Food and Natural Disaster: How to Ignite Tension in Your Story

by Amanda Polick
published in Writing

A rolling wave of earth rumbled me out of my sleep like it had a dozen times before in other types of disaster. Instinct kicked in as I jumped out of bed to the closest doorway to only remember—there aren’t earthquakes in Tennessee. Weird. Something didn’t feel right though and without thinking, I went to Twitter to only see #NorthBayFire trending.

No. No. No. 

That’s my home. Those are my people. Wildfires are common in the West, but my gut told me this one was different. The fire that would be known as the Tubbs Fire, the worst in state history until then, had jumped over eight lanes of freeway and was ferociously making its way through Napa and Sonoma counties. 

Journalists were telling people to call and wake up their friends and families. My own friends were posting evacuation stories with their neighbors staying behind with hoses in hand, trying to save the neighborhood from the disaster. After more than 36,000 acres were burned and almost two dozen souls were lost, one of the biggest questions still seemed to be: Will the wine be okay?

Millions of visitors from all over the world come to sip the nectar of the valleys, and they flood the area with billions of dollars to do so. The question of what would happen with future harvests was valid, and the vineyards and people’s stories go hand in hand. To see the grapes rebound would also mean that the locals have found new ways to adapt, to innovate, to prepare for next time. 

Food and nature relentlessly intertwine, and it’s why their stories create the most beautiful tension. These are the stories that command you to your feet, but they’re often overlooked in food writing for memoir and fiction. So with examples from investigative journalism and real-life natural disaster, let’s open up the possibilities of how to use the natural world to create more meaningful and riveting food stories.

Heroes and Villains Emerge

I’m always surprised when writers are hesitant to create “villains.” On one hand, I appreciate balanced characters who keep you guessing with their “save the cat” moments. However, what seems to happen more often than not, is writers don’t want to make anyone the bad person, so everyone gets along and there are no true issues. Boring.

Beyond that, people don’t have to be villains. Situations can be their own offenders. For example, in Mark Arax’s piece “A Kingdom from Dust,” which was selected for The Best American Food Writing 2019, his focus was on one element of food often forgotten—water. His work is primarily around the water barons and the agriculture effects on California’s Central Valley. In fact, the idea that California is sinking is largely due to the overpumping of its farmland

This crisis is the culmination of years of legislation, back-door deals, and land grabs. None of which is surprising for the state with the most agriculture cash receipts. You could try to point the finger at a single person, but it might just be bent back at yourself. 

Now let’s talk about heroes. In Fire in Paradise, Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano bring you into the minute by minute accounts of what was, at the time, the most destructive fire in California history. With a heartbreaking detail, you find a retired volunteer firefighter trying to save the town’s gold mining museum, and strangers rescuing one another within moments of being taken by the blaze. 

Emergencies, like the Camp Fire, require people to give their all because time will run out. Small acts of kindness and quick thinking are compounded by a wildfire that would level the entire town. All of those elements produce instant tension within the story and cause you to ask yourself: What would I do? 

Moments of Reckoning

While it’s fun to dream of lavishly leisure meals and to paint pictures of quality time in the kitchen, every story needs some heat. There’s a moment where what has existed cannot be anymore. So, what does that mean for the people involved and how does that affect what appears on their tables?

From the moment I fell for the wine of Lugana in Northern Italy, I was met with stories of how the high-speed railway was set to destroy it. While it’s not a natural disaster, the man-made effects would devastate the region. The area’s white wine is distinct because of the climate and soil, so what happens when it disappears? How does it change a region’s identity?

Some moments of reckoning are more thunderous, like the Dust Bowl. A mixture of drought and over-farming manifested ten years of horrific dust storms and crop failure that caused many people to leave the Southern Plains. It was also the catalyst for the characters’ journeys in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

With the Dust Bowl, one disaster rippled into another disaster—such is the harmony of cause and effect. Somehow with food writing, it’s easy to forget that what appears on the table is decades in the making. People traveled great lengths to bring specific food to a region or to save what was being destroyed. To preserve a culinary tradition is to protect a history. So, what do the soft and loud moments of reckoning reveal about the root of your story? How does it alter what happens next?

Harnessing Nature for Your Own Work

Stories show us how to live. Who are the people we want to be remembered as? What kind of work do we want to leave behind? When nature is brought into your food writing, it can show you who (or your characters) want to be. When disaster is thrown in the mix, it reveals who those characters are

All stories need to reveal something deeper about the people in them. Food can be joyful and elegant, but it can also show us who we are when the natural odds are against us. Just like the Napa and Sonoma Valley wines after the Tubbs Fire, they wouldn’t be the same, but new flavors were forged. With every fire, flood, and drought, there’s an opportunity for transformation, and food writing or not, that’s where the magic of every story lies. 

Amanda Polick Nostalgia

Amanda Polick is a writer and book coach, who guides food folks through the writing process. Her work has been featured by Cooking Light, Food & Wine and Time. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee now, but a piece of her will be in California forever. To connect with Amanda, you can find her on her website.

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