Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

“Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.” – Madeleine L’Engle

Get started on something. It doesn’t matter what. You don’t have to show it to anyone. You don’t need to have the perfect idea. You don’t even need to know where things are headed. Maybe you just have a word in mind, or just one mental image, and you build around it.

Time for today’s story starter.


Dr. Sorensen looked in the window of the classroom door. She could see Ian sitting on the floor, his still-slightly-baby-fat legs lying flat around a coloring book. He had an orange crayon in his fist and he was coloring intently.

“If you can’t reach him, today, we’re taking him out of the therapy,” said Ian’s mother.

“When was Ian’s last tantrum?” Dr. Sorensen asked.

“This morning. He wanted Sugar Pops and we were out of them.”

“And how did he express that preference?”

“I gave him Raisin Bran, and he threw a tantrum about it.”

“What was the end result of that outburst?”

“I made him pancakes. That always calms him down.”

Dr. Sorensen nodded—not in agreement or sanction, but simply to signal message received. “To your knowledge, does Ian use any sign?”

“Sign? Like sign language? No, we don’t know any in our house. He just points and whines.”

“Those gestures can be a form of home sign. Does he have specific whines or ways of pointing that differ in different circumstances?”

“Not that I know of. But then I get so crazy when he starts bellyaching.”

Dr. Sorensen didn’t respond to that. “I’m ready now.”

“What’s in the box?” Ian’s mother asked. She indicated the large case with the red handle in Dr. Sorensen’s hands.

“It’s a tool that I think might help Ian,” Dr. Sorensen said. “You’re free to watch from the door.”

“Today,” said Ian’s mother. “You have to reach him today. Or you’re fired.”

Dr. Sorensen sat down across from Ian. The classroom tile floor was cold and hard—much harder on her hipbones than on Ian’s four-year-old thighs. She propped the closed case up in her lap.

“Hi, Ian,” she said.

Ian’s eyes strayed up at her for a moment, then snapped back to his coloring without a word. But his gaze slipped past the case. Dr. Sorensen watched as Ian’s coloring paused in realization, and then his blue eyes slowly raised to the case.

Dr. Sorensen snapped open the latches. Ian blinked with each latch.

“Would you like to see what I’ve got in here, Ian? It’s a friend I’ve brought.”

She opened the case. It had hinges on the side like a door, and it swung open. Inside there was a mass of thin strings attached to the arms, legs, and head of a multi-jointed puppet. At the other end of each of the strings was a bar. The puppet looked like a knight in silver plate armor.

“It’s called a marionette, Ian. It’s a kind of puppet. His name is Sir Reginald. Would you like to see him?”


I don’t know why I was thinking about a marionette today, but I was, and I knew that was going to end up in my story starter tonight. It was an unpolished one, maybe, but there might be the seeds of something interesting there. I hope I don’t dream of creepy marionettes tonight, though.

Dinnerbrag: Tonight the girlfriend and I celebrated Valentine’s Day with dinner at the Barking Frog in Woodinville, WA. We had popcorn lobster — batter-fried pieces of lobster with a ginger-mirin dipping sauce. Apple and chestnut soup. Roasted beets with goat cheese and vanilla honey. Duck breast with rosemary pappardelle, chanterelles, and a truffle cream sauce. Pan-seared halibut on a bed of vegetables and fried risotto. And chevre cheesecake creme with orange sections and pistachios. Oh, my.


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Wherefore art thou pancakePancakes are the breakfast chameleon, the food of a thousand faces, the Proteus of the pan. The basic recipe follows, but it’s the variations that get me all excited.

1 cup all-purpose flour (or 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup wheat flour) 
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 cup milk (or buttermilk)
1 large egg
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Mix the dry ingredients together (through salt) in a large bowl. Mix the wet ingredients together (milk through oil). Whisk the wet into the dry until you have a batter that will coat the back of a spoon. Don’t overmix–you don’t want to form gluten and make your pancakes tough. Pour out scant 1/4 cups of the batter onto a hot griddle or pan over medium heat. Cook for a few minutes on each side, flipping once.

This Sunday-morning superhero dresses in a variety of costumes. Try any of these variations:

  • Apple-cinnamon pancakes: Add 1 medium apple, shredded, and 1 tsp ground cinnamon to the batter. Serve with brown sugar and butter.
  • Banana pancakes: Add 1 large mashed banana to the batter. Serve with toasted walnuts.
  • Pear pancakes: Add 1 medium pear, shredded, and 1 tsp lemon juice to the batter.
  • Lemon pancakes: Add the zest of 1 lemon and half of its juice to the batter. Serve with powdered sugar. Or chocolate chips. Oh yes. Also works great with an orange or other citrus fruit.
  • Berry pancakes: After you pour your pancakes onto the pan, quickly drop 4-8 small berries into the batter. Works well with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cut-up strawberries. I like to keep plenty of syrup on hand to balance the added tartness.
  •  Hearty oat pancakes: Add 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 cup rolled oats (or even leftover oatmeal) to the batter. Great with fruit served on top. Also works with just about any hearty, non-sugary cereal with small pieces; muesli-style cereals with dates and raisins work great.
  • Candy bar pancakes: Add 1/4 cup shredded coconut and 1/4 cup toasted walnuts to the batter. Drop chocolate chips into the pancakes as they cook.

