One of my favorite scenes in any novel I’ve ever read resides in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
This family dinner scene with ham as the main dish of the meal is priceless. We, the readers, get a glimpse inside the head of a little girl who’s desperate to avoid starting the first grade the next day. It finally hits her that if she gets in trouble, her widowed father would punish her. And, of course, the punishment would be making her not leave the house the next day, right? Therefore, she couldn’t go to school.
I know this renowned novel is rife with drama and multiple layers of tension. But my favorite line is in this scene, when little Scout puts her plan into action by saying, “Pass the damn ham.” In her little mind, cursing was way up there on offenses. I’ve read this book numerous times over the years. But I still get a giggle every time I think about this scene.
Of course, Scout’s plan is ill fated. But the humor is also joined by the glimpse of just how wise and diplomatic her father, Atticus, is. It’s an important building block of the story.
When this scene recently came to mind again, it made me think about how important meals are in novels. We can all appreciate the significance of eating with family, friends, and even alone. There’s a lot tied to each of those scenarios – good, bad, and ugly.
Take J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, for example. The Hogwarts dining hall serves as the setting for many a great scene. We see Harry struggle in the initial sorting hat ceremony, only to find his place in the school. The boy who lived, along with cohorts Ron and Hermione, also work out many a mystery at the Gryffendor table throughout the series. I could go on, but you get the point. Rowling expertly used mealtime as a device to move the plot along in each installment.
Classic authors knew their way around the table, too. Jane Austen was a wordsmith who made the most of a meal. Dinner parties at each of her novels reveal information about key characters and set the stage for drama or sentiment.
Agatha Christie is one of my all-time favorite mystery writers. Even she made the most of a good meal, with dinner time being quite fatal for at least a few murder victims. And in novels featuring her most popular protagonist, Hercule Poirot, we can’t help but giggle at the private detective’s quirks that baffle his fellow diners.
As I consider how mealtime impacts works that I love, it inspires me to make good use of it in my own writing. By strategically placing key scenes around the table, I hope to make them easy to relate to, revealing, and something readers will want to sink their teeth into.
What scenes around meals impact or inspire you?