Reading my colleague Alison Marshall’s recent blog post about how she relishes writing about food made me think about well-written records of epicurean escapades. The best food writing makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, and importantly, leaves me salivating at the same time. Check out anything by Ruth Reichl. She’s the editor of Gourmet magazine and has also published numerous food tomes. The one I first picked up was Garlic and Sapphires — and while it contains wonderfully descriptive passages, the book is also darned funny! Another title I highly recommend is A Meal Observed by Andrew Todhunter. It’s an entire book dedicated to a single meal at one of the best restaurants in Paris. The writing is amazingly evocative, causing a series of saturated photos to flash before your eyes.
First, though, let’s look at how not to describe food.
Like an oversalted soup, it should not bank on just one ingredient, such as a vocabulary of only one food-related adjective. For example, “Mmmmm.” There is a TV programme that shall remain nameless whose host is sinfully guilty of this pet peeve of mine. My friend and I will always complain about this host when we get together for a meal, because all she ever does when tasting something is go, “Mmmmm!” If she is feeling generous, she will give a preceding “Oh!” of delight. Hardly a smorgasbord of description there.
Perhaps she uses other words to describe the items she stuffs into her mouth and this footage ends up on the cutting room floor. But I doubt it, because some scenes are long takes of — you guessed it! —“Mmmmm!” without any jump in scenes. Does that make for good TV? I’m not convinced, and neither is my tummy.
Perhaps the producers are convinced of the quality of the food based on the sheer volume of her “Mmmmm!” But she could be jazzing it up it for TV, couldn’t she? Hey, I’ve watched When Harry Met Sally, so she absolutely could be faking it!
Perhaps she has really atrocious taste:
Eye of newt? “Mmmmm!”
Toe of frog? “Mmmmm!”
Wool of bat? “Mmmmm!”
Tongue of dog? “Mmmmm!” (Apologies to Shakespeare*)
But what if she is not a fake, and is actually consuming some of the most heavenly items on earth? And flaunting that fact at me week after week! Why, you no-good, adjective-hoarding Jezebel! Stop toying with my feelings, and describe what is making you go weak at the knees already!
So, what tips would I give my favourite TV host and other food writers? Here goes:
*Ten olde-schoole points if you spotted the ingredients to the “Double, double, toil and trouble” witches scene in Macbeth.
1. Sense and Sensibility
Food writing has to be visceral. I want all my senses to be stoked by the words on the page, and that’s not easy; not because I am an unfeeling person with a heart of stone, but because stringing words together to evoke a smell and a taste is truly an art. Go beyond “Mmmmm!” so that your readers have a better idea of how the food tastes, smells and feels.
Use evocative words, such as unctuous, treacly, caramelised, tart, streaky, drizzle and slathered.
These days, any food article worth its salt will have accompanying photos of the goodies being reviewed. After all, everyone is posting their own food porn on Instagram and Facebook. Instead of simply listing ingredients by way of describing a dish, try to relate the presentation of that dish to something it resembles. In other words, paint me a picture.
For example, say it was ravioli that was served in an oval bowl. You could say something like, “Here comes a little boat-load of ravioli,” and that the ravioli “look like plump, rectangular pillows in scalloped cases.”
Words like ‘pillow’ will also add a textural dimension to your writing. Your reader will almost instinctively get a sense of how the ravioli is going to feel on that first bite. And that’s another thing about describing food: how does it feel in your mouth? A lot of times, we cannot stand certain food items because of the texture, not the taste. For example, many of my friends can’t stand tofu because it’s texturally too soft and doesn’t have bite.
Chefs know that contrasting textures on a plate appeal to the diner, so describe what you feel when you bite into the various components of the dish. Be descriptive about how diverse densities and roughness play off each other, setting off all sorts of sensations in the mouth.
And if the food is totally alien, compare it to something your reader may be culturally familiar with. That way, you can provide some sort of gastronomic rule of measurement. If you’re describing congee to a Western audience that has never tasted Asian food, perhaps you could say, “It’s kind of like a really smooth oatmeal porridge, but thinner and with a savoury taste as a result of being cooked in chicken stock instead of milk.”
These days, a lot of restaurants feature open kitchens, and it’s quite a treat to see what a well-oiled machine a professional kitchen can be. Of course on TV, you can see and hear what goes on in there. But in the written form, try to convey the swirls of smoke and steam, the shouts of the staff acknowledging orders, the heat, the noise… oh my!
But don’t let the ostentatious sounds dominate your account. What about the little pops that you sometimes hear when biting into salty caviar? Or the fizz of sparkling drinks as the fine bubbles tickle your nose? How about the crunch of baby veggies? Describe these sounds.
5. Taste and Smell
I acknowledged earlier that smell and taste are probably the most difficult ideas to convey, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the effort.
There are the official five tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umame — and a myriad combinations and permutations. And if all else fails, you can opt for the ever-popular “tastes like chicken” route. At least your reader will have a reference point.
Smell is the most evocative of the senses, and a lot harder to break down into categories. There are two pieces of advice I’d offer. First, compare what you are eating to items most people would be familiar with, such as the fragrance of popcorn, truffle oil, melted butter, coffee or some such mixture. For example, “It smells mostly of truffle oil, but with a hint of coffee beans right at the end.”
A second idea would be to describe what picture the smell painted in your mind, or what memories it conjures. If you say that a whiff of seafood risotto reminds you of “a beach holiday in the French Riviera,” that creates an evocative picture. If the smell of the corned beef and boiled cabbage reminds you of dreary “school lunches,” then I shall assiduously avoid ordering it.
Bon appetit! And happy food writing.