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.
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!