When writing about Edie Middlestein, a morbidly obese character whose obsession with food is tearing her family apart, I initially avoided describing her eating habits. The food seemed irrelevant to the novel's bigger picture: Edie's deteriorating health.
I focused instead on the life-and-death crisis and her family's impression of her physical self. I also was wary of establishing her as someone grotesque. But halfway through the first draft, I realized that the book couldn't be complete without describing what she ate. And so I went back to the beginning.
What a character eats is a detail—like eye color or a favorite song. But food is also our lifeblood. I wondered: When does food become more than just the thing your character is putting in her mouth?
In "The Odyssey," every feast is extremely ritualized; high-status individuals even get a better cut of meat. And those, like Nestor, who serve a generous and appropriate meal to their guests are considered to be superior. But food is also a grand metaphor for gluttony and temptation, and a character's interaction with it can be a gateway to punishment. Circe poisons her guests' dinner with a drug that turns them into pigs, for example, after they gorge themselves on her food. Be careful what you eat, Homer tells us, and how you eat it.
Carelessness toward food also says something about a character's emotional state. The great Saul Bellow (who fictionalized his own real-life bout of food poisoning in "Ravelstein") chooses to begin "Herzog," the tale of a college professor in the throes of an emotional crisis, like this: "Normally particular about food, he now ate Silvercup bread from the paper package, beans from the can, and American cheese. Now and then he picked raspberries in the overgrown garden, lifting up the thorny canes with absent-minded caution." Herzog's disinterest in caring for himself at once sets the tone for the book.
But one of my favorite uses of food in a book is when it becomes its own character, as in Nora Ephron's "Heartburn." Recipes are integrated seamlessly, as if Ephron were calling on a friend to speak for her when she cannot. The section titled "Potatoes and Love: Some Reflections" arrives as her narrator is approaching a breaking point because of her unfaithful husband. "In the end, I always want potatoes," she says. "Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful." The reader is right next to her, handing her some salt and pepper.
As for me, I got to know Edie more deeply as I detailed her consumption of deli food, potato chips and McRib sandwiches over decades of her life. I watched her through other characters, too, like her granddaughter Emily, who observes Edie at a Chinese restaurant: She "could eat forever and never get full. This is how you got that way, thought Emily, who ate only three dumplings, even though they were delicious, dewy and plump and slightly sweet, because she was beginning to feel sick watching her grandmother."
Sometimes the book began to feel like a history of overeating in America. But there were other moments when the food was nothing more than what Edie put in her mouth. At that same Chinese restaurant, Edie eats "sticky brown noodles paired with sweet shrimp and glazed chicken, briny, chewy clams swimming in a subtle black-bean gravy." And I imagined it was delicious.—Ms. Attenberg's novel "The Middlesteins" was published last month.