Sunday, January 15, 2012

Delicious Writing

One of the luckiest things to happen to me is landing a job at a university with an outstanding culinary program. I have never been much of a cook. I make things like burritos, pancakes, and oatmeal, and I make those things very well. But when it comes to actual cooking, that’s another story. So my creative and passionate students have influenced my way of thinking about food. They have shown me the poetry in a beautifully plated appetizer and the transformative power of mixing two things I’d never have imagined in the same bowl (orange sherbert infused with basil). They even inspire me to try real cooking once in a while.

Tonight, I made lentil soup. Lentil soup is one of the few things I do make fairly often. I like it when I make it, but it’s not something I’d serve to anyone else. Tonight, however, I tried to do things a little differently. First I cut up some leeks and added them to my vegetable broth. I never buy leeks (or parsnips!) but I’d seen a recipe for parsnip soup and so getting a little venturesome in the grocery store produce section, I hunted down the parsnips (not even sure what they looked like) and bought a handful along with a couple of leeks. So I chopped the leeks with my handy Pampered Chef chopper and shredded one of the parsnips and combined with the broth. Then I poured in the lentils and decided that celery would also be nice.

But what about spices? I’m not good with spices. I never know what spices work best with which dishes besides the obvious ones, i.e. oregano works well in spaghetti sauce. So I sniffed my various spices and I sniffed the soup. And I got on the Internet and looked up spices for lentil soup. Cumin, one of my favorite spices, was suggested in one recipe. Well, why not, I thought. But I only added a bit. Cumin can be pretty strong. Then I crushed sea salt between my fingers and added ground pepper. Now it is cooking. It smells heavenly.

Injecting recipes into our stories is all the rage now. One of my favorites of the “foodoir” genre is Diana Abu-Jaber’s memoir The Language of Baklava. In her hands the recipes become meaningful. They are like characters in and of themselves. Combined with the stories of her fascinating family (a father who yearns for his homeland and an assortment of aunts, uncles, and grandmothers all with their own magic recipes that serve as answers to Diana’s life questions) the food shows us and Diana how life should be lived and devoured.

You don’t have to insert recipes into your writing, however, to make use of the most primal of our needs. Bringing food to the page can help us develop our characters. What we eat says so much about who we are. For example, while I’m no gourmand, I refuse to eat margarine or fake maple syrup. Has to be real butter and real maple syrup. I have a friend who never heard of hummus. I have friends who are vegetarians like me and other friends who will shamelessly scarf down a slice of veal. The foods we choose, the foods we love, the foods of our culture tell something about us.

The spices of our kitchens can also simply add to the flavor of our writing. One of my favorite exercises for poetry classes is to bring in some cinnamon and some vanilla extract and pass them around. The poems that come out of this exercise are sensational, literally.

So try writing about food this week. Food can mean many things -- power, need, status, spiritual aspirations, love, lust, comfort, home, and so on. Explore its meaning in your life, and then if you’re writing fiction, show your readers the meaning of food in your character’s lives.

WIY -- Prompts for the week:

This is an exercise I do with my students and they love it. First I have them close their eyes. Then I ask them to remember a meal that was meaningful. They need to imagine their hand on the table. What kind of table is it? Wood? Glass? Metal? What about the place settings? Who is at the table? What sounds can be heard? What are the smells? What is being said? More importantly, what is not being said? Can you describe the taste of the food? Now, for fun, make something happen at this meal that did not happen.

Make a playlist of all your favorite restaurants from every place you’ve ever been. What makes each one special?

Write about comfort food. What was your comfort food growing up? Do you still eat it? When? Write a food scene from your childhood.

Write about hunger. When were you hungry? What does hunger represent? What were you hungry for? (For a wonderful short story about hunger turn to Joseph Bathanti’s collection The High Heart.)

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