Writing Right with Dmitri: Don't Forget the Food
There's been a lot of discussion around a column I wrote a couple of weeks ago, entitled 'How Not to Be a Travel Bore'. While the consensus was that, yes, we could do better in describing our holidays (just check out Beatrice's excellent series on Las Vegas), it was still important to include the personal touches. As KB pointed out, 'Never forget to tell us about the food.'
I agree. Absolutely.
After all, if you just wanted to know what sights to see, and where the best hotels were, you'd go to travelsupervelocity-dot-com, or some such place. If you're reading h2g2, you want to know more. Specifically, you want to know what it feels like to be there. Also, what amusing things happen on the way. And what the place looks, smells, and tastes like. Of course you do.
There's a way to do this. Try to recreate the experience for the reader. Think, 'you are there'. Here are a few tips.
- Use laundry lists. Don't just rattle off place names, restaurants, dishes, etc. Tell about them.
- Forget to gloss. Sure, on your Greek holiday, you learned about retsina, tzatziki, and bouzouki music. Don't forget to explain these things to your reader.
- Leave out important details. If the story's too personal to share, leave it out. Don't hint around. It's maddening.
- Keep the experience in the forefront. Try to let the reader share in the experience. After all, they aren't reading it so that you can relive it. They are reading it because they are hungry for experience. Let them in.
- Include the fun details. When you were at that restaurant, what was on the walls? A picture of Vesuvius? A funny sign? Fill in the ambience.
- Give some background. So you went to an old castle on the Rhine. Why is it there? Any famous people we should know about? If you don't know, do some quick googling.
- Be specific. 'The meal was nice' is boring. 'The first course was so spicy, I downed two glasses of their excellent wine' is way more intriguing. Now we're waiting for you to fall over before dessert.
- Include all the senses. Reading is not merely a cerebral exercise. Readers want tactile input. What did it feel like? Sounds? Smells? Tastes? Come on, use your memory.
Remember the Punchlines
The secret to good anecdote telling is the same as the secret to a good fictional plot: timing. You need to awaken interest. You need a bit of background. You need a teeny bit of tension, somewhere in there. You need to build anticipation. Finally, you need a decent payoff.
Do you remember those awful newsletters from clubs and societies? The ones where the recording secretary tells about the club outing? They used to end with, 'A good time was had by all'. Please, let's not do this. If you do, only the people who were there will want to read it. Let's make people say, 'Gee, I wish I'd been there. I'll bet a good time was had by all.'
Another h2g2er said something really nice to me the other week. She said, 'You shared that story with me. Now I can see it, too. It's as if I'd been there.' Now, that's gratifying. And it should be our goal – to make our readers feel that they've been on a little journey with us.
Writing like this is a mitzvah. A mitzvah is a Jewish expression meaning 'good deed'. Believe it or not, sharing of oneself is a mitzvah. When you write out of the motivation that you want others to have a good time, you benefit your readers, as well as yourself. And it will make you a better writer.
No, never forget to tell us about the food. But don't keep the juicy details to yourself. How was it cooked? What did it look like on the plate? Was it sweet, tart, savoury? How much can you share?
And can you weave it into a story or anecdote? Here's an example.
A Short-Short Story About Lemon Icebox Pie
Elektra commented, 'There's a Guide Entry on Envy-Free Cake Division. Did you ever worry about that as a kid?'
I laughed. 'Only with lemon icebox pie. But then, it was so sweet, we could only have two cookies' worth.'
Elektra raised her eyebrows. 'Two cookies' worth?' I explained.
'When I was little, my mom made lemon icebox pie. To make it, you needed three lemons and a can of Borden's Eagle Brand Milk. That's sweetened condensed milk. We'd hang around to watch, and if we were real good, we'd get to taste all the ingredients.
'First, she'd open the can. We were around to run a finger around what was left, to get a taste – carefully. They used can openers back then. Then she'd add some ingredients for thickener, I don't know what, and the juice from the lemons. My mom was a small person, but she had really strong fingers. She'd squeeze the lemon halves by hand, then give them to us.
'Mmm! Delicious tartness! We'd squeeze the last drops out of that lemon half, then explore the inside with our tongues, to find the last bit of plump pulp. A treat.
'My mom would pour the mixture into a crust. Now, the recipe said, "Graham cracker crust", but my mom didn't like graham crackers. So she used vanilla wafers, those small, round cookies. She'd have to hide them from our dad, or he'd scarf the whole box. My mom mixed crushed vanilla wafers and margarine for the bottom of the crust, and used whole cookies for the sides. Made it decorative.
'Now came the magic part – the meringue. First, you separated three eggs. Boy, was that fun. You gently crack the egg on the side of the bowl. Then you play a game with the yolk. First it's on this side, then it's on that side. The white stuff doesn't make the jump, so it falls into the bowl. The yellow part goes into another bowl: scrambled eggs for tomorrow's breakfast.
'Next, my mom sprinkled some sugar on the egg whites, and started mixing. A little mixing, a tad more sugar. Up to three tablespoons. In the meantime, the egg whites were transformed from a gloppy, translucent mess to white, frothy peaks. That's meringue.
'The meringue went on top. After that, my mom put the whole pie in the oven at 350 degrees, and stood there. It only took a few minutes to brown and glaze the top. A second more, and burnt pie. Then she popped it into the fridge to set.' I smiled.
'But what about the cookies?' Elektra wanted to know. Then, 'Oh, I see! You could have two cookies' worth.'
I nodded. 'Yeah. That stuff was so rich – sweet, tart, filling, fluffy and crunchy at the same time – that you couldn't overdo it. So we could have a slice with two cookies on the side. Two cookies' worth.'
Elektra laughed. 'Sounds delicious.'
I sighed. "It was. But then, technology took over. My mom discovered that cream cheese lemon pie on the product label. Simple: take an 8-ounce package of Philadelphia cream cheese, soften it, pull the pop-top on the lid of a can of sweetened condensed milk, pour out three tablespoons of lemon juice concentrate, and mix. Pour it into a pre-made graham cracker crust, and chill. Then top with a can of cherry pie filling. Tasty, but dull.'
I laughed ruefully. 'I still miss all the fuss and bother.'
Okay, let me know: can you taste the pie?