When written well, a passage depicting a meal can be mouthwatering for readers. It can also be a useful storytelling technique. When food writing isn’t effective, however, the result can be bland. While food is around us every day, many first-time writers can struggle to capture the nuances of taste, texture or the emotions associated with a meal in their writing.
Here are tips for writing about food:
1. Skip tepid adjectives.
In day-to-day life, we often resort to words such as “delicious” and “good” to depict the food we eat. But in writing, fiction or nonfiction, these words don’t tell readers much about a meal. Often when I work with first-time authors, all readers get are these banal adjectives, when a writer can so easily go a step further to truly describe the nuances of food.
Start by breaking down tastes. Is the food salty? If so, is it reminiscent of the sea? Of crackers a character ate as a child? Is it too salty, in a way that makes a character’s cheeks pucker? Or, is the food sweet? What does it remind the character of?
2. Go beyond taste.
When you really think about it, even though we tend to pay more attention to the flavors in a meal, there is much more at play while we’re munching away. Your character should notice these other factors, too.
What are the textures your character senses right away while eating? Slippery and foreign? Or crunchy — a sign that another character has once again burned the chicken? Is the aroma of the meal different than how it tastes, and is this significant? Is it hard to swallow?
3. Link to emotions.
Use your character’s interpretation of food to better amplify how readers understand their emotional world.
Of course, more goes into a meal than simply throwing ingredients together. What memories are evoked by the aromas? What does your character think about how the food was prepared? Does it remind him or her of a loved one who used to make the same meal?
Writers can also employ color symbolism in their food passages. Does the fiery hue of a crimson pasta sauce remind a murderous character about a recent ill deed?
Or, a writer can compare the quality of a dish to how a character feels about another person, having them ruminate on the sweetness of a slice of pie — and then, the warm nature of someone they know.
4. Go to your local supermarket
If you’re really stuck on how to describe a certain kind of food, a trip to your grocery store could prove extremely useful. Pick out various flavorful foods you love, and a few you really don’t. Or go to a restaurant and try a few different dishes. Whatever your method of eating, bring a notebook along with you to the restaurant or to your kitchen.
As you are eating, write down all of the flavors you taste, as well as any ingredients you detect. Also, write down how these make you feel. You might come up with exactly what your character needs to say, just from going to your local pizza place!
There is a wealth of wonderful food writing out there. One way to expand upon your food lingo and produce more illustrative food writing is by reading cookbooks. The French Laundry Cookbook has rich, yet concise, passages of recipe description.
Some novels known for intriguing and flavorsome prose are in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R. R. Martin (recently adapted to the hugely successful HBO show, “Game of Thrones“), and the classic The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola.
Cristina Schreil is Write to Sell Your Book’s Executive Editor. She is the contributing writer and researcher of two books: Baby Debate, by Diane Polnow and Raise the Child You’ve Got — Not the One You Want, by Nancy Rose. She is also a freelance journalist who has written for XOJane.com, Thought Catalog, PsychologyToday.com, and iVillage.com.
What do you regard as delicious food writing? Share in the comments below.