Through the Stomach and Into the Heart

poya1yj5kwvzc1I really like food, but I think I’ve become a bit inured to most food scenes in romance novels.  All the dessert-cum-sex scenes have melded together, to the point where all I can think about is the mess.  I’m not really into strawberries and champagne, so if the hero starts waving them around, my mind starts wandering.  And then you’ve got the chefs – I like them, but I think the proliferation of TV chefs, and the sheer accessibility of gourmet gastronomy, have taken away some of the luster of the professional kitchen.

The most memorable scenes, I find, occur outside the gourmet and professional arenas.  I remember very clearly the beginning of Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter, when St. Vincent provides a hamper of food for the starving Evie, who proceeds to devour the thinly sliced meats and cheeses sandwiched between buttermilk bread.  There’s something equally delicate and decadent about the thin, savory layers (and geez, buttermilk bread) that conveys the indulgence of St. Vincent’s life, which contrasts heavily with Evie’s prior existence.  Plus, it just sounds good.

Then there are some good dinner scenes courtesy of Jayne Ann Krentz, particularly in Deep Waters and Family Man.  In the former, Elias and Charity set up vegetarian cooking competitions, which double as their courtship – do you remember the night that Elias out-spices Charity with his wasabi ice cream?  And in the latter, Luke (a totally inept cook) tries to impress Katy (a gourmand) with his culinary skills, hiring a chef to teach him how to prepare a dinner.  The salad is soggy, the pasta mushy, and it’s an all-round failure – except, of course, that Katy accepts his proposal.

But after making a list of culinary scenes, the ones that packed the hardest punch for me all involved some very prosaic breakfasts:

  • Biscuits… Jo Goodman’s Never Love a Lawman has many good qualities, but the prickly courtship between Rachel and Wyatt is the reason I keep re-reading it, and Rachel’s biscuits take prime place.  Wyatt sees that the only way through Rachel’s thorny exterior is through the side door, so to speak, so he finagles Rachel into providing warm, flaky, dissolve-in-your-mouth biscuits for his early morning patrols, once a week, on alternating Thursdays and Sundays.  The ritual doesn’t last very long, because pesky things like plot and character development push things along – but man.  Every time those biscuits come up, I can feel Rachel (and myself) melting.
  • Corn Muffins… Among Jayne Ann Krentz’s many goodies from the 1990s, my favorite is Grand Passion, and one of its most evocative scenes occurs during breakfast.  Cleo wears gold-toned sneakers with metallic laces, and tears into corn muffins with gusto.  Max wears European shirts and slacks, cuts the muffin into exactly even quarters, and drizzles honey with the focused precision of a Borgia.  It’s a short scene, and yet it succinctly illustrates their differences while making Cleo absolutely fascinated with this oh-so-attractive alien.
  • Marmalade… Second Thyme Around, by Katie Fforde, features a chef as a hero, so the gourmet kitchen scenes abound.  But my favorite one is at the end, when Lucas takes Perdita to his Scottish bothy so she can have some TLC.  There, they sleep, cry, and make love, and the next morning he makes them a simple breakfast, nothing more than bacon, eggs, and toast and marmalade.  They talk about their difficulties while married ten years ago; they discuss why it didn’t work then, and why it will work now.  And then they kiss (which tastes pleasantly, apparently, of marmalade), and make love again.  No strawberries or champagne necessary – just a morning meal and communication, pared to essentials.  Beautifully done.
  • …and Chewy Coffee. In Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven, the heroine comes perilously close to annoying perfection.  However, there’s one thing that keeps Elizabeth Cameron just on this side of sympathy, rather than total irritation.  See, Elizabeth can bargain like a horse trader, dust like a Dyson, walk like a queen, and has the greenest garden this side of Kew – what she cannot do is cook.  In trying to be useful in Ian Thornton’s Scottish hut, her eggs become a congealed brown gunk, her biscuits are harder than bricks, and her coffee requires chewing to digest.  Mind you, I’m not indulging in schadenfreude; it’s just a relief to have evidence that, yes, Elizabeth is undoubtedly larger than life, but she has flaws.  And as I sigh with relief and forgive her perfections, something melts in Ian as well, and marks the beginning of months of resentment fading away.

So there are my favorite food scenes in romance novels.  Now before I go off to make some corn muffins, it’s your turn: Which food scenes are memorable for you?  And are you drawn to the gourmet kitchen, sweet & sexy, or prosaic and homey?

- Jean AAR

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25 Responses to Through the Stomach and Into the Heart

  1. Katja says:

    Not a romance novel, but since it’s been reviewed here: Every time I re-read Sunshine by Robin McKinley I get serious cravings for some of the baked goods that Sunshine bakes. Those cinnamon rolls ….

