"People argued, haggled, shouted, sang. They hawked and touted their wares, and loudly declaimed the superiority of their merchandise. ... Richard could smell food. All kinds of food: the smells of curries and spices seemed to predominate, with, beneath them, the smells of grilling meats and mushrooms. Stalls had been set up all through the shop, next to, or even on, counters that, during the day, had sold perfume, or watches, or amber, or silk scarves. Everybody was buying. Everybody was selling. Richard listened to the market cries as he began to wander through the crowds.This long quote from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere suggests the exceptional way that the author uses food in his vivid descriptions during the unexpected and uncanny adventures of Richard, the central character. Food provides one of the ways of highlighting connections between the very strange dual worlds of London that Richard discovers. As one of the inhabitants of the unseen part of London explained to him:
'"Lovely fresh dreams. First-class nightmares. We got ’em. Get yer lovely nightmares here.'
"'Weapons! Arm yourself! Defend your cellar, cave or hole! You want to hit ’em? We got ’em. Come on, darling, come on over here . . .'
"'Rubbish!' screamed a fat, elderly woman, in Richard’s ear, as he passed her malodorous stall.
"'Junk!' she continued. “Garbage! Trash! Offal! Debris! Come and get it! Nothing whole or undamaged! ...
"And every few stalls there would be somebody selling food. Some of them had food cooking over open fires: curries, and potatoes, and chestnuts, and huge mushrooms, and exotic breads. Richard found himself wondering why the smoke from the fires didn’t set off the building’s sprinkler system. ...
"Another whiff of cooking food wafted across the floor, and Richard, who had managed to forget how hungry he was ever since he had declined the prime cut of roast cat— he could not think how many hours before— now found his mouth watering, and his thinking processes beginning to grind to a halt.
"The iron-haired woman running the next food stall he came to did not reach to Richard’s waist. When Richard tried to talk to her, she shook her head, drew a finger across her lips. She could not talk, or did not talk, or did not want to talk. Richard found himself conducting the negotiations for a cottage cheese and lettuce sandwich, and a cup of what looked and smelled like a form of home-brewed lemonade, in dumb-show. His food cost him a ballpoint pen, and a book of matches he had forgotten he had. The little woman must have felt that she had got by far the better of the deal, for, as he took his food, she threw in a couple of small, nutty biscuits.
"Richard stood in the middle of the throng, listening to the music— someone was, for no reason that Richard could easily discern, singing the lyrics of “Greensleeves” to the tune of “Great Balls of Fire”— watching the bizarre bazaar unfold around him, and eating his sandwiches. He realized as he finished the last of the sandwiches that he had no idea how anything he had just eaten had tasted, and he resolved to slow down, and chew the biscuits more slowly. He sipped the lemonade, making it last." (Neverwhere, Author's Preferred Text, pp. 118-121)
"There’s London Above— that’s where you lived— and then there’s London Below— the Underside— inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world." (p. 135).Some of the strangest characters in the shadowy and menacing London Below nevertheless crave the food of London above. For example, a sort of ancient knight does the following:
"Dagvard walked over to a vending machine on the side of the platform. He took off his helmet. Then he rapped, with one mailed glove, on the side of the machine. “Orders from the Earl,” he said. “Choc’lits.” A ratcheting whirr came from deep in the guts of the machine, and it began to spit out dozens of Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bars, one after another. Dagvard held his metal helmet below the opening to catch them. The doors began to close." (p. 167)Some of the foods are not quite so normal, though:
"The last smudge of orange sun faded into nocturnal purple. The old man covered the cages, so the birds could get beauty sleep. They grumbled, then slept. Old Bailey scratched his nose, after which he went into his tent, and fetched a blackened stewpot, some water, some carrots and potatoes, and salt, and a well-hanged pair of dead, plucked starlings. He walked out onto the roof, lit a small fire in a soot-blackened coffee can, and was putting his stew on to cook when he became aware that someone was watching him from the shadows by a chimney stack." (pp. 176-177).The Lady Door, whose rescue from the extremely evil angel Islington is Richard's main accomplishment, is the last member of a prominent and un-natural family of London Below. But she also loves to eat -- at a fancy party in the British Museum, which Richard and Door sneak into, she devours huge plates of fancy hors d'oeuvres. Another time, she craves curry from one of the surreal underground fairs and markets:
"'Will you go and find us some food? Please?'... 'Curry, please. And get me some poppadoms, please. Spicy ones.' ... Door wiped the last of the curry from her bowl with her fingers, and licked them." (p. 290-302)And when Richard finally returns to his normal life in London Above, he echoes this:
"He bought a takeaway curry from the Indian restaurant across the road, and sat on the carpeted floor of his new flat, and ate it, and wondered if he had ever really eaten curry late at night in a street market held on the deck of a gunship moored by Tower Bridge. It did not seem very likely, now he came to think of it." (p. 382).Few fantasy books that I've read offer anything remotely like the food descriptions that Gaiman provides. His characters stop for meals or quick snacks even during mysterious, violent, or totally surreal adventures. Eating -- as well as many other keenly observed actions -- anchor the characters and their bizarre circumstances in an underlying reality. While the constant challenges and mysterious menaces to the characters are plotted in a gripping way, I find Gaiman's uses of everyday detail, especially food, very appealing.
In any case -- whenever I read or watch films, I always try to see how authors and directors use food as a device for creating their stories of fantasy, realism, crime detection, sci-fi, romance, horror, or whatever. And I much admire the imaginative uses of food to create character, atmosphere, or suspense.