When should a character in a book eat? If you stopped the action every time your lead character took a sip of water or grabbed a cookie – or every time he ran off to the bathroom, or ascended a flight of stairs, or scratched his ear, for that matter – your book would start to feel like an endless, plotless, postmodern experiment.
Still, food can be important. In Jane Austen’s books it’s often mentioned as an indicator of class. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sometimes has Sherlock Holmes skip meals, or grab a simple crust of bread every fifteen hours, to show his unswerving intellectual concentration (just as he often doesn’t sleep for days on end when embroiled in a tough case). The series that uses food best, in my opinion, is C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, in which it can be anything from a comfort (hot chocolate with the Badgers) to a plot point (Turkish Delight). Anyway it’s important to people what food books have in them. It’s no accident that you can buy Butterbeer, or a cookbook based on George R.R. Martin’s novels.
In my own books food is most often a moment for respite. I write Victorian detective novels, and my lead detective, Charles Lenox, will come in from the cold for tea and toast, or wake up and read the papers over a breakfast of eggs and kippers. I don’t think I took this from my own life – I like to write with coffee and a bagel, or sometimes in the afternoon with a piece of fruit. (Agatha Christie came up with her stories in the bathtubs, eating apples.) So for me food and working are equated. For Lenox, though, food is a break, a time to be with his wife, Lady Jane, or his friends, or simply to reflect. Life in Victorian London, particularly if you had money, seems very stately in retrospect, but of course it would have seemed very busy to Lenox, who in addition to being a detective is a Member of Parliament and (now, in the sixth book, A Death in the Small Hours) a father.
I’m thinking of this subject because the proprietors of this website have asked me for a recipe. What can I offer? I like to make Italian food, and I’ve baked (though I prefer cooking). But none of that seems quite right. So instead I’ll offer my personal steps to making a pot of tea.
1) Boil water and warm your teapot with hot water from the faucet.
2) Take a good dark tea (I like Hu-Kwa or Lapsang Souchong) and measure out a tablespoon for each cup of water you’ll use, plus one for the pot.
3) Get a mug or a cup. I like a cup and saucer. Add half-a-teaspoon of sugar.
4) Only when the water starts to boil, empty your teapot, throw the leaves in (it doesn’t matter if they get wet for an instant) and then pour the water over the leaves while it’s still boiling. (George Orwell emphasizes that point, and it’s important.)
5) Let it steep for six minutes. Five, if you like lighter tea.
6) Pour your tea over your sugar. Add a splash of milk. Yes, I’m a milk-second person. Adding the milk beforehand is traditional and quaint, but you can never make sure you have the right amount.
7) Find a book (it doesn’t have to be one of mine, though if it is I recommend you start with A Beautiful Blue Death) and a chair. Enjoy. Refill. Add toast as necessary.
What’s your recipe?