Is Your Character a Vegetarian?

Having, I assume, culled through historical documentation of all sorts, somebody in the world has kept tabs on All the President’s Menus. Isn’t it amazing all the seemingly mundane details we can know about the past?

While reading through the list, comparing my favorite foods to those of past presidents, and upon occasion making fun of their taste buds–squirrel soup, really Garfield? And dear President Harrison, bouillon is not by any definition a food. It’s salty water, for goodness sake–I realized by the end of the article that I had really gotten a flavor–pardon the pun–for each president’s personality.

President Carter, for example, is pure Southern through and through: “Ham with redeye gravy, baked grits, cornbread, pork chops with cornbread stuffing, fried apples, red beans and rice, ham and cheese sandwiches, spicy spare ribs, collard greens, kale, okra, zucchini, butter beans, fried corn, and (of course) peanuts.”

President Lincoln, on the other hand, was a man of simple tastes: “Apples, coffee, bacon, milk, johnnycakes, honey, and chicken. ‘Mary Lincoln set a table at the White House, which included such food as aspic of tongue, pâté de foie Gras, turkey stuffed with truffles, and all sorts of wild game, such as venison, pheasant, or canvasback duck. But all too often the President merely picked at his food.’—Francois Rysavy, A Treasury of White House Cooking”

Not only did their favorite foods give a taste of their personality, their regional and childhood heritage, but it also gave a flavor for their historic setting. I remember hearing stories of my grandmother in the 1940s and 50s searching through the backyard for fresh dandelions for dandelion green salad, a food Teddy Roosevelt apparently favored, but which modern taste buds would more than likely revolt against.

“You want me to eat weeds?!”

John Adams’ craving for Plymouth succotash and Hoover’s taste for Oregon black cherries similarly gives historical context clues to exposure to and relationships with other cultures and the growing expansion of the nation’s states.

I’m not saying that we should detail every meal that our characters eat–the way Eat, Pray, Love dwells upon every food experience–or even make our character’s taste buds incredibly unique in their choices. But we should know everything about our characters and this is another layer worth knowing. Also, I think it might be a great way to characterize them. If someone is a vegetarian, for example, because they love animals too much, this fact speaks worlds about their personality! Also think of all the really interesting scenes this could develop in your book. How would they handle a meat-heavy Thanksgiving menu, hosted by the future in-laws? Or if someone grew up on a farm and now lives in NYC but still insists on eating foods only grown local. A picky eater might have a really abrasive and/or uncompromising personality and refuse to try new restaurants, new experiences, new things. It’s amazing how the way someone eats fleshes out their personality and their background. I can’t believe I never thought how important food in fiction was before!

Just for fun, what do my favorite foods tell you about me?

salmon, pork fried rice, Thai curry, stuffed green peppers, lasagna, French onion soup, brownies, sweet potato (in all forms; fries, pancakes, baked), oatmeal, stuffed crab bisque, gnocchi, asparagus, cherries, pork roll, crispy bacon, blueberry pancakes, walnuts, chicken cacciatore, tea, dark chocolate

What are your own favorite foods? List them below and you might be amazed at the character sketch it provides!

(Images #1,#2)


14 thoughts on “Is Your Character a Vegetarian?

  1. mmcnellis says:

    Interesting post! I remember learning during a visit to Old Sturbridge Village that dandelions are very useful, medicinally, as well as being edible. I think it’s harder these days to judge someone’s origins by their favorite foods because the world is a smaller place than it used to be (as in it’s easier to go farther distances). But I would say your favorites foods suggest a diverse palate.

    Some (but not all) of my favorite foods include:

    Peaches, red grapefruit, tomato sauce (on anything), tomatoes, cheddar cheese, walnuts, honey nut cheerios, peanut butter, home-baked bread, pasta, pizza, broiled chicken with lemon, scrambled eggs, orange juice (I’m sure there’s more, but this is what comes to mind right now).

    • hannahkarena says:

      Agreed! Not only is it a smaller world, where it’s easier to travel farther, but there’s such a mixing pot in big cities, that every food imaginable is available now. I do have a diverse palate! I like anything that’s different and never order the same thing twice on a menu (unless it’s so good it’s the only reason I visited the restaurant in the first place).

      I’d say you either grew up with an extremely healthy, natural diet, or you’ve consciously tried to make your diet that way (either raised health-conscious, and your taste buds are used to it, or you’ve make choices that way). Lots of simple and fresh foods!

  2. Candace Knoebel says:

    I’d say your definitely eclectic. Loved the post. Never thought of food categorizing that way, but your examples speak volumes.

