What does it mean when a food writer declares a morsel as delicious? It is as tasty as something that is scrumptious? Does it approach the ultimate threshold of yummy? And if it does for me, will it for you?
Such praise, however well intended, is evidence of lazy writing, says Dianne Jacob, author of Will Write for Food. An admired coach for newbie bloggers and top-selling cookbook authors, Jacob shared inspiring advice during the 2014 International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle.
"Adjectives are the crack of food writing," she said, amusing a capacity workshop with a litany of irksome examples. "Do you need to say that a brownie is chocolately, or fudgy? Grainy would be informative but unfortunate."
Jacob urged attendees to make food come alive for readers by placing their transporting aromas and specific textures in the context of a "good story." It might not require the complete elements of plot, but a little intrigue, a dollop of discovery or the sometimes overwhelming rush of taste memory will keep readers salivating.
“Make your adjectives count,” said Jacob, reading an example that ookily described unappetizing foodstuffs as “slimy” and “murky.” “Those give people images,” she added, raising an arched brow as many of us swallowed uncomfortably.
Jacob urged participants to reflect the vitality they first felt upon experiencing the topic being written about. Actions helps readers move through text as surely as a diner enters a restaurant (what did it look like? smell like?), sits down (cold vinyl or warm brocade?) and considers the menu (elegant old school or a date-stamped copy on a clip board?).
Context is as important to the story as salt is to the soup. Sometimes, it’s even more important. Who hasn’t been caught up in the rapture of a simple vacation meal only to discover that, even with the same wine or illicit cheese, it tastes incomprehensibly dull consumed in your own backyard? Conversely, the grandmotherly warmth of stuffed cabbage from the freezer case can bring unexpected tears of joy at the office microwave.
“Writing, as you know, can be excruciating,” Jacob said. “But it helps if you have fun.”
Jacob said food writers have a special challenge of engaging readers without making them resent the rich experience you really had and the calorie-free one they vicariously consume as a result.
Of the writer’s voice and tone, she said, “It’s got to be you, but maybe you on a little too much caffeine. You have to be a little bit exaggerated to write well but not be obvious.”
Jacobs led the group through two writing exercises, each of which were drafted in about 10 minutes. She stressed the importance of fully engaging your senses to describe a food-related experience.
Several volunteers read their drafts, including me:
I walked through the throng with purpose, away from the tourist mecca of tossed seafood to a shop with equally beautiful, bluster-free fish. I gazed with envy at the clear-eyed salmon resting, unblinking, on a bed of shaved ice. I heard the pitch about how ginormous crabs, bound with rubber bands to restrict their randy behavior, could be on my doorstep within 48 hours.
But I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it now. I spotted my precious as soon as my shoes squeaked on the wet shop floor. It was in a separate case, tucked away for people who knew where to look – people like me, who earned some status from a confident purchase a year ago. It was something I intended to bring home as a thoughtful souvenir, but which I ate in private; snarfed, really. I failed to mention it when I showed off my swag at home like a child with an especially good Halloween haul.
I paid less than 5 bucks for four burnished strips of teryiaki smoked salmon – which tasted for all the world to me like fancy candy that should have cost far more. I felt bouyant and generous, giving a strip to a newly made friend. I chewed and strolled, pausing to take in deep draws of fragrant flowers and thinking how people back home, three hours ahead, my friends who live to eat local, could not imagine my satisfaction.