Katherine Reay’s Guest Author Blog: Appetite for Austen

October 29th, 2014

As I developed the storyline for Lizzy & Jane, I knew of a few ingredients vital to the recipe: cancer, sisters, literature and food. Like any good recipe, I can’t tell you the exact inspiration for each ingredient; I simply knew they belonged. They felt organic to the story dancing in my head. And as I crafted Lizzy and Jane’s relationship, searching for ways to convey the complexity of their love and their lives, food became a primary means of expression. I began to think of food and the myriad ways it touches our own lives – as nourishment, comfort, offering, and gift.

I tapped Emma, resting on Jane’s lap: You see it in Austen. She only mentions food as a means to bring characters together, reveal aspects of their nature and their moral fiber. Hemingway does the same, though he skews more towards the drinks. Nevertheless, it’s never about the food – it’s about what the food becomes in the hands of the giver and the recipient.

Lizzy makes that observation in the book, and it’s so true. My research led me to many remarkable and clever ways Austen used food in her novels. I adore the scene in Sense and Sensibility (if you haven’t read the book, the movies depict this moment beautifully as well) after Marianne has been jilted by Willoughby and the eager Mrs. Jennings is searching to find a delicacy to tempt her, both to eat and to be happy. Marianne’s sister, Elinor, simply stares at Mrs. Jennings with a completely baffled expression for she knows that “a variety of sweetmeats and olives, and a good fire” cannot solve Marianne’s troubles. And yet, through the offer and its stunned reception, we learn much about these women. In another scene, this time from Emma, we find Jane Fairfax refusing a gift of arrowroot from Emma Woodhouse. Emma’s heart isn’t in the right place yet and once again it’s the food that invites us into the moment and the emotion. We feel beautiful, self-satisfied Emma’s indignant, then humbled, reaction as her offering is summarily rejected.

So I took this theme and dug into cookbooks, cooked up meals, learned new recipes and examined how other writers played with food within their stories as well. I found, as Lizzy again articulates, “Great writers and my mom never used food as an object. Instead it was a medium, a catalyst to mend hearts, to break down barriers, to build relationships.” And it’s only when Lizzy absorbs the true significance of food, both as sustenance and relationship that her own culinary gifts return.

That’s Lizzy’s great journey – to find and understand love. Food, literature, and cancer are as much a part of these sisters’ lives as forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation. But those final intangible emotions stretched them too far at first. They needed baby steps, tactile moments, and small nibbles. Lizzy started with the Shepherd’s Pie, and it bombed – not because the recipe isn’t wonderful, but because like Emma, her heart was not in the right place. Step by step, Lizzy soon sees others and their needs more clearly. She loves more and is able to give more – and her food reflects the love.

Enjoy the feast!

Katherine Reay’s Recipe for Shepherd’s Pie (Cottage Pie)

Katherine Reay’s website