It started with a four-hour wait for a hamburger.
One evening in 2015, Sabrina Medora, AM’14, and her boyfriend went to Au Cheval, an upscale West Loop diner that doesn’t take reservations. They arrived at 6:30 and were finally seated at 10:30. “I’ve known people who have waited way longer for a burger there," says Medora. “It’s really good. One of the best burgers in the country.” (In fact Bon Appetit claimed in 2012 Au Cheval served the best burger.)
Nonetheless, as they waited that night Medora and her boyfriend were “very grumpy,” she says. But when their starter arrived—sweet potato hash with duck heart gravy—“this miracle happened. Everything just melted away. It was so incredibly perfect.”
That emotion-shifting moment inspired Medora to write flash fiction—very short stories, often of 1,000 words or less—inspired by the meals she’s eaten. She posts her stories, alongside the photos that inspired them, on Instagram under the name @foodfictionproject.
As a MAPH student, Medora had written a creative thesis as well as an academic one. But when she started working full-time at advertising agency Tom, Dick & Harry Creative, she stopped doing her own writing. “I valiantly tried to keep working on my novel,” she says, “but it was hard to get the motivation.”
She thought “quick, bite-sized fiction pieces” seemed possible. So far she’s written more than 150 Instagram posts, most of which feature a new character invented for that story.
When she’s ready to post, Medora scrolls through the photos on her phone—she keeps “a stockpile of imagery” from previous meals—until one of them catches her eye.
She looks at the photo for two or three minutes, remembering how the meal tasted, the atmosphere of the restaurant, who she was with. She has three rules: The story has to be inspired by the food. She won’t write about a dish unless she liked it. (When she’s out with a group, “I get to taste everyone’s food,” she says, because of this project.) And after her two or three minutes, she types whatever comes into her head straight into Instagram.
Each post takes about 30 minutes from start to finish, she says: “I feel like the more in the moment it is, the more authentic it is.”
Because Medora is a social media manager, she plans her writing sessions for times when her followers are most likely to interact with the posts: during commuting hours or late at night. On Saturday and Sunday, “brunch does really well,” she says. “I put so much energy and love into these posts, I don’t want them to disappear into a void because I posted them at the wrong time.”
Although she posts her stories under the name @foodfictionproject, sometimes her followers—almost 650 as of September—misunderstand. “I usually write from a first-person perspective,” Medora says. “Some of them are sad or depressing. One time I had a reader reach out to say, I just wanted to know if you’re OK, I’m worried about you. A complete stranger.” In response she’s started writing more often in the third person or from a male perspective: “I don’t want to confuse people.”