American author Dianne Jacob’s book, Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More, is an essential reference book for food writers and food bloggers that has won two international awards from the Cordon D’Or and the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. In this piece from the Writing.ie archives, we asked Dianne what the essential ingredients for successful food writing are.
Most food writing is about eating, so your challenge is to express yourself without resorting to cliché or an endless string of adjectives. The successful food writing techniques and practices listed below give you endless ways to describe a dish or the experience of eating. Once you discover a few simple rules of the craft, you’ll feel more confident immediately. So whether you’re looking to get started, improve your skills, or expand the writing you’re already doing, put down your spatula, pull up a chair, and let’s get cooking.
Step 1. Cook up a sensuous feast.
What makes food writing different from other forms of writing is its focus on the senses and the pleasure and enjoyment that ensues. You want readers to see the colors of a ripe peach, feel its fuzzy down, smell its ripeness, hear the tearing crunch when biting into it, and taste its tangy flesh. While it’s easy to focus on taste, when combined with smell, the two senses can produce emotions, feelings of nostalgia, and involuntary memories.
This response has a name. It’s called the Proustian effect, for Marcel Proust’s wistful passage about eating a madeleine in his novel, Swann’s Way: “But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, admit the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure or recollection.”
Translation: If you remember the punch in the gut you experienced when tasting or smelling a food that takes you back to childhood, that’s what Proust means. It’s harder to communicate this effect so viscerally in writing, but it’s not necessary. He’s saying that using your senses to access food is evocative. Your goal is to transport readers to a place and time, to experience a scent or taste for themselves. That’s better than just reading about how you experienced it, which is not nearly as satisfying, and creates distance between you and them.
Here’s an example from M.F.K. Fisher, one of food writing’s most revered icons: “The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four.” At first you may feel repelled by the notion of tasting “fuzz.” But you’re also intrigued, and transported to a kitchen from long ago, perhaps your own memory standing in for hers.
Some writers think the least important sense is sound. But consider how it enlivens the experience in Alan Richman’s essay, “The Great Texas Barbecue Secret:” Because the meat is seldom pricked during cooking, the fat accumulates, sizzling and bubbling. Slice, and the drama unfolds. Think of a bursting water pipe. Better yet, imagine a Brahman bull exploding from the gate at a rodeo.”
It might sound overdone, but you’ve got to give Richman credit for imaginative writing about what could otherwise be a dull topic. He is, after all, describing what happens when he cuts into a sausage. Yet Richman excels at translating his excitement onto the page, and has won more than a dozen national awards for his essays in magazines such as GQ, where he is a contributing writer.
Step 2. Throw in a pinch of adjectives, the smallest possible amount. Or none.
Look back at Richman’s description of the sausage. See any adjectives? I don’t. Adjectives, however, are the crack of food writing. You might be tempted to use several to describe, say, the pork tenderloin with pears and shallots you devoured at a restaurant last night. But in truth, adjectives weaken writing and cause reader fatigue.
Take note of what else happened during the meal. You want to get across your pleasure and enjoyment by telling a story about the people at the next table, rather than sentence after sentence of description. Or try Richman’s technique of using metaphor, the art of referring to something (a sausage) as something it is not (a water pipe or a Brahman bull).
You might start out with strings of adjectives in an early draft. That’s normal. Examine them all and see what happens if you select only one. You’ll find that your sentence becomes more powerful when pared back to the essence of the dish.
What if the only adjective you allowed yourself, to describe the pear, was “silky?” It reads better than “the brown buttery silky pear.” After so many adjectives, readers get confused. They have to parse all those descriptors and try to imagine what the pear tastes like, deciding which adjective is most important. “Silky,” on the other hand, gives them one clear and concise word. Less is more, when it comes to adjectives.
Step 3. Describe the dish with specifics.
Just as it’s best to be judicious with adjectives, you’ll also a huge improvement in your writing when using specific language. People who read my blog and book know that one of my pet peeves is the word “delicious.” It’s a vague way to describe what you’re eating, and tells the reader nothing, other than you really liked it. Other words in this category are “tasty” and “yummy.” Most of the time you can just edit these words out of your drafts and you’ll have a more solid piece of writing immediately.
Look for vague or general words in your draft and replace them with more specific ones, such as “kitchen” for “room.” Even when it comes to adjectives, “salty” or “velvety” gives the reader a better idea than “delicious.”
Step 4. Stir well with action verbs.
Another way to keep food writing from becoming a string of description is to go for action, just as Richman did. He didn’t focus on how the sausage tasted, but on what happened when he cut into it. If you slow down and describe what’s happening as you consume food, you create a mini movie in readers’ minds.
Here’s how authors Jane and Michael Stern describe slicing into a piece of apple pie: “The crust is as crunchy as a butter cookie, so brittle that it cracks audibly when you press it with your fork; grains of cinnamon sugar bounce off the surface as it shatters.” They’ve slowed down the action so you can picture what happens when the fork cuts into the pie. Action verbs like cracks, press, bounce, and shatters go a long way towards painting a vivid picture. The authors haven’t described how the apple pie tastes yet, but I’ll bet you’re salivating.
