Let’s Share a Meal: The Importance Food in Storytelling

"Food is our common ground, a universal experience." — James Beard

Sharing a meal with the Gertners in Pentiment. (Screenshot by me.)

Food is a crucial part of daily life for every person — and it’s a vital part of our cultural experience. What kinds of food we consume, how we consume them, and with whom says a lot about us as people and the community in which we live.

In storytelling, food can play an equally important role, revealing information about the characters and their world. Does the character return alone home to an empty fridge and toss cup of noodles in the microwave? Or do they sit down to a large meal with their family every evening? The types of food and how the characters interact with each other — isolated or austere and conversationally cold or warm and chaotic — reveals a lot about their situation, their relationships with one another, and their world.

Beth Cato, author of the Clockwork Dagger series, highlights the importance of Turkish delights, the sugary confection that plays a key role in corrupting Edmund in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an iconic example of food in fantasy fiction. In her essay she discuses the way in which the portrayal of food not only helps to make the world feel more rich and alive, but also provides the reader with another way to connect to the story — as she notes,

Food is incredible like that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the Force. It’s what binds people together within and across cultures and eras. As a worldbuilding element, it’s essential because what we eat (and don’t eat) is personal, is religious, is a snapshot of our very moment in time.

Numerous examples exist of authors using food explore the world in their books. One of my favorite food novels is definitely Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquirel. In this Mexican fairy tale, a young woman named Tita pours her emotions into the food she cooks with magical results. Each chapter begins with a recipe — quail in rose petal sauce, chabela wedding cake, or turkey mole with almonds and sesame seeds, for example — offering the reader a pathway into traditional Mexican cooking, as well as into the Tita’s heart and soul.

In a dystopian novel like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, food plays a vital role of showing the inequalities of the world. The people of District 12 are nearly starving, and Katniss has to illegally hunt outside the fences in order to keep her family fed. But when she’s swept away to participate in the games, she is greeted with copious amounts of rich, decadent foods, reflecting the opulence and wealth of the the Capital:

The moment I slide into my chair I’m served an enormous platter of food. Eggs, ham, piles of fried potatoes. A tureen of fruit sits in ice to keep it chilled. The basket of rolls they set before me would keep my family going for a week.

Meanwhile in scifi and fantasy settings, food can reflect the unique aspects of the worlds in which the characters live and explore. For example, in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, the human and alien crew of the spaceship Wayfarer consume insects because they are “cheap, rich in protein, and easy to cultivate in cramped rooms, which made them an ideal food for spacers.” Depending on whether or not the reader comes from culture that eats insects, this may feel strange, but ultimately it’s a practical choice for the characters, who do not find it strange at all. And as Nayana George, an academic at the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Christ University, India, points out in her essay, the act of cooking and sharing food within the novel plays a role in bringing the Wayfarer crew together, alowing them to create a kind of found family.

Examples On Screen

When I think about the portrayal of food in film, I can’t help but picture the opening of Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), directed by Ang Lee, in which a father and former head chef, Chu (Sihung Lung), lovingly cooks a traditional Chinese meal for his family. The first time I watched this scene, I was immediately captivated by the intricacy and care with which Chu crafts the meal — and I found myself drooling. The scene perfectly sets up the importance of food and sharing meals as part of how this family stays connected with each other, despite their separate lives — with the diner table being a central place for connection, confrontation, and confession throughout the movie.

Studio Ghibli films are also well known for their intricate and delicious portrayals of food. Though my personal favorite might be Howl sweeping in and cooking a simple meal of eggs and bacon in Howl’s Moving Castle, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Up until this point, Howl has seemed magical and ethereally untouchable. The act of cooking a meal humanizes him and finally grounds him as someone approachable and even welcoming.

Here’s a rapid fire of other examples I can think of for excellent representations of food in film (links are for clips that may contain spoilers):

  • In Babette’s Feast (1887, directed by Gabriel Axel), the titular Babette decides to cook an elaborate multi-course French dinner for members of her local Dannish community, despite their judgemental attitudes toward her. The result is an amazing portrayal of the way food can bring people together.

  • In The Menu (2022, directed by Mark Mylod), Chef Slowik serves a meal of elaborately metaphorical, deconstructed food that ultimately lacks heart, demonstrating how disconnected fine dinning can be from the actual joy of eating. This also reflects the discussion of consumption and exploitation explored throughout the movie.

  • In Ratatouille (2007, directed by Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava), the characters present conflict between food made for simple financial gain and food made with passion. It also reveals how a simple, well made meal can bring us back to our sense of childhood love and delight.

