by Sandra Antonelli
A few readers have pointed out that my books are full of scenes where the characters are eating. I was startled to discover this was true, but it’s not something I did on purpose. I’m not a plotter. I write in an organic way where things sprout and grow together in an unconscious way that may or may not reveal itself until the very end. While this may happen innately, there is part of my brain that knows that food is vital when it comes to character and setting.
For example, if I say steak and kidney pie, you might think England. The words Beluga caviar and martini may cause you to imagine James Bond. Like people, a country can have a food identity. Italy is all about pasta. Greece has its lamb. Like a country, a city can have a food identity. Chicago is known for its hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. New Mexico is known for its green chile.
I once lived in Chicago, the bustling metropolis that often doubles for Gotham City. The Blues Brother called it home. Frank Sinatra sang about it being his ‘kind of town’. My Best Friend’s Wedding, and The Time Traveler’s Wife were filmed there. It has two baseball teams, outstanding art and science museums, a gorgeous lakefront setting and spectacular architecture, but mostly Chicago, the setting for Driving in Neutral and the forthcoming Next to You, has phenomenal food. I’m talking diners that sell pie and coffee. I’m talking deep-dish pizza, tasty hot dogs, Greek food, Polish food, German food, Italian food, Ethiopian food, Indian food… oh, kids, the Indian food in Chicago is om nom nom nommy.
Because my brain identifies with food, my om nom nom food experiences in Chicago led me to write a scene where Olivia, the heroine in Driving in Neutral, ponders her life over a Chicago diner slice of lemon meringue pie. The hero, Emerson, interrupts her musing by having the gall to break off the crust of her pie—and eat it—because he can’t resist pie or Olivia.
Similarly, my incredible Chicago-based Indian food dinners meant that William Murphy, the bubblegum-pop-loving hero in Next to You, simply had to share his palak paneer with Caroline, his new next-door neighbour. My food brain identified the setting, and matched a food that acknowledged my experience with Chicago, and matched a food that’s best when shared—and what better food to share than Indian?
A Basic Renovation and For Your Eyes Only both set in Los Alamos, a small town in the US state of New Mexico. New Mexico is, quite simply, the most beautiful place I have ever been. It’s called the ‘Land of Enchantment’, but really, it should be called the ‘Land of Food Enchantment’ because Holy Mother of Santa Fe, the GREEN CHILE! And, as John Tilbrook in For Your Eyes Only, notes, there is nothing more unattractive or delicious than green chile, and nothing more attractive and delicious than seeing Willa Heston spill green chile on her blouse.
My theory about a country and a city having an identity may fail to explain the onion rings that are so prevalent in A Basic Renovation. Onion rings aren’t exactly identified with a city. But, when you get down to brass tacks, A Basic Renovation is really about Lesley, a woman who loves onions rings, and Dominic, the man who proves his love for her with onion rings. Also, the book is set in New Mexico and there is a scene that takes place over green chile, because my brain says New Mexico is all about green chile. Q.E.D. Oh, I’m good.
I’m also very hungry. Aren’t you?
For Lesley and Dominic, this basic renovation has becomes a major life refurbishment…