever actually created a character who’s rich enough to eat at The Ivy, or sufficiently organised to be able to plan his or her life sufficiently far ahead to get a table there.
The nineteenth century is far safer for describing fictional dining experiences in real restaurants. There’s Rule’s, where you can refer nonchalantly to the oysters and to Henry Irving eating there on account of the Lyceum being just a few doors along… (‘Oh, Sir Henry often comes in on matinee days. Very partial to a bit of steak and kidney pudding between his Richard III and his Othello, Sir Henry is.’)
There’s also Simpsons in the Strand with the silver-domed trolleys that would be wheeled to the tables to avoid disturbing the restaurant’s chess players. (‘Don’t take the roast beef to the corner table yet, Fred, there’s a battle going on between the Sicilian Defence and the Queen’s Gambit.’) There’s surely a good murder plot in there, with a chess-player bumped off between pawn to queen’s knight 4 and a bishop’s fianchetto, but with nobody noticing the corpse until the waiter starts carving the joint. Also, using Simpsons means you can sprinkle your text with names such as Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You never know when this might be useful in a plot. And then, of course, there’s the Café Royal, where, if you get the dates right, it’s almost obligatory for a character to remark, ‘Oh, I say, isn’t that the writer chappie, Oscar Wilde, over there.’
It’s probable that Oscar Wilde would not in the least have minded sitting down to a freshly-delivered pizza, and that Henry Irving and Charles Dickens would have thoroughly enjoyed a hearty take-away chicken korma.
But I’m still not sure about that seduction scene over the frozen chicken nuggets.