  • In Marie Antoinette (2006, directed by Sofia Coppola), the vibrant, pastel colored cakes and elaborate meals reflect the doll-like nature of Antoinette’s existence and the royalty’s disconnection from the troubles of the average person in 18th century France.

Sharing a Meal in Pentiment

Pentiment — the story-based adventure game from Obsidian Entertainment — is the reason I’m writing this post. Set in 16th century in the fictional town of Tassing, Bavaria, the game follows Andreas Maler, an illuminator (artist for manuscripts) working at the local abbey, as he investigates the murder of a Baron. During the investigation, Andreas explores the town and speaks to the locals, trying to draw out the truth about who might have the cause and means for murder.

Some of the most interesting moments in the gameplay is when Andreas joins one of the local families for a meal. The act of sitting down for lunch or dinner plays several important roles in the game, including marking the passage of time by moving the day forward. It also reveals a significant amount of information about the family and their social class, as well as being a space for discussion, local gossip, and family arguments. It also allows us to see what kinds of foods were eaten during that time period in Bavaria, enabling the player to feel more connected to this historical moment.

The meal may be meager or grandiose, depending on the host’s means. For example, meals provided by members of the lower classes may include a couple of slices of rye bread and porridge in the case of the Gertners or a slim amount of jerky, mountain cheese, and a few almonds in the case of Smokey (the charcoal burner who lives in the woods).

A meal of jerky, mountain cheese, and a few almonds with Smokey.
(Screenshot by me.)

Middle-class and wealthy hosts, on the other hand, are able to provide meals with richer proteins and with more elaborate presentation. For example, the Druckers (who are middle-class printers of books) are able to offer a meal of sausage, farmer’s bread, and egg pasta, while Lady Salomea (wife to the late Baron of Rothvogel) provides a meal of Emmental cheese, frumenty, wheat bread, and quail.

A meal of sausage, farmer’s bread, and egg pasta at the Druckers.
(Screenshot by me.)

Sitting down with the host and their family, brings the meal into tight, intimate focus for the player — highlighting the importance of the food in these moments. As the meal progresses, conversations take place, questions are asked, and as the player selects food to eat, the meal slowly fades away until a mostly empty plate is left behind, showing the progression of time.

A meal of Emmental cheese, frumenty, wheat bread, and quail with Lady Salomea. (Source: Media Kit.)

A number of other games also use food and/or cooking in different ways to enhance it’s worldbuilding and storytelling. In Starfield, food plays a role in reflecting the diverse human cultures exploring the galaxy, while in Mutazione, the player has the option to visit Mori’s Stirfry and have Mori cook meals using the organic plant-life and fauna of the island that the player has helped preserve through gardening.

More on role of food in games can be found in the article by Wojtek Borowicz, who also discusses Pentiment, as well as the games Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (developed by Edelweiss), Overcooked (Ghost Town Games), and Venba (Visai Games).

Final Thoughts

With food and meal sharing being such an essential part of human experience, it makes sense that it would also be a powerful tool in storytelling. As Jacqueline Carey, author of Kushiel's Dart, in her essay on her culinary journey, both in her writing and in her personal life:

I know not everyone is as passionate about food as I am, so I try not to go overboard in my writing. But details that invoke any of the five senses are part of what creates an immersive experience for the reader. So for as long as I continue to write, there will be food references sprinkled throughout my storytelling—just the right amount, hopefully; the perfectly balanced level of seasoning.

What are some of your favorite descriptions or portrayals of food and shared meals in books, on screen, or in games? How might you apply food, cook, and meal sharing to reveal details about your world and characters?

Recent Publications

I had a lovely conversation with Jes Negrón, founder of RETCON GAMES, about her recently released cozy horror game, Good Bones. In the interview (published in SUPERJUMP), she shares insights about founding her new studio and her game development process. She notes:

I wanted to start off with a point-and-click game that set a good bar for the tone I want to hit with the company’s projects. Good Bones is a deeply personal story–it reflects a lot of my background as a Latina and the issues we face in our communities. That’s not a tale that often gets told in games, which means there’s a swath of people out there who love games and never get to see themselves in them. That’s my ultimate goal for RETCON. I want people of all different kinds of backgrounds to see themselves in the games we make.

While looking through some old files, I stumbled upon a short video I made briefly discussing my development process for creating What Lies Underneath, a creepy little Bitsy adventure game that you can play online for free. So I decided to go ahead and share it:


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