A a teenager, I read a ton of fan fiction.
If you didn’t share in my indulgence, let me explain. Fan fiction is a genre of writing about celebrities or other obsessions, written by the more rabid parts of a fan base. Where musicians and actors are involved, the typical fanfic narrative might feature a celebrity moving in next door to – and falling madly in love with – a female protagonist, who is modeled after the story’s author. Or, our teenage protagonist might attend a concert and end up backstage, where the lead singer sees her through the crowd love-at-first-sight and whisks her away, happily ever after. Teenage dreams, with lots of adjectives.
Fanfic authors and food writers are the same kind of beast. We like certain narratives and crutch descriptors – and we like to reuse them.
His eyes were deep and swirling chestnut pools. The pork belly was unctuous and toothsome. Food writing is fanfic, with the pig starring as Justin Bieber – not to say that Bieber is unctuous or toothsome or local/organic.
About 90 per cent of the time, I would like to strike certain words from our food-writing arsenal: decadent, authentic, assertive, rustic, complex, sinful, artisinal, aged, cloying, elegant… I’ve missed many in this short list. And not to throw stones – I’m guilty of using all these words just because they fall effortlessly into sentences. Like a smear of red lipstick they are striking, yes, but only when worn just so, which makes them difficult to pull off.
It’s true, there’s a finite pool of words in our language that combine to create a memorable image. Even more so when writing about food, which demands descriptors that have a certain built-in aesthetic quality. No one wants to describe dessert as just good or nice or tasty. A word like cloying is loaded with meaning – sweet, almost too sweet, syrupy, tooth-achingly over the top… we get what it conveys instantly. And the overused word is better than an haphazard thesaurus replacement, especially when the new word’s meaning is almost-but-not-quite-right for a given context.
Narratives are even more challenging. As with fanfic, we have only so many storytelling formulas – based in nostalgia, the seasons, comfort, memory, heartbreak, suspense.
And some of these narratives are necessary, if overdone. The local/seasonal/organic storyline, for one. These words are thrown around often and without care. Just the other night, I saw “fresh local summer tomatoes” on a respected Toronto restaurant’s January menu. But when handled with care, this is an important story to keep telling. We are keen to address where our food comes from, and how our cooking reflects the seasons. I’m at once exhausted and invigorated by paragraph-long menu item entries that list each ingredient’s origin. To concoct another narrative – one involving hothouse tomatoes and Costco mesclun mix – is not just unromantic, it’s against what we love about eating.
Formulas are not all bad. Certain plot structures just work, which is why writers recycle. Words become crutches out of good intention, because at one time they were startling and meaningful. But it takes just a little effort to be more thoughtful, critical of cliche, and aware that words strung together are the mental pictures I create.
Fanfic kept me reading when I saw myself in the girl next door, who was just like me in the best way, but found herself in an extraordinary circumstance. Food writing keeps me reading when I see myself in the girl next door’s dinner, whose ingredients and rituals of eating are mine-but-different, whose words tell something new about otherwise-ordinary circumstances.
[Photo, with thanks, via]