My novel The Journey Home has multiple inspirations. The strongest of these was the romance between my mother and father that lasted more than six decades. I’ve been trying for years to come up with a story that captured the spirit of their relationship, and I’m hoping that I was able to do so in this novel.
At the same time, though, I had another very strong inspiration. I wanted to write a Novel with Food. I’m fairly serious about food, and I have always been fond of fiction along the lines of Like Water for Chocolate and Chocolat that weaves food into the narrative of the story. My parents were both very good cooks, so tying this into the biggest inspiration for the novel wouldn’t be difficult. However, I didn’t simply want the food to be a prop in the story. I didn’t want it to be a thing that the characters did, as they might vacation on Cape Cod or play cards with the neighbors on Thursday nights. I wanted it to be intimate to the primary theme of the novel, which was the definition and redefinition of home.
This led me to think about how strongly food relates to our sense of home. In my personal experience, food was not only a thing we shared in my family; it was in many ways the defining factor in my family. I was last in the birth order and my parents were relatively old when they had me, so we didn’t relate to each other on many levels. However, we had a tremendously strong foundation in food. Once I’d moved out of the house, I literally thought of my parents first through the dishes they made. We never had a huge amount to talk about, but we could talk for hours about cooking.
I wanted to get some of that across in The Journey Home. The challenge, though, was that the only parent-child relationship in the novel is between an elderly woman (Antoinette, whom we see both at this stage in her life and when she is a newlywed) and her middle-aged son, Warren. As the novel opens, Antoinette is spending most of her time living in her head and her days as a kitchen wizard are behind her. I increased the challenge for myself by making Warren deeply appreciative of his mother’s cooking, but relatively averse to doing this stuff himself (there’s a thematic reason for that, which I won’t get into here). How the heck was I going to write a Novel with Food this way?
I spent significant time thinking about this until the answer came to me. If I were writing a novel about the definition and redefinition of home, and I wanted to write a novel with lots of food in it, and I wanted to show how food serves as a point of connection, why not make Warren try to recreate his mother’s greatest dishes in an attempt to coax her back into this world? This allowed me to write a number of food-centric passages in the novel while at the same time making every one of those passages important to the action at hand.
In the end, this was all somewhat cathartic for me. I came to realize that food really is a language unto itself and that it is a language that so many of my loved ones are fluent in. What I really came to understand was that the words “food” and “home” have very similar definitions for me. My guess is that many people feel the same way.