Writing About Food: Where to Begin
First published February 2016
Writing about something you do three or more times a day should be easy. It’s not. Since food is so much a part of the essential and the everyday, our engagement with it can be complex, compelling and — hopefully — enjoyable. Writing about it, then, should be complex, compelling and enjoyable.
Because food is fundamental to all aspects of civilization and culture, the universe of worthy subjects to write about is limitless. When writing about food, many are the categories: food reviews, blogs, long and short journalism (from profiles to investigative pieces), food-focused fiction, memoir, the culinary mystery, non-fiction food history, foodways (with a full-on anthropological concentration), and academic research papers.
It is worth noting at the outset that all that applies to good writing — voice, style, description, detail, accuracy, knowledge and research, grammar, punctuation, structure and the rhythm of language — applies to writing about food.
Writing about food is to share with the reader an experience, an interest, an obsession with enthusiasm, compelling detail, nuance and the elements that draw the reader to inquire, to listen, to taste along with you.
There are a few general things to know when writing about food in any category.
Good readers make better writers. Readers that read extensively and carefully are just better writers.
All writing is re-writing. In spite of the mythology about the relationship between creativity and spontaneity most writing benefits from successive drafts. Jack Kerouac not withstanding, the best writing is, like a well-prepared meal, carefully crafted.
Every word and every sentence counts. It is always impressive when you have read something particularly enjoyable or enlightening and it somehow seems effortless. Effortless for you and effortless on the page. That lack of effort is the result of intense care, scrutiny and effort.
There is an Italian term that has been in use since the 16th century — Sprezzatura. Basically it is the act of accomplishing something difficult without any visible effort. It is a casualness that is only achieved from a discipline so highly accomplished that in the hands of the possessor of sprezztura, it seems … easy.
Read your work out loud. As silly as it may sound, taking what you think is your final draft and reading it out loud will reveal small errors, typos, a poor turn-of-phrase, awkward locutions. Read it. Hear it. Fix it.
Simile, metaphor and analogy are important tools when properly executed and can be deployed to great effect. Here is a quick review.
A simile is a figure of speech that makes a comparison showing similarities between two different things. Unlike a metaphor, a simile draws resemblance with the help of the words “like” or “as” — it is a direct comparison. “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Or “… mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.”
A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes an implicit, implied or hidden comparison between two things that may be unrelated but share common characteristics. Metaphors are common to all writing and invite multiple, often delightful, imagery.
When you portray a person, place, thing, or an action as being something else, even though it is not actually that “something else,” you are speaking metaphorically. “A melon salad came close to being a sweet ode to summer …” In everyday conversation, we think and speak in metaphors. Calling a person a “night owl” or an “early bird,” or claiming “That exam was a walk in the park” — are all common examples of metaphors. “The fritters look armored, torpedoes sheathed in tapioca pearls,” and “The cocktail list is not so much a minefield as a box of live grenades” are two examples from food reviews that bring to mind dangerous ordnance.
Beware, however, of the mixed metaphor, a jumble of illogical comparisons … a well-known but often-committed blunder. Here is one with an unfortunate reference to food: “[T]he bill is mostly a stew of spending on existing programs, whatever their warts may be.” (The New York Times, January 27, 2009). A stew with warts?
Analogy is a similarity between like features of two things, on which a comparison may be based to expand understanding. “Life is a bowl of cherries.” “… a soufflé of superficialities.” “… the enriched plutonium of pork.”
The expectation is not that you will say to yourself … I think I will use a metaphor here, a simile there, but that on reflection you’ll recognize when you are using a device and take care to use them consistently and effectively.