The Importance of Sandwiches: Food and Drink in the Battle Ground Series
Welcome to January – season of left-overs and let-downs. After the excesses and shared meals of Christmas celebrations, the new year’s food offerings can feel a little disappointing.
And it matters, doesn’t it? Going back to work in the dark and the cold, with nothing but soggy sandwiches to look forward to – no wonder January is a peak month for depression.
Food is more than just fuel. You eat meals with your eyes before you taste them. Good food makes you feel good when you eat it. And food is a focus for coming together with other people – sharing a meal is a powerful social experience.
So what makes food and drink important in the Battle Ground series?
Food as a feeling
I like food. I enjoy eating amazing meals, and sharing them with good friends. Food provides a focus for conversation and connection. A shared experience, and a reason to stay at the table and talk.
In stories, food can hint at connection or separation. Sharing food can be the glue that brings characters together, or the trigger that breaks them apart. Withholding food can be a sign of cruelty and neglect, or an indication of the balance of power, or the importance of class. Stealing food is a sign of desperation. The quality of food tells you something about the class and wealth of the person eating it.
How important is food and drink in the Battle Ground series? I didn’t set out to make eating and drinking central to the story, but the more I wrote, the more the symbolism of nourishment and connection slipped into the plot. I didn’t plan this up front, but as I lived the events of the books with my characters, mealtime scenes kept creeping in. Meals, food, and drinking became essential to their journeys.
For Bex and her friends, sharing meals and preparing food for each other are fundamental elements of their relationships. Most of their conversations take place over meals, whether at their army training camp in Battle Ground, in the safe house they share in Darkest Hour, or later in the series. Mealtimes are their breaks from training in Battle Ground, and the highlights of days spent in hiding in Darkest Hour. They provide a pause in the demands of the lives of the characters, and an opportunity to connect with the people around them. They deepen relationships, and give the characters the strength to keep fighting.
If they’re not eating together, and they’re not training or fighting, the chances are that Bex and her friends are making tea for each other, or pouring coffee for someone who needs it. A warm, comforting drink is at once a recognisable social ritual, and a metaphor for the comfort the characters find in each other. It’s a reinforcement of the idea that they don’t have to face the harsh realities of their lives alone.
And when they celebrate? Chocolate cake and beer bring this group together. Chocolate cake is their comfort food, and beer is an occasional indulgence – and an indication of the tension between the ages of the teenage characters, and the adult responsibilities imposed on them. No one in this group drinks to excess, and beer is always seen as a privilege – a reinforcement of their need to grow up fast.
Bex: Competition and Collaboration
There’s a flashback scene early in the first book where Bex and two of her friends use chocolate as currency in a game of cards. The first scene of the final book shows Bex sharing a bar of chocolate with two of her friends, and it is noticeable who is present, and who is missing, compared with the scene in Book One. I hadn’t planned this at all, but if you notice the connection, the effect is heartbreaking.
The competitive use of chocolate in Battle Ground, and the act of sharing in Victory Day, also reflect the journey the characters have followed. In the flashback scenes, Bex is at school, with no reason to believe her life will change until she graduates. The classmates engage in friendly competition, not suspecting that they will need to fight together, and eventually trust each other with their lives. By the time Bex shares the bar of chocolate in Victory Day, she is taking care of her team. There is no competition between the characters – they are looking after each other, and sharing a moment free from external demands.
Ketty’s story is different. Unlike Bex, Ketty is used to fighting alone. She treats other people with suspicion, always figuring out what they can do for her, and whether they are a threat to her ambitions. Unlike Bex, Ketty rarely sits down for a social meal. In the later books, she seems to survive on coffee, water, and painkillers.
When we see Ketty sit down to eat, it is either with Jackson – the only person she trusts at the army training camp – or as a performance, to intimidate other people. Mealtimes with Jackson are filled with competitive banter, and she is just as likely to eat alone as she is to spend time with him. In False Flag, when she realises she is in danger of losing her job as Lead Recruit, she deliberately choses to eat a meal with her competitors, just to demonstrate that she is still in command.
Alcohol and alcohol addiction are an important element of Ketty’s story – not for her, but for the people around her. She uses her awareness of addiction to manipulate other characters, and to reinforce her place in the chain of command. And when Ketty celebrates? It’s with vodka and whisky. There’s no cake, no chocolate, no comfort food. Shots are a way to get drunk, and she can sober up afterwards without making meaningful connections with anyone else.
Where Bex deliberately builds a team, taking care of them and trusting them to look after her, Ketty keeps herself deliberately isolated. She sees herself as strong, disciplined, and capable, and her childhood with an alcohol-addicted parent has convinced her that she can’t trust anyone else with her wellbeing and her secrets. This isolation is reflected in her preference for eating alone, and her manipulation of other people’s addictions.
I can’t talk about food in the Battle Ground books without mentioning Dan, and sandwiches. Dan’s sandwiches are a running theme in Bex’s story, and they reflect his personality as well as their friendship.
Unlike Bex and Ketty, Dan isn’t a Point of View character. As a reader, you’re never inside Dan’s head. As a writer, I have to find other ways to show who Bex’s best friend is, and what his motives are for joining the group.
Dan comes from a privileged background. His parents are both lawyers, he attends an expensive boarding school, and he can’t understand why anyone would cut corners with something as important as food. Among his friends, Dan’s sandwiches are legendary. Limp slices of cheese with margarine will not do, and his mission to share deep-fill multi-topping creations with everyone around him is a symbol of his generosity, as well as providing some much-needed comic relief. He wants to nourish and protect his friends, body and soul. He has grown up in a household where food is plentiful, and his instinct is to share that with the people he loves.
Trust me. Dan is someone you want on your team.
And then there’s Charlie. Cool Aunt figure to Bex, and to Topher in Making Trouble, Charlie is the adult member of the group. She cares about Bex and her friends, and understands that they have been forced to grow up quickly. She sees their inexperience while respecting their abilities. She gives excellent pep talks.
It’s no accident that Charlie is a professional chef. Like Dan, you never see the story from her point of view, so it is important that her actions reflect her character.
Charlie connects with people. She nurtures and protects the teenage characters, while allowing them to grow and take responsibility for their actions. She’s the cool Aunt, enabling things a parent would have nightmares about, but keeping the teenagers safe as much as she can.
And she cooks. She brings food and drink. She provides the focus for group meals and connection. When she smuggles food and hot chocolate to Bex in Battle Ground, it is an act of extreme kindness, in direct contrast to Ketty’s cruelty. When she first meets Bex, she shares chocolate and beer with the sixteen-year-old – acts that define her attitude to the teenage characters. By providing comfort food and an illicit grown-up drink, she establishes a connection, shows kindness, and guides Bex towards her place in the adult world. She shows that she cares, and understands, what the protagonist is going through.
Fiction and Reality
So here’s to the end of the festive season. The end of feasting and snacking and too much to drink. And here’s to the meals that come next – actual meals with family and friends, and fictional meals that bring characters together.
There’s a lot you can learn from someone’s attitude to food. Their generosity, their need to connect or remain apart, the importance of shared experience. Friends, family, and fictional characters will all give you clues to their thoughts and feelings through their relationship with food.
So in this post-Christmas darkness, I wish you sandwiches like Dan’s, hot chocolate like Charlie’s, and mealtimes of companionship worthy of Bex and her friends.