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Fiction & Five-Cent Meals

What constituted a five-cent meal in 1914...and why would you ever need to know that?

If you're most people, you don't. But for writers of historical fiction, understanding the texture of a character's daily life is essential.

Fictional characters, like the real people they represent, don't live in the headlines of history, the bullet list of names and dates and summaries of significance that most of us were taught. People, real and fictional, live in the plethora of moments and meanings between those a particular social, racial, and economic a particular physical body in a particular place and time. They take most of that for granted. Yet all of it drives their perceptions of themselves, other people, and the world, and thus their stories.

I found myself musing on that when I came across an array of old cookbooks in the Internet Archive. Cookbooks can't help but be concrete, defined, and specific. Their recipes are necessarily grounded in a particular set of available foodstuffs, a particular set of available tools, and a particular set of likely eaters. The White House Cookbook is entirely different from Five-Cent Meals, though published only a year earlier. The recipes offered in 1911's Chinese Cookery for the Home Kitchen are barely comprehensible today, our notions of Chinese culture, meals and ingredients have changed so radically; Forty-Four Ways to Win the War, published in 1918, speaks not so much to food as to a way of thinking about country and service. Even the cookbooks that aim for broad appeal are wonderfully (and sometimes hilariously) specific.

I'm not celebrating these books to suggest that they or their recipes need to appear in our novels. I'm just loving the way they pull us out of generalities to locate us in a particular kitchen, a particular moment, a particular eater and a particular cook.

What cookbooks would your characters own? Who if anyone in the household would use them—would they be dog-eared and splattered or remain pristine? Be faithfully followed, creatively reinvented, rebelliously ignored? Be entirely unnecessary given the professional cook that presides over the kitchen or the character's preference for restaurants and dinners out? What do they suggest about the tastes, smells and textures of the character's daily life, or about the character's relationship to things like plenty or scarcity, sustenance or hunger?

For me, those are fun and useful things to ponder...even though neither I nor any of my main characters have ever liked to cook.


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