28 July 2023
The acclaimed romantic novelist shares advice on writing about food
Writing to me, is like walking into the kitchen and wondering what you’re going to cook for dinner every evening. You want something that will be inviting, exciting, satisfying and a crowd pleaser at the table.
This year is my ten year anniversary as a published writer and in that time I have written sixteen books and three novellas. Like all small businesses, I need ideas to keep going, like a café, restaurant, market stall, we all need ideas and it’s important to know where to look for them and find them.
I remember when I came up with the idea for my first book The Oyster Catcher, published in 2013. My husband and I were visiting Galway on a work trip for him. It rained and rained and rained. I didn’t really see Galway at all, or why people talked about it with such fondess. On our last night we went to a fish restaurant. It was a small fisherman’s cottage at the end of a row of cottages on a pier. As we walked in from the outside darkness and rain, it really was like walking into someone’s front room, warm, cosy and welcoming. The fire was roaring and the little cottage was like a tardis, with tables both downstairs and up. We shrugged off our wet coats and sat by the window, with a candle flickering on the sill there. And as we sat, it finally stopped raining. The moon came and shone brightly, a silver streak reaching out across the sea outside. And there I sat and ate oysters, spritzed with lemon and drizzled in red wine vinegar and shallot dressing. It was heaven. And I thought, this is it, this is Galway. This is sexy. I left that meal wanting to know more about oysters and Galway bay. I discovered the world of oyster growing, its history through the famine and the shell shucking competitions and oyster festival attended by people from all over the world. I realised that once I’d discovered the food of the place it had taken me by the hand and introduced me to the community, culture and characters I wanted to write about. And so The Oyster Catcher was born.
I realised that once you find the food at the heart of a town, you have found the stories within its walls.
There is nothing more satisfying than browsing a weekly food market in France, Spain or Italy to see what is being grown, what’s in season and discovering who’s cooking what for whom, sharing conversations and asking for tips from locals shopping there.
When I wrote my second book, I knew I wanted to write about Puglia where my brother was living at the time and about the olives that grow there and the olive oil that is at the heart of the rural communities there; the buzz of when to pick, dependant on the weather, the pickers arriving and making your deadline at the press. And the celebrations that follow when the oil starts to pour and the first tasting happens.
I went to a restaurant my brother knew well. The owner asked me what kind of books I wrote. I was trying to explain, I said food and love. He said they for him, life was about the food they grew on the land, to cook in the forno that smoked merrily outside, to put on the table; and he banged his hand on the table, for the ones we love, putting his hand over his heart. And at that moment I knew he had described the books I write, about the food that is grown, cooked, put on the table for the ones we love. All my books have from the start, had food at the heart of them.
So when I start to write, it’s like opening the fridge and deciding what to cook for dinner. I find the ingredient at the heart of the meal and work out what I’m going to add to it to make it into something appealing, enticing, exciting and satisfying. So, that’s how, ten years on I find ideas. It’s like picking up my shopping basket, browsing the market to work out what I’m going to cook for dinner, what’s in season, what I’m going to pair with it to create something different, new, hearty and full of love. A recipe that includes food, friendship, love and fun, and keeps my readers coming back for more.
Tips for writing food by Jo Thomas.
1. The thing we remember most from our holidays are often the meals we ate. Who we were with. Where we ate it. What we ate and how it made us feel.
2. If you’re writing a meal into your story, you want your readers to enjoy it and feel that they’re there at the table. (Unless it’s supposed to be an unpleasant experience, in which case, you still want them to react!) Food creates emotion and feelings and memories and we want to put what’s on the plate onto the page.
3. Use your senses. What does the food look like? Imagine you’re walking in a sunny market, what are the colours you can see, the textures, how big were the oranges, how high were they piled. Paint the picture using all the colours in your palate.
4. What can you hear? I love the buzz of a busy restaurant. The conversation, the contented silence, the sound of corks popping, the scrap of cutlery on plates, the clatter of mussel shells hitting a bowl. It’s all about anticipation. It’s part of the experience. What can you hear? What conversations are happening over the meal? Is it a happy gathering, a business meeting, an emotional moment? And how does it end? Putting a meal into your story can move the plot on. The expectations, the meal itself and how it ends.
5. Of course, there’s smell. How’s does your food smell? Again, all part of the anticipation. I walked into a restaurant the other day and immediately was transported to a place I remember fondly in France. I ordered the fish, which I wouldn’t usually do and still can’t stop thinking about it… or the butter and lemon sauce!
6. How does it feel? How does the food feel to the touch, on your lips, in your mouth, on your tongue? Allow us to be in the moment.
7. And of course, how does it taste? Does the lemon zing? Does the salt zip? Does the chilli bring a joyous warmth and heat?
8. But finally, and above all, how did the meal make you feel? How did you feel leaving the meal, what kind of memories did it make for you?
Summer at the Ice Cream Café by Jo Thomas is published by Penguin (£7.99)
Do you love writing about food in your fiction? Read Emma Cowell's thoughts on writing about food and friendship.