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The Elusive Sense of Taste in Writing

The Elusive Sense of Taste in Writing

Have you ever read a sentence about food that was so vivid it made you actually taste it?

Taste is the most powerful of all senses because we love food. We need it to survive and, as humans, eating brings us pleasure.

Describing taste can be so impactful for a reader, yet some authors avoid it because they can’t think of the right words. The truth is it’s really hard. You end up actually using all of your senses to get across the taste of only one item.

One of my favorite examples of food writing comes from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It’s not a five-star meal at some exotic restaurant. Instead it’s two men eating chicken drumsticks, hard-boiled eggs, and drinking wine while fishing in the Spanish countryside.

We unwrapped the little parcels of lunch.
“Chicken.”
“There’s hard-boiled eggs.”
“Find any salt?”
“First the egg,” said Bill. “Then the chicken. Even Bryan could see that.”
“He’s dead. I read it in the paper yesterday.”
“No. Not really?”
“Yes. Bryan’s dead.”
Bill laid down the egg he was peeling.
“Gentlemen,” he said, and unwrapped a drumstick from a piece of newspaper. “I reverse the order. For Bryan’s sake. As a tribute to the Great Commoner. First the chicken; then the egg.”
“Wonder what day God created the chicken?”
“Oh,” said Bill, sucking the drumstick, “how should we know? We should not question. Our stay on earth is not for long. Let us rejoice and believe and give thanks.”
“Eat an egg.”
Bill gestured with the drumstick in one hand and the bottle of wine in the other.

Hemingway’s description of the men relaxing by a cool riverbank enhances the imagery of the chicken drumstick and hard-boiled eggs. He uses very simple yet powerful language to describe the meal and drinks. Nothing too ornate or over the top.

Here is a brilliant passage about how cold the wine got when they left it in the water:

I walked up the road and got out the two bottles of wine. They were cold. Moisture beaded on the bottles as I walked back to the trees. I spread the lunch on a newspaper, and uncorked one of the bottles and leaned the other against a tree. Bill came up drying his hands, his bag plump with ferns.
“Let’s see that bottle,” he said. He pulled the cork, and tipped up the bottle and drank. “Whew! That makes my eyes ache.”

Not many writers would use “brain freeze” to describe red wine for lunch. But, we can all feel it when Bill takes a swig!

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Famous Food Descriptions From Literature

Many of us can name several books or stories where we couldn’t get enough of reading what the characters were eating.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for crafting your own scenes about food, here are just a few examples:

The “pickled limes” from Little Women was mentioned frequently:

“Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else, at recess. If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime. If she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck.”

The Harry Potter series is known for having excellent food descriptions. One of them is Aunt Petunia’s “violet pudding” described as:

“A masterpiece of a pudding, the mountain of cream and sugared violets, was floating up near the ceiling.”

And, of course, don’t forget “fried green tomatoes,” “green eggs and ham” or “Ichabod’s Slapjacks” from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The best way to improve our own passages about eating is to read what some of the masters have done.

Tips on Effective Food Writing

Now let’s discuss some practical tips on how to make the most out of your next food scene. After doing some research on the web, I found “Food Writing So Good You Can Taste It” by Dianne Jacob.

Jacob explains how it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing cliches or just listing adjectives. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to actually cook or eat what you want to write about.

She offers five tips for writers:

  1. Use all of the senses at your disposal to get the taste across. The secret here is to describe the taste of food in a way that evokes feelings of nostalgia or strong emotions from a specific memory.
  2. Be like Hemingway and limit the number of adjectives you use. Use them very sparingly and you may find that eliminating them all together improves the passage.
  3. Avoid words that are vague or general. An example of one, according to Jacob, is the word “delicious.” It doesn’t say anything specific.
  4. Include action verbs like “crack, press, bounce, or shatters” to break up the description and give the reader a picture of what’s happening.
  5. The last step is to include a few similes. Comparisons using “like” or “as” are often more powerful in conveying an image or feeling than trying to describe the actual thing itself.
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If you want to read more about food writing, follow the link above to Jacob’s full article. Although her focus is on nonfiction writing (reviews, recipes, or personal essays) these tips can be just as effective in fiction.

With the tips described above, you will start dazzling readers with your descriptions of food that’ll make their mouths water. Bon appétit!

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