The most popular YA novels use food as a vehicle for backstory and description. We get a chance to learn about the story beyond what the characters happen to say when their mouths are full.
The Harry Potter books, Twilight Series, and Hunger Games Series use food as a symbol for:
- Maturity: Harry Potter, Katniss, and Bella show their maturity by preparing meals for their family; they are not types to be babied. Harry fries eggs and bacon for the Dursleys (HP Ch.2), Bella makes steak and potatoes for her father (TW Ch.2), and Katniss makes dandelion salad for her family (HG Ch.4).
- Desperation: The type of food exemplifies the desperation or economic state of the character’s Dreary Homeland (initiation). “We don’t hunt them on purpose, but if you’re attacked and you take out a dog or two, well meat is meat. ‘Once it’s in the soup, I’ll call it beef,’ Greasy Sae says with a wink.” (HG Ch.1).
- Abundance: On the other hand, food also highlights the contrast between the abundance in the Awful-Awesome land and the desperation at home. “Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitution for the Capitol version. What it must be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button?” (HG Ch.5). “Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table . . .” (HP Ch.7).
- Danger: Food can represent danger that could be in store for the Hero. In Twilight, the vampires overcome their hunger for human blood by hunting big game: “‘How do you hunt a bear without weapons?’ ‘Oh, we have weapons.’ He flashed his bright teeth in a brief, threatening smile. I fought back a shiver before it could expose me.” (TW Ch.11). Similarly, in the Harry Potter book Voldemort slays a unicorn to drink its blood. (HP Ch.15).
- Sacrifice: Food allows the characters to make sacrifices for each other, which makes us care for them more. In a Hunger Games flashback, Peeta intentionally burns bread to give to the starving Katniss, even though it means he gets a beating from his mother. (HG Ch.2) Later, Katniss uses poison berries to demonstrate her willingness to sacrifice her life rather than become the sole survivor of the Games. (HG Ch.25).
- Magic: The magical qualities of a new food can breathe life into the character’s first reactions to the Awful-Awesome land (separation). “. . . he was ready to buy as many Mars Bars as he could carry — but the woman didn’t have Mars Bars. What she did have were Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, Chocolate Frogs, Pumpkin Pasties, Cauldron Cakes, Licorice Wands, and a number of other strange things Harry had never seen in his life.” (HP Ch.6)
- Humanity: A fantasy creature’s strange relationship with food can emphasize the Hero’s humanity. In Twilight, Edward analogizes the taste of human to dirt. (TW. Ch.10). Even with their budding connection, Bella is still human: “But, to my great embarrassment, my stomach growled. ‘I’m sorry, I’m keeping you from dinner.’ ‘I’m fine, really.’ ‘I’ve never spent much time around anyone who eats food. I forget.'” (TW Ch.14).
- Survival: Food can illustrate the Hero’s “I’m a fighter” mentality. Katniss demonstrates that she won’t be ignored: “Without thinking, I pull an arrow from my quiver and sent it straight at the Gamemakers’ table. I hear shouts of alarm as people stumble back. The arrow skewers the apple in the pig’s mouth and pins it to the wall behind it.” (HG Ch.7). To go deeper in the Hunger Games, check out this really cool infographic on the significance of Katniss’s meals.
- Friendship: Finally and most traditionally, the sharing of food is an offer of friendship. Katniss and Rue confirm their alliance over a meal of groosling. (HG Ch.15). Edward buys Bella dinner the night he opens up about being a vampire. (TW Ch.10). Harry Potter explains that it is a nice feeling to enjoy his candy with Ron: “‘Go on, have a pasty,’ said Harry, who had never had anything to share before, or indeed, anyone to share it with.” (HP Ch.6).
The next time you find your Hero just explaining his emotion in words, see if you can do a better job of it through food. And if this article has left you hungry, check out Fictional Foods’ amazing Effie Trinket cupcakes and recipes. There are even Every Flavor Beans on Amazon! Bon Appetit!
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