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Cooking Arcs for Characters

By Kathryn Pritchett
December 8, 2020

In a recent interview, author Bryan Washington shared that he c rafts a “cooking arc” for every character in his stories. While writing his latest book, Memorial, he also cooked all the meals that his characters cooked. 

Washington’s work is set in the present day, so replicating recipes seems easier for him than for a writer of historical fiction like me. It’s challenging to follow recipes that require unfamiliar ingredients like “sack” which, according to these food scholars, is a fortified white wine familiar to sherry that originated in Portugal and was used in early British cooking.

Historical or antique recipes often require cooking techniques and equipment that are, for the most part, obsolete. My homesteading characters would have used a “spider” frying pan over an open fire, something I’ve never done.

A frequent complaint about recipes from the past is that the measurements are vague—or indecipherable—and the food often doesn’t appeal to a contemporary palate. Opossum or squirrel, anyone?

But no matter the time period, feelings around food and cooking are timeless. Hunger, hospitality, creativity and comfort–these have always been part of food preparation. Ingredients, equipment and methods may vary, but the emotions connected to cooking are universal.

In my novel, The Casket Maker’s Other Wife, there are multiple scenes set in indoor and outdoor homesteading kitchens. That’s where my protagonist Anna stirs cornmeal mush, bakes bread, dries fruit leather, preserves sauerkraut and prepares the herbal remedies she used in her midwifery practice as well as interacting with family members and friends while she’s working. Because she emigrated from an established Swiss village to the American frontier, she must learn to use more rudimentary cooking implements.

This wood cook stove was manufactured by the Ohio-based Born Steel Range company and sold throughout the U.S. in the late 19th century.

After twenty years of homesteading, she ventures from a remote part of Utah Territory to Salt Lake City for midwifery training. While there, she is invited to help prepare a fancy ladies luncheon. The food is more sophisticated than her usual homesteading fare, but not so different from the food she would have known in Switzerland. Just sniffing the bowl of spices used to make mincemeat takes her back to her mother’s kitchen and the Leckerli—honey spice cookies—that recall a time of comfort and plenty in a place where bakeries and chocolate shops were part of everyday life.

Anna’s cooking arc begins in a place of relative ease but changes rapidly when she emigrates to the American West of 1869. The ladies luncheon conveys some of what she left behind and helps set up the question of whether she should return to the life she once had.

As Bryan Washington says, “I have found . . . the cooking of meals and the sharing of meals to tell many different tiny stories within the larger thing that I’m trying to answer. There are only so many rooms where people share space that every character passes through at some point in the day. A kitchen is one of those spaces.”

Woman on the Montana frontier at the end of the 19th century. Photo by Evelyn Jephson Cameron.

Look at the stories you’re writing and reading now. Are there scenes set in a kitchen? A dining room? On a picnic in the woods? Where and how are your characters interacting around food? I bet you’ll find some tasty answers.

To download a contemporary recipe for Leckerli as well as my favorite Pumpkin Cheesecake and eight other terrific holiday desserts go to paperlanternwriters.com.

Kathryn Pritchett
Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

View Kathryn’s PLW Profile

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