Step 4. Spice up the sauce with a few similes.
Since describing food is a big part of food writing, you need as many tools as possible to get the job done. Similes compare two unlike things, using “like” or “as.” They’re fun and imaginative, giving you the chance to insert images that might seem a little incongruous, but work well anyway.
Here’s an example from New York Times dining editor Pete Wells: “First we’ll get the grill going hotter than a blacksmith’s forge…as usual, the tongs won’t be long enough to keep my hands from scorching like bare feet on the beach parking lot.”
You might not know how hot a blacksmith’s forge gets, or even what the heck a forge is. It doesn’t matter. You understand that the forge is red hot, and that’s all Well needs to make his point. Similarly, you might not think of bare feet on a beach parking lot when grilling meat. But suddenly, you’ve got a pleasant if slightly painful memory. A simple story about grilling becomes an evocative look at a fun part a summer everyone can relate to, a little piece of our collective past.
Similes are a little different than metaphors I mentioned in Step 2. Similes compare two things (burning bare feet and grilling), as opposed to referring to the object directly as something else. In the Richman example, he says a cut sausage is a bursting water pipe, as opposed to saying it’s “like” a bursting water pipe. The pipe is the metaphor for the sausage.
No matter which technique you employ from this list, and no matter which medium you choose to tell your story, food writing is similar to other kinds of narrative writing. It focuses on evocative storytelling and context, rather than on exactly how the spaghetti sauce tasted. While that’s certainly part of the story, it’s more important to evoke an emotional response in the reader by making them imagine a bucking bull or a hot day at the beach. Think of food writing as a type of cooking: you try a little of this a little of that, and soon you have a dish. By consistently driving your story forward with the techniques I’ve outlined, you’ll find creative new ways to express your thoughts about food, and cook up an audience that can’t wait to read more.
Choose Your Style of Food Writing
Food writing is not just the provenance of national magazines like Bon Appetit, nor limited to the cookbook department of bookstores. It’s everywhere, appearing in thousands of blogs and websites, newspaper and magazine features, e-newsletters, recipe databases, and fiction writing.
Food writing also takes many shapes, including
- Memoir and personal essay
- Restaurant reviewing
- Recipe writing
- Food history
- Food politics
- Profiles of chefs and farmers
- Travel writing and guides
- Food reference
- Cookbook reviews.
Where might you start? Many writers want to capture their own experiences, and for that, blogs are an easy place to get published. Plus, you can experiment with any of the forms mentioned above on a blog.
Recipe Writing That Works
Recipes are a form of technical writing because of the exacting way they are written. They have four parts: the title, the headnote, the ingredients list, and the method, which explains how to make the dish.
You start in the kitchen, making a dish more than once to get the best flavor and texture combinations. Keep notes by the stove about measurements and amounts, techniques, and any other details critical to the dish’s success, then write up your recipe when you’re certain of its success.
Here are a few fail-proof rules to observe:
- Start with a descriptive, enticing title. Classic Strawberry Shortcake, for example, tells readers exactly what they’ll get: a rich biscuit with saucy fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
- Draw readers in with the headnote. Tell a personal story about how you made your first omelette, explain the perfect balance of flavors in a fruity ice cream, the history of your mother-in-law’s potato salad, or the no-fail technique you use for roasted asparagus.
- List ingredients in the order used. Your recipe might feature lamb chops, but if the first thing you do is heat olive oil in a skillet, that’s where to start.
- Do the prep in your ingredients list. The French call it mise en place. Get all your ingredients chopped, measured and ready to go before firing up the stovetop. Use the method to explain what to do with 1 onion, sliced; or ½ cup chopped parsley.
- Test and retest your recipe to make sure it works. Make sure you’re not writing in shorthand, skipping a step, or leaving out an ingredient.
(c) Diane Jacob
Diane Jacob is the American author of the award-winning Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir and More. She is also the co-author of the cookbook Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas, and blogs on food writing at www.diannej.com/blog.
This article first appeared in WritersDigest.com magazine.
About Will Write for Food:
For more than 15 years, writing coach, editor, and blogger Dianne Jacob has taught food lovers how to take their passion from the plate to the page. Now, Jacob has revised and updated her award-winning guide. Whether you’ve been writing for years or are just starting out, Will Write for Food offers what you need to know to succeed and thrive, including:- A new chapter dedicated to making an income from food writing- Updated information about self-publishing and cookbook production- Tips on creating and sustaining an irresistible blog with gorgeous photos- The keys to successful freelancing and reviewing- Advice from award-winning writers, editors, and agents- Engaging, fun writing exercises to get the juices flowing.
Dianne’s book is a very popular reference book for food writers and food bloggers. It has won two international awards from the Cordon D’Or and the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
Order your copy online here.