Where's The Beef?

By | Tuesday, July 10, 2007 3 comments
One of the objectives in most stories is to get your audience to identify with at least one of the characters. Generally, that'd be the protagonist, but sometimes it's a secondary character or perhaps even the antagonist. But as a rule, if your audience can't connect somehow with one of the characters, they're not going to be interested in your story. Obviously, there are hundreds of ways to go about achieving this, such as touching on common feelings and emotions: love, hate, grief, etc. But I'd like to talk about one method in particular of establishing that rapport between an audience and a character: food.

Food can be a very powerful character element. We all need to eat to survive, so it's an easy way to connect. Also, there are hundreds of thousands of types of food so a character's particular choice can reveal aspects of their character. Ethnic dishes tend to skew towards individuals of that ethnicity, and the quality of food and how it's presented can say a lot about social standing and class stratifications. If I tell you a man walks into a diner and orders himself a bacon-double-cheeseburger, a side of fries, a Coke and a chocolate milkshake, you're going to get a very different impression than you would of a man who sits down in a restaurant and orders a chicken curry, a side of naan, and a glass of water. Food can be a very powerful indicator of character.

I've actually taken that to heart in some cases. When I happen across characters that I strongly identify with for whatever reasons, and their food preferences are made known, I try to go out of my way to at least try the dish(es) they prefer. My thinking is that A) it exposes me to a wider variety of culture and, more significantly B) if a character is identified in part by the food they eat and I identify with that character, there's a distinct possibility that I will also like that same food. I tried prune juice because of Worf's strong positive reaction to being introduced to the drink from Guinan. I picked up some Wensleydale the other night because I enjoy cheese not quite as much as Wallace. I even convinced The Wife to make me a triple fried egg sandwich with chili sauce and chutney because Dave Lister said it was a "state of the art sarnie." (For the record, I didn't like prune juice, the Wensleydale was tastier than I anticipated, and you really do need to eat the egg sandwich quickly before the bread dissolves.)

"But, Sean, those are all from TV shows. I thought this was supposed to be Kleefeld on Comics!"

Well, that's my point. For whatever reason, comic characters don't seem to have favorite foods in the same way that characters do in other mediums. Oh, sure, we've seen them eat popcorn in theaters and carve a fowl of some sort at Christmas, but those are foods associated with the event, not the character. You don't see anyone snacking on popcorn in the middle of the day or having a turkey sandwich in July.

What does Batman eat? Or Spider-Man? Or Adam Archer?

Now before somebody jumps down my throat screaming, "What about Animal Man? He's a vegetarian!" I'll admit that the lack of food preferences I'm talking about is obviously a generality. Lone Wolf was partial to a simple bowl of rice and Captain Strong had an affinity towards a special brand of seaweed. And there's a certain brain-deficient barbarian with an obsession with cheese dip. But these guys are the aberrations.

Jellybabies? The Doctor.

Botts' Beans? Harry Potter.

Crunchy Frogs? Monty Python.

Cookies? Cookie Monster.

Wonka Bar? Charlie Bucket.

Fruity Oaty Bars? Jayne Cobb.

Royal Deer? Robin Hood.

Peanut Butter and 'Naner Sandwich? Elvis.

Gruel? Oliver Twist.

The Goose in the Window as Big as Me? Ebenezer Scrooge.

Pick a medium and start pulling out your favorite characters. I'd be willing to bet that a good chunk of them have significant notes about food. Unless you're looking at comics.

Now, I'm not saying that I want to see pages upon pages of exposition of how the Thing just loves a good chili dog, and the best ones are the ones you get at Yankee Stadium, and if anyone tells you different, you just send tell 'em that I'll knock their block off. But I'm at a total loss as to why more comic book writers wouldn't pick up on this? You'd think there would be more than a few writers who throw in food as a character element from time to time.

Hey, if there are any comic writers out there with an answer, let me/us know what gives. I'd really be interested to see what the deal is here.
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Well, the Martian Manhunter has, or had (I don't know about the character anymore) a fondness for Oreo cookies...

Time was, you couldn't read a Green Arrow story without him cooking his red-hot chilli.

And then, of course, there's Desperate Dan and his cow pies; Obelix and his roast boar; Garfield and his lasagne...

OK, not supreheroes, but still there.

Richard said...

Beef Bourguignon is occasionally cited in Superman stories as the Man of Steel's favorite dish. The reference comes from a 1976 story in which Clark Kent prepares this as the main course of a romantic dinner for Lois Lane, after which (it seems) the pair make love for the first time. This being the case, subsequent references to "Beef Bourguignon" might be double entendres.

Actually, as I think about it, those Superman issues by Cary Bates and Elliot Maggin in the Seventies had a great many extraneous, non-plot-related food references, far more than were usually seen in comics during that era. Just little throwaway bits, like Clark preparing filet of sole when he had Captain Strong as a houseguest, or Clark ordering an egg salad and bacon sandwich at the WGBS commisary. (Yes, I remember this stuff. Go ahead and mock me. I deserve it.)

Of course, the master of food and eating scenes in comics was -- who else? -- Jack Kirby. Scott Free cooking that huge pot roast for Barda was a huge formative influence on me as a foodie (really it was!) and Johnny Storm once raised Ben Grimm's ire by burning a dinner Ben had slaved over for hours. There are loads of eating scenes throughout FF issues...and everyone loves the scene where the owner of an ice cream parlour gives Thor an ice cream soda on the house, prompting the God of Thunder to reply "So be it! Thy heart be as sweet as thy nectar!" or something like that.