I react badly to novels in which nobody eats. Might as well have characters who don’t breathe. Food is such a fundamental part of our lives, for biology, of course, but also for pleasure, friendship, family, ethnicity … I grew up in a mixed household of English, German, American, and Italian cuisine. At times chaotic, at times sublime, our family dinners were like the U.N. Assembly. We created—or wrecked—borders, one dish at a time.
My mother was a rare Italian woman who cooked badly, so she daily handled the wrecking of L’Italia. My paternal grandmother, an English Mayflower descendant on one side and the fourth great-granddaughter of Prussians on the other, cooked supremely well. She’s been gone for many years, but to this day I can taste her pineapple upside-down cake and German potato salad. My father never met a cut of meat or an ear of corn he didn’t want to carbonize on the grill, so he did his bit for ruined American meals. My sister, in her teens, became fascinated with all things English, and frequently got up in the middle of the night to make Victoria sponge, which we all then ate for breakfast.
With that love-hate relationship to food in my psyche, I feel compelled to put it into my novels. In The Corset Girl, my Victorian working class romance, a tired and hungry character enjoys a piping hot steak and kidney pie from the pub up the block. English comfort food, that. The dish, of uncertain origin, appears in Gilbert and Sullivan, Lewis Carroll, P.G. Wodehouse, and even Harry Potter. It has, over the decades, been invaded by Shitaki mushrooms, broccoli, and even oysters, and the kidneys have come from oxen, cattle, or lambs. Most people (except for snarky TV chefs) think the traditional British recipe is best, so look it out online. The BBC's got a nice one. You can amuse yourself, while cooking, by rehearsing its vernacular names: snake and pygmy pie, Kate and Sidney pie, or snake and kiddy pie.