I really like food, but I think I’ve become a bit inured to most food scenes in romance novels. All the dessert-cum-sex scenes have melded together, to the point where all I can think about is the mess. I’m not really into strawberries and champagne, so if the hero starts waving them around, my mind starts wandering. And then you’ve got the chefs – I like them, but I think the proliferation of TV chefs, and the sheer accessibility of gourmet gastronomy, have taken away some of the luster of the professional kitchen.
The most memorable scenes, I find, occur outside the gourmet and professional arenas. I remember very clearly the beginning of Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter, when St. Vincent provides a hamper of food for the starving Evie, who proceeds to devour the thinly sliced meats and cheeses sandwiched between buttermilk bread. There’s something equally delicate and decadent about the thin, savory layers (and geez, buttermilk bread) that conveys the indulgence of St. Vincent’s life, which contrasts heavily with Evie’s prior existence. Plus, it just sounds good.
Then there are some good dinner scenes courtesy of Jayne Ann Krentz, particularly in Deep Waters and Family Man. In the former, Elias and Charity set up vegetarian cooking competitions, which double as their courtship – do you remember the night that Elias out-spices Charity with his wasabi ice cream? And in the latter, Luke (a totally inept cook) tries to impress Katy (a gourmand) with his culinary skills, hiring a chef to teach him how to prepare a dinner. The salad is soggy, the pasta mushy, and it’s an all-round failure – except, of course, that Katy accepts his proposal.
But after making a list of culinary scenes, the ones that packed the hardest punch for me all involved some very prosaic breakfasts:
- Biscuits… Jo Goodman’s Never Love a Lawman has many good qualities, but the prickly courtship between Rachel and Wyatt is the reason I keep re-reading it, and Rachel’s biscuits take prime place. Wyatt sees that the only way through Rachel’s thorny exterior is through the side door, so to speak, so he finagles Rachel into providing warm, flaky, dissolve-in-your-mouth biscuits for his early morning patrols, once a week, on alternating Thursdays and Sundays. The ritual doesn’t last very long, because pesky things like plot and character development push things along – but man. Every time those biscuits come up, I can feel Rachel (and myself) melting.
- Corn Muffins… Among Jayne Ann Krentz’s many goodies from the 1990s, my favorite is Grand Passion, and one of its most evocative scenes occurs during breakfast. Cleo wears gold-toned sneakers with metallic laces, and tears into corn muffins with gusto. Max wears European shirts and slacks, cuts the muffin into exactly even quarters, and drizzles honey with the focused precision of a Borgia. It’s a short scene, and yet it succinctly illustrates their differences while making Cleo absolutely fascinated with this oh-so-attractive alien.
- Marmalade… Second Thyme Around, by Katie Fforde, features a chef as a hero, so the gourmet kitchen scenes abound. But my favorite one is at the end, when Lucas takes Perdita to his Scottish bothy so she can have some TLC. There, they sleep, cry, and make love, and the next morning he makes them a simple breakfast, nothing more than bacon, eggs, and toast and marmalade. They talk about their difficulties while married ten years ago; they discuss why it didn’t work then, and why it will work now. And then they kiss (which tastes pleasantly, apparently, of marmalade), and make love again. No strawberries or champagne necessary – just a morning meal and communication, pared to essentials. Beautifully done.
- …and Chewy Coffee. In Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven, the heroine comes perilously close to annoying perfection. However, there’s one thing that keeps Elizabeth Cameron just on this side of sympathy, rather than total irritation. See, Elizabeth can bargain like a horse trader, dust like a Dyson, walk like a queen, and has the greenest garden this side of Kew – what she cannot do is cook. In trying to be useful in Ian Thornton’s Scottish hut, her eggs become a congealed brown gunk, her biscuits are harder than bricks, and her coffee requires chewing to digest. Mind you, I’m not indulging in schadenfreude; it’s just a relief to have evidence that, yes, Elizabeth is undoubtedly larger than life, but she has flaws. And as I sigh with relief and forgive her perfections, something melts in Ian as well, and marks the beginning of months of resentment fading away.
So there are my favorite food scenes in romance novels. Now before I go off to make some corn muffins, it’s your turn: Which food scenes are memorable for you? And are you drawn to the gourmet kitchen, sweet & sexy, or prosaic and homey?
– Jean AAR