Great writers and my mom never used food as an object. Instead it was a medium, a catalyst to mend hearts, to break down barriers, to build relationships.
— Lizzy from Lizzy & Jane
I had tremendous fun researching the relationship between writers and food for my latest novel, Lizzy & Jane. And in all that yummy reading, I discovered that Jane Austen was not a foodie. She doesn’t sit characters down and regale us with savory, succulent, over-the-top descriptions of food and then allow her characters to recount every bite. And the few times they do – we like them the less for it. Yes, Mr. Elton, I’m talking to you – and you too, Mrs. Bennet.
But, while Jane Austen wasn’t a foodie, she did use food in all her stories. Food revealed motivation, clarified relationships or shined a bright light – good and bad – on some of her players. We see poor, ailing Mary Musgrove in Persuasion downing cold meats upon our first introduction; we gasp
as Jane Fairfax in Emma refuses some arrowroot “of very superior quality”; we cringe as Mrs. Jennings in Sense & Sensibility hopes that Marianne can be “tempted to eat by every delicacy in the house.” We also watch Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice count courses and wield food as status and social weapons; we smile as Mr. Knightley (Emma) gives only of his own foods and offers them personally; and we join Elinor (Sense & Sensibility), in a time of great distress, for a quick simple meal to keep up her strength for Marianne.
It’s not the food that grabs our attention – it’s how Austen uses the food. Mary Musgrove was not really ailing – she was a whiner. Jane Fairfax didn’t dislike arrowroot. She was bolding telling Emma, operating as Highbury’s Lady Bountiful, that she “was not at all in want of anything . . .” In other words, Back off, Emma. And Mrs. Jennings? That well-meaning woman really had no clue – so she was throwing the whole kitchen at Marianne in hopes that something could stopper Marianne’s sobs.
I tried to remember these lessons in Lizzy & Jane. And Lizzy, a New York chef, begins the story not fully grasping them.
Another memory flashed before my eyes. It was from that same spring; Mom was baking a cake to take to a neighbor who’d had a knee replacement.
“We don’t have enough chocolate.” I shut the cabinet door.
“We’re making an orange cake, not chocolate.”
“Chocolate is so much better.”
“Then we’re lucky it’s not for you. Mrs. Conner is sad and she hurts and it’s spring. The orange cake will not only show we care, it’ll bring sunshine and spring to her dinner tonight. She needs that.”
“It’s just a cake.”
“It’s never just a cake, Lizzy.”
I remembered the end of that lesson: I rolled my eyes—Mom loathed that—and received dish duty. But it turned out okay; the batter was excellent.
I shoved the movie reel of scenes from my head. They didn’t fit in my world. Food was the object. Arrowroot was arrowroot. Cake was cake. And if it was made with artisan dark chocolate and vanilla harvested by unicorns, all the better. People would crave it, order it, and pay for it. Food wasn’t a metaphor—it was the commodity—and to couch it in other terms was fatuous. The one who prepared it best won.
But Lizzy learns – as we all do at Austen’s feet… I hope this tiny culinary adventure has whet your appetite and shown you yet another aspect of Austen’s incomparable brilliance. And the next time you pick up your favorite Austen novel, pick out a food reference or two and be sure to savor all they reveal.
Happy, Yummy, Reading!