What Makes a Good Food Writer

In the beginning, it may be difficult for you to know what to write. Maybe it’s difficult to express your thoughts, or you don’t know how to organize your words. Then a professor tells you “use this technique”, but you don’t know how to integrate it into your writing without sounding mechanical. Then you’re stuck. You probably haven’t considered that you can find techniques in writing that isn’t purely academic. You can. Reading is one of the best ways to understand use of writing techniques and can often be an inspiration for your own writing. There are a few essays that I’ve recently read that are helpful, especially when it comes to food. The essays are “How to Fix Everything” by Heather A. McDonald,   “Food” by Tony Judt,  Paper and Salt by Nicole Villanueve entries “Henry James: Vanilla Ice Cream with Brandied Peaches,”  “Raymond Chandler: Swordfish Siciliani,” and “Ernest Hemingway: Bacon-Wrapped Trout with Corncakes,” and they exhibit organization techniques and relevance to the audience.

“How to Fix Everything” was my favorite to read because of the flow and relevance. A story about a young woman who cooks lasagna for her boyfriend with cancer immediately caught my interest. Everyone has known someone who has had cancer, which makes the story relatable. It becomes a story no longer about this couple, but every person and family member who has had to deal with cancer. On top of that, McDonald throws in a recipe for lasagna that transitions the piece. McDonald is specific with the recipe; she never says it’s lasagna but is descriptive enough for the reader to catch on. The instructions “Place noodles in one layer. Do not overlap. Spread sauce with vegetables over noodles. Sprinkle mozzarella evenly over the layer. Repeat three times,” are simple, but specific. The image of layering is clear in my mind, and out of context anyone could know that these instructions are for lasagna.

The Villanueve entries in Paper and Salt had a different organization than McDonald’s piece. All of the Villanueve entries are organized the same. First, a story is told about someone well known and his encounters with specific food. Second, once the short story is told a recipe for the food in discussion is placed at the end. This organization technique works because the recipe doesn’t disrupt the story and if you aren’t interested in the recipe you don’t have to read it. But there is another reason for this style of organization. If you aren’t interested in the food to begin with, the story at the beginning may change your mind. The recipes are also for food that are loved today, as Villanueve reminds us “In 1874, preparing to return home from a trip to Germany, he implored his mother, ‘Be sure about Sept. 4 to have on hand a goodly store of tomatoes, ice-cream, corn, melons, cranberries and other indigenous victuals.’ Whenever I visit my family in California, I make practically the same request,” (“Henry James: Vanilla Ice Cream with Brandied Peaches”).

Now, we must use these readings to help us write. For my Family Story and Recipe Project, I plan to tell the story of my great grandmother’s gnocchi. She lived in Rome during the 1920s, where she learned to make gnocchi. When she came back, she taught my mother how to cook gnocchi and while they cooked they would make plans to go to Rome. To tell this story, I plan to use the recipe as  a transition like McDonald did. Also, from reading these stories I know to be specific. I’m not sure how to make the story relevant to an outside audience yet, but I learned the importance of relevance while reading these stories.

It’s your turn. Read something, anything, and see if you understand techniques taught in classes or become inspired. These essays may not do it for you, but something will. So go on, read.


3 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Food Writer

  1. I think descriptive language is key throughout one’s writings. I also plan to use McDonald’s technique in my Family Story. I did not particularly care for “Paper and Salt” because I thought it lacked personality and tension.

  2. Making the story more personal and relatable made it much easier to read. The use of descriptive language made it very easy to visualize what the writer was talking about. The way that she was able to organize her post by placing the recipe at the end definitely made a great transition from the story to learning how to cook the food she was talking about.

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