Bon Appétit: How Food Writing Fed My Fiction

by Aaron Hamburger

The Literary Life

Posted 5.1.13

May/June 2013

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When we came to class to edit our reviews, Corinne whipped out a black dry-erase marker and wrote on the white board: WHERE?

“Start with the neighborhood,” she said. “What kind of vibe does it have? Even before you get into the restaurant, what was happening on the sidewalk outside? Who was walking there? How visible was the outside inside? How did it feel to come inside from the outside? What was the first thing you noticed when you walked in the door? Who greeted us there? And who served us? Let’s get some characters in here. Who was making the food? What did you hear? How did the food look on the plate? Was it in a bowl or on a dish? Was there a garnish? What about the banana leaf those dumplings were served on? How did it feel? Slick or rough? Damp or dry or tacky?”

In addition to adding experiential detail, Corinne encouraged us to do research in order to add context to our meal. “You’re writing about Pad Thai. Okay, so what are the origins of Pad Thai? It’s a street food from Thailand using a sauce consisting of three main ingredients, one of which is tamarind, which is difficult to find in America, so people tend to substitute ketchup here, which is why in so many restaurants Pad Thai is pink when it should be brown. What I’m saying is, you have to know what your dish is supposed to be like in order to judge how well it’s been prepared.”

By the end of the lesson, we’d put enough details on the board to write an entire book, but we were limited to two hundred words. After all that hard work of seeing, we were only allowed to use a few of the fruits of our labors. 

That was where the artistry came in.

It’s true that food writing, because much of it is service oriented, is fundamentally different from fiction in both its particulars and generalities. For example, Corinne once taught us that you don’t write recipes for bad food, while some of the most memorable passages in fiction have been about that very topic. On a more general level, in fiction the writer is ultimately the absolute monarch of the terrain, not the reader.

Still, like good food writers, good fiction writers are omnipotent about their subject, but they don’t include everything they know in their finished product. Rather, the expertise they develop through careful, patient looking and studying allows them to sift through the details they’ve collected until they stumble upon just the right bit that suggests the whole. That hard-won sense of expertise suffuses every word they write, suggesting larger truths through small, precise insights, without lecturing, or worse, boring the reader. 

Since studying with Corinne, I haven’t gotten rich from my career as a food writer, though I have published a few food articles, and written a dessert blog, as well as a food-inspired short story. I’ve also used my recipe-writing skills in a new side gig as a baking teacher at my local Whole Foods. But I have definitely become enriched by my new understanding of the creative process, how to see more deeply, and how to be judicious in replicating that experience for a reader. And that has revived my passion and interest in not only the fiction I write, but also the living, breathing, complicated world from which I draw inspiration. 

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