5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing About Food

Many writers consider dabbling in writing about food—I mean, we all like food, don’t we? Before diving in, it’s important to ask yourself these 5 questions to make sure you’re taking your role as food writer seriously.

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tasting-homejudith-newtonJudith Newton is a Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis where she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four. She is the author of the award-winning food memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen (Shewrites Press/March 2013) and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on  women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. She blogs for the Huffington Post and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area of California where she tends her garden and cooks for family and friends. For more info, visit: tasting-home.com

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1. Since my interest in writing about food lies mainly in the emotional work that cooking for, and dining with, other performs, I always begin a piece on food by asking what did this cooking or dining experience mean to me? Why did I think it important?  Everything follows from that answer. 

Two years ago, for example,  my husband and I had a simple meal in Santa Fe that struck me as enchanted. It was our last day in town, late in the afternoon, and we had decided, quite spontaneously, to try for an early dinner. A restaurant  with  a courtyard like an impressionist painting–full of greenery, light and shade,  soft white, yellow, and tan umbrellas– had been jammed the day before for lunch and we had refused the forty minute wait.

But, now, magically the place was empty, all our own. We sat at a table to the side  of the courtyard that was partially shielded by a bush as tall as a tree, and out of the blue at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, a guitarist began to play. The dishes we ordered and then ate with delight–chicken enchiladas with green chile and wild mushroom tamales– struck us as  the best food we’d had all week. That moment, in its many unexpected pleasures, was so perfect that my throat began to ache. What was I feeling? That was the question with which I began. Was I feeling the delights of this meal with a special intensity because I was about to leave Santa Fe?

2. A second question that I pose when I am writing about a moment of cooking or dining is what larger story is this a part of? Is there some movement from one place to another in which this moment participates?

In this case, the answer was yes. This final meal recalled the many other pleasures that Santa Fe had offered us for a full week—a picnic before the opera at a wooden table overlooking a canyon, against a rose flushed sky; the comforting heft of  chili mixed with lettuce, cheese, and Fritos in a Frito Pie, eaten to the sound and feel of New Mexican rhythm and blues pulsing from the bandstand in the plaza; the cool air of a bar after a hot walking tour of Santa Fe restaurants, the combination of spice, sweet, and chill in a cocktail called the Agave Way.

Our final meal bore the imprint of those pleasures too, pleasures I had to leave  because I do not live in Santa Fe.  And then it struck me, in a meditative moment over my draft, that this is also what it feels like when the beauty of the world rises up before you in some sudden way and at the same time you understand that you will be leaving it and all its beauties, This time you will not return.  And that was the larger story–my coming to understand how this moment was  about mortality.

3. A third question I pose has to do with connection.  What personal relations has this experience of cooking or dining involved? 

For cooking and dining almost always have impact on my relation to another. Sometimes the relation undergoes a  shift  that is part of the food experience. My husband, and I were alone, for example, when we discovered the empty restaurant, after a week spent, quite happily, in the company of old friends. The surprise of the restaurant’s being open, of its being empty, of its existing for a moment just for the two of us, the guitarist making songs like Sixteen Tons sound like ballads, the spicy flavors of our meals,  made for a moment in which two people shared the experience of feeling blessed.  Sharing unexpected pleasures, or even expected ones, can create or deepen many bonds, can produce a moment of unusual intimacy. That is what dining together often does for a couple, a family, a community, a group of strangers.

4. A fourth question is how I can bring the reader to the table, engage her in a sensuous apprehension of the food and its surroundings, because always , for me, the surroundings enter into our experience of the food itself.  What senses can I evoke, how I go beyond the visual and beyond a description of taste. How can I use smell and feel and even sound?

The wild mushrooms tasted of earth, the polenta was soft to the tongue and scented with poblano chili.  The yearning music of the guitar mixed with, and was somehow answered by, these other bodily sensations.  (I always take pictures of the meals I mean to write about so I can re experience them later. The same goes with pictures of the setting and of the city or country itself. )

5. A fifth question is how do I bring the sensuous apprehension of food together with its emotional meanings and my reflections upon both?

Most often I rely on weaving. The food, the setting, the feelings they inspire are threaded together within a narrative that moves from one point to another.  Sometimes I reach for something outside my immediate frame of reference to emphasize the underlying theme. While writing the Santa Fe essay, for example, I remembered a favorite picture of Frida Kahlo, the one at Xochomilco, the watery pleasure garden outside of Mexico City. Frida looks over the boat and as water trails lightly through her fingers she seems to be feeling but also thinking about pleasure. “Perhaps,” I wrote, “she is thinking about the fleeting nature of delight. Perhaps she is thinking about mortality. I want to think about  mortality too–so I remember to live. “ For me this picture helped capture what was at the heart of our Santa Fe meal—an enchanting moment against the sharp edge of leaving it.

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4 thoughts on “5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing About Food

  1. CatdaBrat

    While I do appreciate the article and its helpful ways for a food writer to connect with his or her reading audience, my own approach is somewhat different. I have several food columns (not all the same) published in various newspapers and am in the final stages of getting a cookbook together. My lead-in to the recipes is based more on humor than romance and deep emotion. I provide recipes that people would try because they, like most of us, love to eat good food. I strive to satisfy this need, as well as lighten up their day a bit by making them laugh, or at least entice a smile from them. Food definitely does have a strong relationship to romantic times, but it also is connected with the lighter side of life. Nice that there are food writers who can cover all the bases. Thanks for the article!

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