  2. Katja says:

    Oops, submitted to early.

    The way Sunshine expresses her love and commitment to her family and her customers by providing food for them is something I can totally relate to as well.

  3. Leigh says:

    I don’t pay that much attention to the food because I don’t remember books for food scenes but I love reading about heroine or hero that can cook. It is the idea that they are nurturing others that captivates me along with the creative process. Give me a heroine or hero that is a chef, or baker and I am going to read the book

  4. Ell says:

    Mary Stewart almost always included the description of a meal in her books that was beautifully, deliciously, almost erotically detailed – I can never read/reread her work when I’m on a diet. Just the way she describes butter melting on hot bread….oy!

  5. lauren says:

    As a lover of food I have found myself paying attention to it more than I thought…something about a fresh baked biscuit dripping with butter or anything with cheese, my personal weakness. But give me mashed potatoes…gravy and a alpha male hero and well…….

  6. dick says:

    Krahn’s “The Marriage Test” included some great food and odors of cooking passages, most of which were directly related to the central plot. Just the descriptiions of the spices the heroine uses make one’s taste buds tingle.

  7. Susan/DC says:

    Sarah Addison Allen often has food and a touch of magic in her books. In “The Girl Who Chased the Moon”, the hero can see as well as smell the love the heroine bakes into her cakes.

    In Aimee Bender’s “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”, there is also food and magic. The book begins when Rose turns 8 and suddenly can taste the emotions of the cook in the food she eats. Definitely not a romance.

    And of course there’s Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate”. Between the passion and the food, it’s amazing I didn’t either burst into flames or gain 10 pounds when I read it.

  8. Kathryn says:

    Cooking factors into so many Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick books. There’s the catering business in “Trust Me”, the robotics kitchen in “Absolutely, Positively”, the spice mix in “Mystique”and simple dinners in many other books. Like Leigh, I think part of it relates to a sense of nurturing. But I’ve always thought that Krentz uses it as short-hand to show a practical competency on the part of the heroine and a need for nurturing on the part of the more alpha heroes. Frequently her heroes envision a future of family gathered around the table as code for their realization that they want the relationship to last.

  9. Jean Wan says:

    Katja – I totally forgot about Sunshine, but I think I was too focused on Constantine to pay attention to much else.

    Leigh – I realized when I thought about food scenes that I didn’t really care whether or not the hero(ine) was cooking; as long as the scene wasn’t just gratuitous food description and added something to the scene, I was okay with it. But I think some authors have gone a little overboard. It’s like gratuitous clothing description – does it have to do with the story? Okay, tell me. Is it totally unnecessary? Then save it for later.

    Ell – Oh lord. The midnight picnic from Nine Coaches Waiting. Very excellent. But now that you mention it, Wildfire at Midnight misses a food scene.

    lauren – I see you gravitate towards the savoury as well – me too!

    dick – Thanks for the rec, I’ll have to check it out.

    Susan/DC – I’ve never heard of Laura Esquival; will check it out. And I saw a bargain book by S.A. Allen the other day, “The Sugar Queen”. Any good?

    Kathryn – I didn’t realize how much food figures in JAK’s books until I thought about it for this blog. But they figure a LOT.

  10. Jean Wan says:

    Okay, I lied – I have heard of Like Water for Chocolate, but never managed to read it. Priority!

  11. Katja – I too craved cinnamon rolls for weeks after reading Sunshine!

    I also love the scene in Sugar Daddy where Liberty shows up to Gage’s apartment and makes him chicken and dumplings – not only does the meal sound amazing, it’s the first time Gage starts to lighten up and Liberty realizes he’s not a total jerk.

  12. Leigh says:

    Susan/DC I loved The Girl Who Chase the Moon. . . again not so much for the description of the food but the magic of using baking to tempt a love one. And then there is Garden Spells where the heroine uses food to create emotions (sounds similar to the Bender book mentioned except sadness is not the primary emotion created and Garden Spells is a romance)

    Jean, The Sugar Queen is good. . but then I like all of Sarah Addison Allen’s books.

  13. I adore food, but I rarely pay much attention to it in books. Unless, of course, a main character is a chef and you HAVE to pay attention to the food otherwise you’ll miss something exciting (Nora Roberts does a great job with this in Lessons Learned I think).

    Maybe I should start paying more attention to the food. :)

    And I happen to have a terrific recipe for buttermilk bread for anyone who’s interested in recreated Evie’s sandwich.

  14. Eggletina says:

    I have a weakness for men who can cook. Reece cooks for Kara in Pamela Clare’s “Extreme Exposure” (not surprisingly, Reece wins as my favorite lead over all those tough guys in that series).

    I love “Never Love a Lawman” and the biscuit scenes as well. Wyatt teasingly tells Rachel he’d marry her just for her biscuits.

