This is one of the first posts that my fellow Austen Author, Katherine Reay did for the blog. Check out this piece on Jane Austen and Food.
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!
Meet Katherine Reay
Lizzy and Jane: A Novel
Lizzy and Jane couldn’t be further from Jane Austen’s famous sisters for whom they are named.
Elizabeth left her family’s home in Seattle fifteen years ago to pursue her lifelong dream—chefing her own restaurant in New York City. Jane stayed behind to raise a family. Estranged since their mother’s death many years ago, the circumstances of their lives are about to bring them together once again.
Known for her absolute command of her culinary domain, Elizabeth’s gifts in the kitchen have begun to elude her. And patrons and reviewers are noticing. In need of some rest and an opportunity to recover her passion for cooking, Elizabeth jumps at the excuse to rush to her sister’s bedside when Jane is diagnosed with cancer. After all, Elizabeth did the same for their mother. Perhaps this time, it will make a difference.
As Elizabeth pours her renewed energy into her sister’s care and into her burgeoning interest in Nick, Jane’s handsome coworker, her life begins to evolve from the singular pursuit of her own dream into the beautiful world of family, food, literature, and love that was shattered when she and Jane lost their mother. Will she stay and become Lizzy to her sister’s Jane—and Elizabeth to Nick’s Mr. Darcy—or will she return to the life she has worked so hard to create?
Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel
“Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley kept me up until 2:00 a.m.; I simply couldn’t put it down.” —Eloisa James, New York Times best-selling author of Once Upon a Tower
Samantha Moore has always hidden behind the words of others—namely, her favorite characters in literature. Now, she will learn to write her own story—by giving that story to a complete stranger.
Sam is, to say the least, bookish. An English major of the highest order, her diet has always been Austen, Dickens, and Shakespeare. The problem is, both her prose and conversation tend to be more Elizabeth Bennet than Samantha Moore.
But life for the twenty-three-year-old orphan is about to get stranger than fiction. An anonymous, Dickensian benefactor (calling himself Mr. Knightley) offers to put Sam through Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. There is only one catch: Sam must write frequent letters to the mysterious donor, detailing her progress.
As Sam’s dark memory mingles with that of eligible novelist Alex Powell, her letters to Mr. Knightley become increasingly confessional. While Alex draws Sam into a world of warmth and literature that feels like it’s straight out of a book, old secrets are drawn to light. And as Sam learns to love and trust Alex and herself, she learns once again how quickly trust can be broken.
Reminding us all that our own true character is not meant to be hidden, Reay’s debut novel follows one young woman’s journey as she sheds her protective persona and embraces the person she was meant to become.
“Dear Mr. Knightley is a stunning debut—a pure gem with humor and heart.” —Serena Chase, USA Today
The Brontë Plot: A Novel
“You’re going to love The Brontë Plot.” —Debbie Macomber
When Lucy’s secret is unearthed, her world begins to crumble. But it may be the best thing that has ever happened to her.
Lucy Alling makes a living selling rare books, often taking suspicious liberties to reach her goals. When her unorthodox methods are discovered, Lucy’s secret ruins her relationship with her boss and her boyfriend, James—leaving Lucy in a heap of hurt and trouble. Something has to change; she has to change.
In a sudden turn of events, James’s wealthy grandmother, Helen, hires Lucy as a consultant for a London literary and antiques excursion. Lucy reluctantly agrees and soon discovers Helen holds secrets of her own. In fact, Helen understands Lucy’s predicament better than anyone else.
As the two travel across England, Lucy benefits from Helen’s wisdom as Helen confronts ghosts from her own past. Everything comes to a head at Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters, where Lucy is reminded of the sisters’ beloved heroines who, with tenacity and resolution, endured—even in the midst of impossible circumstances.
Now Lucy must face her past in order to move forward. And while it may hold mistakes and regrets, she will prevail—if only she can step into the life that’s been waiting for her all along.
A Portrait of Emily Price: A Novel
Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. But when Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family is another matter . . .
Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—dreams of having a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love.
But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccollo. Soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart.
Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. But instead of allowing the land, culture, and people of Monterello to transform her, Emily interferes with everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.
Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?