Inspired by the deliciousness of pancakes, my girlfriend and I once imagined a pancake-based superhero whose name was Flapjack. His power consisted of emitting huge pancakes the size of mattresses, which would enravel and trap bad guys in griddle-hot justice. His catch phrase was, “You’ve just been FLAPJACKED!” And now you have been, too.

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Heroes Don’t Eat

“Coffee’s for closers.” — Alec Baldwin, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

In stories, food is comfort. Food is home. Food symbolizes that life is going all hunky-dory and that there’s plenty of time to enjoy simple pleasures.

Therefore I believe that protagonists don’t get to eat.

Good stories make protagonists suffer. If your protagonist is eating, it’s a sign that things aren’t bad enough for him, and you need to revise.

Food represents the status quo. In the Monomyth, a comforting meal represents the Known, the commonplace world where the hero begins, the regaining of which is the ultimate purpose of the quest into the Unknown. If your hero is sitting down and having a pleasant nosh, he is not adventuring. He is putting his basic bodily hunger above the needs of his lofty goals. In essence he is saying, “I kind of want to pursue my destiny, but it can wait until I finish this basket of fries.”

But maybe, you say, a scene where your hero enjoys a little meal is a good way to break tension. Maybe it’s a nice plateau for your characters to rest on during their trek up Plot Mountain, and a nice bit of relief for the reader who could use a breather after all that stress.


Food is so powerful a symbol–the enjoyment of food is so etched into the language of our lives and of our tales of them–that I argue you don’t get to use food as a positive device for your hero during the body of the plot. The hero has to be upset, because for her, the world is upset. And you can’t be upset and lick delectable grease off your fingers at the same time.

Now, you’re free to use food negatively, to reinforce your protagonist’s misery, absolutely. Your hero can repeatedly mutter, “I’m not hungry,” shoving away the plate of delicious grub, demonstrating her upsetness and her preoccupation with how bad things are. That helps the reader sort out what’s important to the hero. The reader wants your hero to get what she wants, and having the hero refuse the comfort of food is a sure sign that what she wants is not mere temporary, immediate comfort, but to achieve her distant, grand, ultimate goal.

Think about Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. Sam tries repeatedly to get him to eat lembas bread, but Frodo just won’t take it. The poor Ringbearer might choke down a few crumbs, but his heart ain’t in it. The magic of the ring and the crushing weight of bearing it is consuming him. The choking fumes of the mountain fill the air, and Sauron’s eye sweeps the rock, looking to kill him. It is no time for a picnic.

Contrast that with the unctious Denethor, Steward of Gondor, in Peter Jackson’s movie The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While his son fights a hopeless battle, Denethor callously munches on a tray of stringy chicken and bursts grape tomatoes in his teeth. It’s wonderfully sickening imagery: the perfect way to demonstrate Denethor’s inhumanity. And it shows how, whenever good has yet to prevail, food can serve as no comfort.

Sure, technically your hero is assumed to be eating somewhere along the way. If your story spans a lifetime, food has obviously been consumed in there someplace. But as you write, don’t focus on it. Let a comforting, home-cooked meal be the reward at the end, not a source of comfort in the middle. Let a batch of fresh cookies float tantalizingly out of reach. In the meantime, keep that reader hungry. Don’t feed your hero.

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Chapter One, Page One

Getting down that first line of writing is always rough. It’s like the first pancake — it’s going to stick weird, brown wrongly, and look heinous. That ghastly thing will be unpresentable, and your cooking skills are going to be seriously in question by yourself and others. If Ina Garten saw that floppy thing, she would laugh merrily in your face, and then stab you. You may not be fit to prepare food and you should probably just be put down.

These thoughts are normal. The important thing is to continue making pancakes. If everybody let these thoughts stop them, then no one would ever get to breakfast. Or write novels. Just pour that thing out there, let it ruin itself, and get on with it.

Easier said. But that’s what this blog is — an attempt to follow my own advice, both about writing and about food. Pour it out. Make a mess. In fact, make many, many messes, in the hope that lying somewhere under the maple syrup there will occasionally be some good-looking pancakes.

The truth, when it comes right down to it, is that I cannot manage to think about food or about writing without thinking that they are excellent metaphors for one another, so I have just given up trying to think about them as separate things. They are twined together like a strip of salty bacon and a fat, sweet sea scallop, or like the sadistic dance of a protagonist and villain. I eat and I write. That is basically it.

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