  15. Lada says:

    There is a delightful (and romantic!) story by Lisa Cach in the anthology “Wish List” called “Puddings, Pasteries and Thou” in which the hero stuffs his pockets full of goodies as he woos the heroine whose life until then had been austere. He helps her disguise how much she’s eating at dinner since genteel young ladies aren’t supposed to have such appetities. Lots of descriptions of food and well done dialogue, too!

    I love Jennifer’s Crusie’s “Bet Me” but one of the minor irritations of that book is the obsession with chicken marsala. Was that really the only meal she could think of them eating?

    And I’ve always wondered if Blaire Mallory’s recipe for bread pudding using Krispy Kreme donuts in Linda Howard’s “To Die For” is real. Has anyone ever tried it?

  16. Susan/DC says:

    @Jean Wan — I saw the movie of “Like Water for Chocolate” before I read the book. Even though books are usually better than the movies made from them, this one worked because so much of the descriptions were so visually arresting. Not to mention I liked Marco Leonardi, who also played the young man in the middle section of “Cinema Paradiso”.

  17. Jean Wan says:

    LibrarianLizy – There’s also a nice scene in “Angel Falls” where the chef heroine gets pissy about the second-rate ingredients she has to deal with at the middle-of-nowhere diner. Love that book.

    Lada – Now that you mention it, I remember that story, and the hero’s touching concern for the heroine. It was a nice role reversal – there are lots of scenes with heroines constantly feeding heroes and being on hand, so to speak, but the reverse? Not so common.

    I just accepted the chicken marsala as a vehicle for Min’s acceptance of her body – it could as easily have been chicken parmesan, or beef wellington, or whatever, as long as it was a meal that requires all sorts of “unhealthy” ingredients.

    I don’t know about Krispy Kreme bread pudding, but there’s a recipe for scones in New Zealand that’s almost like an urban legend, involving flour, cream, 1 egg, and a can of Sprite (what the down unders call lemonade). Everyone’s heard that it works, and no one I’ve talked to has tried it. Huh.

    Susan/DC – Thanks for the pointer – now I have another movie on my To Watch list, along with Fish Called Wanda, James and the Giant Peach, Prime Suspect, and another thirty.

  18. mb says:

    What an interesting topic! Since so many of my favorite books have had wonderful food scenes, I tend to seek those out. And I’ll usually give ‘new to me’ authors a try if there is intriguing mentions of food included.

    Yes! To those favorite already mentioned: Second Thyme Around, Sunshine, The Marriage Test, Sugar Daddy. I too have always wondered about Blair’s recipe for bread pudding but have always chickened out so far–it sounds SO overwhelmingly sweet.

    Other books that include food that I’ve enjoyed over the years:
    LaVyrle Spencer’s ‘Years’ comes to mind
    Trisha Ashley has fun books with food. ‘Chocolate Dreams’ and ’12 Days of Christmas’ in particular
    I really enjoy Sarah-Kate Lynch’s books, almost all are about food
    Mary Kay Andrews has a couple foodie books, I think.

    Hey, anyone else have suggestions? I’ll take them.

    The only time when food mentions squick me out is when the chef/s have sex on top of food prep surfaces. Yuck! Disgusting. And restaurant kitchens? Double yuck!

  19. Jeannette Perry says:

    …great topic!…it brings to mind the beloved Betty Neels who always included incredibly posh restaurant meals in her books… her naming of each course…even though I couldn’t always understand what the food was (usually in French) the idea behind it was always a delight and an expected part of her stories…..

  20. Heather says:

    One of my favorite food scenes in a book is the first breakfast for Will and Ellie in Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer. She uses Will’s disbelief at the abundance after years of austerity combined with Ellie’s calm acceptance of that same abundance as such a counterpoint between them. When Ellie calmly chops an egg for the baby while telling Will to “Eat.”, I knew they were going to be fine.

  21. Lisa says:

    Lemonade scones for Jean:)

    4 cups self-raising flour
    300 ml cream (1 small bottle of cream)
    ¼ cup Chelsea White Sugar
    1 can (355 ml) Sprite or 7UP
    ½ teaspoon salt


    1. Preheat oven to 220ºC.

    2. Cover an oven tray with a sheet of baking paper or spray well with non stick baking spray.

    3. Mix all ingredients in a bowl to a smooth dough.

    4. Tip out onto a well floured bench and cut into squares or press out with a round cookie cutter.

    5. Place the scones, just touching each other, on the prepared baking tray.

    6. Bake for about 15 – 20 minutes until starting to colour pale golden. Check they are cooked through and cool on a wire rack, covered with a clean tea towel (this keeps the scones lovely and soft).

    7. Cut in half and spread with jam or honey when cool enough to eat.

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