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The Food of Fiction: When Flavor Fits the Narrative

04/07/2015 01:23 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

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Odds are good you can't look at the image above without at least a glimmer of nostalgia: the rush of excitement at hearing tinkling calliope music, the almost frantic gathering of pocketed coins and crumbled dollars, the race down the sidewalk to get in line, and that unforgettable taste of sun-softened ice cream dripping down your chin. Is there any memory sweeter?

The photo was chosen for the cover of Hysterical Love not only because of that sense memory--and the fact that it's a favorite of mine--but also because the narrative involves the recurring theme of an ice cream truck, one of two confection obsessions of the protagonist (the other being pie), used both tangibly and symbolically throughout the story. That the image also strikes a chord of whimsy just makes it all the more captivating as the book's visual statement!

Food and fiction have, in fact, been deliciously commingled since the dawn of... well, food and fiction. The connecting of these two pleasures has long delighted audiences of both visual and written storytelling, imbuing tales of every kind with sensory reminders of tasting something really good. Who could forget the famous "fig eating scene" in Women In Love, the utterly delectable cooking scenes of Eat Drink Man Woman, and tell me if any installment of The Godfather didn't get you hankering for a plate of spaghetti (with a little sugar in the sauce, of course!).

In novel form, there's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which not only provoked serious sociopolitical thought, but got readers salivating for that unique Southern side dish. Nora Ephron's Heartburn gave us the drama of a heartbroken cookbook writer and a raft of excellent recipes. Beloved titles like Emile Zola's The Belly of Paris, Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate, and Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients all weave food--its preparation, its elements, its joyful consumption--into the twists and turns of their narratives.

But despite these visceral connections to pleasures of the palate, the device takes nothing away from the depth and and drama of stories told. One of my personal favorites, Bread Alone by Judith R. Hendricks, follows the literal and figurative journey of a woman devastated by her husband's announcement that their marriage is over. Her flight to escape heartbreak and reinvent her life lands her in a new city and a familiar job--bread baker--and through connections made, to the people she meets and the warm, comforting loaves she bakes, healing is found. Beautiful. And I immediately wanted a Rose's Bakery Tortano Loaf!

Another title in the genre is Jodi Picoult's Handle With Care, a gut-wrenching story of a severely disabled child and the impact of her care on her family and surrounding circle. While the narrative pricks painful debate about the responsibility of doctors, the resiliency of friendship, and the agony of struggling to survive when every day brings new, and costly, trauma, delectable relief is found in the intermittent recipes, creations of the child's mother, who was once a topnotch pastry chef and who now finds solace and pleasure in baking. The device not only offers useful tips and enticements to pull out the flour and vanilla, it sprinkles wisdom wherever it can amidst the prose of pastry.

My offering to the genre, Hysterical Love, comes with no recipes, no suggested meal combinations, and no history of cultural cuisine. What it does come with is an ice cream and pie loving portrait photographer, Dan McDowell, who finds himself in a moment of existential crises. His pending marriage is tossed after a misunderstanding about an "ex-girlfriend overlap," and life itself is thrown into chaos when his father takes critically ill. It's when Dan finds a story written decades earlier by this man he struggles to understand, one that speaks of a lost love for whom he still pines, that the "time/space continuum" literally seems to shudder. Incapable of fixing his own romantic dilemma, Dan is compelled to find this mysterious woman from the past, convinced she holds the key to happiness for them all.

And the food throughline? Before, during, and everywhere along the way of Dan's journey, he seeks the comfort of his favorite confections: home-baked pie and the toffee ice cream bars from his neighborhood ice cream truck. That motif is interwoven throughout the tale, often to hilarious effect, vaunting those simple food items into enduring emotional touchstones. By the time the unexpected and poignant conclusion is reached, readers just might find themselves yearning for a warm slice ala mode...and maybe taking sweeter notice of the jingling ice cream trucks wending its way down their own neighborhood streets.

For other titles deliciously connecting food to fiction, be sure check out Delicious Reads: 50 Fabulous Food Novels.

Hysterical Love cover designed by Grace Amandes; photograph by LDW.

To access Hysterical Love click title.

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2015-03-24-1427183048-6439243-HLfrontcover_sm.jpg Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Rock+Paper+Music. To purchase copies of her books, including her debut novel, After The Sucker Punch, and her latest release, Hysterical Love, visit her author pages at either Amazon or Smashwords. To view the book trailer for After the Sucker Punch, click here, and be sure to follow her adventures in publishing at her book blog, AfterTheSuckerPunch.com. Find details and links to all her work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com

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