    For me:
    Enchiladas, rice and beans, cheese, cinnamon rolls, yogurt-covered raisins, did I mention cheese? Tacos, salsa, hamburgers (any kind), and…something healthy…hmm…romaine lettuce. 🙂

    • hannahkarena says:

      Lots of Mexican on your list! Did you grow up with a family or a region that appreciates Mexican food? I think the only options in my little NE region of the world are Taco Bell and On the Border. I do like making my own tacos for dinner though! (With lots and lots of cheese :])

      • Candace Knoebel says:

        Actually no, I just sort of fell in love with it. I live in Florida near tourist central so we have a little bit of everything here. Makes it easy I suppose. And yes…tons of cheese!

  3. squirrel circus says:

    I agree with Candace – your food favs are definitely diverse. I feel like I could pick out the stuff you grew up with (um, sweet potatoes?) and the stuff you acquired a taste for (Thai and salmon?).

    Mine would be…..bacon, eggs, crispy turkey skin. pizza, bagels with lox, fried rice, dark chocolate, iced coffee…….

    • hannahkarena says:

      I actually didn’t grow up with sweet potatoes–well, except at Thanksgiving. It was one of the things I looked forward to all year! Because of that–the idea that it’s such a treat–I pretty much order anything sweet potato I spot on a menu.

      Thai was a recently acquired taste. I didn’t even try Chinese food until I was sixteen. Same with salmon.

      Bagels with lox! You must have grown up in the NE near NY/NJ. (I know you’ve said you’re local in Pennsylvania, but I’d say you always came from this area based on that favorite food clue. Not many people acquire the taste for bagel and lox later in life.)

      Gosh, your list is making me hungry! And I only have a rather lame yogurt for lunch…unsatisfactory!

      • squirrel circus says:

        You know, a friend (FROM New York) brought me a bagel with lox as a lunch treat right after the boys were born – maybe it was the wacky hormones, but it’s became an instant favorite. Down in Baltimore we had Einstein Bros. Bagel places and they made a mean one!

        Sorry about the yogurt; which is definitely lame, I agree! 🙂

  4. Brett says:

    A really interesting post. Never thought of food that way. I’m not sure what your food tastes say about your personality, but they seem fairly eclectic–so perhaps you’re an eclectic person? There’s also a fair amount of warm, comfortable food, like the oatmeal, lasagna, sweet potato, etc., so perhaps you’re enjoy that homey reassurance–I know I do.

    I’m vegetarian and can attest that Thanksgiving in carnivorous company can be a challenge. I love a lot of Mediterranean and Mid-Eastern fare. I’m also a fan of Chinese, Indian, and French.

    • hannahkarena says:

      I’d say I’m eclectic. I’d also say my food choices show that I really like to try new things! I’m definitely a comfort food eater, too. Brownies are lovely, but WARM GOOEY BROWNIES are really the way to go.

      Wow, are you well-traveled? I fell like good Mediterranean, Mid-Eastern, and French food are not really common restaurants (at least, where I’m from. Maybe they are where you are!) I’d guess you fell in love with a lot of those foods first-hand, in the countries you visited. Unless perhaps being a vegetarian has made you experiment with recipes a lot!

      I feel so bad for vegetarians at my Thanksgiving. The stuffing my boyfriend’s grandmother makes is SO GOOD and in theory it should be fine and meat-free (it’s not even cooked in the turkey), expect she uses chicken stock. They just look so sad because they remember loving it way back when. Do you miss those foods, or is it just hard to be around them, period?

  5. Kat says:

    This is something that’s a focus for me in a fiction crime thriller I started (but is sitting on the back burner). My female character is a food critic with very definite opinions. Think Jeffrey Steingarten. I think one of the best things to do with a character is to define them as detailed as you can. A whole series of books that relate food and character are Jan Karon’s Mitford series, featuring Father Timothy Kavanagh, an Episcopal priest, and the fictional village of Mitford. Karon goes so far as to even have recipes that her characters make in the book available as real recipes for her readers. It spawned an actual cookbook!

    As for my favorite foods…

    Lobster, shrimp, crab, clams, hot potato salad (my mom’s recipe), hamburgers, pasta (any kind), sweet potatoes (in any form), artisanal cheeses, asparagus, peas, BLT’s, caprese salad, roast beef (mom’s recipe), raw oysters, toast, creamed rice, grits, quinoa, anything with garlic, ice cream, empanadas….(I could go on forever…I absolutely love food!)

    Can you tell I’m a mix of the north and south? (thank my parents)

    • hannahkarena says:

      I think having recipes for their characters would be a great way to characterize them. I know I always wanted a Butterbeer recipe, among others, when I read the Harry Potter books!

      I’d say…you grew up pretty near the coast or vacationed annually at the beach, because where else can you get all that wonderful seafood! Also, your mom was obviously a fabulous cook. Do they taste as good when you make those recipes yourself? There are some foods–like tuna fish, which I know is ridiculous–that I can’t enjoy unless my mom makes them for me. I just can never do it right!

      Also, garlic makes EVERYTHING better!

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